Bold predictions are what make the NBA world go ‘round, and that means discussing the 2017-18 NBA MVP race way earlier than I should.
It’s the dog days of the NBA offseason. The news cycle is slowing down. To help fill the void, writers pose interesting questions to readers to help keep everyone sharp for the upcoming season. Sometimes, well thought-out arguments are substituted for hot takes and trolling just to keep people talking. That’s not why I’m here.
The 2016-17 MVP race was incredible. There was a legitimate chance that either Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James were going to take home the award. You could’ve made a case for any of them, and you’d have solid ground to stand on. Both Harden and Westbrook compiled historically grand campaigns that managed to blend scoring and facilitating. Leonard finally transformed into a two-way superstar. Those three were the finalists. It was odd to see James not finish in the top-three, but his season was more than MVP worthy.
After that, the voting was as follows:
- Isaiah Thomas (4th)
- Stephen Curry (5th)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (T-7th)
- John Wall (T-7th)
- Anthony Davis (T-9th)
- Kevin Durant (T-9th but only because injury limited him to 62 games)
- DeMar DeRozan (11th)
That’s quite the list, and it created some conversation.
“How did Thomas finish higher than Steph?”
“DEMAR OVER CHRIS PAUL?!?”
And so on and so forth.
I have no problem with Westbrook winning the MVP even though I voted for Harden. I also don’t have any issues with the other guys who are on the list. Most of them (excluding Thomas and DeRozan) are universally recognized as top-10 players in the league, and all of them are going to be in their primes for the next couple of seasons — yes, that includes LeBron. With that said, these players are going to occupy most of the votes for next year, and it’s even harder for me to see anyone new explode up the ballot.
In 2016, four players got votes who didn’t get any this year: Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry. Paul and Lowry didn’t make it because of injury; Green had a down year offensively because of Durant’s addition to Golden State; Lillard, um, I’m not sure why he didn’t get at least one vote — probably because Portland barely made .500. I can see Dame making a return, and Dray if he corrects his offense.
Below, I have four players who are the likeliest to take home the award. They’re the focal points of their respective franchises and will be instrumental to their success. Some will have a bigger role than others, but this quartet is expected to shoulder the burden of leading their teams to the postseason and possibly a title.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
If we’re to talk about literally exploding, then Giannis has to be the center of the conversation. His 2016-17 showing was like none other. After having flashes during the previous season, the Greek Freak lived up to his nickname. On a nightly basis, he was dominating both ends of the floor, and that led to him landing on the All-NBA second team, the All-Defensive second team and the All-Star team for the first time. He also brought home the Most Improved Player award after averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.
Milwaukee finished 42-40. Their record, however, isn’t indicative of Antetokounmpo’s play. Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton both missed huge chunks of the season with injuries. They happened to be the Bucks’ second and third-best players. Giannis was asked to do a lot, and he shouldered it well.
He makes the “virtually guaranteed” tier because he hasn’t reached his prime yet. Milwaukee is going to be much improved this season if everyone stays healthy. If they win 48-51 games and Giannis shows a reliable jumper, there’s little stopping him from winning the award. The weakened East is also going to help his dominance, and it could be a historic season for The Alphabet.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are probably going to win the title again. Let’s start processing that. They’re returning all their key guys and have added Nick Young and Omri Casspi. It may be a nearly foregone conclusion that they’ll be raising the Larry O’Brien trophy, but Durant plays a key role in that. He went from being the guy in Oklahoma City to being the man in The Bay. And this is right after Curry won the MVP. Without him, the Warriors road to a championship is more rigorous.
Durant has always been a dazzling scorer. On Golden State, the talent and system accentuate his abilities. Their guys get open shots on the perimeter, but also easy ones around the basket. Durant shot 60.8 percent on twos this past season, and that made up for the 37.5 he stroked from three. The latter clip was his lowest since 2011. The effortlessness that Durant scores with means he can now be an elite defender, and he displayed that all season long.
Durant’s durability was a factor in the most recent race. He played in just 62 games, and that overshadowed that 25.1 points and 8.3 boards he averaged. Moreover, Golden State began to click after he went down. If KD can stave off any significant injury and continues to be the guy on one of the most talented teams in NBA history, he’ll be an MVP finalist because of the totality of his repertoire.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron not being in the top-four is something that I won’t bet against until I see it. In James’ 14 campaigns, he’s never finished lower than ninth. And that was during his rookie year. He also hasn’t dropped below fourth since 2007, when he finished fifth.
At 32, James arguably had the best season of his career. He averaged 26.4 points, 8.7 assists and 8.6 rebounds while shooting 54.8 percent overall, and some would argue he coasted through the regular season. Before this year, Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan were the only two to average 25-8-8 for an entire year. We saw three guys do it in 2017. Of those five, James has the highest shooting clip, and everyone knows the Cavaliers need him to play like this for them to be relevant.
I don’t see James slowing down; if he has to league the NBA in minutes a game, so be it. He’s playing at a level we’ve never seen from him, but Cleveland has no excuses for not being the top seed in a significantly weakened conference. I understand that Boston and Washington are close, but, if LeBron plays balls-to-the-wall for an entire 82 games, it’s going to be a scary sight for the East.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
The torch has gotten passed successfully. It took a couple of years, but Kawhi is now a bona fide superstar. On the basketball court, there’s not much he can’t do. He scores from all three levels (25.5 points on 48.5 percent), rebounds (5.8 a night) and is an elite wing defender who’s already brought home two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Leonard isn’t a system player — he’s the system.
He’s only going to improve, but the Spurs will go as far as Leonard takes them. Of course, this goes with any MVP candidate. They’re still going to be contenders who have an elite defense, but Kawhi is the player who puts them over the edge. He’s the NBA’s third-best player and the only Spur who can create offense consistently. In the regular season, San Antonio was 10.2 points per 100 possessions worse when Leonard sat. It ballooned to 16.3 in the postseason.
Because the Spurs haven’t had an eyebrow-raising offseason, we have to wonder how reliant they’re going to be on their star. During Tim Duncan’s tenure, Gregg Popovich had Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as two guys to help bear the load. The Spurs have guys who can do that, but not to the extent of two Hall of Famers.
The next tier is titled “Guys Who Have A Chance At Winning MVP But Likely Aren’t Because Of Certain Circumstances.” I alluded to it before expounding on the highest tier, but Giannis, Durant, James and Leonard are who I’m predicting as the MVP finalists. The next batch of guys is made up of those who are going to fall short but could also win if things fall in their favor.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
I don’t see Steph winning another MVP as long as Durant’s on his team. I also don’t anticipate him being a finalist. He hasn’t taken a backseat to Durant, but we all know who the better player is, and Curry is all for being a second-option during the regular season. Once the playoffs come around, things will change. That doesn’t matter in the MVP race, though.
Steph is still going to be a highlight factory and the league’s best point guard, but it’ll be hard to overshadow KD. Both guys are offensive game-changers, but only one can have that same impact on defense. Can you guess who? I get that Curry plays aggressively and has quick hands and such, but he’s just not as great an individual defender as Durant. Also, he’s not the leader of his team — by example, at least.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
I’m patiently waiting to jump on the “Anthony Davis Is An Undisputed Top-Five Player” bandwagon. Once that happens, he’ll rocket up voting ballots. In his short career, Davis has finished fifth and ninth in MVP voting. We have someone who’s an elite player and dominates both ends of the floor. He’s also been hurt for a most of his campaigns and 2016-17 was the first year he played more than 70 games.
The Pelicans are primed to leap. The talent is there; New Orleans just has to find out how to make it work. Davis is more than capable of leading them to the postseason, and it would be a dramatic turnaround for a team that finished 34-48 last year. However, I don’t see him winning. Why reward a great player on an average team when you can give it to the same caliber player on an even better team?
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Whatever the record for MVP robberies is, Harden’s close. This past year, he lost because Russell Westbrook had better numbers, despite the fact that the Rockets had a better record than Oklahoma City. In 2015, he lost to Steph because the Warriors had a better record, despite Harden having better numbers. It’s vicious.
Now, the Rockets added Chris Paul and that’s going to limit Harden’s output. The next winner of the award will have to have dazzling numbers on an outstanding team, and that’s why Harden dips to the second-tier. Houston is going to be elite, but we don’t know how much volume the Harden’s going to produce. With Paul, I see them having a your turn, my turn kind of relationship because neither is ready to take a backseat yet.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Maybe I should’ve put Russ in the first tier. After all, history is on his side. Since 2000, there have been five instances of back-to-back MVPs: Tim Duncan (2002-03), Steve Nash (2005-06), LeBron James (2009-10, 2012-13) and Steph Curry (2015-16). Russ has a chance to repeat, but it’s not going to be from stats.
Adding Paul George gives Westbrook the secondary option that he needs so desperately. Because the Thunder had a one-man band, Russ was able to tantalize us with atomic numbers that most of us haven’t seen. It was special. And he’s going to have another year where he stuffs the box score. The only question is how good the Thunder will be. They’re likely going to make the playoffs, but it would come as a middle-seed, and I don’t see the media voting to give someone the MVP who isn’t on an elite team. Of course, stranger things have happened.
Maybe I just have flawed logic.
This is a mere speculation of who’s going to command a majority of the votes next year, and it’s all subject to change. Teams are going to play better than we expect; players are going to underachieve. There’s also the chance someone gets hurt and drops out. God forbid that happens, but it gives way to someone else. When it’s all said and done, there (likely) isn’t going to be a wrong decision. If the voters can find the right balance of player and team success, we’ll be okay.
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