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.
John Gonzalez: Kyrie Irving has never been shy about wanting his own team. Back when he was with the Cavaliers, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin asked him if he ever thought about it. This was during the 2017 NBA Finals. I expected Irving to deflect or dissemble with his answer. Instead, he admitted he thought all the time about running his own operation.
Not surprisingly, there was a lot of consternation over this past summer about what Irving plans to do when he becomes one of the most coveted free agents in the 2019 offseason. Various media outlets openly wondered whether Irving will “actually go to the Knicks,” trumpeted speculation that “NBA legend Isiah Thomas expects Kyrie Irving to join Knicks,” and welcomed Irving back to the Celtics—while simultaneously adding “but he may not be there for long.” Irving just returned to Boston and people are already bracing for his relocation to NYC. Given how open Irving has previously been about being the unquestioned main man on his team, those breathless reports were hardly surprising—especially because, despite Irving’s talent, the Celtics are so deep that he may never be able to definitively claim that he’s Boston’s best.
But while it’s natural enough to wonder about Irving’s future intentions, the point guard recently tried to pump the brakes on the runaway anxiety about him fleeing Boston one day for some other NBA outpost.
You know all the talk about Kyrie Irving as one of the elite free agents available next summer? Not so fast. Here's what he told me: "Even if I ever try to think about that thought of going elsewhere, it would be like 'what are you thinking? We're pretty f-ing good here." pic.twitter.com/QEM4XMDvWM— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) September 26, 2018
He makes a good point. The Celtics were pretty f-ing good last year, even after Irving missed a chunk of the regular season and all of the playoffs due to a knee injury that required surgery. Now that Irving is back and ostensibly healthy (and complete with a cool new look), the Celtics figure to be pretty f-ing good again. With LeBron James playing in Los Angeles now, the Celtics are a solid favorite to win the Eastern Conference. If that happens, there’s a good chance Irving is among the handful of select names in the MVP conversation. Those would be two welcomed outcomes for any NBA player—and it might even convince Irving to stay put.
Jonathan Tjarks: The tragic part about Kyrie’s knee injury last season was that playing without LeBron James was giving him the opportunity to become a more complete player. He was playing better defense in Boston than he ever had in Cleveland, and he was having the most efficient offensive season (61.0 true shooting percentage) of his career. Kyrie was the leader of a young team that found an identity without Gordon Hayward, and he seemed headed toward a playoff showdown with LeBron.
Instead, the Celtics were forced to regroup yet again after Kyrie went down, and now he’s coming back to a team with so much talent that it will be hard for him to fully showcase his game. Kyrie has always had the talent; he can score at will, and make every pass in the book. The question is whether he can balance looking for his own shot with keeping his teammates happy, or whether he’s better off just getting buckets and letting Hayward and Al Horford distribute the ball.
Zach Kram: On a night-to-night basis, most of Irving’s highlights come from his dexterous dribbling ability and creative finishes at the rim. But in addition to being the current NBA player most suited to star in an And-1 mixtape, Irving is an all-around scorer, and that includes a routinely impeccable performance from beyond the arc.
In three of his past four seasons, Irving has shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range on at least five attempts per game. Only seven players have tallied more such seasons in their careers, all of whom rank among the most heralded marksmen in league history: Kyle Korver (seven times), Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (six each), Ray Allen and Peja Stojakovic (five), and Reggie Miller and J.J. Redick (four). With the exception of Curry, those Irving forebears are all considered pure shooters, but the 3-pointer is just one item in Irving’s bag of offensive tricks.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Of all the stars that we’re tracking this week—Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Irving, and Joel Embiid—I’m putting the least money on Irving (+1,500) to win an MVP in his career (excepting injuries to the others). The best preseason MVP odds of his career were way back in 2013-14 (+3,300), the season before LeBron James arrived back in Cleveland. Playing next to blinding talent has been the story of Irving’s career. And after he all but promised to re-sign with Boston next summer, that probably won’t change anytime soon. With Irving, it’s not a matter of capability—Irving is only 26, and heading into his second season under the best coach he’s had in his professional career—as it is surroundings.
Danny Chau: Every player featured in “Star Track” establishes his respective team’s context through his elite skill set. Every player but Kyrie. Though the Celtics point guard had a career season in 2017-18, over the course of 82 games, it was quickly established that his spike of efficiency last season was a result of the congruity around him. The team’s identity was defined by Horford’s playmaking ability on both ends of the floor; by the interchangeable pieces flanking Irving on the wings; by Brad Stevens’s play calling. Irving, in essence, became a perfect system player.
Health has been an issue his entire career, and coming back from nagging knee issues, it’s fair to wonder how effective he can be as a soloist creating separation by himself as his shiftiness and explosiveness continues to degrade. Irving became a better version of Isaiah Thomas last season, but we’ve seen how this story can end. An MVP candidate in Boston can become flotsam in an instant.
Kevin O’Connor: Even if Irving plays all 82 games and has the most efficient scoring season of his career, it’s hard to foresee him averaging higher volume numbers than he did last season (24.4 points and 5.1 assists). Isaiah Thomas dropped 28.9 points and 5.9 assists a game for the 2016-17 Celtics in one of the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons in NBA history; but Thomas did so playing with a roster that was far inferior to Irving’s Celtics squad last season, and thus received more touches, shots, and minutes. This season, Jayson Tatum will eat up at least as many shots as he did last season (10.4), as will Jaylen Brown (11.5), and Al Horford (10.5). Terry Rozier (10) also leads a deep bench unit that will allow Irving to play fewer minutes. And Gordon Hayward (15.8 in his last season in Utah) is back.
Irving is a better player than Thomas, who placed fifth in MVP voting during that 2016-17 season. But in the same way that Steph Curry and Kevin Durant playing on the same team splits votes, Irving’s teammates could eat into his. Irving will need to be the “Narrative MVP”: lead the Celtics, on and off the court, to a season with well over 60 wins and the title of “The Team Most Likely to Beat the Warriors.” Maybe then Irving will earn a large share of votes. But from a numbers and opportunity standpoint, it’s tough to fathom.