We are one year removed from the first time the NBA crowning its first ever unanimous regular season Most Valuable Player. We may not be that lucky this year.
Stephen Curry, also MVP in 2015, averaged 30.1 points a game and led the Golden State Warriors to a historic regular season, tallying a record 73 wins in 82 games. The season would have been capped with a Championship, had the Warriors’ quest not been thwarted by an equally historic, record-breaking comeback by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This season, things are quite different. At the time of writing this, there are at least six players that have a solid case to win regular season MVP. Two-time MVP Curry, isn’t one of them. Nor is 2014 MVP Kevin Durant.
The case for MVP is simple. If Player X were not to suit up for Team X, would Team X, (a) win as many, if not more games, and (b) make the playoffs?. For Curry, his incredibly talented (and now partially injured) Warriors’ roster, works against his case for MVP this season. Without Curry, a core of Durant/Green/Thompson can, most certainly win as many (if not more) games and would most likely be the favourites to win the title, let alone make the playoffs. Replace Durant with Curry, and you have the 2015 and 2016 Warriors, who were NBA Champions and finalists respectively.
Even without Curry and Durant, the Warriors’ have the luxury of trotting out Livingston/Thompson/Green/Igoudala/Pachulia as their death line-up with Ian Clark (who has been great for them) and David West coming off the bench. That’s a 40-win playoff team in the West in this season (Denver Nuggets, seeded eighth is on pace to finish with 37 wins). There is no doubt that both Curry and Durant rank among the ten best basketball players alive, but is their impact on the Warriors’ more than, say…
1. Kawhi Leonard on the San Antonio Spurs
- (25.9 PPG / 3.4 APG / 5.9 RPG / 1.8 SPG / 49%-38%-89% Shooting splits: Field Goal %, 3-point %, Free Throw %)
Leonard’s rise from 2014 NBA Finals MVP has been spectacular. His numbers have soared in the season following the Trophy, and this season is no different. With Tim Duncan gone, much of Spurs’ offence now runs through Leonard, making him the target of double teams every night. Leonard has adjusted well, breaching the 25 ppg mark, a career high, despite a slight dip in his shooting numbers (51-44-87 last season). However, ever since he was blessed with Tim Duncan in the 1997 NBA Draft, Popovich has only seen winning seasons (Winning season = more wins than losses in the regular season and vice versa). While much of the Spurs’ success can be attributed to Duncan, Pop gets due credit for steadying the boat against the tide of an aging roster for years. As great as he is, and will continue to be, Leonard needs Pop as he leads the Spurs to the second best record in the NBA and their quest for a sixth title. Unlike...
2. John Wall on the Washington Wizards
- (22.7 PPG / 10.8 APG / 4.5 RPG / 2.0 SPG / 45%-32%-82%)
Wall’s style is similar to that of another great point guard, Chris Paul. He is a pass-first defensive point guard who can score when he needs to take over the game. After six seasons of wading through mediocre, inconsistent rosters, Wall finally has the healthy and competitive roster he needs to complement his talent. The proof? Wall is averaging a career high 10.8 assists per game, second only to fellow MVP candidate, James Harden. Wall’s also leads the Wizards with 22.7 points per game and 2.0 steals per game, both career highs. Under his leadership, the Wizards overcame a mediocre start to the season (16-16 through 31-Dec), to become one of just four teams with 20 wins in 2017 (other teams being GSW, SAS and BOS). Wall’s importance to the Wizards is also evident in the fact that the Wizards are nearly 13 points worse (per 100 possessions) when Wall isn’t on the floor. Even with a healthy Bradley Beal, a breakout season by Otto Porter Jr. and a fast rising Kelly Oubre Jr., it is hard to imagine the Wizards enjoying much success without Wall. Much like...
3. Isaiah Thomas on the Boston Celtics
- (29.4 PPG / 6.2 APG / 2.7 RPG / 46%-38%-91%)
The last time the NBA had a more prolific fourth quarter scorer? Never. The 5’9” Thomas is scoring a league-leading 10.8 ppg in the fourth quarter. What seemed like an anomaly at first, is now become routine for the Celtics and Thomas. Anomalies do not last 62 games into the season. Opponents do not matter, as evidenced by his late three against the reigning NBA Champions. Thomas thrives in the big moment and enjoys the pressure that comes with being “the man” in the fourth quarter. However, while this works in the regular season, Thomas and the Celtics will need a sturdier strategy in the playoffs. With refs letting the lighter fouls slip by, a seasoned defensive team like the Cavaliers will get physical with Thomas much before he touches the ball. Couple that with Thomas’ height as a defensive liability (Celtics defensive rating touches a league leading 101.8 when Thomas is off the floor as opposed to 113.0 when he’s on it.), and you have a team that desperately needs a bigger, more physical player to step up in the clutch. That reminds us of…
4. Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder
- (31.7 PPG / 10.1 APG / 10.7 RPG / 42%-34%-84%)
Video game numbers. It’s the only way to describe what Westbrook is putting up this season. It’s been a few decades (55 years to be precise) since an NBA player averaged a triple double for a whole season. With just 20 games to go, a repeat of that glorious feat is very real. Westbrook has given new meaning to the term triple-double threat. One could argue that these numbers are warranted in light of the mediocre team that Westbrook has been given. That’s a fair assumption, considering that the Thunder are a league-leading 14 points worse when Westbrook is not on the floor.
Historically, however, there has never been an MVP whose team has not finished in the top four of their conference. Even Iverson, whose style of play can be compared to Westbrook’s this season, led the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to the best record and No. 1 seed in the East. So as great as Westbrook’s season is, he isn’t...
5. LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers
- (25.9 PPG / 8.9 APG / 8.0 RPG / 54%-40%-69%)
The famous saying, “He plays chess, while the rest play checkers”, could very well be about LeBron James. Take another look at James’s career numbers and you will realize that, barring his rookie season, they are the epitome of consistency. It is astonishing that at age 32 and season 14, James has found a way to average a career high 8.9 apg while playing 37.6 minutes a game (second behind Kyle Lowry). That spike in assists can either be attributed to the Cavaliers’ lack of depth at point guard, or chalked up to James’ greatness. Except for the slump a few weeks ago (where they lost 7 of 11 games), the Cavaliers continue to play like NBA Champions and look primed to repeat under James’ leadership. Unless their plans are derailed by...
6. James Harden on the Houston Rockets
- (28.8 PPG / 11.3 APG / 8.0 RPG / 44%-35%-85%)
Happy Harden equals Happy NBA Fans. Harden’s ability to score was never in doubt. What is unexpected is this outburst of scoring, not seen in the NBA since the late 70’s / early 80’s when defenses were absent, and nearly every possession was an open layup. Harden’s shot chart, looks like a one-eyed smiling monster. Scoring 50 points in a single game is a herculean task in itself. Harden’s taken it a step further by dropping not one, but two 50-point triple-doubles this season. Harden has proven that the Rockets can make a deep playoff run with him as the best players. On any other team he is just another great scorer. On the 2016-17 season, Rockets assembled precisely for Harden? He is a probable NBA Champion.
My pick for the 2017 NBA MVP: James Harden.
Best of the week:
Performance of the Week: Russell Westbrook vs Utah Jazz, 43 pts/10 asts/11 rebs
Triple-doubles are Westbrook’s thing. Still, a 43-point triple-double, including 12 points in the last 2:05, in a win over the third best defence in the league deserves this week’s top spot. Uncharacteristically, Westbrook was incredibly efficient going six-of-nine from three-point land, and finishing a +10 plus-minus efficiency rating to lead all players. Oh yes, one more thing, Russell had four 40-point games this week. Yes, four.
Game of the Week: Boston Celtics vs Cleveland Cavaliers, 103-99
The contenders were strong this week. There were the OT games: Clippers vs Hornets, and Pistons vs Trail Blazers. There was also the Rockets vs. Timberwolves, a just-another-day-at-the-office 272-point game. However, it’s hard to look away when two playoff contenders battle it out in a regular season game so close to the playoffs. Granted, the Cavaliers were without Love and were yet to suit up Bogut, but the Celtics matched the reigning NBA Champions, basket for basket, punch for punch, prompting Thomas wax eloquently, “Nobody holds me in check...I average 30 points for a reason”
Player of the Week: DeMar DeRozan, 31.5 PPG / 2.8 APG / 7.8 RPG / 50%-42%-85%
When Lowry went down to injury, everyone expected this of DeRozan. He delivered and didn’t miss a beat. In the absence of his running mate, DeRozan rallied his new look Raptors to a 3-1 record in the week while topping 30 points in each of those wins, including a 37-point outing against the New York Knicks, which the Raptors won (92-91) on DeRozan’s game winning shot. The lone loss (105-96) came against conference rivals, the Washington Wizards. Expect DeRozan to continue to hold fort as newly acquired Serge Ibaka and C.J. Tucker find their groove in Toronto, eventually forming one of the more formidable lineups in the NBA when Lowry returns.
Team of the Week: Dallas Mavericks
Nowitzki dares us to bet against him and his band of brothers in Dallas. The Mavericks (seeded 12) is just three games behind, Denver who carry an abysmal 28-35 record. What makes this interesting is that Mavericks share a similar position with both Minnesota (11) and Sacramento (10). Even if Dallas fail to make the playoffs, it is fun watching them spring losses on unsuspecting playoff bound teams like the Cavaliers (104-97) and the San Antonio Spurs (105-101). All this while, Dirk, one of the greatest power forwards in NBA history, inches towards becoming just the sixth player to score 30,000 points in a career. The other five? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Nowitzki will also join Bryant and Malone as the only players to have tallied that total with a single team their entire career.