The NBA season will be starting in six weeks, and with one team, the Golden State Warriors, heavily favored to take the title, every team will be gunning to take them down, including last year’s champions the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With every team having their best player clearly evident by now, it’s time to think about who could lead the pack and get the MVP award, especially with two of the last three winners now on the same team, effectively eliminating both of them – just like how Durant and Westbrook eliminated each other last year. This opens some room for elite players to show themselves as the new MVP. Let’s take a look at who could be competing this year, starting with the lesser contenders and moving to the favorites.
5. Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis is an extremely good player, when he can find the court. His full injury history looks like a bad night at the roller derby:
A concussion, stress reaction ankle, sprained left shoulder, and left knee medial collateral sprain and bone bruise (season ending) which resulted in 28 and a half missed games.
A left hand fracture, dislocated finger, sprained left shoulder, left ankle injury, and back spasms resulted in 16 and a half missed games.
A shoulder injury and a chest injury resulting in seven missed games and missing the All Star Game.
Left Knee and torn labrum in the left shoulder which resulted in the early end to his season, and thirteen missed games. Davis announced he’s been playing with shoulder pain since his rookie season.
As stated above, Davis has never played a full 82 game season, and it has affected his MVP voting, with the highest he’s been voted being the 2014-15 season where he came in 5th. However, his stat lines have always been impressive, and if he were to play a full season he would be in among the best players in the league.
And that’s why he’s on this list. His career has been truly impressive, including career averages of 20.8 points per game, 2.4 blocks per game, including leading the league in blocks average twice, back to back in 2013-14 and 14-15. He has posted a .516 career field goal percentage, a .281 3 point percentage, including .324 this year, and a career .780 free throw percentage, including a career-high .805. His best year was the 2014-15 season, the season in which he missed the least number of games. That is probably not a coincidence.
If he’s able to overcome his injury bug, and the injuries that have played the team as a whole, and lead his team back to the playoffs, Davis is a true contender for the highest honor in the league, and could be a dark horse. The reason he’s listed this low is that he’s never proven himself to be able to finish a season healthy.
- James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
Harden has always been the leader and main guy on the Houston Rockets, and now, with Dwight Howard gone, there’s less pressure to pass the ball and more pressure to deliver. Harden won the MVP in the 2015 offseason, beating NBA MVP Steph Curry, and has the potential to lead a team to the playoffs, as he’s done the last four years.
Harden, despite finishing off the top five last year in MVP voting, has a proven history of getting votes, including coming in fifth from 2013-14 and second 2014-2015. And it’s not like he was left off the list all together last year, as he finished ninth in voting.
Harden has also improved in every stat (except percentages) every year, as his totals in points per game, field goals made, 3 pointers made, and assists all hit career highs last year. Harden’s percentages took a hit because he attempted more shots as well.
He’s been a 4x All Star and a 2x First Team All NBA, and with the West congealing into one superteam, the Rockets stand a good chance of getting a top 4 seed, which would give Harden a better chance at MVP.
- LeBron James, SF/PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
James won NBA Finals MVP last year, as he took home the Championship to the city of Cleveland, the goal he set for himself at the beginning of his return to his home. He’s a four time NBA MVP (although he hasn’t won one since 2013), and came in third last year. With him missing the Olympics this year and with reports surfacing that he’s been training with the singular goal in mind of beating the Warriors, it seems like he could be well on his way to another MVP Award. There’s no other team as dominant in the East, and if that continues this year, James will be the most likely nomination from ½ the league.
He’s also likely the best player in the league, and has been for quite some time. It’s no surprise that he’s won the award four times, and with Derrick Rose being the only interruption in his streak, James could have had five straight MVPs.
There’s a problem, though – LeBron is 31, and common thought this offseason is that he would be taking time off in the regular season to allow Kyrie Irving, who proved himself beyond capable of leading the team in the playoffs, to do just that, and to make sure James is at 100% for the Cavaliers’ playoff run.
The team around James is still really good, with JR Smith finding a career renaissance, Kyrie Irving proving himself on both ends of the court, and Richard Jefferson being competent off the bench.
Both the possibility of him playing fewer minutes and the capability of the team around him could lower James’s MVP votes, and that’s why he’s barely made the top 3.
- Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard is the Spurs premiere player and was last year, finishing second in MVP voting only to unanimous first choice Steph Curry. Now, with the greatest player in franchise history (in Tim Duncan) gone, and the rest of the old school Spurs (Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker) aging, Leonard must step up and be the leader of the team. Leonard has helped the Spurs win a championship in 2014, and won the NBA Finals MVP for his efforts.
Without Duncan, the Spurs definitely take a hit, but they still stand a great chance of coming in, if not the top 3 in the West, the top 4. This is now completely Leonard’s team, and if he accepts the role and steps up into it, he should be a big favorite for the MVP award.
His stat lines last year also convey how good he was, with 21.2 PPG, 2.6 assists, 6.8 rebounds, a .874 free throw percentage, .506 field goal percentage, and .443 3 point percentage. If Steph Curry hadn’t led the Warriors to such a historic regular season, Leonard would have been the surefire MVP, and at 25, he’s just the second youngest on this list, to only Anthony Davis (23).
- Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Westbrook is now without the biggest thing holding him back from the MVP – Kevin Durant. He’s also without a partner and fellow leader on the team because of Durant’s move further west. But that’s fine, because looking at Westbrook’s stat line without Durant, it’s amazing how dominant Westbrook has the potential to be. In 64 games without KD in his career, Westbrook has posted 28.0 ppg (vs 20.7 with him), 7.1 rebounds (5.4 with), 8.4 assists (7.5).
Last year was also Westbrook’s best season, and he got fourth in MVP voting, even with Durant just behind him at five, because of it. Westbrook’s stat line: .454 field goal percentage, second best in his career only to his age 23 season when he had 14 less games; .812 free throw percentage; 10.4 assists a career high; 2.0 steals, second only to the year before; and 23.5 ppg, second only to the year before.
Westbrook’s fall back could be the fact that the last 20 years, only players on top 4 seeded teams have won the MVP award, and the Thunder without Durant are in a dire situation in terms of seeding. But if Westbrook goes off like he has the potential to, and with the best SG the team has had since James Harden in Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams proving himself, Westbrook has plenty of opportunities to get assists and rebounds and could lead the team to the top again.
This is truly Westbrook’s team now, and if he’s able to lift them back to a top 4 spot, it’s his award.