Handicapping the 2016-17 NBA MVP Race


Last season, after leading his Golden State Warriors to the most wins in an NBA regular season, Stephen Curry became the first player to ever be unanimously voted the league’s Most Valuable Player. It was the 13th time that the award was won by the same player in back-to-back years, and now, this season, he will attempt to join the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only players in the history of the league to win the award three times in a row – with Bird last completing the rare trifecta in 1986.

The odds may be stacked against Curry, though. The Warriors may be title favorites, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he or his new teammate in Kevin Durant will walk away from this season with the distinction. That’s hard to believe considering Durant and Curry have combined to win the last three MVP awards, but the truth is that they will likely hurt one another’s cause.

Or will they?

Basketball Insiders handicaps the race for the 2016-17 NBA season’s Most Valuable Player Award.

The Contenders

Chris Paul (Point Guard, Los Angeles Clippers)

There are a fair amount of people who believe that Chris Paul deserved the Most Valuable Player Award over Kobe Bryant back in 2008. Paul admirably led a sparsely talented New Orleans Hornets team to 56 wins and the second seed in the Western Conference. They finished one game behind Bryant’s Lakers and Paul ended up finishing a distant second to Bryant after the votes had been tallied.

Still, the Clippers will enter the season as a favorite to finish in the top three out West, and with the distance between the contenders in the conference and the lower echelon teams seemingly becoming greater, the Clippers should have a relatively easy time eclipsing 55 wins. That is, of course, assuming they stay healthy.

In years past, there has been more and more attention given to Blake Griffin, and deservedly so, but after losing Paul during last year’s first round, the Clippers folded like a cheap suit. Subliminally, that may have the effect of Paul’s perceived value being restored. If he backs that up simply by doing what he has done for the Clippers recently (he has averaged over 19 points and 10 assists per game for each of the past three seasons), he may emerge as the front runner.

All things considered, if the Thunder don’t win 50 games and the Warriors don’t win 70, Paul (or LeBron James) could end up winning the award by default, almost.

LeBron James (Small Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers)

Stephen Curry may be in the running to become just the fourth player to win the award three consecutive times, but James is the only player aside from Bill Russell to have actually won the award four times in five years. James won the award in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers before yielding the award to Derrick Rose in 2011. James followed that by winning the award in 2012 and 2013, with each of those seasons ending with a Miami HEAT championship.

James is now at the age where he will pitch-count himself over the course of the long season, but with Curry and Durant having teamed up, getting the Cavaliers north of 60 wins would certainly result in James receiving at least a few first-place votes. Although last season’s 25.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists were far from his most impressive statistical season, he has a lot left in the tank and seems poised to take home the award for the fifth time. That is, of course, assuming he wants it.

Russell Westbrook (Point Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder)

The Most Valuable Player Award is typically awarded to someone whose team achieves great success. It’s difficult to imagine Westbrook win the award, but rules were meant to be broken.

In all honesty, let’s just say for argument’s sake that Westbrook is able to record 25 triple-doubles this coming season. If he does that and the Thunder win 47 games, depending on how other things shake out, many voters would consider him. Now, just imagine that the Thunder somehow win 52 games. The thought may seem overly optimistic, but Westbrook has a solid supporting cast and remember, the Thunder managed to win 45 games during the 2014-15 season. That happened with a weaker supporting cast and Kevin Durant playing in all of 27 games.

Everyone loves an underdog. And the stage has been set for Westbrook to emerge as a front runner.

Kawhi Leonard (Small Forward, San Antonio Spurs)

Tim Duncan may have decided to call it a career, but with Gregg Popovich still calling the shots in San Antonio, expect the Spurs to be in the mix in the end. At this point, nobody remembers, but last season, at 65-12, the Spurs had a legitimate shot to go for 70 wins. Popovich obviously opted not to, but suffice to say the Spurs are a really good team. Although Duncan will be missed, he played just 25 minutes per game and averaged less than nine points per contest. In all likelihood, Pau Gasol will be able to replace his production.

If the Spurs get anywhere near 65 wins this season, don’t be surprised to see Leonard getting a lot of MVP love. That is, of course, assuming he improves upon last season’s 21.2 points per game.

Stephen Curry (Point Guard, Golden State Warriors)

The bar has been set incredibly high for the Warriors, it’s almost not even fair. If this team is capable of winning 73 games without Kevin Durant, what would it take for them to exceed expectations this season?

The answer there? It’s a trick question. It’s probably not possible for the Warriors to exceed expectations this season, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for Curry to actually score what many would consider an upset by winning the Most Valuable Player Award for the third consecutive year. If he comes close to last season’s 30.1 points per game and gets the Warriors to 70 wins, then the voters, out of principle, will likely crown Curry the MVP again.

The problem in it all is that nothing will give you more perspective than winning the MVP award and winning a record-setting 73 games, only to come up short when it matters most. In all likelihood, the Warriors will lose their first game of the season during its first week and head into the All-Star break with more than a few losses. Still, where there’s a Curry, there’s a way, so we wouldn’t discount his chances completely.

The Second Tier

James Harden (Point Guard, Houston Rockets): The move to point guard will probably help Harden’s numbers, and that’s scary considering last season’s 29 points, 6.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists were already out of this world. The concern with Harden will be corralling enough votes if his team doesn’t win enough games. Do you think the Rockets have enough talent to win 50 games out West? If not, it would take a perfect storm for Harden to walk away as MVP.

Kevin Durant (Small Forward, Golden State Warriors): Without question, a trans-generational talent. The only concern is that he is overlooked in Oakland. In all likelihood, his efficiency will skyrocket, but unless he does something tremendous, he will likely be penalized the same way that LeBron James was in his first season with the Miami HEAT. A fair number of voters didn’t vote for James simply because of the help he had. What would it take for Durant to overcome that type of bias?

Paul George (Small Forward, Indiana Pacers): Once a defensive-first team, the Indiana Pacers have a new head coach and, frankly, a new identity. What Paul George has working in his favor, though, is the fact that he has talent flanking him and he is coming off of what is arguably his finest statistical season. It’s hard to see the Pacers doing enough damage for George to beat out the likes of Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Stephen Curry, but respect is due.

Anthony Davis (Power Forward, New Orleans Pelicans): Agreed, Anthony Davis hasn’t done much for us lately, but he did finish fifth in MVP voting for the 2014-15 season. The Pelicans have a lot of work to do, but there are few players in the game who are capable of making an impact on both ends quite like Davis. Fear the brow; if he’s healthy, he will likely be an MVP-caliber performer. But are the Pelicans even a playoff team?

Damian Lillard: (Point Guard, Portland Trail Blazers): The Trail Blazers certainly won’t be sneaking up on anyone this coming season, especially not after spending truckloads to build out the talent base surrounding Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There are quite a few that don’t even expect the Blazers to win the Northwest Division this year, so if they manage to overachieve again, don’t be surprised for Lillard to accomplish the rare feat of going from All-Star snub to MVP contender.

Honorable Mention:

Kyrie Irving (Point Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers): Never say never, but it’s difficult to see Irving finding a way to overshadow LeBron James.

Carmelo Anthony (Small Forward, New York Knicks): Call it a catch-22, but for the Knicks to approach the win total required for Carmelo to get consideration, they would need the supporting cast to play out of their mind, which would diminish ‘Melo’s credit.

Blake Griffin (Power Forward, Los Angeles Clippers): If he is the team’s alpha-male and takes playmaking pressure off of Chris Paul, watch out!

DeMarcus Cousins (Center, Sacramento Kings): When you’re giving us 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, we care less about your team’s win total. We got love for you.


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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.

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