Head to Head: Runner Up in NBA MVP Race?


Spoiler alert: Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors will win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award for the second straight year. Barring something insane – such as Curry revealing himself to be a robot and therefore making him ineligible to resume playing in the NBA – the award is going to Curry.

That’s because Curry has been ridiculously good this season. The 28-year-old point guard has turned the Warriors into a virtually unbeatable team that has won 62 of 69 games. Meanwhile, he’s topping last year’s ridiculous statistics by averaging a jaw-dropping 30.3 points, 6.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds and two steals while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three-point range. He broke his own record for most three-pointers in a single season in just 58 games, and his performances have become must-watch TV.

Because the 2015-16 Most Valuable Player award is essentially decided, we wanted to debate the MVP runner up in today’s discussion. Ben Dowsett, Alex Kennedy and Moke Hamilton share their thoughts on the NBA’s next most valuable player after Mr. Curry in today’s Head to Head.

LeBron James

The most interesting part of the 2016 MVP ballot won’t be who finishes first, but rather which runner up slots in behind Stephen Curry. There are three or four viable candidates grouped relatively closely. And while factors beyond Curry, such as voter fatigue and his move toward the “veteran” end of the spectrum, may have muted his overall impact, LeBron James continues to have as good a case as anyone.

To one degree or another, many of the typical requirements for an MVP are present. James is on a team leading its conference in wins, and sits sixth for per-game scoring – two of the most traditional categories many voters look to. A step deeper to one-number metrics puts him in the same elite category; LeBron is fourth for Player Efficiency Rating, fourth in ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus and fifth for total Real Plus-Minus.

But it’s possible these broader metrics still undersell his value somewhat. The Cavaliers are a complete mess when he leaves the floor, with a 14.3 points per-100-possessions gap between their performance with and without him on the court – one of the largest in the NBA. LeBron has refined little elements of his game under the radar, including lowering his turnovers to the smallest percentage he’s seen since his pre-Miami days and upping his rebounding – particularly on the defensive glass.

Even tougher to distinguish at times has been his defensive performance which, while it still stagnates from time to time like any offensive superstar, has been at a much higher level than the previous few seasons. James is fifth for Defensive Real Plus-Minus among non-big men, a testament to the value he’s added on this side of the ball even while he’s carrying the same intense burden offensively. He’s more generally focused and has added even more emphasis to captaining a strong group on that end of the court.

James’ ridiculous athletic feats are fewer and further between these days, and the younger generation has certainly closed and even eliminated the gap that existed a few years ago. But in the non-Curry class, there’s still a great argument that no single player is more valuable to a top NBA team than LeBron.

– Ben Dowsett

Kawhi Leonard

Over the last few years, we knew that Kawhi Leonard’s ascent to stardom was inevitable. He had all of the tools – physical and mental – to be a dominant two-way player, a legendary head coach in Gregg Popovich making sure he reached his full potential and a talented group of future Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, etc.) around him to help him develop.

Now, the Leonard era is officially underway.

Two years ago, he surprised everyone when he was the Finals MVP in the San Antonio Spurs’ victory over the Miami HEAT. Last season, he was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. This year, he made his first All-Star appearance. Leonard has been improving each season, and the player who hates the spotlight and individual accolades has been receiving more recognition lately – whether he likes it or not.

Before, Leonard was viewed as one of the NBA’s top up-and-coming talents. Now, he is officially one of the NBA’s best players.

It’s very possible that Leonard will win Defensive Player of the Year again this season, as he remains one of the best perimeter stoppers in the NBA and he shuts down the game’s best scorers on a nightly basis. His excellent instincts, huge hands, 7’3 wingspan, freakish athleticism, high basketball IQ and always-running motor make him a dominant defender. The numbers back this up, as he ranks first in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares (5.1) and second in Defensive Rating (95.1). San Antonio has by far the league’s best defense, allowing only 95.6 points per 100 possessions, and Leonard’s play is a huge reason for this.

However, the reason that Leonard is my pick for MVP runner up is that his offensive game is finally catching up with his defensive excellence. This season, in addition to being a shutdown defender, he is leading the Spurs’ offensive attack as well. Leonard is averaging a career-high 20.9 points while shooting an extremely efficient 50.9 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three-point range. When Leonard entered the NBA, scouts criticized his shooting and said it was his biggest weakness. Now, Leonard is knocking down two threes per game and making almost half of his attempts from long range, which demonstrates just how much Leonard has grown as a player in his five NBA seasons.

In addition to scoring 20.9 points per game, he is also averaging 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and one block. He fills the stat sheet every night, and yet he does so many things that don’t show up on the box score that it’s impossible to quantify his impact on the game.

Advanced analytics help show how dominant Leonard has been this season. Among all NBA players, he ranks first in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (9.89) and second in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.282), trailing only Curry. Leonard also ranks third in Win Shares (12.4), fourth in Box Plus/Minus (8.2), sixth in Player Efficiency Rating (25.8), sixth in Value Over Replacement Player (5.5) and eighth in True Shooting Percentage (.619). He has become a well-rounded player who is elite in many facets of the game.

It also helps that the Spurs are currently 59-10; we all know that MVP voters love to select players from top teams. While Curry and the Warriors are an insane 62-7, it’s extremely impressive that San Antonio is just three games behind them in the standings.

The Spurs have turned Leonard into their two-way juggernaut that decimates anything in his path without showing any emotion. And the scariest thing about Kawhi is that he’s only 24 years old, so he’s not even in his prime yet – unlike the 28-year-old Curry or the 31-year-old James. The fact that I can make the case for Leonard as the runner up for MVP right now when he’s only scratching the surface of his potential is why the rest of the NBA should fear him for years to come.

– Alex Kennedy

Kyle Lowry

This is always a fun question and debate. What does it mean to be the Most Valuable Player?

It’s a question that we find ourselves asking every year and this year is no exception. Stephen Curry is probably going to end up winning his second consecutive MVP award at the conclusion of this season, but if we are searching for “other” MVPs, I think I would go the route of at least mentioning Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors.

Of course, you can’t argue that Lowry is a better player than Curry or Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James or Kevin Durant or any number of other players in the league, but you could make the argument that he is as valuable to his team. As the Raptors were the discussion of the most recent NBA Sunday, we remind you that the team has improbably entered play on March 20 a mere 1.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. It seems so long ago that Lowry was more renowned for being an injury prone and inconsistent contributor than he was a linchpin on one of the league’s better teams.

Since being nearly traded a few seasons ago, Lowry has become one of the better all-around point guards in the entire league and, with DeMar DeRozan, has helped the Raptors go from an afterthought in the Eastern Conference to a team that has a legitimate opportunity to overthrow LeBron James and his personal reign at the top of the East.

So far this season, Lowry is averaging 22 points, five rebounds and 5.4 assists. He has a Player Efficiency Rating of 23.76 and is coming off of back-to-back All-Star selections.

You can make the argument for any number of players in this discussion, but I’ll cut against the grain and mention Lowry—someone who has improbably risen to the top of the point guard depth chart in the East. Now, let’s see what he has in store for the playoffs.

– Moke Hamilton

Who do you think is the MVP runner up? Is it LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry or someone else? Leave your thoughts in a comment below.


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