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Can Anthony Davis be the Next MVP?

The NBA’s MVP award is probably the thing fans and media love to debate the most. As we endure the woefully long offseason, it’s time to start considering who next year’s might be. Could it be Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans?

For discussions like this, the first thing that needs to be established is what the award actually “means,” as that’s an often misunderstood topic. Some think it means best. Some say it means the best player on the best team. Neither of those is the whole truth.

I like to use this as an analogy:

Clearly, the house on the left is “better” but the house on the right has more “value.” And that makes a nice starting point of our little conversation.

As I argued for Hoops Habit last year, there are essentially four things that go into value.

  1. Quality: For a house, this is everything from the building material to the number of bathrooms. For a player, this is where “best player” comes in. The MVP winner has finished in the top five in Win Shares 34 times in the last 39 years.
  2. Location: For a house, this is Montclair vs. Plano. For the MVP, it’s where the team is located in the standings. The MVP winner has come from a top three team (based on record) 34 times and top four 36 times in the last 39 years.
  3. Neighborhood: For a house, this is what’s around the house, i.e. schools, public transportation, as well as what are the other houses on the block going for? For a player, it means his best teammates. Having elite teammates has a track record of hindering a player’s chances at MVP. Only three times in the last 39 years have two top eight vote-getters been teammates.
  4. Narrative: For a house, this might mean something significant about the house, such as who designed it. For a player it can mean something intangible, such as Derrick Rose leading the Bulls to the best record in 2010-11 in spite of a plethora of injuries to other key players. (Rose also met the above three criteria that season, contrary to popular perception).

So, when considering whether Davis is a legitimate candidate for the award, let’s consider his chances of fulfilling the above criteria.

Quality

Can Davis finish top five in Win Shares? Easily. Last season, he finished fourth, in spite of missing 14 games. In fact, if he can play the full season, he’ll lead the league in that regard.

Because, as good as he is, he’s only about to get better. He told Jimmy Smith of the Times-Picayune:

I’ve worked on everything,” Davis said, citing ballhandling as a particular emphasis. “But I’ve worked on mid-range jumpers, post moves, defense. I think (newly named assistant) Coach (Darren) Erman is one of the best in the league, if not the best, at defense. Every day when I’m on the floor I work on 15 or 20 minutes of defense.

“I’m working on everything. And I think that’s going to help us. When we have our team practices, we’re going to do the same thing and I think it’s definitely going to be beneficial, to be able to get the ball off the boards and just push it. I’m definitely excited.”

Alvin Gentry is encouraging him to take more threes. And there’s ample reason to think that he has the range, even though he barely had a jump shot when he came into the league. As you can tell from his heat map at NBASavant.com, his range is already just about to the outer arc.

And it’s almost as though Monty Williams designed an offense that had Davis taking as many long twos as possible. The idea of the Brow working on his post game and his three-point shooting is utterly terrifying. Because what the world needs is really a more efficient version of him.

Yes, he can, and likely will lead the league in Win Shares. Check off that category.

Location

If there’s a struggle, this is where it’ll be at. But it’s not impossible for the Pelicans to be this year’s team on the rise. It might even be more likely than many expect.

First, for teams with franchise-level players, a two- or three-year jump in the standings is hardly unprecedented. The Oklahoma City Thunder vaulted from 23 wins in 2008-09 to 55 in 2010-11. LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers went from 17 wins before they got him to 50 and a trip to the NBA Finals in his first three seasons.

Davis’s Pelicans won 27 games his rookie year, 34 his second and 45 his third. A win total north of 50 is just part of a normal progression for him. Of further note is the addition of glue man, Quincy Pondexter over the last quarter of the season.

His addition and Jrue Holiday‘s injury allowed Tyreke Evans to move back to his more natural point guard position. With that arrangement, the Pelicans went 13-6 — the equivalent of a 56-win season based on percentage.

Add in the new coaching staff with offensive genius Alvin Gentry and defensive guru Darren Erman, who learned at the feet of Tom Thibodeau (for a terrific read on him, check out this piece from Oleh of SB Nation’s, the Bird Writes).

Between Davis’s improvements, the natural progression of the team and the coaching changes, there’s a legitimate opportunity for the Pelicans to win 55-58 games, and that would be enough to push them into that top three-to-four team range.

Neighborhood

Of all the variables in the MVP voting, the most finicky is the “neighborhood.” A player needs teammates who are good enough to help him get to one of the best records in the league, but not so good they steal votes away from him.

Since the merger in 1976-77, an award winner has never had a teammate place better than fifth (Scottie Pippen in ’98 and Julius Erving of the “Fo, Fo, Fo” Sixers in ’83).

Last year, when Klay Thompson finished ninth, it was the 16th time in 39 years that a winner had a teammate get votes at all, and nine of those times the corresponding “Robin” was 10th or worse. In other words, the only way a player wins the award with an elite teammate is if it’s a historically good team.

Fortunately for Davis, this isn’t a threat. He has good teammates, but none who are a threat to challenge him for the award. And all his chief rivals have a better second-best player than him. James Harden has Dwight Howard, Curry has Thompson, LeBron James has Kyrie Irving, and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have one another.

In terms of the “neighborhood” portion of the discussion, Brow has the edge over the league. The gulf between him and his second-best player is greater than any of the top 10 teams.

Narrative

Of course, most of this portion is something that needs actually to be played to flesh out, but early on he has the edge.

Curry’s already won his. There’s probably nothing much that changes with James. Harden hasn’t won, but the aesthetics of his game (which I personally don’t take an issue with) turn a lot of people off. The sheen is coming off CP3 as he continues to not get past the second round. And while it’s completely unfair, that’s the sort of thing that can cloud votes. There’s a chance he starts getting “career achievement” consideration, though.

Of all the contenders, the most likable player who hasn’t won is Davis. And either he or Paul are the ones most likely to garner the attention for the narrative portion of the argument.

Based on this, I think there are only two things that can keep Davis from winning the award next year. First, injuries could hinder him. As great as he’s been, he’s missed an average of almost 16 games his first three seasons. Another prolonged absence could spell doom for his chances at being honored.

Second, if the Pelicans don’t win. This is, by far, the biggest challenge, but at the same time, it’s why he’ll deserve it if they do because he’ll be the principle reason they’re winning. If he plays 75 games and New Orleans wins 58, Anthony Davis will be the 2015-16 MVP.

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