Three dark horse contenders for 2020-21 NBA MVP

Zion Williams of the New Orleans Pelicans dribbles the ball up the court.

Giannis Antetokounmpo. LeBron James. James Harden.

These were the three players in contention for the 2019-20 Most Valuable Player award, and they’ll likely be the top-three contenders in 2020-21.

However, there’s surely to be a fourth player who will crack that list. Some of the contenders are somewhat obvious:

The Clippers Bros

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both have top-three finishes in MVP voting throughout their careers, and they belong in that upper-echelon of NBA players. However, they’ll receive their fair share of “load management” as long as they’re playing for a contender, so it’d take an unexpected philosophy change for this duo to emerge atop the MVP ladder.

Luka Dončić

You could make an argument that the second-year player deserved to be in the top-three of this year’s voting, and the sky is the limit for the 21-year-old. We surely haven’t seen Dončić’s final form, and the Mavericks will presumably improve as their star player improves. Unless the crafty wing can put up a Russell-Westbrook-like stat line, his MVP chances will be dependent on the Mavericks’ spot in the standings. We don’t think the Mavs are there yet.

The Injured Stars

Steph Curry was sidelined for much of the 2019-20 season, and Kevin Durant hasn’t played since last summer’s NBA Finals. These former MVPs obviously have the talent and pedigree to jump atop the MVP ladder. Curry would seem to have the better chance of winning the award, as his injury shouldn’t be career-altering (while Durant’s injury could be debilitating).

The Sidekicks

Russell Westbrook and (to a lesser extent) Anthony Davis have had their MVP runs as the top-dogs on their respective teams. However, as long as they’re teamed up with perennial MVP contenders, there’s little chance they win the award themselves.

The Rest

Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, Damian Lillard. These players will continue to get some preseason MVP buzz as long as there’s optimism for their respective teams’ outlook. Still, we’re skeptical that any of the Nuggets, Sixers, or (especially) Blazers will emerge as legitimate championship contenders in 2020-21, limiting their star players’ MVP potential.

So, considering all those potential candidates, could anyone else really jump into the top-four in 2020-21? We think three players have a shot:

Jayson Tatum, Celtics

Tatum was emerging as one of the best players in the conference prior to the NBA’s hiatus. In January, the 22-year-old averaged 30.7/7.9/3.2 on incredible .494/.481/.769 splits. Similar to Dončić, Tatum still has plenty of room to improve, and considering the Celtics are one of the youngest squads in the NBA, his team could also emerge as a bona fide contender. If the Celtics find themselves grouped with the Lakers/Clippers/Bucks, then Tatum could easily get some MVP love.

Pascal Siakam, Raptors

There’s some uncertainty when it comes to the Raptors future, but Toronto can rest easy knowing they have a potential MVP candidate locked in. After winning the Most Improved Player award in 2018-19, Siakam took another leap forward this past year. While he’s a whole lot closer to his prime than Tatum, there’s still some room for growth. Plus, since he’ll (at least) be teamed up with a fellow superstar in head coach Nick Nurse, you can bet that the Raptors will continue to compete for the Eastern Conference crown. As a result, Siakam will find himself as a MVP candidate by default.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

You may scoff that we’re including Zion after only a handful of NBA games. However, we shouldn’t forget that those handful of games rocked. The 19-year-old averaged 23.6/6.8/2.2, and he did that while shooting almost 59% from the field. Sure, the Pelicans were only 10-9 in his 19 games, but the team is bubbling with youth and upside. It’s probably a bit ambitious to say Williamson could reach MVP levels in 2020-21, but then again, we probably would have said the same thing about Dončić.

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