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The NBA is a league of who’s next.
Who’s the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or [insert great player here]? Which is the next franchise to complete the laborious leap from good to great? Who’s the next record-setting scorer, sniper or defensive stopper?
So, why not view the Association in an even wider lens with this inquiry: Who are the next five MVP winners?
It’s admittedly an audacious undertaking, as there’s no telling how much the basketball landscape could change over that time period. Five years ago, the All-NBA teams included Joakim Noah (first team!), Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Tony Parker and Al Jefferson. Michael Carter-Williams claimed Rookie of the Year honors, while Kevin Durant delivered the Oklahoma City Thunder their first MVP award.
Five years is an eternity in this league. For the average player, it’s an entire career.
Still, we know enough about current contributors’ production to forecast their potential. And we know enough about past winners to pick up on common themes—for instance, you don’t typically find MVPs under the age of 25 or over the age of 30.
With all this information in hand, let’s take a year-by-year look at the likeliest winners in the near future.
2019-20: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
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This feels as close to a lock as there is on this list, especially if the Greek Freak must settle for a silver medal this season.
He challenges what we previously deemed possible inside the lines. In an era defined by versatility, Antetokounmpo is a 6’11”, 242-pound ball of clay who can be molded into anything and everything Milwaukee ever needs.
His stat sheets are consistently stuffed to the brim. He’s one of only two players, along with Joel Embiid, ranked among the top 10 in points (27.4, fifth) and rebounds (12.5, sixth), and he’s the only one also within the top 20 for assists (5.9, 19th) and blocks (1.5, 11th).
Despite shying away from jumpers, he’s become one of the most efficient offensive weapons in a perimeter-driven era. Over the last three seasons, he’s third in player efficiency rating (27.8) and fourth in points (5,765), plus he has the sixth-highest true shooting percentage (61.2) among the 58 different 3,000-point scorers.
Oh, and if that weren’t all terrifying enough, he’s working to stretch his range past the three-point arc.
“He is already one of the top players in the NBA. Working on shooting and improving on shooting is only going to help further enhance that,” Bucks assistant and shooting coach Ben Sullivan told ESPN’s Malika Andrews. “What’s the narrative you hear? ‘If Giannis could shoot, he would be unstoppable. Unguardable.’ He is already unguardable. If he could shoot, he would be even more unguardable.”
It’s possible that by this time next season, Antetokounmpo has both the best-numbers and best-player-on-the-best-team narratives working in his favor. A unanimous vote does not feel out of the question.
2020-21: Anthony Davis, TBD
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Davis was never going to capture the MVP as a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.
In 2016-17, he joined Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo as the only players to average at least 28 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two blocks, and he still finished just ninth in the MVP voting. A year later, he upped his shooting, scoring, shot-blocking and distributing but couldn’t climb higher than third.
The team-success portion of his argument was always missing. Without it, his case could never be complete.
“Winning definitely helps everything,” Davis told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols before the current season. “It helps with your legacy. It helps to be in the top of that list [of the league’s best players]. So for me—yes, people see everything that I do. But not going forward in the playoffs or going to the playoffs every three years doesn’t help my case.”
Davis’ numbers are astounding. His 27.42 career PER puts him behind only Michael Jordan and LeBron James. However, his statistical contributions would have an entirely different kind of significance if they were boosting a contender, particularly in the eyes of MVP voters.
That’s the motivation behind Davis’ trade request, which is the reason we’re not sure where he’ll suit up two seasons from now.
But the future situation should be more conducive to winning big than his current digs. And even if he’s initially dinged by voters for potentially joining a superteam, he might, at this point, be two years removed from swapping jerseys with a combination of individual brilliance and championship-level collective success that’s impossible to ignore.
2021-22: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
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We’ll let the big fella start this sales pitch.
“I’m the most unstoppable player in the league,” Embiid said on ESPN after he blitzed the Boston Celtics for 37 points and 22 rebounds during a March 20 victory.
Boastful as that sounds, Embiid could be onto something. Through four-plus years in the NBA, his body has been the only thing capable of consistently stopping him.
Injuries have played an uncomfortably significant role in his career, and they exponentially increase the risk of a long-term prediction like this. He’s had two campaigns completely erased by injury, another in which he was limited to just 31 appearances and none in which he’s sniffed the 70-game mark.
But when he plays, he’s incredible. After hinting at superstar potential through his first two healthy(ish) seasons, he made that jump in 208-19. He’s joined O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to average 27.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 blocks.
Embiid is a top-five scorer and rebounder, and he’s potentially a top-five finisher in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. That level of two-way balance—culminating in a gargantuan net efficiency differential of plus-11.1—is only seen in the Association’s elite.
If his body cooperates, compiling award-winning stats won’t be an issue. Pooling together award-winning memories shouldn’t be, either. He’s unafraid of major moments, and his almost unprecedented blend of size, skill, power and strength gives him one of the game’s unique highlight reels.
He could have several narratives pointing his direction, too. The Sixers could be the NBA’s strongest squad by this point. His charisma and social media presence should also endear him to voters and ensure he never lacks motivation since he has so many boastful claims to which he must live up.
2022-23: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
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Maybe this is low-hanging fruit, but we couldn’t just tab him for a single MVP award.
If anything, it might be more surprising if he’s only claimed one by this point. But Davis and Embiid are such powerful two-way forces that it’s easy to imagine voters wanting to give them their first Maurice Podoloff Trophies before adding to Antetokounmpo’s growing collection.
This would be Giannis’ age-28 season, which league history often holds as being at or near the perfect amalgamation point of physical prowess and mental sharpness. Of the 25 most efficient seasons in NBA history, 10 were recorded by players in their age-27 or age-28 years.
Theoretically, this might be Antetokounmpo at the peak of his powers. How much different would that look from now?
His three-ball should be usable by then, if not an outright weapon. LeBron, for example, shot a combined 32.9 percent from his age-19 through age-26 seasons before jumping to 36.2 percent as a 27-year-old and 40.6 percent at 28. While Antetokounmpo isn’t as developed a jump-shooter, he is more accurate from the stripe through six seasons than James was (74.2 percent to 73.8 percent).
Antetokounmpo could also be a more proficient post scorer by then, too. He’s solid for now (0.98 points per possession, 63rd percentile), but his length, quickness and mobility give him a foundation that can support tremendous growth.
He wouldn’t be any less physically imposing, and anything he loses in athleticism, he could gain back—and then some—in experience and basketball intelligence.
2023-24: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
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As a rookie, Tatum had the most postseason points for an Eastern Conference finalist. As a sophomore, he’s second in scoring on a club expected to contend for a title.
This is where we should mention he only turned 21 in March. His offensive tools are sharpened beyond his years, he’s cool under pressure and, unless he’s moved out in a marquee deal, his team should provide both success and exposure on a major scale.
In other words, even if he’s the furthest from an MVP level among the players mentioned, he also has the most room to grow. Just take what an Eastern Conference scout told NBA.com’s Sekou Smith:
“I’ve pounded the table about this for years, since I first scouted him at Duke. He has the most translatable offensive skill-set for the league of any prospect I’ve scouted the past five years. You either have the physical tools or you don’t. The size, the basketball IQ and the understanding of how to attack his defender … he’s got advanced level stuff in that regard.”
Tatum looks capable of handling a much larger offensive role than the Celtics currently ask of him.
Last season, he came closer to posting a 50/40/90 slash line than any NBA teenager realistically should. He hit 47.5 percent of his field goals, 43.4 percent of his triples and 82.6 percent of his foul shots.
Added together, it gave him a 58.6 true shooting percentage that ranked ninth among freshmen throughout NBA history who averaged double-digit points and attempted 100-plus triples. That put Tatum above the first-year versions of Reggie Miller, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, among others.
Tatum has given every indication he’s a featured scorer in training. He just needs more of the spotlight. Five years is enough time for the Celtics to reshuffle their deck in a way that showcases Tatum, gets him in the MVP discussion for a year or two and finally nets him the honor in 2023-24.
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While some MVP races are closer than others, candidate shortages never exist. There’s a reason NBA.com’s weekly NBA Ladder columns go 15 players deep.
Considering we’re not breaking down a single race but rather the next five, we passed over a wealth of deserving players. We can’t discuss them all, but we’ll give a brief rundown of those who came closest to selection.
LeBron James is probably in this discussion until he retires, but he might actually be trending down for the first time. Kevin Durant cedes individual sizzle in Golden State, but he could lose the best-team designation elsewhere. Stephen Curry has his impact muted by Durant and the rest of the Warriors stars. Kawhi Leonard’s absence last season and careful management in this one might’ve pushed him past his MVP window.
Donovan Mitchell might lack the shooting efficiency to take the trophy. With Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr., you wonder if they’ll score enough to sway the more traditional-minded voters. Karl-Anthony Towns and Trae Young could both put up face-melting offensive numbers, but spotty defense and a lack of team success might spell their demise.
And for those who aren’t in the NBA yet (OK, Zion Williamson), we’ll reserve judgment until we see them perform against professionals.
This list could keep going, but that’s kind of the point—a five-year window in a league with as much star power as the current NBA is overloaded with dominant players. Our five MVPs might not even be the best of the bunch, but they’re the ones we project as most likely to hold the hardware based on past trends and present performances.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.