Fall back into place
The phrase repeats hypnotically on Beach House’s “Space Song.” As it repeats over soothing organ chords, I couldn’t help but think it was referring to the “correction” in the NBA Finals, where LeBron James led the series in every major stat category and firmly reestablished his place as the Best Player in the League. While it’s clear that LeBron can take over a basketball game at any point, it’s less clear if he’ll attempt to collect his third MVP trophy. He’s taken a more cautious approach in the regular season, even taking week-long excursions back to Miami to work out with Dwyane Wade, all in an attempt to keep his body at its physical peak. He reportedly spends $1.5 million a year on his body – replicating the team’s workout facility in his own home, on personal trainers, and masseuses. This relentless preparation has led to a remarkable career, one in which he has never missed a playoff game, but putting himself in the best position to hold the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the year makes it less likely that he’ll also be named league MVP. If he coasts through the regular season and Kevin Durant and Steph Curry both sabotage each other’s chances, who should be considered the favorite to win this year?
Russell Westbrook is the conventional favorite given what he did when Durant was hurt in 2014-15, and Vegas agrees with a +200 line. The next three with the highest odds are the aforementioned Curry, Durant, and James. Russ is basically guaranteed to put up huge numbers – his career numbers without Durant in the lineup are 28/7/8, while “only” 21/5/8 when Durant was playing. The problem is when Durant was out in 2014-15, the Thunder went 22-19. Sure, Russ may be good enough to drag the team into the playoffs by himself, and the emergence of Steven Adams along with the addition of Victor Oladipo will help, but the departures of Durant and Serge Ibaka will bring about a decline in the win column. There hasn’t been an MVP on a team with fewer than 50 wins since 1984. Oklahoma City’s over/under is set at 45.5 wins, so let’s assume that disqualifies Westbrook. We’re left with James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, one of the Clippers, or one of the Kentucky bigs making a huge leap in wins for their team (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins).
James Harden has put up MVP-caliber numbers since being traded to the Rockets, winning the NBAPA MVP in 14-15, but he was inexplicably left off all of the All-NBA teams last season because the Rockets went from the Western Conference Finals to a .500 team. That, and the fact that he gets roasted for his notable lack of effort on defense. Even with the video evidence to the contrary, Harden’s defensive rating for his career is 106, which is not terrific, but not horrible. For reference, Kobe Bean Bryant’s career defensive rating
is was 105.47, and he was All-NBA Defense 12 times! His offensive rating is a staggering 117, good for 18th best all time. It’s pretty incredible that he was largely ignored despite putting up 29/8/6. Mike D’Antoni’s offense will potentially even improve those numbers, if only through an increased pace, and his assist numbers should theoretically increase from passing to Ryan Anderson (36% from 3) and Eric Gordon (38%) on the wing instead of Corey Brewer (27%), KJ McDaniels (28%), and Josh Smith (29%). The addition by subtraction of Dwight Howard, and bringing in shooters to surround Harden is going to make one of the most explosive offenses in the league, behind only the Warriors. The Rockets have a very realistic shot to be back in the mix at the top of the Western Conference and may battle the Clippers and Spurs for the #2 seed. With his odds set at +1000, he’s by far the best value pick because he may have the most realistic shot of anyone, in my mind, to win it.
Kawhi Leonard’s force of personality, or lack thereof, may hurt his chances. He’s a perfect San Antonio Spur in his earnest approach, and he reflects the city in the same way that Houston’s cavalier attitude toward zoning laws matches Harden’s (and D’Antoni’s) open lack of effort on defense. They’re just going to do what they do. Harden won’t provide you with fake hustle (s/o Chuck) like, say, Andrew Wiggins (I love you but your off-ball defense and complete inability to rebound has been largely disappointing and I know that will change this year under Thibs <33) but it won’t even matter this year because they are going to score so many points it’s going to be hard for anyone to keep up. It doesn’t matter if you give up 115 points a night if you’re scoring 120. Anyway, Kawhi’s great and will probably win Defensive Player of the Year again because everyone hates Draymond, but without another massive leap from him, 21/7/6 probably isn’t an MVP-caliber year. He has to prove that he can be the guy in San Antonio now that Tim Duncan has retired, and Manu Ginobili will likely follow soon. There will be people that claim he’s the Best Player in the League if he continues to improve on offense and maintains his elite defense, but he probably just won’t ever be able to put up some of the impressive raw numbers that some other guys will, and that doesn’t matter because the Spurs are gonna Spur.
For Paul George or one of the Clippers to win, they’ll need to have an unexpected season. At this point, we basically know what the Clippers are and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin probably hurt each other’s chances in the same way KD hurts Steph’s chances, though to a lesser extent. They’re both going to put up huge numbers but it’s not going to be clear if either one is even the MVP of their own team, let alone the league. For Paul George to improve significantly on his 23/7/4 season, the Pacers will need to push the pace (sorry) like Larry Legend claimed he wants them to. He can say that, but he hired Nate McMillan to replace Frank Vogel, and McMillan’s teams were one of the four slowest teams in the league eight out of the ten years he’s been a head coach, and never in the top half. In fact, he ranks 92nd out of 95 eligible coaches in pace since 2001. He’s not going to help George’s numbers improve simply by giving him more chances like D’Antoni will do for Harden.
KAT will win the MVP eventually. I firmly believe that, but unless the Wolves make a 2009 Thunder type of a leap (not out of the question (yes, I am a massive homer)), I don’t see it happening this year, though I think he’s a lock for All-NBA center. Even if Anthony Davis is healthy all year (he’s already hurt again), the Pelicans don’t really have anything around him to help him make any noise in the Western Conference. He’s starting to feel like a fragile KG (from his first run in Minnesota). They only put enough talent around him one year and they made it to the WCF but then it all imploded and we handed him to the Celtics for Al Jefferson and a parade of bums and then they used him to win a championship and after that they were able to bait the Nets to mortgage their whole future in order to attain them, setting the Celtics up to be the team that loses to LeBron in the Eastern Conference Finals for years to come. All because Kevin McHale is buddies with Danny Ainge. But I don’t harbor any resentments because now the Wolves have KAT, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, and Thibs.
Now DeMarcus Cousins might have a real shot if Dave Joerger is a Boogie Whisperer, but given the Rudy Gay situation, it’s pretty unlikely that the Kings could pull out enough wins to make that realistic. 27/12/3 is pretty great, but also hollow when it comes in Sacramento. Maybe if the Celtics gave up some of their #ValuableAssets to get him, he could make it happen there, but how many MVP’s get traded in the middle of the year? You guessed it, zero. Steve Kerr thinks Damian Lillard will take it home and Lillard acknowledges that he’s gunning for the award. It’s unsurprising because Lillard is probably the only player in the league that can be realistically compared to the back-to-back MVP Steph Curry. He consistently takes the ridiculous long 3’s, and he can make them, but Steph shot a historic 50% from the field, 40% from 3, and 90% from the line (officially 50/45/91, where Lillard was 42/38/89). He’s widely acknowledged as a great leader in the locker room; if he can become a little more efficient and continue Portland’s upward trajectory, he may be a good dark horse candidate at 28-1 odds, but that’s banking on Evan Turner not ruining the dynamic backcourt of Lillard and McCollum, who both need to have the ball in their hands.
Giannis Antetokuonmpo may eventually win one, but with Khris Middleton being out for the year, the Bucks are going to have a rough time. They already were weak on shooters, but now they’ll have to rely heavily on Matthew Dellevadova and Mirza Teletovic. Point Giannis will wreck havoc on the league and he may even keep pace with Russ and Draymond on triple-doubles, but until one of the young Bucks develops a jump shot, Jason Kidd’s going to have a hard time turning this team into a real contender.
So there you have it, James Harden is your 2016-17 NBA MVP (probably).