We are in early October and the sports world is in full flux! MLB is beginning their playoff action, NFL is getting into the swing of things heading into week 5, and the NBA preseason is well underway. For some of us, it’s been a long summer, while others (Cavaliers fans) would feel fine if the offseason lasted a few more months so they could bask in their championship glory for just a bit longer.
The weeks leading up to the NBA regular season tip-off is always fun. The typical preseason overreactions are well and alive, but it’s also the time of year where folks start giving their predictions for things such as conference champions, award winners, and ultimately, who will take home the Larry O’Brien trophy once June rolls around. For the sake of this article, there is no better debate to spark than who will be the league’s MVP for the upcoming season.
It seems like for the past 6-7 years, two names have always been at the top of the predictions list–LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Obviously the past two season, Stephen Curry has won the award back-to-back, so his name has been included in the recent years. But for 2016-17, trying to realistically predict who will win MVP is becoming a bit more of a challenge. So many things in the league have changed over the past two season, the three usual candidates may all not be the favorites simply because of their respective team’s situation.
James is coming off arguably the most memorable season of his historical 13-year career after he led his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals last season against the Golden State Warriors. He fulfilled the promise he made to his city by delivering a professional sports championship for the first time in 52 years. With that all being said, James IS heading into his 14th NBA season and has logged 38,478 minutes (not including his Team USA career).
Although James appears to be an indestructible alien that doesn’t seem to decline, the Cavaliers are going to be very careful this season in terms of his workload. James is one of the most understanding athletes we’ve seen when it comes to taking care of his body whether it’s in the middle of January or middle of July. He knows how far he can push it before it can negatively impact both him and his team. I’m not suggesting that James will see his minutes cut to 23 minutes per game. But even just a five minute decrease from last season’s 35.6 on top of taking a game off here and there will do wonders once the season stretches into May.
It’s also safe to say no matter where the Cavaliers end up in the Eastern Conference standings, they will be the one representing in the NBA Finals. There just isn’t any other team that instills any fear in them. James will still put up impressive all-around numbers, but winning the MVP isn’t a concern to him anymore at this point. What’s most important is delivering as many championships to Cleveland as he can before he calls it a career. The league and the voters know this as well.
In concern to Durant and Curry’s MVP stock this season, I’m not sure either are really aiming for the award in particular either. Would Curry like to follow up his unanimous MVP season and become the first player since Larry Bird in 1983-86 to win back-t0-back-to-back? Sure, that’d be nice, but redeeming what happened last season with another title will be the no. 1 priority. With the addition of Durant, Curry likely won’t match his per game scoring number of 30.1. It’s assumed that his shooting numbers will be more efficient (if that can even be imagined), but the workload won’t be as intense for him this season with a creator like Durant next to him.
Speaking of Durant, he’s going to do all he can to fit in right away with Golden State’s system. As we’ve seen thus far in preseason, there will be no problem with ball-movement and shot making around the floor. Durant can still put up a crooked scoring number any night he feels, but similar to Curry and James, winning a championship and being sure his team is in full stride entering the postseason will come first. He has immense pressure on his shoulders after leaving what was a contender in Oklahoma City to join the Warriors. Anything less than a championship, and he’ll receive the same amount of criticism that James did after losing to Dallas in 2010-11 as a member of the Miami Heat.
This leads us to the candidates who will have a great shot at winning their first MVP Award of their careers.
Chris Paul may come to many as a surprise, but it shouldn’t be. Yes, Paul is a 31-year-old veteran heading into his 12th NBA season and hasn’t been an alarming scorer in terms of per game averages, but the fact of the matter is the Clippers have a great chance to finish second in the Western Conference this season. And it will be all thanks to his doing. Year in and year out, the Clippers have seen their bad luck become worse in the playoffs. Injuries literally crippled their chances of ever getting over the hump and past the first-round. The argument here is that if Paul leads his Clippers to the Western Conference Finals and averages a double-double of at least 20 points and 10 assists (averaged 19.9 points and 10 assists per game last season), his case for the award will be strong. Not to mention his rebounding and steals numbers are particularly impressive for a point guard.
It seems like ever since Kawhi Leonard made his splash in 2013-14 when he helped the San Antonio Spurs win their fifth NBA title and was named Finals MVP, becoming the regular season MVP was only a matter of time. The Spurs will look vastly different even though they only lost one from last season’s starting five–Tim Duncan. Arguably the greatest power forward of all time, Duncan helped form Leonard into the elite, savvy defender that we see today. But it’s Leonard’s time to take over this franchise and lead them to the promise land as Duncan did so many times. The Spurs are a team that you can pretty much guarantee a top seed in the West year in and year out. That alone will give Leonard an argument for MVP. Furthermore, his numbers will continue to increase as they have every one of his five seasons. A 25 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per game season is certainly not out of the realm of possibility for Leonard this season, on top of being the favorite to win his third-straight Defensive Player of the Year award.
The last candidate is Paul George. George had an impressive season coming off the horrific leg injury he suffered in the summer of 2014. His 23.1 points, seven rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game averages were solid, but not enough to enter the MVP conversation. Plus, the Pacers finished in seventh place, another strong argument against his case. But with key acquisitions this summer such as Al Jefferson, Jeff Teague, and Thaddeus Young, the Pacers could end up as a top team in the East behind the Cavaliers. George’s confidence will be sky-high and he has made it clear that winning MVP is one of his goals this season.
The key to these three candidates making strong arguments for themselves is to be sure their teams have 50+ win records and be one of the top teams in their respective conference heading into the playoffs. It’ll be difficult to dethrone Curry after realizing how efficient he is going to be again this season, but out of Leonard, Paul, and George, their time is due in terms of being crowned MVP. This could be the best opportunity to take advantage.