Imagine it’s April, 2017, and you’ve got a vote to cast for the NBA’s most valuable player (MVP). There are plenty of more important things going on in your life.
President Vladimir Putin (the election turned out waaaaaaay weirder than anyone expected) has deployed roving packs of wolves in lieu of weekly trash collectors, for example, and it’s pretty dangerous out there.
But you’ve got to figure out who to vote for it anyway because every season needs an MVP, and 2016-17 is no different.
Chances are, you’re going to find it really hard to pick one this year because every member of the preseason’s serious-candidate group comes laden with more compelling reasons for why he won’t win it than for why he will.
This is not normal, but when you start to imagine how the upcoming season might play out for the NBA’s top talents, you realize just how tricky this is going to be.
Russell Westbrook Cannot Win
Currently the betting favorite, Russ is going to run up against an insurmountable problem. The MVP has come from a first or second playoff seed EVERY SINGLE TIME since Michael Jordan won the 1987-88 award with a 50-win Chicago Bulls squad that ranked third in the East. Basically, if your team isn’t challenging for home-court throughout the playoffs, winning at least 50 games and generally dominating in the overall season record realm, you’re not winning jack.
So, even as Westbrook inevitably piles up crazy counting numbers and leads the league by a mile in triple-doubles, there’s no way he wins MVP on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that will probably top out at 45 victories. In the West, that definitely won’t be good enough to rank ahead of the Warriors, Spurs or Clippers. A healthy Marc Gasol means the Grizzlies will maul their way to 47 wins or so, and then there’s the Blazers and Rockets—both with great shots to finish ahead of OKC.
Oh, and the Jazz, who could easily wind up the West’s third seed.
See that? That’s the Thunder suddenly struggling to make the playoffs at all. There’s no modern precedent for Westbrook winning. It’s not happening.
And this is the favorite we’re talking about.
Stephen Curry Cannot Win
This absolutely shouldn’t be a factor, but can you really envision a world in which Curry becomes the first player to win three consecutive MVP awards since Larry Bird did it more than 30 years ago? Voter fatigue is super real; just ask LeBron James, who should have about six in a row spanning from 2007-08 to 2012-13…but doesn’t because merit takes a back seat to boredom after too many great individual seasons.
Even if voter fatigue weren’t an issue, Curry is bound to split votes with teammate Kevin Durant. I guess maybe there’s an outside chance we wind up with Co-MVPs (hey, the NFL did it three separate times), especially if the Warriors win 77 games. It’d be hard to pick someone from another team if something like that happened. But it feels like voters might just skip the Warriors altogether because having four All-NBA performers and a Finals MVP in the closing lineup kind of makes it tough to lavish praise on one guy.
Kevin Durant Cannot Win
See above, and also factor in the distaste voters tend to have for superstars switching teams. James didn’t win the award in his first year with the Heat, despite leading the league in PER, Box Plus-Minus, Win Shares and VORP. Durant will have a hard time doing all that while sharing the ball as much as he’ll have to on the Warriors, so he’s not winning either.
LeBron James Cannot Win
Dude is going to play 60 games this year, take weeks off at a time and coast like nobody’s business. The Cavs are that secure in their position atop the East. In fact, don’t be surprised if they’re perfectly happy slipping to second or third in the conference. Nobody scares them, and they’re not going to push James at all because they don’t have to.
Kawhi Leonard Cannot Win
I mean, you can get into the statistical weeds and note how Leonard’s reliance on isolation and post-up plays suggests he’s in for an efficiency dip. And you can highlight the unsustainability of taking 20 percent of his shots from that weird little 10-15 foot range and making damn near half of them.
It’s still safe to pencil him in as first or second for Defensive Player of the Year, but we probably saw Leonard’s offensive peak last season, and he didn’t win the award then.
Also, you have to give a longer speech for MVP, and he’s not really into that.
James Harden Cannot Win
Harden’s reputation as an atrocious defender has calcified in a critical way. Everyone is sure he’s bad on that end. So even if he totally turns it around this season, voters are always a year late in acknowledging reversals like that. Maybe he’ll deserve the award if he leads the league in scoring for a Rockets team that absolutely maxes out its potential with a No. 2 seed in the West, but voters won’t give it to him.
Anthony Davis Cannot Win
Everybody got wildly psyched about him last season and then had their hype-hugging hearts broken. That’s the kind of pain that takes more than a year to heal. No dice.
Also, the Pelicans might not win 40 games, let alone 50.
Who Can Win?
Easy! This shakes out in one of three different ways:
- In a career year, Paul George leads the Pacers to an improbable second seed in the East, securing the award by default.
- After voters arrive at a 14-way tie, the league decides to skip the whole MVP thing entirely.
- Timofey Mozgov is declared the winner through a widespread mismarked ballot issue, and everyone thinks it’s funny. So the NBA just lets him keep it.