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James Harden and other dark horse NBA MVP Candidates


Every so often, an NBA player comes out of nowhere to win MVP, defying all betting odds and experts’ educated guesses. It’s a tough award to predict, particularly now that an aging LeBron James has proven to be just as vulnerable to injuries as the rest of the league. The top five candidates in terms of betting favorites for the 2021-22 award, according to Fanduel, are as follows:

Luka Doncic (+480)

Giannis Antetokounmpo (+700)

Joel Embiid (+800)

Kevin Durant (+800)

Stephen Curry (+800)

Some usual suspects. Antetokounmpo, Durant and Curry have all won the award before, Embiid was last season’s runner-up, and Doncic was the betting favorite last year before the season started. But there are so many talented players in today’s league, and quite a few of them could potentially carry their team to a good enough record to be deserving of MVP. Let’s ponder three dark horse MVP candidates for the upcoming season who are not among the top five betting favorites and are also not a four-time MVP and possibly the greatest player of all time (come on, LeBron can never truly be considered a dark horse).

James Harden

Harden currently has the tenth-best odds at winning the award, and at +2300, he’s a sneaky-great pick. He’s finished in the top three in MVP voting five of the last eight years, though he spent the last seven-and-change as the clear-cut best player on the Houston Rockets.

Harden is no-doubt the second-best player on the Brooklyn Nets when everyone is healthy, but within that qualifier lies Harden’s candidacy. Kevin Durant played just 35 games last season, and he missed the enterity of the previous season recovering from an achilles injury. Meanwhile, Harden, prior to last season’s hamstring injury that hampered him for much of the playoffs, was an iron man, playing 68 or more games in all but one season of his career. Unless this injury is the beginning of a new trend, the Nets should be safe in assuming they’ll have The Beard at their disposal for a vast majority games next season.

Prior to the injury, Harden was in the MVP conversation for this exact reason; Durant was out, and the Nets continued to dominate with Harden as their orchestrator. With Durant’s injury history and the organization’s cautious approach towards him, it’s possible Harden could be the Nets’ MVP simply because he’ll be their most available superstar (pencil in Kyrie Irving for at least 20 missed games as well, both for injuries and spiritual journeys).

Paul George

Similar to Harden’s case, George could shock the world and steal the MVP by picking up the slack while his team’s true superstar is out with an injury. Kawhi Leonard is set to miss a significant amount of time recovering from the ACL tear he suffered last postseason, but the LA Clippers are still a deep, well-coached team with an All-NBA performer leading them.

George carried the Clippers in the playoffs after Leonard went down, closing out the Utah Jazz and pushing the Phoenix Suns to six games, averaging 29.6 points, 11 rebounds and 5.6 assists in those eight Leonard-less contests. His efficiency waned due to the increased offensive burden, and he had to play nearly 42 minutes a game to get to those numbers, but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. He won’t be expected to recreate that kind of production on a nightly basis for LA in the regular season, but he could easily return to his 2018-19 form when he finished third in the MVP race for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

He’d have to remain healthy, but if the Clippers exceed expectations (the oddsmakers currently have them at 45.5 wins) thanks to George’s stellar play, there’s no reason a narrative couldn’t take shape in which George is deserving of MVP.

Nikola Jokic

The reigning MVP currently has the eighth-best odds to defend his crown? Clearly oddsmakers find Jamal Murray to be crucial to the Denver Nuggets’ success. Murray suffered a torn ACL back in April and is expected to miss a large chunk of the season. However, Denver did go 16-8 without Murray last year in the regular season, and they were still able to dispatch the Portland Trail Blazers in the postseason without him before getting swept by the Suns. Jokic is the alpha and the omega in Denver, and few players in the league elevate the play of their teammates more than the Joker. Murray obviously vaults them into contender status, but Jokic can still easily lead them to dominance in the regular season. Voter fatigue often unofficially disqualifies reigning MVPs from winning the award again, but Murray’s injury gives the media a new narrative to ponder as it pertains to Jokic. One can almost hear the media pundants on their debate shows: “The Nuggets lost their second-best player and are somehow still hanging around where they were record-wise last season? That to me earns Jokic the MVP.”