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San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard (2) defends against a drive to the basket by Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook (0) during the first half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Ranking NBA MVP candidates heading into 2016-17

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Last season, all drama was sucked out the NBA MVP race about 24 games into the season. Stephen Curry’s Warriors were 24-0, he was averaging 32.5 points in only 35.0 minutes per game and sported a ridiculous 69.2 true shooting percentage.

Curry coasted to the first unanimous MVP victory in league history, but a knee injury struck in the first round of the postseason. He was out for several games, and when he returned, he was good but not unanimous MVP good for the rest of the postseason. This was despite his admission that his knee was “fine” after his return.

LeBron James took advantage, thoroughly dominating Curry’s Warriors in the NBA Finals and re-establishing himself the clear-cut best player in the league.

Hopefully, the 2016-17 MVP race will be a little bit more exciting. Curry and Kevin Durant will be awesome for the Warriors, but will voters want to reward them for playing on such a stacked team? Will LeBron be too bored with the regular season to earn the award? Can Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul and other contenders take that next step that makes them worthy of the league’s top individual honor?

Let’s count down the five most likely players to win the MVP in 2016-17, and give some credit to those players who could be on the fringes of the argument, as well.

Honorable mention: Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder), Paul George (Indiana Pacers), Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans), James Harden (Houston Rockets), Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers), Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

2015-16 per-game statistics: 34.2 minutes, 30.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 31.5 PER, 0.318 win shares per 48 minutes

Maybe this feels like a slight to the two-time defending MVP, especially one who just was voted unanimous MVP a few months ago. But there are going to be some changes to his role with Kevin Durant in town.

For the first time in about five seasons, Curry won’t be the Warriors’ undisputed No. 1 offensive option. Durant’s presence should improve Curry’s efficiency and Golden State’s overall strength as a team, but the guard’s raw numbers should take a noticeable dip. The notion of him being more valuable to his team than anyone else in the league will also likely go out the window.

Also, last season was such a statistical anomaly for Curry on offense that it’s going to hard for him to be quite as in the zone. After a relatively rough and injury-riddled playoff run, maybe other teams have learned how to defend him better.

However, the Warriors and their (likely) 70-plus wins are going to get at least one guy in the top five for MVP voting.

Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 33.6 minutes, 24.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 27.9 PER, 0.295 win shares per 48 minutes

4. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

2015-16 per-game statistics: 32.7 minutes, 19.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 26.2 PER, 0.253 win shares per 48 minutes

Paul’s production is like clockwork. He’s been amazing throughout his 11-year career, but his past three seasons have been freakishly consistent.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 12.15.27 PM

In each of the past nine seasons, he’s either been the best point guard in the league or had an argument for the slot. That’s not easy to do at a position that many consider to be the premier one in the league over the past several years.

Paul probably won’t win the award unless the guys above him (or their teams) have down years, but he’s definitely a dark-horse contender. His playmaking ability is a huge reason DeAndre Jordan has any offensive value, and he’s just a positive influence both offensively and defensively on any teammate who plays with him.

Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 33.3 minutes, 19.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 10.5 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 25.8 PER, 0.240 win shares per 48 minutes

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

2015-16 per-game statistics: 34.4 minutes, 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 27.6 PER, 0.245 win shares per 48 minutes

Westbrook’s usage is sure to go up without Durant. Get used to lines like 35-11-14-8 (points-rebounds-assists-turnovers) from the hyper-aggressive superstar, similar to what he frequently accomplished during the 2014-15 season when Durant was out with his foot injury.

The difference between Westbrook with that Durant-less group and now is that his supporting cast is better. Ibaka is gone, but Steven Adams and Andre Roberson have significantly improved and Victor Oladipo and Ersan Ilyasova have joined the team. Oklahoma City should be more dependable defensively and a bit more explosive offensively.

Obviously, Westbrook’s Thunder aren’t going to be a traditional squad of an MVP winner. In the past 10 seasons, the average number of games won by teams with the MVP is a gaudy 63.5. Kobe Bryant’s 2007-08 Lakers are the weakest link of the group, with “only” 57 wins.

The Thunder should be somewhere in the 45- to 50-win range, which would definitely weaken Westbrook’s case. However, the physical freak’s statistics and impact are going to be through the roof, so he’ll be hard to deny if the Thunder cross that 50-win barrier.

Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 35.3 minutes, 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.4 blocks, 29.4 PER, 0.206 win shares per 48 minutes

2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

2015-16 per-game statistics: 33.1 minutes, 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blocks, 26.0 PER, 0.277 win shares per 48 minutes

Leonard finished second last year in MVP voting, and it was an unpopular decision. Lots of people more focused on box-score statistics thought LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook easily deserved the spot ahead of him. While the argument was valid, Leonard deserved the spot for being the best player on both ends of the floor for a 67-win team.

In 2016-17, Leonard finishing second should be a much more agreeable result.

The Spurs won’t quite be 67-win good again without Tim Duncan and some of their post depth, but Leonard’s increased minutes, offensive role and overall raw statistics will be more impressive to fans than what he achieved last season. Expect his playmaking ability to blossom in a slightly more ball-dominant role, even if his efficiency isn’t quite as staggering this time around.

Oh yeah, and the ever-improving 25-year-old also has the fact that he’s probably the best defender in the league working for him.

Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 34.5 minutes, 23.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, 26.9 PER, 0.243 win shares per 48 minutes

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

2015-16 per-game statistics: 35.6 minutes, 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.6 blocks, 27.4 PER, 0.242 win shares per 48 minutes

The 2016 NBA Finals reminded everyone about who still rules the NBA. Sure, Curry had the better regular season, but the difference was that James had an extra gear for the Finals and Curry didn’t (injuries probably did play a role, but still).

 

While 2016-17 MVP award is obviously based on that one regular season only, it’s conceivable to think voters still might have the 2016 Finals on their mind when making their decisions next spring. Instead of going with someone like Leonard, Westbrook, Paul or Curry, they might think “who are we kidding, LeBron is still the best player in the league,” even if James does coast some during the regular season.

James should still have a pretty impressive regular season, though. Having a healthy Kyrie Irving (hopefully) all season will ease some of his scoring burden and allow him to rack up bigger assist numbers passing to Irving for spot-ups.

Also, with Irving’s injury, all the weirdness that happened last season with coaching changes and reported chemistry problems, the Cavaliers still won 57 games and a title. It’s reasonable to expect 60 or more victories from Cleveland this season with a little less upheaval.

In that case, James should be the definite favorite thanks to his positive contributions in nearly every aspect of the game.

Projected 2016-17 per-game statistics: 35.1 minutes, 24.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.6 blocks, 27.6 PER, 0.253 win shares per 48 minutes

Ranking NBA MVP candidates heading into 2016-17

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