LeBron James may be the best player in the universe, but the MVP conversation is all about the future. After James won four Podoloffs in a five-year span, the past five trophies have been handed out to relative newcomers. This week, as part of The Ringer’s Star Track: The Next Generation series, our staff zeroes in on five players who haven’t won an MVP but very well could in 2018-19.
Justin Verrier: The story that best encapsulates Davis’s career up to this point amounts to a clerical error, or maybe a misunderstanding. While being measured ahead of the 2016-17 season, Davis was apparently told that he had grown an inch from the previous year. Much to his dismay, he was now 6-foot-11, not 6-foot-10. “It just doesn’t sound right,” Davis said in September 2016. “I don’t like it.” (Which is a weird thing to say about an already weird thing, though maybe less weird if you consider that it probably took that long for the then-23-year-old to gain full control of the limbs that he famously sprouted late in high school.) Only, he had already been measured at 6-foot-10 1/2 in shoes at the draft combine four years earlier. And the process for determining an NBA player’s listed height can be as accurate as a blindfolded dart throw. In the end, he shows up as 6-foot-10 on most official resources.
But Davis’s actual height isn’t the point. It’s that he could grow almost overnight, like the NBA’s Josh Baskin, and it seems more like an inevitable plot point than a tall tale. Davis’s whole career has been a daydream. He was put on a Hall of Fame track before he grew a full beard, and he finished in the top five in MVP voting in what would’ve been his senior year in college. After fleeting moments of glory for Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic and Kristaps Porzingis, Davis, fresh off his most complete season to date, is once again in possession of the unicorn world championship belt.
Yet, when sky’s the limit, even the top of the statistical leaderboard isn’t enough. Until his team’s performance can match his own, Davis will seem like a disappointment. After three years of working and reworking the puzzle, the Pelicans may have assembled their best roster yet to optimize Davis’s particular brilliance. They are faster and younger and built to showcase him at center. But until New Orleans makes the leap, starting with its first 50-win season in more than a decade, everything about Davis—his choice of agency, his contract status, his station in the league hierarchy—will be colored by what he can be, not what he already is.
Jonathan Tjarks: We saw the ideal version of Davis in the second half of last season, after the Pelicans traded for a stretch 4 (Nikola Mirotic) who opened up the floor for him. Davis averaged 30.2 points on 51.4 percent shooting, 11.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.0 steals, and 3.2 blocks through the last 33 games of the 2017-18 season. He was even better in the playoffs, closing out the Blazers with a 47-point tour de force in Game 4 of their first-round series. There’s nothing defenses can do to stop Davis when he has four 3-point shooters around him.
The question is whether Davis can be just as dominant in a frontcourt with a non-shooter like Julius Randle. Davis has to master the quick interior pass to Randle, and he may need to shoot a few more 3s (he sunk 34 percent on 2.2 attempts per game last season) so that he can give Randle more opportunities to attack the rim. Those are the only things standing in the way of Davis winning his first MVP.
Zach Kram: If Davis is indeed 6-foot-10, that equates to 82 inches tall—which would make him only the fifth player in NBA history at that height or taller to score at least 28 points per game in multiple seasons. The other four are George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal, which of course fits with the burgeoning speculation that Davis is destined to be a Laker one day.
But it also highlights Davis’s unique standing in NBA history. The Pelicans big man’s style of play has little in common with any of those predecessors: Mikan and Chamberlain (and Abdul-Jabbar, for half of his career) played before the institution of the 3-point line, and that foursome as a whole combined for two career 3-pointers while shooting a cumulative 59.9 percent from the free throw line. Davis made 55 3s and shot 82.8 percent on free throws last season. The word “unicorn” is perhaps applied too liberally in modern NBA parlance—Al Horford is a tremendous all-around player, yet fits an established mold—but Davis is an unprecedented player with perhaps the sport’s rarest combination of size, speed, and skills.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Opening as the MVP favorite hardly means you’re a lock to win. The last player to top Vegas’s initial list and come away with the award at the end of the season was LeBron James, in 2013. James has begun as the favorite in each of the five following seasons, but hasn’t won since. Davis’s +400 odds are second to LeBron’s +333 this season, but Davis is the best remaining player without an MVP—and since 2013, those players have been ticked off the list of MVP outsiders one by one. There’s a popular argument that voters crave something new, and there’s some merit to that; otherwise, James or Durant would probably win every year. The way Davis finished last season suggests he’s the next newbie in line. He had the numbers, the defense, and the win streak to finish third in the voting. Barring injury, there’s no reason to doubt that Davis will begin 2018-19 in late-season form.
Chris Ryan: No great player inspires more collective hand-wringing and worry than AD. Whenever he hits the deck, NBA Twitter turns into an episode of House—“That’s definitely a hip” said the guy wearing a Quentin Richardson shirsey—but in truth, Davis has gotten more durable with age. The Pellies big man has played 75 games in each of the past two regular seasons, so if you’re going to beat back his MVP chances, don’t do it with a rolled-up medical file. Do it with the Pelicans roster.
Davis may be the most talented player in the NBA, and perhaps the most admired outside of LeBron, but MVP winners just don’t play on teams as mediocre as the Pelicans. And when they do—as was the case with Russell Westbrook in 2017—there is an almost instant sense of regret about the choice. There will almost certainly be an MVP award in his future, but Davis will probably be wearing a different uniform when that happens.
Kevin O’Connor: Davis can do it all. He’s been named to three All-Defense teams in the past four years. He’s an excellent rebounder. He can score efficiently from the post, attack from the perimeter, throw down lob dunks, and you’ll even find him sprinting through screens and handoffs. But he still hasn’t mastered his jumper.
Davis shot just 32.7 percent on spot-up 3s over the past three seasons, and he’s not yet a threat to pull up from deep. (He also shot only 40.7 percent on 2-point pull-up jumpers over the same time frame.) It feels outrageous to expect more from AD, but his rapid ascension has done nothing to squash dreams of watching him consistently fire up 3s at the top of the key like he’s a guard trapped in a big body. We’ve already witnessed flashes.
If Davis starts doing stuff like this with more regularity, it’s not out of the question that he could post numbers that rank among the greatest single seasons in modern NBA history. If he even starts shooting 3s at a tick higher—say, 38 percent—Davis will likely score enough to log the first 30-point, 10-rebound, 2-block season since Bob McAdoo in 1975-76. Don’t rule it out. Davis is a dominant player who keeps getting more dominant.