We’re never actually going to clarify what the Most Valuable Player award means at this point, are we?
Is it the player that means the most to his specific team? Is it the player who lifts his team above the expectations to the greatest of lengths? Is it the player who had the best season, relative somewhat to his own individual expectations? Is it the best player on the best team? Or is it simply, the league’s best player?
I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But fuck it, right? I mean, we’ve come this far in professional sports – why change things now? Why give concrete clarification when it’s just that much more fun to leave things open to interpretation? The award will be subjective until the day we settle on a singular MVP advanced statistic, if that ever comes. Why not leave the definition deservedly vague until then?
The beauty of that is that the definition can shift from year to year. It’s malleable, which works well when you consider the ever-changing tides of the NBA. Sometimes we reward the player who had the best season relative somewhat to his own individual expectations – a la Derrick Rose. And sometimes we award the league’s best player – a la Lebron James. Sometimes we reward the best player on the best team – a la Steph Curry.
This year, we’re faced with a more unique decision than ever before. The age of the SuperTeam has clustered much of the league’s top talent between a handful of teams. Nine of the league’s top eighteen players belong to the Cavs, Clippers, and Warriors. Kevin Durant & Steph Curry will likely split the vote between them in Golden State, as will Blake Griffin & Chris Paul in LA. And while Lebron James is still very clearly The Guy in Cleveland, there’s an easily imaginable and highly likely scenario where he goes on cruise control until the playoffs and hands the reigns to Kyrie Irving. Neither of the two is winning the award in that scenario. And in all three cases, they’re fine with that.
What that’s left us with is an MVP field as wide open as we’ve ever seen, as well as a need to shift towards the concept of value to to one’s team in the MVP race. If half of the league’s top talent is removed from the discussion, someone has to stand out on the merits of value.
That’s an issue… because nobody knows what to value most when discussing the merits of… well, of actual value. Players are penalized as much for having garbage teammates as they are for playing with Superstars. High offensive statistics won’t necessarily include you in the group, and yet defense is wildly undervalued.
You need to strike some type of balance. Dominate, but don’t dominate so much that you’re sitting every fourth quarter. Elevate your teammates, but don’t elevate them enough that they’re great enough to make it easy on you. Find some middle ground where you’re the best player on your team and your team is very good, yet you’re forced to display that every night to give your team a chance.
The question now is… who will stand out?
The conglomeration of elite talent between those three teams has opened them MVP race to more players than ever before. If we consider Lebron, Durant, and Curry–the most recent MVP’s and the only three “his team is automatically a title contender” guys in the league–as the clear top tier of the NBA, then this award is now open to the second tier talent that’s fallen short in the past. These are the players in that 4 through 20 range. Players capable of carrying their team to the playoffs on their own, just not a title or even a top two seed in their conference, as is typically expected of an MVP candidate. And, most importantly to this discussion, players without the accompanying top level talent around them.
That second tier, in some order, includes Kawhi, Russ, CP3, Griffin, George, Davis, Cousins, Towns, Harden, Klay, Draymond, Kyrie, Dame, Butler, Melo, Millsap, and the one true King of Manhattan, All Hail His Grace, Kristaps of House Porzingis, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm. Yes, he’s already there. (Apologies to Kyle Lowry and LaMarcus Aldridge, who I’ll get to later.)
For reasons stated above, we can remove anyone from the Cavs, Warriors, and Clippers from the MVP discussion. Davis and Cousins – who will undoubtedly land back in the lottery no matter their individual performance, can go to. Karl Anthony Towns could very easily end up a top three MVP candidate, but until we see Minnesota make the leap we’ll leave him out of this (I’m saving his case for a heavily-Towns blog later today). Jimmy Butler is not winning an MVP award on this Chicago Bulls team. Paul Millsap is never winning an MVP period. And since we’re technically removing all Superteam players from the MVP discussion, Melo and Porzingis have to go to.
That leaves us with five. Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, James Harden, and Damian Lillard.
Five guys with MVP-level talent who lack the assistance of their equally-talented contemporaries. Five guys who will attempt to single-handedly carry their teams through this season to a top three seed in their conference without the help of another top 20 guy. Lebron has Kyrie and Kevin Love. Blake and Chris have each other, plus DeAndre. Durant has Curry, and Curry has Durant, and ohbytheway they have Klay and Draymond there too. Goddammit.
Think of this NBA Season like the Academy Awards, at least in relation to this MVP race.
Cleveland, Golden State, Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent Boston… they’re going for Best Picture Award. They have the collective talent and chemistry to make the movie of the year.
Will the actors in those films put on incredible performances? Of course. But within such a talented cast, it’s hard to imagine those performances standing out to the extent of their contemporaries. It’s like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump vs. Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. Hanks had to carry Forrest Gump to make it what it was. He did, and won Best Actor. He didn’t have to carry Saving Private Ryan*. And despite how incredible a performance he put on, he lost. Equally great in both movies, but only Forrest Gump got him the Best Actor.
*Sidenote: I like to think of Vin Diesel as the J.R. Smith to Hanks’ Lebron in Saving Private Ryan. Can’t make that movie without Vin. Can’t win a title without J.R. That’s just facts my guy.
Lebron and Kyrie, Durant and Curry, Blake and Chris… they won’t stand out in this MVP race while playing next to each other. And they understand that. They’re fine sacrificing their individual roles for the sake of the collective unit. 1) Because they can, and 2) Because they understand that the Best Picture—the Championship—is the ultimate goal. A goal that, in their cases, is truly attainable. If someone happens to win a Best Actor nod along the way? That’s great. But the Best Picture is the end goal here. (There’s zero percent chance that selfish A-list Hollywood actors think like this, I know. Just bear with me here.)
On the other end of it, you have the Solo Acts. Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, James Harden, Damian Lillard… they’re going for Best Actor. As the clear star of their movie, they all recognize that they probably don’t have the cast or the storyline around them to win best picture. To even contend for that nomination, these guys HAVE to be the best they can possibly be. There are no scenes off… the entire thing is riding on their performances. And while they’ll do what they can to make the best movie they can make, they understand that even that won’t get them to the ultimate goal. The Best Actor Award—an MVP—is simply an acknowledgment of their efforts to get the film (the team) there.
So now the question is… who will stand out amongst the nominees? Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, James Harden, and Damien Lillard. Who of that group will carry their team to, at the very least, a top four seed in their conference? Who will have the numbers to back up their campaign? Who will have the most memorable singular moments from this season? Let’s look at the nominees:
Damian Lillard — 33/1
Dame Lillard wants to be the MVP. Like, really, really wants to be the MVP.
While most stars will publicly downplay their pursuit of an individual achievement, Dame has embraced it, openly discussing his candidacy and desire to win the award.
That’s not exactly surprising to anyone that’s watched him play these last few years. He’s brash, he’s confident, and he’s ballsy as all hell. He can catch fire and shoot his opponent off the court. And he’ll shoot those shots from anywhere on the court.
The comparisons between Steph Curry and Dame Lillard extend beyond their game, especially in regards to the MVP award. Curry was somewhat of a long-shot entering the 2014 season. A talented, yet undersized shoot-first point guard from a small time college with a suspect injury history. An All-Star snub who’d been overshadowed by such a deep class of guards in the west, playing for a team that hadn’t quite made the leap into title contention. Great coach, deep talented roster, and as much of an underdog mentality as anyone that talented could muster up.
That’s as much Dame now as it was Steph in 2014. Steph was coming off a hard-fought series loss in which he proved he could compete with his biggest rival (Chris Paul) in 2014. Dame is coming off a hard-fought series loss in which he proved he could compete with his biggest rival (Steph) last season. Steph was flanked by a young but talented sidekick, one of the league’s best head coaches, and a deep and dangerous roster. Dame has all that in McCollumn, Terry Stotts, and that wildly underrated Portland team.
Will Portland have the year Golden State had in 2014? No. There’s no Draymond or Bogut, no Iggy or Livingston off the bench, and Dame is not quite the player that Steph is.
But that won’t stop Dame.
He doesn’t think he’s as good Steph — he thinks he’s better than Steph. And he’ll play this season with all the cockiness and confidence that comes with that belief. Not only does he want to be the MVP… he wants to take down this Golden State SuperTeam in the process. He’s openly discussed his resentment for the idea of teaming up with other stars, and he’ll do everything he can to back up those statements.
Portland was a very quiet 5 seed last year. Between the growth of Lillard, McCollum and that young roster and the additions of Festus Ezeli and Evan Turner, they should only improve upon that. They’re deep as any roster in the league — with outrageous length and athleticism in the front court and versatility on the wings — and McCollum is an excellent second banana. Everything is there for Dame to take a similar leap to what Curry took in 2014.
33/1 is a long shot, but it’s as smart a dark horse investment as you can make for this award. At the very least, you can be confident in knowing he’s trying.
Paul George — 22/1
Have you read one thing about Paul George this preseason that didn’t come from a Pacers-specific website? Have you heard his name seriously mentioned in any type of MVP discussions? Of the league’s superstars, is anyone less discussed heading into this season than Paul George?
As a matter of fact… how many people consider him amongst the games elite? When you talk about that 4 through 20 group I mentioned above, is he at the top or the bottom of your list? How seriously do you take him as an MVP candidate?
I understand the hesitation. It comes with good reason. We watched his leg snap like a toothpick, and there’s no normal way to recover from that. Notable as his performance was this past season—carrying the Pacers to 45 wins on the strength of 23-7-4 averages—you wouldn’t call it a return to MVP form. And that’s fine.
Now two years, a full 82-game season, and a return to International Basketball removed from that injury, that guy is back. MVP caliber Paul George… Top 7 Player in the NBA Paul George… Dominant two way force Paul George… that guy is back.
The question now is: does he have the team around him to return to the top of the Eastern Conference?
Indiana spent the offseason retooling their team to run a high tempo, quick strike offense. Jeff Teague replaces George Hill at the point, Thad Young was brought in at the four, Al Jefferson to get buckets off the bench and Myles Turner slides into the full time gig at center. They’ll attempt to run team off the court, and in many cases should be able to during the regular season.
George, well known for defensive capability and versatility, should benefit from a boost in his offensive numbers. Impressive as a 23-7-4 line is, he’ll need to hover around 27-8-5 just to contend in this field. That’s attainable in this system. As is a top three seed in this Eastern Conference.
What George’s MVP season truly hinges on, however, is his ability to become The Guy again. Stuck in Lebron’s Eastern Conference, behind Lebron, Durant, and Kawhi at the Small Forward position, George will need to have moments to launch a true MVP campaign. He needs to hang 40 against Lebron, hit some game winners, and dominate every nationally televised game.
Dame has a well-documented penchant for the moment and an underdog mentality. Russ and Harden will have the numbers and the hyper surrounding their MVP campaigns. Kawhi has the Spurs winning culture and a two time DPOY & MVP runner-up pedigree.
Paul George needs a story, and that story is right there for the taking. If he can become a big game guy again… if he can elevate his game on the nation stage the way he showed he was able to before the injury… that’s his path to the MVP.
Russell Westbrook — 2/1
I’ve written at length about Russell Westbrook and all the wild expectations—both good and bad—we’ve placed upon his 2016-17 season, so I’ll keep this brief. We know he’ll post stats in bulk this season. 35 points per game and/or a season-long triple double are on the table, crazy as that sounds. What this comes down to is efficiency and playoff seeding. If Russ can post those wild statistics while maintaining efficient shooting and turnover percentages, the Thunder can win 50 games and earn a top 4 seed in the West. If the Thunder win 50 games and earn a top 4 seed in the West, Russ will be the MVP. It’s really as simple as that. Now we watch.
James Harden — 10/1
James Harden STINKS at Defense. That’s not exactly hard hitting analysis, but it needs to be mentioned in this discussion. We’ve seen the YouTube video and watched all the games and we know that James Harden is as lazy an unengaged a defender as you’ll find in this league. It’s honestly pathetic to watch at times. And now that he’ll be coached by Mike D’Antoni, that attitude is unlikely to change.
Offense is another story.
We’ve talked on end about the numbers Steph Curry has posted the last two seasons, for good reason. But lost in that discussion is the fact that James Harden is coming off 29.0—6.1—7.5 season with 44%—36%—86% shooting percentages that was considered a down year to many. He was a close second to Curry two years ago, and very well could have been in the discussion again last year if not for Houston’s record. Now he’s being handed the reigns to Mike D’Antoni’s offense with all the motivation in the world to prove he belongs in the discussion
For all the much deserved hype over Russell Westbrook, there’s a very real chance we see equivalent and more efficient numbers from Harden.
The position change to Point Guard is nothing more than a formality. He’s been the Rockets’ point guard since day one, and all this does is indicate so in the box score. He runs that offense the same way any other ball-dominant, dynamic point guard does in today’s NBA. Steph, Russ, Kyrie, Dame, Wall, Lowry, Thomas — they’re no different. Hoenstly, Outside of Steph, he’s is the best passer and playmaker on that list. James Harden has been every bit the Point Guard he’s needed to be, and nothing changes in that respect.
The most important change comes in the offense around him.
Dwight Howard and the touches he required demanded on the lower block? Gone. That role now belongs full time to the more dynamic, pick-and-roll-willing Clint Capela. Gone too are Josh Smith and Terrance Jones, very willing yet highly inefficient shooters from the power forward position. In slides Ryan Anderson, one of the league’s best deep threats from the four spot. In addition to Anderson, Houston went out and added Eric Gordon to play alongside Harden in the backcourt. While the starting spot belongs to Pat Beverly for now, we’ll see Gordon play heavy minutes alongside Harden to provide additional shooting from the wing. In Gordon, Ariza, and Anderson, Harden has three above average shooters to spread the floor in D’Antoni’s high-tempo spread pick and roll system. And it wouldn’t be shocking to see his assist totals rise to double digits.
Could we see 30-11-7? 32-9-6? And is that good enough to carry Houston to a top four seed in the West? If Harden and Westbrook post similar statistical seasons for their respective one-man shows, it could honestly come down to the team with the better record.
Kawhi Leonard — 10/1
Okay, elephant in the room here… LaMarcus Aldridge still plays for the Spurs. While he’s not the level of superstar teammate as Kyrie to Lebron, or any of the 4 Warriors, or Chris and Blake to each other, he’s still a top 25 talent. He can still score from the block at an elite level. He’s the best teammate anyone on this list has, pending a big potential leap from CJ McCollum or Steven Adams.
The thing is… he might not play for the Spurs much longer.
Rumors of his happiness have been swirling the last few weeks, and the potential for a trade is not far fetched. Kawhi is 25, LaMarcus is 31. They’re handing the keys to Kawhi Leonard, yet the roster around him doesn’t quite fit. Tim Duncan is gone. Parker and Ginobli are on their last legs. Pau might well be primed for one last year, but he’s a downgrade defensively from Duncan. And LaMarcus, for all his offensive talent, is a below average defender and a less than perfect fit for their ball movement-oriented scheme. This team was ill-equipped to beat the Warriors last year, let alone with Durant. Lamarcus is 31 and a free agent after next season. Moving him now for young, athletic pieces is the smarter long term decision. And even if they don’t, there’s just not enough firepower on the perimeter to contend with Golden State.
Yet even if they don’t move him… this is still Kawhi’s team.
Unlike in Golden State or LA, there’s a clear number one guy. And unlike Lebron in Cleveland, Kawhi won’t be on cruise control or rest 15-20 games throughout the course of the season. He’s the catalyst both offensively and defensively, night in and night out. Regardless of whether LaMarcus Aldridge remains on the Spurs, this team still belongs to Kawhi Leonard. He’s in no danger of splitting the MVP vote, and thus is qualified to make this list of Solo Stars that I’ve arbitrarily created.
Now we’ll see how he handles that responsibility.
The talent and the production are there, as is the pedigree. Along with his Finals MVP and two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, he was very quietly the runner up to Steph’s outrageous MVP season last year. He’s widely regarded as the best player in the league outside of the Lebron, Steph, Durant trio, and has the luxury of playing for the league’s best organization.
Does he post numbers like Harden and Westbrook? No. Does he have moments like Lillard and George? No. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t see equal levels of production.
Kawhi’s numbers come in the form of efficiency, his moments in the form of defensive brilliance. A 24-9-4 stat line isn’t quite as sexy as a triple double, but a 52%-45%-88% shooting line is more effective. Sound defensive positioning doesn’t make the highlights like a buzzer beater, but that turnover can decide the game just the same.
Kawhi Leonard doesn’t have to stand out the way the others on this list do. The Spurs will win more games than anyone else on this list because of those unheralded things he does, regardless if LaMarcus Aldridge plays a single minute. That defense, that efficiency… that’s more valuable than anything else we see on this list. Kawhi Leonard can take any one of these players and put them in a bodybag for all four quarters. He can impact the game without taking a shot, and you can’t say that about anyone else. He doesn’t have to be flashy.
The scary thing is… he’s going to be flashy this year, too. He will hit those game winners. He will post outrageous stat lines. All while remaining as efficient offensively and terrifying defensively as anyone in the league. This is his team now, and he is fully ready and willing to take on that responsibility. With or without LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs are Kawhi Leonard’s team.
My pick… Kawhi.
More so than anyone on this list, he will strike the balance necessary to win the award. He will dominate, both offensively an defensively, and need to do so four all four quarters. He will elevate the team around him, yet never seem overvalued on the court. He’s the clear best player on the best team on this list, yet will need to display that every night to reach the levels the Spurs hope to reach. And he has the story. Tim Duncan is gone and he’s been handed the keys to the Spurs kingdom. Pop has given him more freedom offensively than anyone in that system, and he’ll be given every chance to showcase his offensive arsenal on route to the MVP award. Shit, he could never score another basket and be on this list for his defense alone.
Kawhi Leonard is the total package. This is his team now, regardless or not if they keep LaMarcus Aldridge. And he’ll take every advantage of that opportunity.
10/1 odds. Grab them while you still can. Kawhi is the Brightest Solo Star in this SuperTeam Galaxy
P.S. For the sake of argument here’s how any of the SuperTeam guys can win the MVP.
The case for Durant: He takes control of the Warriors and becomes the guy, Steph falls into a facilitator role. Or Curry gets hurt, Durant take over, the team wins at a 70-win pace.
The case for Curry: Vice versa.
The case for Blake: CP3 give Blake more slack to run the offense. Blake works as both a scorer and facilitator. The Clippers win 60 games. Lebron coasts. Durant and Curry split the vote.
The case for Chris: Blake gets hurt and/or falls into a secondary role. Chris has one last SuperDuperStar MVP season. The Clippers win 60 games. Lebron coasts. Durant and Curry split the vote.
The case for Lebron: He makes one last push for an MVP season. He makes it a point to continue the narrative that he’s the best basketball player in the world. And the Voters reward him for his herculean efforts in the Finals. Probably the most likely of these six scenarios.
The case for Kyrie: Lebron hands over the reigns to Kyrie. Lebron plays only around 60 games. Kyrie averages 30-8 a night. Cavs win 60+ games with Lebron sitting frequently. Probably the most far-fetched of all six scenarios.