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The NBA MVP Race Is Wide Open for 2016-17

The 2016-17 MVP race may be the least predictable in years, with at least ten players, from Kyrie Irving to LeBron James, having a good shot to take home basketball's most significant individual honor.
Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA's Most Valuable Player award can be as obvious as it is polarizing. As subjective as it is matter of fact. With no specific criteria for voters to judge one superstar versus another, we're left debating over what the word "value" actually means:

Does the trophy belong to the season's best player, or the player most responsible for his team's success?

Despite a lack of consensus on what the MVP award actually awards, two or three players are usually viewed as obvious favorites for it before the season even starts; typically as events unfold either a clear option separates himself from the pack or the group of realistic candidates remains very small until April.


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But thanks to the creation of an unprecedented super team, among other factors, the 2016-17 MVP race may be the least predictable in years. At least ten players have a good shot to take home the sport's most significant individual honor.

To help sort out what lies ahead, here's an overview of the legitimate contenders, categorized from least likely to most probable.

Anything Is Possible (But Not Really)

Irving is healthy and more popular than ever before. Photo by Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving (33/1 odds to win, per Bovada), Carmelo Anthony (33/1)

Two things need to happen for Irving to actually win this award: 1) LeBron James must miss at least one month of action, during which the Cavaliers maintain or extend a first-place lead in the East, and 2) every other time Irving touches the ball, it must be basketball's equivalent to a guest verse from Kendrick Lamar—a theatrical, rewind-required event in which he's butterfly jumping on ice while everyone else is knee deep in a tar pit. (Passing the ball every now and then would also be nice.)

The memory of last year's NBA Finals, when Irving's reputation shifted from selfish wunderkind to mega-clutch superhero, won't fade anytime soon. With a question mark at backup point guard and Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue wanting to restrict LeBron's minutes, Irving should have the ball in his hands a ton this year. He's healthy, freakishly confident, and more popular than ever before.


That said, the case against this actually happening is pretty simple: It's impossible to win MVP with LeBron James as your teammate.

Melo has a chance, but he's also 32. Photo by Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony glides into his 14th season with that cool "Summer of Melo" breeze at his back. The New York Knicks are less depressing than usual (albeit still depressing) and, in Derrick Rose, Anthony may finally have the score-first point guard his aging game desperately craves.

If the Knicks mash spread pick-and-roll action and Anthony's necessary iso-ball without the whole thing looking like rush-hour traffic, this team can do some stuff. Unfortunately for New York, this assessment represents an absolute best-case scenario. Karl Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Michael Jordan are the only two players in league history to win an MVP after their 32nd birthday. Anthony is 32 years old. He isn't winning anything.

The Boogeyman

Scary! Photo by Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Karl-Anthony Towns (33/1)

Karl Towns' rookie season might go down as the most impressive origin story in recent NBA history. Only Towns averaged at least 18 points and ten rebounds per game while maintaining a True Shooting percentage of at least 59.0 last season, and those particular benchmarks have only been eclipsed 15 other times since 2000 by any player in the league, let alone a rookie.

At 20 years old, the seven-footer unanimously won Rookie of the Year in a draft class that contains multiple perennial All-Star talents. Now with Tom Thibodeau stepping in as a head coach who recognizes the three-point line and has revolutionized NBA defenses, along with a ripe supporting cast, Towns could step forward in a humongous way this season.


After last year's All-Star break, Towns averaged 20.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game—numbers no player that young should sniff, and create expectations that can't possibly be met. Unless, of course, Towns somehow surpasses them and leads Minnesota to its first playoff series since 2004 (when KAT was seven years old).

But even with organization-wide enhancements, the postseason should still be considered a long shot, and Towns has a zero percent chance at competing for this award if his team doesn't make it.

Pad Those Stats!

Westbrook is good, but OKC is far from a sure thing. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook (2/1), Paul George (22/1)

People can't stop betting money on Westbrook to win this award, even though the Oklahoma City Thunder are far from certain to make the playoffs. He's the favorite, and that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka are gone, and with them goes the kind of spacing Westbrook needs to be able to sling his body toward the rim.

Unlike James Harden and the Houston Rockets, the Thunder didn't spend the offseason building their roster around their best player. Life won't be as smooth for Westbrook, but the guy was built for off-roading. He'll be fine, but can he win MVP if his team stinks? This leads us to an age-old sports question: How much should collective success factor into an individual award? If Westbrook averages 30 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds per game this year, why should he be punished because Enes Kanter can't protect the rim, or Andre Roberson can't shoot?


Replace Westbrook with Jeff Teague or Reggie Jackson, and the Thunder go from borderline playoff team to one of the league's five saddest situations. It's to be seen how valuable that makes him in voter's eyes.

A similar logic applies to Paul George, a splendid two-way player who doesn't have to try all that hard to look better than everybody else:

The Indiana Pacers added a bunch of veterans who may or may not work out (Teague, Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson), and none are an obvious complement to George's game. But if the season starts going sour, George could be the magical ingredient that inexplicably makes each bite taste better than the last.

He's the centerpiece of a team riddled with question marks; if Indiana snags the four seed and blitzes the league with a top-ten offense and defense, it'll be because George did ridiculous things on a nightly basis, like making over 40 percent of his threes with Defensive Player of the Year consistency on the other end.

Of course, he could do all those things and Indiana could still miss the playoff. It wouldn't be his fault, but it'd also kill his shot at winning his first MVP.

Everyone Loves a Good Comeback Story

Can Davis finally turn things around for New Orleans? Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Davis (10/1), James Harden (12/1), Blake Griffin (33/1)

Never (ever, ever, ever) underestimate the power of a captivating narrative when a bunch of writers and TV and radio broadcasters are allowed to voice their opinion.

Anthony Davis, James Harden, and Blake Griffin are legitimate candidates not only because all were considered top-five players heading into last season (before the sky fell, injuries happened, their teams disappointed, and none even made an All-NBA team).


Each man is also in a perfect situation to turn things around and make up for a lost campaign. Individual excellence won't be enough to elevate any of them into their own tier, though. Each must to carry his team to something extraordinary.

For Davis, that means trying hard on every play, being a more disciplined man-to-man defender, making the most of shoddy point guard play, and leading the New Orleans Pelicans back to the playoffs.

For Harden, a scoring title, playoff berth, and top-five offense are all conceivable. In this writer's opinion, the 2015 MVP had his name on it. But to win it this year, how about playing some defense? The online ridicule won't ever evaporate entirely, but if the Rockets can somehow play league-average ball on that end, Harden will likely receive his fair share of credit. With Dwight Howard gone, he's the only All-Star in sight.

Blake is coming for you guys. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Griffin's situation is the toughest of the three, primarily because Chris Paul might be Los Angeles's most important player. Before last year turned into a burning carnival ride, Griffin was the unique force of nature he always has been. To win an MVP, he'll need to be more than that, and prove he's the most indispensable segment of L.A.'s attack. Doing so means Griffin has to become a primary playmaker, someone who props up the Clippers' offense whenever Paul isn't in the game—the No. 1 weapon defenses game plan to stop.

Is his three-point shot for real? Can he finally establish himself as an above-average defender? What happens if the Clippers hit the ground running and finish with the best record in the Western Conference? (A mild possibility!) Is a bounce-back year for the ages enough to wipe out Paul's influence and remind voters that few players have ever been harder to stop than L.A.'s power forward—particularly if Doc Rivers finally staggers his rotation so that Griffin gets to play some small-ball five with a spaced-out second unit?


Even though I don't think he'll win so long as Paul is a teammate, Griffin has the best odds on the board. When healthy, the league is his personal coloring book.

The Ostensible Favorites

Duh. Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Stephen Curry (4/1), LeBron James (4.5/1), Kevin Durant (10/1)

These are the three best players in the world, and at least one is all but guaranteed to play in the NBA Finals. So why aren't they far and away the most attractive MVP candidates this season?

Steph Curry has won the last two years, but joining forces with Kevin Durant, a player who's arguably his superior in several meaningful ways, will slice into his stats and his seduction. The Warriors are a rolling pin and the other 29 teams are pizza dough, but with so much talent on their roster it's not easy to envision any one of their four top-12 players standing head and shoulders above the rest, which means it's impossible to view Curry or Durant as the true superstars they are.

For Curry, winning MVP in three straight years is next to impossible (Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell are the only players who've done it). Meanwhile, Durant is hopping aboard a team that won 73 games last year. It will be difficult for him to noticeably make the Warriors that much better in the regular season.

(While Durant and Curry are Golden State's best players, Draymond Green's unwavering bravado and transcendent defensive versatility are two traits that can't be replaced. For this specific roster, Green may be more valuable than the greatest shooter who ever lived and a four-time scoring champion. The Warriors are madness.)


When you've watched Game 7 on repeat all summer. Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Then we have LeBron. Even though he's coming off the most epic singular Finals performance ever, James averaged the fewest minutes of his career last season, and Coach Lue has said he will make sure his best player is on the sidelines even more in 2017.

LeBron's value is enormous, and the Cavaliers will struggle to create the open threes that prop up their offense whenever he's not on the floor. But there's a reason he takes nights off on defense and is more than happy to coast through January as Kyrie's secondary option—the goal is to win a title, not lead the league in triple doubles. At 31 years old and with another ring on his finger, James doesn't need to go out of his way to prove anything over the next six months.

My Pick

Leonard is ready to go. Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard (10/1)

Here's what Kawhi Leonard has going against him: five-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge is his teammate and Mt. Rushmore member Gregg Popovich is his coach. Both will receive their fair share of credit if the San Antonio Spurs sustain their overwhelming prosperity sans Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, and David West.

Sure, it's unlikely this team exceeds or even matches last season's success (67 wins is damn impressive), and last year's first-ranked defense will bleed now that Pau Gasol is starting at center.

But with Duncan retired, Tony Parker yet another step slower, and unprecedented pressure on San Antonio to keep up with the Warriors and the Clippers, Leonard has a tremendous opportunity to chomp through the league in big-minute outings. The Spurs can't afford not to play him more minutes than ever before.

After a relatively disappointing performance in the Western Conference Semifinals, Leonard turned down a shoe-in spot on the Olympic team despite the fact that, by all accounts, he was healthy. So what was he doing this summer instead? Living inside a gymnasium and slaving over becoming even more awesome.

After quietly coming in second on last year's MVP ballot (ahead of LeBron, Durant, Westbrook, et al.), Leonard hunted for ways to develop other areas of his game—a path to eclipse the best of the best. "I worked on everything this summer. I didn't really focus on one thing," he recently told reporters.

Leonard has taken on more responsibility every year while somehow becoming more efficient. This isn't easy or normal, but why should it stop? Gasol is an offensive upgrade over Duncan, and should provide more space for Leonard to operate inside the arc. That plus the possibility of Popovich downsizing to spotlight Aldridge and Leonard in smaller, faster units is terrifying.

If the Spurs were a house, Leonard would be the roof, walls, front door, and state-of-the-art home entertainment center. Just over the horizon sits a world where no basketball player is more complete, or more valuable, than he is.

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