Who's Your MVP?
The NBA MVP award is an award that is supposed to go to the "best performing player in the regular season". Its winner selected by a panel of voters every year, and each year the selection receives a sizable amount of backlash. This is to be expected -- no decision goes without hurting someone's feelings. But in this case, there's a little more to it.
The biggest problem with the award is that there is no accepted definition: "valuable" can mean that your team wouldn't function without you, it can mean you are the reason that your playoff team turned into a title contender, or -- in some people's eyes -- it can mean that you're just putting up huge stats. The most controversial MVP decisions in recent years: Nash over Kobe in '06, Rose over LeBron in '11, and Curry over Harden in '15, have all happened because of different interpretations of the criteria. Putting aside all 3 of these possibilities, arguably the most important requirement for the MVP award is a good storyline. In all 3 of these cases, the winner simply had a better story than the player who was "robbed".
In '06, Nash was an undisputed 'floor general' for a 54 win Phoenix Suns team that ran teams out of the building night in and night out. Despite that, people to this day stand by the fact that Kobe's 35.4PPG on a 7th seed Lakers team is far more impressive than anything Nash accomplished that season. Go on youtube and look up "Players robbed of MVP awards": Nash/Kobe in '06 will be one of the top hits. This is one of the cases where the definition was and is interpreted differently by different people. But ignoring these definitions of the phrase "Most Valuable Players", Nash simply had a better storyline. This 6' white 'kid' from Canada led one of the most lethal offenses of the decade to a great record using a never-been-seen-before version of basketball: the 7 seconds or less offense. Even after the prior year's campaign, people were infatuated with watching this Suns team just run people out of the building.
The whole reason I bring this up is because I feel like we're gonna have another one of those years. The years that people look back and say "damn, he was robbed" whether 'he' may or may not have been. This year's MVP race is really murky, and no one knows right now how the season's gonna shake out. So I'm gonna lay out the facts for 4 of the players I believe have the best chances at MVP, the strengths and weaknesses of their cases, and some honorable mentions. But as you see at the end, I believe it'll all come down to a storyline.
Honorable Mentions #1: Steph Curry and Kevin Durant
Despite the fact that Curry and Durant may be the #3 and #2 best players in the league respectively, I don't think they have a strong shot at this year's MVP race. One of the best ways to sum up their disqualification is that they "cancel each other out". For the good of each other, they limit their production to see the team succeed. Despite this, I think the Warriors edge out 2016-17 and 2017-18 for their best season with KD so far this year. After being taken to 7 games by the Rockets, and being saved by a hamstring injury to Chris Paul while being down 3-2 in the series, the Warriors have something new going for them: they're not bored anymore. One of the biggest reasons of the Warriors' lack of historic success in the last 2 years has been their carelessness. In 2016-17, the Warriors were 22nd best in the league in turnovers per game, and in 2017-18 they were 26th. Now, with the new kick they got from the Rockets, I believe they're gonna have their best year yet.
My MVP Odds:
Honorable Mention #2: Russell Westbrook
The ability to record a triple double on any given night is breathtaking. The ability to come to NBA games, night in and night out, and record them consistently is something that is on a totally different level. I have the utmost respect for Westbrook. But the disappointing news, is that I think this season will again be a flop for the OKC Thunder.
Last year, the Thunder had not clinched the playoffs with 3 games to go. This is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that they ended up with the 4th seed, but it still happened. The 48 win season they accomplished with their elite "Big 3" was a massive disappointment, and I'm willing to put a lot of it on Westbrook. Yes, Melo was not himself. His FG% was awful, and his defense was worse. The problem is, he isn't bad enough to push this team forward. I've seen people saying the Thunder are going to get a top 4 seed, with 53+ wins. As much as I hate to say it, it's not happening.
Despite his inefficiency, Melo was still a guy who could get you a bucket when you need it. Grant's career FG% is -- wait for it -- 38%. No, not 3PT%. That lies at 23%. And no, these are not stats that are weighted by disappointing rookie campaigns. In his past 2 years, he hasn't eclipsed 35% from the field. Jerami Grant will not be able to replace Melo for an additional 5 wins. The Thunder will disappoint, and we will have a second wave of people questioning Westbrook's ability to lead -- or much less contribute to -- a winning team. And because of this, Westbrook, no matter his stats, will not win the MVP.
My MVP Odds: 20-1
Candidate #1: Kyrie Irving
Kyrie has had his fair share of criticisms pointed his way. Before LeBron arrived in Cleveland, Kyrie achieved nothing. He 'lead' his teams to records of 21-45 (lockout shortened '11-'12), 24-58, and 33-49. The team was nowhere near even a winning record, and injuries plagued Kyrie for his first few years. Then, without LeBron again, Kyrie was off to a great start. The Celtics were on pace for the #2 seed in the conference (and almost everyone had confidence that they could beat the #1 seed Raptors in the playoffs if it came to that), and a very large chance to dethrone LeBron's Cavaliers in the East. But at maybe the worst time, Kyrie needed a second knee surgery, putting him on the injury reserve for the rest of the season and the playoffs. His team went on to make the ECF, and push the Cavs to 7 games without Hayward or Irving. Instead of feeding off the accomplishment, NBA fans everywhere turned to a different conclusion: Maybe Kyrie wasn't so valuable to a team. Without him, the Celtics looked like the same team they did through the regular season, with a bench player in Terry Rozier stepping up to replace Kyrie seamlessly.
Despite all this, I believe Irving will come back with his best season in the NBA yet. Although it's easy to forget because of his veteran-like composure, Kyrie is only 26. He is headed into the peak years of his career, and he is finally ready to truly lead a team. I think he'll pick up where he left off, averaging 24.4 points and 5 assists on ridiculous shooting splits, and lead this Celtics team to a top 2 seed in the East. More importantly, I think he will take his ability to lead a team to the next level. He will look more like a certified floor general and less like a young NBA player who just wants to get theirs, regardless of the team's success. Lastly, I think he will come out with the motivation to prove all the fans who believed he wasn't valuable wrong. This is different than someone like Westbrook trying to prove people wrong, however. Kyrie will come out and show that this Celtics team can be much better than it was in that ECF against the Cavs, no matter how good they were anyway.
My MVP Odds: 10-1
Candidate #2: Kawhi Leonard
The story's a funny one. Kawhi Leonard asks for a trade to big city Los Angeles, with all the publicity, glory, and fame after a life of living without all that. Moreover, LA has the sun and beaches. Instead, Popovich sends him to, you guessed it, freezing cold Canada. Now, Kawhi has a choice to make and revise throughout the season. Either the support of all the Canadians who don't have another NBA team embrace the superstar so hard that he can't possibly leave, or the lack of publicity gets to Kawhi and he decides to carry through with his original plan -- go to LA. Both ways, Kawhi will play like he has something to prove. After all his college years of being largely ignored by the media, and then being drafted to a team that reduces the individual so that the team can succeed, Kawhi wants to be noticed. He wants to be loved by the NBA community, and he wants to have the recognition of undoubtedly being a top 5, or even top 3 player in the NBA.
Another thing that I think people are forgetting is how good this Raptors team is. I know they've choked in the playoffs for a few years now, but take a step back and look at their pieces. They have Lowry, a 4x all-star, Valanciunas, an up-and-coming center, Serge Ibaka, a defensive mastermind that can also shoot threes at a 36% clip, Danny Green (acquired in the trade for Kawhi) who is the quintessential 3-and-D player in today's NBA along with arguably the best bench squad in the league. This team will do damage, and Kawhi will be at the helm. This is different than Kawhi in San Antonio with Aldridge to back him up; now, he will finally be unleashed offensively. Nick Nurse will facilitate Kawhi's ability to put up stats, in order to make this season a feel-good season and bump up the Raptors' prospects in Free Agency. I think that this Raptors team, with the addition of a new coach and a new #1 option, will finally click and Kawhi will be at the forefront for once. I also believe they will be a top 2 seed in the East, along with the Celtics.
My MVP Odds: 5-1
Candidate #3: James Harden
His winning of the MVP award last season made one thing clear to us as fans: James Harden is the most unstoppable guard in the NBA. Because of his 6'6 frame, his deceptively quick first step, and the unorthodoxy of his play, you can find very few players in the NBA who can consistently stay in front of him. Curry in his recent years, despite his greatness, doesn't fit the adjective of 'unstoppable'; rather he leads the team like a true point guard. Kyrie has never taken over the floor like Harden does, even though he might be more efficient at it. But Harden puts up numbers like almost no one else in the league. Averaging 29.7 points and 10 assists per game in the last 2 years, Harden has been able to consistently prove that his team is the second best in the West, and probably in the whole NBA, behind only the Warriors. There is no reason to doubt that Harden, barring a major injury, will continue to tear through the league and be one of the most complete offensive players that this league has ever seen.
Despite his offense, the one (extremely large) concern that people have had about Harden is that his defense has been lackluster, to say the least. However, even his defense has improved drastically in the last year, and I believe it will continue to improve this year. Harden's net defensive rating compared to his team's last year was +2.0 -- nearly half as much as in 2016-17 when it was a horrid +3.7. These strides leave me to believe that the one criticism of Harden that people have had over the years, his defense, will slowly vanish as Harden secures his spot as maybe the best stat-getter in the NBA.
In terms of his shot at MVP, the one thing Harden has going against him is voter fatigue. Historically, voters have been apprehensive to select the same player two years in a row without a reason that can't be denied. This year, I think that reason has to be the same level of production and again securing the #1 seed in the West. Although this task will be difficult after losing the defensive wings of Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza, if Harden leads his team to the 1st seed, it'll just make it that much more impressive.
My MVP Odds: 5-2
Candidate #4: LeBron James
You all knew it was coming. My #1 pick for the MVP this year is LeBron James, and it's more to do with a story and less to do with the stats. The thing is, that's all this MVP award ever really is: who can tell the best story. Right now, it's lining up to be LeBron.
LeBron's contracts in Cleveland were subtle manipulations of the owner, Dan Gilbert. Instead of committing to a 4 year deal, LeBron agreed to smaller contracts. 2 years, 1 year plus a player option. These were signals of something larger: that he didn't trust Gilbert or the team around him. He wanted to hold it over Gilbert's head that he could leave at the end of any year, and Gilbert would receive nothing back for the greatest player in the world. On the other hand, I believe his 4 year deal with the Lakers is also a signal: he has full trust in the organization. He gave the organization 4 years to build a team around him, and give him a chance for one or two final runs at an NBA title.
No one's denying it -- right now, the Lakers are not title contenders. Matching up against the Warriors, the Lakers have absolutely no shot. Even against the Rockets they would have a hard time pushing the series to even 6 games. This is the first year in a while that we can say that about LeBron, that his team is not the favorite to reach the finals. But that means that LeBron has a separate responsibility: to go out onto the court and make sure that the city of LA trusts him. He is going to step on the court this season and makes sure everyone knows one thing: he is the best player in the world and he will go out there and prove it every single night. As of right now, no one would be disappointed in a 2nd round exit for LeBron.
For the first time in over 10 years, the regular season might matter more than the playoffs for LeBron. LeBron has the freedom to give it his all in the regular season, and not care that he might be a little fatigued by the time the playoffs roll around. Moreover, LeBron has been relieved of his duties of being the team's main playmaker, something that he hasn't been able to say for his whole NBA career. He has the freedom to focus on the rim instead of his teammates this year, and probably put up a monster PPG average.
He is going to take in the bright lights of LA, and use them to his advantage. The media will eat this story up: LeBron comes to big city LA and shines brighter than ever before when surrounded by young stars. This narrative will fuel LeBron's MVP case, and in my opinion, propel him to winning the award.
My MVP Odds: 2-1
All statistics cited from https://www.basketball-reference.com/