The NBA playoffs could cause a major shift in the race for the league’s best player

The NBA playoffs could cause a major shift in the race for the league’s best player post thumbnail image

Typically, the later rounds of the NBA playoffs double as a referendum on — or reminder of — the league’s best player, which makes this season an outlier.

As Noah Coslov noted on Twitter after the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker were eliminated, this is the first year in NBA history in which none of the top four finishers in MVP voting (Booker finished fourth behind winner Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo) reached the conference finals.

Because injuries and rest have played a larger role in determining MVP voting in recent years, it has become increasingly disconnected from ESPN’s rankings of the league’s best players. Still, those also show a power vacuum in this year’s playoffs. None of the preseason NBArank top three (Kevin Durant, Antetokounmpo and LeBron James) remains active, either, presenting an opening for a new leader next fall.

Which players have the opportunity to improve their standing by leading their team to a championship? Or will we see a repeat of last season, when Durant finished No. 1 in NBArank despite his team’s early exit?

Let’s break down how the postseason could shape the race for the league’s best player.

The evolving meaning of MVP

To some extent, the early exits for this year’s MVP front-runners are an inevitable product of voters putting less weight on team success during the regular season. None of the top three finishers were on teams with a top-two seed, meaning their losses in the first two rounds went to form.

The collective .610 winning percentage for the teams with this season’s top three MVP finishers was the lowest since 1978-79, with 2020-21 (.625) as the second lowest in that span.

Booker, the leading vote-getter from a Suns team that went a league-best 64-18 (.780), was a more conventional MVP contender. The Suns’ second-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks was part of another recent trend toward top seeds being more vulnerable; of the 18 teams to win at a 60-win pace or better since 1984 and be eliminated in the first two rounds, a remarkable four have come in the past three postseasons (Milwaukee and Toronto in the 2020 bubble, the 2021 Utah Jazz and now Phoenix).

The third trend affecting top MVP finishers is that they’ve less reflected the consensus top players in the league. Before last year, no healthy reigning MVP had ever ranked lower than fifth in ESPN’s NBArank entering the following season. (Durant dropped to eighth in 2014 after suffering a Jones fracture in his right foot during training camp; he’d ultimately play just 27 games that season.)

Remarkably, both the most recent winner (Jokic) and runner-up (Embiid) were outside last year’s top five, ranking sixth and seventh, respectively.

Jokic has benefited in MVP voting from his durability during the regular season, less of a consideration in the playoffs. And while both Jokic and Embiid have been part of strong defenses, their difficulty switching at their size has been an occasional challenge in the postseason. So, too, has Embiid’s tendency to suffer untimely, fluke injuries, including this year’s orbital fracture and concussion that sidelined him the first two games of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ second-round loss to the Miami Heat.

As a result, the top two MVP finishers are again unlikely to be considered the league’s best players heading into 2022-23.

A big opportunity for playoff standouts

The remaining two players from last year’s NBArank top five are squaring off in the Western Conference finals, with Stephen Curry (5) and the Golden State Warriors leading Luka Doncic (4) and the Mavericks 3-0. Despite a breakthrough postseason with the Mavericks’ first two series wins since claiming the 2011 championship, a lopsided conference finals loss might prevent Doncic from making a real run at the top spot in 2022-23.

That leaves an opening for Curry, who has never finished higher than second in the preseason rankings because of LeBron’s dominance of them during Curry’s prime. This hasn’t been a transcendent playoff run for Curry, who came off the bench the first four games of the opening round and struggled at times with his 3-point shooting against the Memphis Grizzlies. Still, if Curry can lead the Warriors to a fourth title without Durant to help carry the load, he could move up the rankings.

Large jumps are in store for Eastern Conference finals rivals Jimmy Butler (16th in NBArank in 2021) and Jayson Tatum (14th), who have burnished their reputations in different ways. For Tatum, who finished sixth in MVP voting, a strong playoff run has cemented the long-anticipated leap he made during the regular season into the NBA’s elite.

In Butler’s case, this is a reminder of his postseason prowess. If the Heat get back to the NBA Finals for a second time in three years, this run will be more difficult to dismiss than Miami’s surprising string of bubble upsets. By most any all-in-one metric, Butler has been the most valuable player so far in the playoffs despite sitting out Game 5 in the opening round against the Atlanta Hawks and missing the second half of the Heat’s Game 3 win in Boston because of knee soreness.

Butler certainly deserves credit for stepping up in the playoffs, particularly as a scorer. He’s averaging 28.1 points per game thus far, far better than his best regular-season performance (23.9 PPG in 2016-17 with the Chicago Bulls) even after accounting for increased playing time. But it’s also partially a product of Butler simply staying on the court. His advanced stats have long suggested elite contributions on a per-minute basis, albeit in no more than 65 games in any season since 2016-17. (Butler missed 25 games this year.)

A clear choice for next season’s No. 1

Ultimately, the most likely outcome is that Antetokounmpo exits this season considered the league’s best player. Nobody else can match his combination of consistent success in both the regular season and playoffs.

Any lingering questions about Giannis’ playoff performance were answered in the 2020 playoffs when he came back from a hyperextended knee suffered in the conference finals to dominate the Suns in the NBA Finals, culminating in a 50-point performance on 16-of-25 shooting in the closeout Game 6.

While Milwaukee won’t go back-to-back after a hard-fought seven-game loss to the Celtics, it’s impossible to blame Antetokounmpo, who led all players in the series in points (33.9 per game), rebounds (14.7) and assists (7.1). He was the first player to do so in a losing cause since Jokic in 2019 vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. LeBron and Russell Westbrook are the two other players to lead all three categories in a series loss since 1997.

In many ways, Giannis’ performance in a seven-game loss in the conference semifinals was similar to what Durant did in 2021 against the Bucks with teammates James Harden and Kyrie Irving hampered or sidelined by injuries. (Milwaukee was without second-leading scorer Khris Middleton for the entire series against Boston.)

That early exit didn’t prevent Durant from edging out Antetokounmpo for the top spot in NBArank. With Giannis outperforming KD’s production against the same Celtics defense in a first-round sweep for the Brooklyn Nets, Antetokounmpo has probably earned the title of world’s best player while sitting at home for the playoffs’ final two rounds.

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