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

Subsequent rounds of the NBA playoffs usually double as a referendum on — or reminder — the league’s best player, making this season a bit out of the ordinary.

Like Noah Koslov noticed on twitter With the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker eliminated, this is the first year in NBA history that none of the top four winners of the MVP vote (Booker finished fourth behind winner Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo) made it to the conference finals.

As injuries and the rest have played a larger role in determining the MVP vote in recent years, it has become increasingly separate from ESPN’s rankings of the league’s top players. However, those are also showing a power vacuum in this year’s playoffs. None of the NBA’s top three pre-season (Kevin Durant, Antetokounmue and LeBron James) remain active, either, offering a chance for a new captain next fall.

Which players have the opportunity to improve their standing by leading their team to the championship? Or will we see a repeat of last season when Durant finished first in the NBA despite his team’s early exit?

Let’s break down how the post-season could shape the race for the best player in the league.


The evolving meaning of MVP

To some extent, the early exits of this year’s Top Player of the Year contestants are an inevitable product of voters who place less weight on the team’s success during the regular season. None of the top three winners were on top-ranked teams, meaning their first two-round loss was shaping up.

The collective win ratio of 0.610 for teams with the top three players this season was the lowest since 1978-79, with 2020-21 (.625) the second lowest in that period.

Booker, the top-ranking Suns vote-taker 64-18 (.780) in the league, was a more traditional MVP contender. The Suns’ second-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks was part of another recent trend toward the top seed being more vulnerable. Of the 18 teams that have won a pace of 60 wins or better since 1984 and have been eliminated in the first two rounds, four have come in outstanding in the past three seasons (Milwaukee and Toronto in the 2020 bubble, the 2021 Utah Jazz and now Phoenix).

The third trend that affects the top players in first place is that they reflect less of the consensus of the top players in the league. Prior to last year, no healthy player would have ranked less than fifth in the NBArank on ESPN entering the following season. (Durant dropped to eighth in 2014 after breaking Jones in his right foot during training camp; he ultimately played only 27 games that season.)

Remarkably, the last winner (Jokic) and second runner-up (Embied) were out of the top five last year, finishing sixth and seventh respectively.

Jokic benefited in the MVP vote for his durability during the regular season, short of a consideration in the playoffs. And while both Jokic and Embiid were part of strong defenses, the difficulty of resizing them was an occasional challenge in the post-season. Also, Embiid is also suffering from surprising slit injuries, including an orbital fracture this year and a concussion that kept him out of the first two games of Philadelphia’s 76er second-round loss to the Miami Heat.

As a result, it is unlikely that the top two top-ranked players will once again be considered the league’s best players in the 2022-23 season.


A great opportunity for the most prominent stars

The two remaining top five players in last year’s NBA are battling it out in the Western Conference Finals, with Stephen Curry (5) and the Golden State Warriors over Luka Doncic (4) and the Mavericks 3-0. Despite their post-season breakthrough with their first two Mavericks series wins since claiming the 2011 championship, a lopsided Conference Finals loss could prevent Doncic from making a real lead on the lead in 2022-23.

This leaves an opening for Curry, who never finished higher than second in the pre-season rankings due to LeBron’s dominance over them during Prime Curry. This wasn’t a playoff run for Curry, who came off the bench in the first four games of the opening round and struggled at times with his 3-point shot against the Memphis Grizzlies. However, if Curry can lead the Warriors to a fourth title without Durant to help carry the burden, he could raise the rankings.

Big leaps await Eastern Conference finalists Jimmy Butler (16 in NBArank in 2021) and Jason Tatum (14), who have polished their reputations in various ways. For Tatum, who finished sixth in the MVP vote, a powerful playoff round cemented his long-awaited leap during the regular season into the NBA elite.

In Butler’s case, this is a reminder of his post-season prowess. If the Heat return to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years, eliminating this race will be even more difficult than Miami’s surprise streak of bubbling turbulence. By most all-in-one metrics, Butler was the most valuable player so far in the playoffs despite missing the opening round game five against the Atlanta Hawks and missing the second half of the Hitz Jim3 win in Boston due to knee soreness.

Butler certainly deserves credit for his rise to the playoffs, particularly as a top scorer. He’s averaged 28.1 points per game so 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 partly a product of Butler staying on the court. His advanced stats have always suggested elite contributions on a minute-by-minute basis, albeit not in more than 65 games in any season since 2016-17. (Butler has missed 25 games this year.)


A clear choice for next season No. 1

In the end, the most likely outcome is that Antetokounmpo’s exit this season is considered the best player in the league. No one else can match his combination of continued success in both the regular season and play-off games.

Any outstanding questions about Giannis’ playoff performance were answered in the 2021 playoffs when he returned from the excessive knee he suffered in the conference finals to dominate the Suns in the NBA Finals, culminating in a 50-point performance in 16 of 25 rebounds in the Final 6 .

While Milwaukee won’t bounce back after a stinging seven-game loss to the Celtics, it’s impossible to blame Antetokounmue, who led all players in the series with points (33.9 per game) and rebounds (14.7). helps (7.1). He was the first player to do so in a lost case since Jokic in 2019 against the Portland Trail Blazers. LeBron and Russell Westbrook are the other two players to lead the three classes in a losing streak since 1997.

In many ways, Giannis’ performance in losing seven games in the conference semi-finals was similar to what Durant did in 2021 against the Bucks with teammates James Harden and Kyrie Irving whose injuries hampered or missed. (Milwaukee was without second scorer Khris Middleton in the entire series against Boston.)

That early exit didn’t stop Durant from overtaking Antetokounmpo for the lead in the NBArank. With Giannis outselling KD’s production in front of the same Celtics defense in the first round of sweeping the Brooklyn Nets, Antetokounmpo likely clinched the World Player of the Year title while sitting at home in the final two rounds of the playoffs.

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