The MVP race is the most prestigious in the league and is reserved for the very best players in the NBA (be quiet and let it go, Shaq…). Last year’s race was a good one, with Warriors flamethrower Stephen Curry edging out the Bearded Beast, James Harden.
With Kevin Durant and Paul George looking to put their names back into the discussion, this year’s stable of MVP candidates is one of the deepest the league has seen in some time.
GOOD PLAYER, BAD SITUATION
DEMARCUS COUSINS, SACRAMENTO KINGS
Cousins is the most talented center in the league, arguably the best. Yes, those are two distinctions.
No, I don’t have any faith in the Sacramento Kings despite the talent on their roster. Cousins + Rajon Rondo + George Karl just screams…
Cousins will probably flirt with a 24 and 12 year again, but I don’t see the Kings winning enough to make the playoffs, much less winning enough games to make Boogie a legit contender for MVP.
ANTHONY DAVIS, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Had this been done a month ago, Davis would’ve been one of my favorites. Davis’ numbers will be insane because he’s an elite finisher, very good mid-range jump shooter, has started implementing a three-point shot into his repertoire, and is everywhere defensively:
Oh, and playing under Alvin Gentry will certainly work wonders. Today’s Fastbreak colleague Kelly Scaletta has talked about just how good Davis’ numbers could be this year:
By just redistributing a few of his midrange shots to the inside and a couple to the outside, Davis stands to boost his scoring to 29.1 per game with a true shooting percentage of 65.7 percent. That would put him in line to have one of the most efficient 25-point averages in NBA history.
And that’s using the same number of shots. Of the players who scored 24 points last season, Davis had the lowest usage percentage — and that’s something that has a definite chance of going up. If it even goes up one percentage point, his scoring average would go over 30.
Ergo, averages in the neighborhood of 30 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and a true shooting percentage near 65.0 are very reachable and virtually unprecedented.
But I mean, Jrue Holiday is on a minute restriction, Tyreke Evans is out up to eight weeks following knee surgery, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca have already been banged up, Quincy Pondexter is out, Norris Cole is out, and even Luke Babbitt is out. Eric Gordon is healthy, but we all know his injury history as well.
This isn’t Davis’ fault, but the Pelicans being really banged up will likely hurt their win total, thus affecting his MVP case.
PAUL GEORGE, INDIANA PACERS
George is sporting renewed health, a new position, and the worst self-dubbed nickname in all of sports. Young Trece? Seriously?
For what it’s worth, George absolutely lit it up during the preseason, averaging 18.7 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game in only 24.4 minutes a contest. His three-point stroke seems to be back (39 percent), and the explosiveness, well…:
When healthy, George was the best player on an Eastern Conference contender and a top-12 player in the league. Healthy again and being able to exploit mismatches on the perimeter in a faster system, look for George to have a big year. If that’s for a Pacer team that earns a No. 6-8 seed, that’s not going to be enough to garner major MVP consideration.
CHRIS PAUL, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
When healthy and on a good team, Paul is typically in the hunt; he’s had finishes of 6th (2014-15), 7th (13-14), 4th (12-13), and 3rd (11-12) in the last four seasons, and finished 2nd in 07-08 (aka the year he should’ve won it):
Paul is healthy, and this Clippers roster is probably the most talented one he’s ever had on paper. Paul is the NBA’s best passer and mid-range shooter, and even shot 40 percent from three last year. He’s due for another great year, but the only thing that is stopping him from being a top-flight favorite is, ironically, his teammate.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Last year’s superhero further took the NBA world by storm by putting up Oscar Robertson-like numbers. He led the NBA in scoring and triple-doubles, and his averages of 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 8.6 assists have only been matched or bettered by Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and LeBron James.
“Unfortunately” for Westbrook in this context, Kevin Durant’s return probably will hurt his MVP case because he won’t be the best player on his team, much less the best player on the floor every night. Of course, that tandem being together means the Thunder should be right there among the elite teams in the NBA.
6. JOHN WALL, WASHINGTON WIZARDS
I am all in on the new-look Wizards. Randy Wittman seems to be realizing that playing smaller, faster, and shooting more threes than mid-range jumpers is the way to go, and Washington’s moves this summer seem to highlight that thinking. Adding snipers and increasing the pace fits the many talents of John Wall perfectly, and that should open up the floodgates this year:
Wall is an absolute terror in the open court, consistently showcasing an ability to finish at the rim at a high level. He compliments that ability with special passing ability and court vision along with a now-solid jumper. Since 2010-11, Wall has 16 such games of 20 points, 10 assists, five rebounds, and two steals, making him one of four players to reach those marks in at least 10 games along with Russell Westbrook (21), LeBron James (19), and Chris Paul (19).
With increased pace, spacing, along with natural progression, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Wall at least flirt with averaging 20-5-10-2 while leading Washington to a top-three seed in the East. Or, if the preseason trends continue and Wall defers more of the ball-handling duties to Bradley Beal and others, Wall may just see an uptick in assists along with his usual 16-17 points a night.
5. STEPHEN CURRY, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
It’s odd to have the reigning MVP so far down the list of favorites, but here we are. He’s coming off of a great year, draining threes—breaking his own single-season record—and dropping bodies en route to winning MVP and ultimately winning his first title:
The Warriors are essentially returning the same roster, and should be favored to at least lead the West in wins, if not represent the conference in the NBA Finals again. To be honest, this placement has more to do with me being higher on the players above Curry than about Curry himself.
4. BLAKE GRIFFIN, LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Griffin had his coming out party last postseason, averaging an absurd 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, a steal, and a block per game. The complete list of players to average 25-12-6 in a postseason includes Griffin and Oscar Robertson. That’s it; that’s all.
At this point, Griffin is one of the NBA’s best all-around weapons. His mid-range jumper is more than respectable, he obviously can finish, can create shots off the bounce for himself and others in a way that 6’10 players just shouldn’t be able to, and was actually one of the NBA’s best post players last season (contrary to popular belief). In a more conservative defensive scheme, Griffin likely won’t be hedging so hard in pick-and-roll coverage, which should not only help him defend the rim, it should conserve energy for him overall.
Chris Paul may still be the Clippers’ most skilled player, but Griffin’s responsibility to shoulder the scoring load makes him just as, if not more important. Add in the playmaking and versatility he brings, along with the talent on the Clippers roster, Griffin may have the perfect mix of numbers, impact, and wins necessary to make major noise in the MVP race.
3. LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
This may be the last year that LeBron James is considered to be the best player in the NBA. Regardless, he’s still an elite player in the NBA and one of the best the game has ever seen.
With Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert out for extended time, James may have to run the show as much as he did in last year’s Finals, which could mean huge numbers early on:
Even with the early injuries to their backcourt, Cleveland should still lead the East in wins. The only thing that may hinder James’ MVP candidacy would be missing games because of his back, or just rest in general.
2. KEVIN DURANT, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The last time we saw Kevin Durant healthy, he won MVP and put up an all-around season for the ages. His averages of 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists were great in general, but what made it special was he did so efficiently and while Russell Westbrook missed a plethora of games due to injury. The only other player to average at least 30 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and post a true shooting percentage of 60 or better in a season was some guy named Michael Jordan.
Durant is healthy again, has Westbrook to take pressure off him, a new head coach in Billy Donovan who is a more creative offensive mind than Scott Brooks was and has talent all over the roster to compliment him.
If the preseason is any indication, Durant seems ready to regain his place as a top three player in basketball:
1. JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON ROCKETS
James Harden was Mr. Everything for Houston, carrying an insane workload to compensate for a bevy of injuries to core pieces. In fact, Harden led Houston in total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and was second on the team in total blocks.
He also shot a lot of free throws; his 824 free throw attempts not only led the NBA, but it also made him just the 10th shooting guard in NBA history to shoot at least 800 free throws in a season.
In a best case scenario, Harden won’t have to be Mr. Everything again. The Rockets dealt for Ty Lawson to help alleviate some of Harden’s burden, and the fact that Dwight Howard is healthy should take some pressure off as well.
Harden and Lawson already seem to be building chemistry. Harden having someone to create looks for him instead of the inverse should be refreshing, and should lead to a bump in efficiency:
With that said, Houston is still Harden’s team. He’ll still be the primary playmaker, and he has already proved in his time in Houston that he can put up huge numbers in that role. That, combined with my thinking that Houston will be a top four team in the vaunted West, as well as a little make-up call for last year, leads me to believe that The Beard will take home this year’s MVP award.