NBA MVP straw poll: Where 100 insiders think this race is headed

More than five years after winning his second Most Valuable Player award, Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry could be on his way to claiming a third.

Curry, who is second in the NBA in scoring and first in both 3-pointers made and attempted, got 94 of the 100 first-place votes cast in the 2021-22 debut of ESPN's MVP straw poll, which was conducted from Dec. 3 through Dec. 6.

If Curry goes on to win the MVP award, he would tie Wilt Chamberlain for the largest gap between wins (six years) in NBA history. Curry, who will turn 34 in March, also would become the third-oldest MVP in league history, trailing Karl Malone in 1999 and Michael Jordan in 1998.

While Curry is firmly planted in the MVP spotlight, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, another mainstay in the poll discussion, did not receive a vote for the first time across eight straw polls conducted since the 2016-17 season.

To gauge where the race stands roughly 30% into the season, ESPN asked 100 media members to participate in an informal poll that mimics the postseason award voting. To make the balloting as realistic as possible, there were at least two voters from each of the league's 28 markets, along with a cross-section of national and international reporters.

As with the NBA's official vote at the end of season, voters were asked to submit a five-player ballot, and results were tabulated using the league's scoring system: 10 points for each first-place vote, seven points for second, five points for third, three points for fourth and one point for fifth.

Curry (978 points) was followed by Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (610 points, two first-place votes) and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (471 points, three first-place votes). Last year's MVP, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (256 points), got the other first-place vote and came in fourth overall.

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (160 points) rounded out the top five.

Others receiving votes: Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (sixth); Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler and Suns guard Devin Booker tied for seventh; Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (ninth); Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (10th); and LA Clippers guard Paul George (11th). Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and Bulls guard Zach LaVine each got one vote to tie for 12th.

Curry's 94 first-place votes creates the highest percentage of first-place votes received in any of the straw polls, surpassing the 91 votes James Harden received in the spring of 2018, the season he would win his lone MVP award while with the Houston Rockets.

Curry, Durant and Antetokounmpo were named to all 100 ballots -- the first time as many as three players were unanimous selections in any iteration of the straw poll, and a sign of the separation between them and the rest of the pack.

In fact, there is far more separation across the board at this point in the season than last year, when James, Embiid and Jokic were separated by only 164 points, and combined to get 94 first-place votes. Curry, on the other hand, received that many by himself, and there are 368 points separating him and second-place Durant, the NBA's current scoring leader. That is more than double the gap between first and third in the first edition of last season's poll.

There is clear stratification between each of the top-six finishers.

Curry has led Golden State's return to the top of the NBA standings after the team missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons -- following five straight trips to the NBA Finals. He is averaging 27.5 points and is on pace to make 445 3-pointers, which would shatter his single-season record of 402 set in 2016 when he became the only unanimous MVP in league history.

Durant is off to a stellar start for Brooklyn, which is in first place in the Eastern Conference. He leads the league in scoring at 28.4 points and is shooting over 50% from the field for a ninth consecutive season. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.0 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.7 assists for the Bucks, who have surged back toward the top of the East standings after an injury-filled first month.

Jokic has picked up where he left off for an even more injury-plagued Nuggets team, one without guard Jamal Murray because of a torn ACL suffered in April, and now without forward Michael Porter Jr. for an indefinite period following back surgery on Dec. 1. Jokic is averaging 26.1 points, 13.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists, and his Player Efficiency Rating of 34.07 would easily be the highest in NBA history for a full season.

Paul, whose 10.1 assists per game leads the NBA, and Booker both received credit for Phoenix's perch atop the NBA standings after the Suns' 18-game winning streak. They are the third set of teammates to finish within the top seven in voting in the straw polls, joining Curry and Durant, who did so in both polls taken during the 2017-18 season, as well as James and Anthony Davis, who did it in both polls taken during the 2019-20 season.

Who didn't receive votes is just as telling.

While James is still putting up spectacular numbers -- 25.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.9 assists -- he has played in only 14 of the Lakers' 26 games.

It also should be noted there wasn't a poll conducted during the 2018-19 season, when James missed many games with a groin injury. That leaves Antetokounmpo as the only player who has received at least one MVP vote over each of the eight straw polls that have been conducted over the past six seasons.

But while James has spent nearly half the season off the court, the same can't be said for Harden and Davis, both of whom have played nearly every game and were also noteworthy absences from the voting.

Harden is shooting a career-low 40.1% from the field and his 20.9 points per game is his lowest since he was a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Davis is averaging 24.0 points and 10.2 rebounds, but Los Angeles is 13-13 and fighting for a play-in spot in the Western Conference.

Damian Lillard, who made all four polls over the past two seasons, also didn't receive a vote after a sluggish start to the season for both he and the Portland Trail Blazers (11-15).

At the other end of the spectrum sits DeRozan, who, before entering the NBA's health and safety protocols Monday, had been the driving force behind the Bulls' launch to contention in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan is leading the league in fourth-quarter scoring and his 26.4 points per game ranks fourth in the league.

It is only the second time DeRozan has received votes in a straw poll, and the first time since 2018, when he was with the Toronto Raptors. That also was the only season in DeRozan's career he received MVP votes at the end of the season.

This also marked the first time that both Young and LaVine have received straw poll votes. Young is fifth in the league in scoring and third in assists. LaVine is seventh in scoring at 25.8 points per game while starring alongside DeRozan in Chicago.