Every year, the NBA crowns one player with its most individual prestigious award.

The Most Valuable Player. An award for the player who means most to a team that finishes in the top of their respective conference.

The past two years, Stephen Curry has captured the award in style, last year unanimously. However, this year it will be a challenge for him to reach the top of the mountain for that MVP three peat.

This year especially, there are a host of talents that could win this award.

Here are my Top 5 picks for that award.

5. Stephen Curry 

The past two years alone, Stephen Curry of the Warriors has etched his spot into NBA history.

Considered by many to be the greatest shooter of all time, his ability to handle the ball with ease and suddenly pulling up and making almost half of his 3 pointers, makes him one of the most polarizing players of this generation.

It wasn’t until the 2014-15 season where Stephen Curry and the Warriors hit a turning point. Steph put up a stat line of 23.8 points per game and 7.7 assists. More impressively, he had those numbers at an efficiency unmatched. A 3 point percentage of .443, a true shooting percentage of .638, and a player efficiency rating of 28.0, all which were league highs.

In this season, Curry averaged 32.6 minutes per game with a usage percentage of 28.9, the highest marks of his career. Golden State went to the Finals and then won in 6 to an injury depleted Cavalier’s roster.

Going into the 2015-16 season, Curry averaged 34.2 minutes a game with a usage percentage of 32.6.

Curry and the Warriors then hit the pinpoint of greatness, winning 73 games in dramatic fashion. Curry easily averaged 30.1 points per game and 6.7 assists. Again, he was insanely efficient, joining the very selective 40/50/90 club, averaging a .454 3 point percentage, a .669 true shooting percentage, with a 31.5 player efficiency rating.

Although considered by many to be the single greatest individual and team regular season performance ever, the injury befallen Warriors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in this past years Finals.

A few reasons why I have Steph as the 5th likely candidate to be the 2016-17 MVP.

The utterly dominance displayed by Stephen Curry last year, playing an 82 game season with a playoff intensity, is unlikely to be repeated. He can be as efficient as he’s always been, but there is a point in which the volume of production has hit its threshold. One has to give. Which leads to my next point.

If you haven’t yet heard, you need to get out of under that rock. There’s a new addition to the Warriors, and it’s one of the best scorers the game has ever seen in Kevin Durant. It’s only logical to think that Curry’s usage percentage will lower by at least a few points – somewhat of a split between his 14-15 and 15-16 season. Still expect all time efficiency, but not nearly as many points per game as last year.

There’s only one ball. One he has to share with one of the best isolation scorers in the league in Durant, with sharpshooter Klay Thompson, and that knucklehead named Draymond Green.

Stat line wise, I believe Curry will average around 27-28 points along with 8 assists per game. It’s not that he can’t average 30+ points per game. It’s that he no longer has to. Which makes him less of a force to win that MVP award.

4. LeBron James

LeBron James is simply the best basketball player in the world.

Sure, all the haters might say “he’s only an inside scorer, outside of 5 feet he’s an awful shooter.” Which may be true, but you cannot deny how throughout his career he has single handedly led extremely adequate teams to conference and NBA Finals.

His performance in last years Finals is a thing of legend. Averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.9 assists, nearly a triple double, while leading his team from a 3-1 deficit will and already has gone down in the history books.

Last year in the regular season, LeBron averaged 25.3 points per game, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.8 assists a game. He still has the ability to take over games and dominate when he needs to.

However, many wonder whether or not LeBron will “coast” through the 2016-17 regular season, allowing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to embrace larger offensive roles.

If this is the case, then LeBron points per game may take a dip, and so will his usage, leading to of a more pedestrian points per game average, and perhaps a rise in assists as he is the primary ball handler.

No matter what happens this year, LeBron does not have to carry the Cavalier’s on his shoulders. Prime LeBron’s MVP numbers we may never see again, until come playoff time.

3. Kevin Durant

It can be legitimately argued that Kevin Durant is the best scorer in NBA history.

Woah! Michael Jordan much? Well, let’s take a look at the numbers.

In the 9 years Kevin Durant has been in the league, he’s been a 7 time all star, 6 time All NBA, one time MVP, and has won 4 scoring titles.

Not only that, he is the only player (post 1973) in NBA history to average 35 plus points per 100 Possessions at a .600 plus true shooting percentage.

Not to mention, he’s tied second all time in points per 100 Possessions, with LeBron James at 36.9.

And wait, now you’re telling me he’s going to the team with the most efficient offense of all time, that won 73 games in the regular season? And Kevin Durant is the most efficient scorer of all time at that volume? Holy crap.

Again, here’s the same issue. There’s only one ball on that Golden State team. One he has to share with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. It’s not they they won’t figure out how to play with each other. It’s that they somewhat each have to have the ball in their hands less.

I believe that out of all of them, Kevin Durant will take the least hit to his numbers. After all, he’s coming from a not-very efficient team to the most efficient one in the league. That will lead to potentially better numbers in the shooting efficiency department, helping a possible dip of shot attempts.

Even though, the Warriors could be scoring as much as 120 a game, it will seem, every night, allowing Durant to average near 30 points per game. However, his assist totals should rise (as we have seen in the preseason) to at least 5 or 6 a game. It will all be dependent on how Golden State meshes as a team. I’ll tell you this, when they click, it’s going to be scary.

2. James Harden

Many of you may be surprised I have Harden here. Fans around the league like to mock and criticize Harden for his lack of defensive effort.

Needless to say, James Harden has been now set up for the greatest season of his career.

When the Houston Rocket’s announced Harden’s role would be that of a point guard in new Head Coach’s Mike D’Antoni’s system, I immediately knew that Harden was headed for something special.

Earlier this offseason, Rocket’s guard Patrick Beverly said in an interview with Oliver Maroney of Basketball Insider’s that the Rocket’s know Harden is an MVP candidate and he could lead them to the NBA Finals.

As ridiculous and overconfident as that sounds, I churned that thought around in my head. Is Beverly as far off as the average fans thinks?

With the additions of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and the long expected departure of Dwight Howard, this is James Harden’s team. With pieces to work with.

In D’Antoni’s system, Harden running point guard is a dream come true. After all, he already loves driving recklessly and kicking the ball out for open 3s on the wing.

Imagine him doing that all the time? There’s not a doubt in my mind, that he could average 30 points, near 10 assists a game, and 6 or 7 rebounds a game, at a much better efficiency than let’s say, angry Russell Westbrook, who will put up near the same numbers, but with a lucklaster field goal and three point percentage.

To add on, with Harden’s move to the point guard, his defensive inefficiencies are even less of focus. Point Guard defense is a quality in this league that’s very nice to have, but unnecessary to win. When’s the last time you saw Kyle Lowry shut down a Top 10 scoring guard in the league? It doesn’t happen.

Even if Harden faces a guard combo of unique scoring ability, his size will allow him to guard much smaller guards. I’m sure once Patrick Beverly gets back from injury and Eric Gordon plays aside him, they’ll match up with the stronger scoring guard when it matters.

Plus, if the Houston Rocket’s do catch fire, and capture a 4th seed, or dare I even say it, a 3rd seed, there’s no doubts in my mind that Harden will be a sure fire MVP candidate.

*Side Note*

Yes I just did. I left Russell Westbrook off my Top 5 MVP candidate list, and instead included James Harden. Want to know why?

MVP candidates lead their team’s to at least a 4th seed. I don’t care how good your statistics are. I don’t care how many times ESPN shows highlights of you ferociously dunking.

Westbrook is highly unlikely to lead the Thunder to more then a 5th or 6th seed. The fact that he’s going to put up even more shots a game, will add to his points per game, which will most likely look mighty great in the box score. So will his triple double-esque stats.

However, he just lost the the most efficient scorer of all time in Kevin Durant. His field goal and 3 point percentage isn’t getting higher. His usage will, but all to avail.

For those with NBA League Pass, Westbrook will be a must watch. However, he’ll be one of the most inefficient scorers, at a bloated usage, on middling Western Conference team. That is not an MVP Candidate in my eyes.

1. Kawhi Leonard

This may be a reach, but what the heck. Kawhi Leonard has every single chance to win that MVP award.

Tim Duncan, the face of the Spurs, just retired, leaving a huge gaping whole in the Spur’s franchise. Can Kawhi Leonard take over that role?

And in some capacity, Kawhi Leonard did that last year.

He averaged a career high 21.2 points (nearly adding 5 points) per game, 6.8 rebounds a game, all while winning the defensive player of the year for the second year in a row.

But for the Superstar many clamor him to be, what’s the next step for him in that Spur’s system?

Last year, Kawhi had a usage percentage of 25.8 percent (quite low for a “superstar”) and averaged 33.1 minutes per game last year.

Some say Kawhi is a system player – which isn’t necessarily incorrect – however, he is now especially the player that makes that system go round.

Tim Duncan, the long time Spur and eventual Hall of Famer, was the centerpiece of Gregg Popovich’s genius system for the longest time. From 1999-2009, more than ten years, Popovich used him in that offense at a usage rate ranging from 28-29%, his second most being 29.0 percent in the 2001-02 season. (Note – His highest usage percentage was in 2003-04 with 29.7, but he was injured 20 or so games that year)

In that year, Duncan averaged a career high 25.5 points per game, the second highest rebounds per game at 12.7, and the third highest true shooting percentage of his career with .576. That was his age 25 season. This is Kawhi Leonard’s age 25 season.

I understand Duncan was a big man (thus he had the ball more than a wing) and one of the best players of this generation. That does not negate the fact that a forward in Popovich’s system cannot reach that high of usage percentage. In fact, Duncan reached that point averaging a career high 40.6 minutes a game.

No, Kawhi isn’t averaging 40.6 minutes a game. But he very well could average a few more minutes a game (if Pop didn’t take him out in the middle of every third quarter) with an uptick in usage – thus increasing those base stats to a possible 25 points per game and 8 or 9 rebounds a game.

The sky’s the limit – his Per 100 stat line last year was 32.8 points per game, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.0 assists. Not to mention with a truly amazing .616 true shooting percentage and a .443 3 point percentage.

In Kevin Durant’s age 24 season, he averaged 37.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per 100 possessions.

If Kawhi is only four points per game off from one of the best scorers in the game at that age, why can’t he put up an increased scoring mark?

And you’re telling me that a player averaging 25/9/5, while playing the best defense in the league, on a team that makes the second seed in the Western Conference, isn’t an MVP candidate? Nonsense.

Kawhi will continue to take a larger role in that Spur’s offense, and this is the year for him to capitalize on winning that MVP award.

Final Thoughts

The MVP award is always up for grabs, and that can be especially said for this upcoming year. There is not necessarily a clear cut candidate.

That adds even more fuel to the fire – how more exciting will this NBA season, watching to see, who will take home that award.

Will it be one of the Golden State super teammates? Will it be angry Russell Westbrook? Will it be the King himself, LeBron James? Will it be the league’s newest point guard, the revitalized James Harden? Or will it be the steadily improving Kawhi Leonard?

Only time, and a few Draymond Green kicks to the groin later, will we know.

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