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Cheap Seats: Next Year’s NBA MVP

Who will win next season’s NBA MVP award? Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor weigh in.

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Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant took home this year’s Most Valuable Player award, totaling 1,232 points, including 119 of 125 first-place votes. The runner-up, LeBron James, had just 891 points and six first-place votes. James had won the MVP trophy for the last two years, and four times in the last five seasons.

Who will win next season’s MVP award? Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, John Zitzler and Cody Taylor weighed in:

LeBron James

James finished second in the MVP voting this year behind Kevin Durant. Durant and James both had fantastic seasons; Durant scored at a remarkable clip and stepped up big time in Russell Westbrook’s absence, while LeBron was his usual dominant self scoring, passing, rebounding and defending at an elite level. Look for LeBron to come out hungry next year and make strong case to bring home his fifth MVP award.

James will first have decide whether or not he wants to remain a member of the Miami HEAT. Along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, James has an early termination option on his contract that, if exercised, would make him an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It would be a surprising a move if LeBron did decide to take his talents elsewhere, especially considering his success with the HEAT, but you never know.

On the court this year LeBron was his usual exceptional self. He averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.6 steals a night. He shot a jaw dropping 62.2% on two-point shots, an absolutely incredible number for a player who spends a fair amount of time handling the ball and out on the perimeter. He is truly in a class of his own in that regard. When you take a look at other players who finished with a similar field goal percentage from two, they are all big men who tend to camp around the rim, Andre Drummond shot 62.5%, Tyson Chandler shot 59.5% and Dwight Howard shot 59.4%. Also, those guys all took significantly fewer shots per game than the 17.6 attempts LeBron was putting up; Howard was the “closest” to James with 11.3 attempts per game. The improvement James has made in his field goal percentage is hard to believe, since as a rookie he shot 41.7%. He has improved that number every year but one (in 2005-06 he shot 48% from the field, and that dipped to 47.6% in 2006-07) and this season he shot 56.7% from the field. This is a testament to the hard work James puts in every offseason and his commitment to getting better. You would have to imagine that he would plateau and level off at some point like most guys tend to do, but LeBron is not most players so don’t be surprised if his field goal percentage inches closer to 60% next year.

What really separate’s James from other great players is his ability to impact a game in so many different ways. You would think a guy that scores at the rate LeBron does is a shoot-first type player, but maybe to a fault LeBron isn’t. He is one of the best passers ever for a player of his size and is often mentioned in the same breath as greats like Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson in terms of his ability to share the sugar.

Not only is James an incredibly skilled passer, he does a great job helping out on the glass, averaging over seven rebounds a game for his career. When you compare his stats historically against some of the greats, LeBron not only measures up but stands out. Among all players who have averaged over 25 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, no player shot a higher field goal percentage than LeBron this year. Coming in second? LeBron in 2012-13. These are remarkable numbers and it gives you a sense of how special a player LeBron really is. We really are in the presence of one best players to ever take the hardwood.

LeBron continues to show why he is the best player on the planet. His desire to be great fuels him every offseason and he will inevitably come back an even better player in 2014-15 after a having another few months to fine tune his game, a very scary thought for the rest of the league. Defensively he has the ability to cover multiple spots and compared to Durant has the edge on that end. It will certainly be another close race between the two and with Blake Griffin improving, he may be in the mix as well. In terms of overall impact on the game there is really no equal to James. It’s the obvious pick but barring injury James should be considered the favorite to bring home the MVP award in 2014-15.

– John Zitzler

Blake Griffin

Kevin Durant was recently voted the NBA’s MVP after two years of LeBron James winning the award. Durant earned the award by carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to the second-best record in the Western Conference as Russell Westbrook battled through multiple knee surgeries. However, Durant will face stiff competition next season from someone other than James. Considering his improvement this season, strong work ethic and overall skillset, Blake Griffin has as good of a chance as anyone to win MVP next season.

Griffin had a breakout season this year, finishing third in MVP balloting behind Durant and James. He averaged 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals and got to the free throw line 8.4 times a game, where he shot 71.5 percent (up from 66 percent last season). In addition, he shot 52.8 percent from the field and improved his midrange jump shot significantly. Yet, these numbers seem somewhat mundane when compared to Durant, who averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists a game, and shot 50.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. In addition, Durant got to the free throw line 9.9 times a game and shot 87.3 percent.

However, there are several reasons to believe that Griffin will build off the momentum he generated this season and come back even better next season. First, Griffin is one of the hardest working players in the league. For several seasons now Griffin has worked with shooting guru Bob Thate, who told the Orange County Register in April 2013, “When he becomes a face-up guy and takes the shot that’s there, he’ll be incredible. When you look at Blake and LeBron James, they’re equal in physical gifts. In time they’ll be the best two players in the league every year.” This may seem far-fetched, but Thate works more with Griffin than anyone, and even told Clippers’ broadcaster Mike Smith that he believes Griffin will be one the best shooters in the league at some point. Not one of the best shooting big men, but one of the best shooters in the league overall.

It is hard to imagine Griffin as a top shooter in the league, until you hear quotes from newcomers J.J. Redick and Doc Rivers, who have said they were caught off guard by how dedicated and diligent Griffin is with his workout routines. Jamal Crawford even described Griffin as the “hardest worker” on the team. In addition, Griffin takes elite care of his body, working with trainer Robbie Davis, who earlier this year told Bleacher Report, “He has an incredible understanding of his body now… He’s educated himself on how to train properly, eat properly and recover properly. He’s more knowledgeable than any other athlete I’ve had.” At just age 25, Griffin displays the same work ethic that made Karl Malone one of the best power forwards of all time. Entering the NBA, Malone was an average shooter, but continued to improve and eventually became one of the most dominant power forwards of all time. It is not hard to imagine Griffin following the same career arc. If Griffin manages to further improve his shooting, he will truly become unstoppable on offense, and will open up more opportunities for him to set up his teammates, which he is already very good at.

Also, much of Griffin’s improvement this season comes from being a moving piece within Rivers and Alvin Gentry’s offense. Under former head coach Vinny Del Negro, Griffin was used primarily as a screener for Chris Paul. It was up to Paul to improvise after the screen to score himself, generate an open shot for Griffin or pass the ball out to the perimeter and reset. The other major set was simply isolating Griffin in the post and spreading the other four players out on the opposite end of the court. These sets were effective because of the individual talents of Paul and Griffin, rather than the effectiveness of the sets themselves.

Now, Griffin is often the beneficiary of teammates running backdoor screens for him, and pin-downs that often end up with Griffin receiving the ball against one defender on the elbows or one-on-one with deep position under the basket. Teams can no longer run aggressive traps at Griffin in the post, or during pick and rolls because there is so much movement being generated from other players like Redick, Crawford, Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan. Defenses can still take away certain options, such as packing in defenders in the paint and forcing Griffin to shoot a midrange jumper or make a play for teammates, but the point is that the offense is not predictable anymore, which makes Griffin even more dangerous.

Lastly, this was Doc’s first year with the Clippers, and the team spent the better part of the season learning how to play within his system. It stands to reason that next season, with more familiarity with the system and one another, Griffin will be even more effective. He has found a balance between attacking the basket in transition, positing up opposing big men, rolling to the basket off of pick and rolls with Paul, and setting up teammates like Jordan for easy scores at the rim. It will be interesting to see what other niches Griffin can find next season, and how his game will improve overall. This includes the defensive side of the ball as well. Griffin will never be an elite defensive player like James, but under Rivers’ structured, disciplined defensive system, Griffin can continue to improve as a team defender. The improvement from his rookie season to this season is apparent, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Durant may still have the edge next season because of his unbelievable ability to score the ball, and LeBron will have a say in the matter as well, as he is currently the best overall player on the planet. However, with his work ethic, improving skill set, elite athleticism and increased familiarity with Rivers’ system, Griffin will make it tough for Durant and James.

– Jesse Blancarte

Kevin Durant

As the reigning Most Valuable Player, it wouldn’t be entirely crazy to think that Durant could do it again. This season, Durant proved that he was finally able to get over the hump of three second-place finishes in the MVP race by winning his first award. Now that he finally won the trophy, he should be the favorite heading into next season to repeat as MVP.

Durant is so much more than an individual basketball player. He plays for his teammates and for the opportunity to win a championship. During Durant’s MVP speech on Tuesday, he spent the majority of the time thanking his teammates and singling them out individually for putting him in the position to win the award.

Durant is not influenced by off-court ventures; he is a basketball player, as teammate Nick Collison said. “Some guys come into the league and have these ideas about what they want to do off the court — to be businessmen and all that,” Collison wrote in a piece for Sports Illustrated. “Kevin was all about basketball. He was most comfortable in the gym. He just loved to play ball.”

Durant won the award this season after averaging a career-high 32 points per game. His 32 points were over four-and-a-half more than Carmelo Anthony’s 27.4 points per game, and nearly five more points than LeBron James’ 27.1 points per game. Standing at 6’9, Durant presents a challenge for teams night in and night out. His ability to handle the ball is well-documented and that skill makes him one of the most unique players in league history. It’s not even that Durant can handle the ball well for a player his size, its that Durant can handle the ball and make everyone miss. A perfect example is the move Durant put on Jared Dudley in Game 3 on Friday night.

Even when Durant is having an off night, he is still making his teammates better. Collison broke it down and said that by just having him on the court, defenses are drastically changed. On any given play there is one player defending Durant, another shifting over on help defense and three other guys all watching him. If one of those levels of defense breaks down, Durant will find the open man cutting toward the basketball or for the open shot.

Durant has made tremendous strides in becoming a better overall player. In his early years Durant battled on the defensive side of the ball with his skinny frame, but has since worked at getting better and he has closed the gap with James as the NBA’s most elite player. Durant is using added muscle, quickness, long arms and seven years of experience in the league in helping his transformation on defense. Critics in the past have said that James was so far superior over Durant because of his ability to play on both sides of the ball, but it appears that those critics are now acknowledging Durant’s presence in the conversation.

– Cody Taylor

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