The Race For The 2017 NBA MVP Is Closer Than We Think

At least, six players have a solid case to win the award this year and none of them are Stephen Curry.

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on March 6, 2017

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…

6. 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…

5. 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…

4. 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…

3. 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…

2. 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…

1. 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.

Can Vivek Ranadive Competently Rebuild Sacramento Kings From Here?

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on March 1, 2017

Consider, for a moment, the following statistics for a group of players this season.

Group Purple

(Points / Assists / Rebs/ St’ocks (Steals + Blocks) / FG% / 3Pt% / FT%)

  • Player A (Center / Age 26): 27.6 / 4.8 / 10.7 / 2.7 / 45.4% / 35% / 77.3%
  • Player B (Center / Age 27): 16.7 / 0.7 / 14.1 / 2.9 / 55.4% / 0% / 57.8% (does not attempt 3’s)
  • Player C (Guard / Age 28): 29.6 / 6.2 / 2.8 / 1.0 / 46% / 38.3% / 91.3%

For discussion purposes, let us assume these three players are on a single team. Add three or four reliable role/bench players, a couple of playoff-tested veterans and a competent coach.

The question is, can they make the playoffs in an uber competitive Western Conference? Without doubt.

Can they win 55+ games and take home-court advantage into the Playoffs? Absolutely.

Can they make it to the NBA Finals? Yes, they can (barring untimely injury).

Who is Group Purple? The 2016-‘17 Sacramento Kings, had they not traded away DeMarcus Cousins (A) and Isaiah Thomas (C), and not banished Hassan Whiteside (B) to the NBA Development League, eventually cutting him off.

Do not believe me? Then let us consider another group of players from two seasons ago.

Group Yellow

  • Player A (Guard / Age 26): 23.8 / 7.7 / 4.3 / 2.2 / 48% / 44.3% / 91.4%
  • Player B (Forward / Age 24): 11.7 / 7.3 / 9.5 / 2.9 / 44.3% / 33.7% / 69.6%
  • Player C (Guard / Age 25): 21.7 / 2.9 / 3.2 / 46.3% / 43.9% / 87.9%

They had four reliable role/bench players, three playoff-tested vets and a competent coach.

Let us run those questions again:

Did they make the playoffs in an uber competitive Western Conference? Yes, they did.

Did they win 55+ games and take home-court advantage into the Playoffs? They won 67.

Did they make it to the NBA Finals? Actually, they became NBA Champions.

Who is Group Yellow? The 2014-‘15 Golden State Warriors, featuring Stephen Curry (A), Draymond Green (B) and Klay Thompson (C).

From the frying pan into the fire?

The Maloofs, the Vegas millionaires who owned the Kings before Ranadivé’s consortium, had a strange run. On one hand they oversaw some of the greatest Kings’ teams and would have ended up with a couple of championships if not for untimely injuries, or a historically great shot. On the other hand, the Kings franchise, who were beacons for “honesty and loyalty to core players and local community” (ranked third in ESPN The Mag’s Ultimate Team Rankings) dangled the team in a bidding war and initially agreed to relocate the Kings to Seattle for a deal worth nearly $625 million.

Enter Sacramento mayor and NBA Legend Kevin Johnson, and a group led by Vivek Ranadivé, formerly a minority owner of the Golden State Warriors, who after much intervention from the league (NBA Board of Governors), convinced the Maloofs to keep the franchise in Sacramento and sell it for a then record price of $534 million, with the promise to the league and the city of Sacramento that they would build a spanking new stadium in a couple of years.

Ranadivé delivered on the state of the art and jaw dropping stadium.

But he did not deliver on much else.

A series of questionable decisions

Ever since taking the reins in Sacramento, the franchise has been in a free fall of sorts with instability in everything ranging from coaches to players and front office personnel. The Kings have had three coaches in the three seasons since Ranadivé took over. His first order of business as owner, in a move then widely believed to be a display of prompt action, was signing off on a trade that sent his second best player Tyreke Evans, to New Orleans in a three-team deal that netted the Kings Greivis Vasquez, a guard who is not in the NBA anymore.

Next season he traded away Isaiah Thomas, once again his second best player no less, to the Phoenix Suns to get a $7 million trade exception (basically, save some cash) and someone called Alex Oriakhi (who has never played an NBA game, and is not in the NBA anymore).

He then fired Mike Malone barely six games into the season, only to hire an aging, out-of-tough George Karl mid-season. This is still among the most inexplicable moves he has made considering that Malone was the first coach that Cousins genuinely liked and respected.

After all that damage, you would think Ranadivé was done. But as a New Yorker article said, “He [Ranadivé] was not one to accept losing easily”.

Among the most lopsided deals in NBA history

Amongst the 2017 NBA All-Star festivities, Ranadivé traded away DeMarcus Cousins, his best player, and one of the ten best players in the league to New Orleans for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans (remember him from earlier?) and a 2017 second round pick. The deal has already been raised to be included among the most lopsided deals in NBA history. It is not hard to see why.

Cousins is downright unguardable. The only chink in his armour was his range, which he has extended well beyond the 3-point line this season. His ability to score at will in one-on-one situations, which at times make him look like a Hall-Of-Famer, is what makes him such a threat in the pick-and-roll as well. Teams cannot switch on him, and if they do, cannot leave the defensive task to just one player. Defensively too, he can be among the league’s elite centres when motivated, even stepping out to get quicker guards to change direction.

There is no doubt the Kings are threadbare at the time of writing this. They would need to tank, and tank soon. Cousins’s brilliance in the first half of the season had left them competing for the eighth spot in the West. With the Kings’ making it clear that they are in rebuild mode, fans of the franchise ought to expect a whole lot of losing in the last third of the season. Why? Because Sacramento has traded away its 2017 first round draft pick, protected 1-3, which means, New Orleans owns Sacramento’s pick it if falls between 4-30.

Yes, Sacramento have a decent record at the Draft. Not enviable, but decent. However, the 2017 draft is loaded, and they are not the only team competing for a bonanza, come June. Even if they begin tanking as early as next month they are way behind Brooklyn, Lakers, Philadelphia and Phoenix in the 2017 Draft race.

Assuming they get that pick, and Hield lives up to his “Steph Curry potential”, the Kings’ front office have done absolutely nothing to assure free agents that they are an organisation worth playing for. The questionable trades aside, the Kings’ biggest blot on their reputation comes in the form of false promise they made just weeks before the trade, both publicly and to Cousins personally, that trading him was out of the question. If the Kings could do this to their star player, and one of the ten best players in the league, what chance do other players stand against the whims of a front office that, at least at this moment, does not seem to know what they are doing.

The fall from grace of this once great franchise has been quite a dramatic one. Try as he can, Ranadivé cannot avoid responsibility for this drama. A drama that threatens to continue at least for a few more seasons if drastic measures are taken to correct the path. The solution had been fairly simple for Sacramento. Hold on to your star player, give him stability in the coach’s corner, and surround him with competent professional players that will show up every night. The Kings had all these lined up for them three seasons ago. They, led by Ranadive’s strange whims, whittled it all away.

It will take nothing short of a miracle to put them in that exact, or similar, enviable position again.

Are We Taking Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas’ NBA MVP Campaign Seriously Enough?

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 16, 2017.

With seven minutes and 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a close game, the following sequence takes place:

7:53. Player X comes off a screen to receive the ball at the wing.

7:52: He fires a three-point attempt

7:51: Realises the attempt will fall short and runs toward the rim

7:50: Grabs the rebound and attempts a putback while in air

7:49: Makes the shot with a soft touch off the glass

You would be pardoned if you thought player X was a 6 feet 6 inch NBA superstar veteran maybe with a couple of championships under his belt. You would also be very wrong on all counts.

Isaiah Thomas (named after the Hall Of Fame Detroit Pistons point guard) nearly missed making it into the NBA. Picked 60th (the last pick in the NBA Draft) by the Sacramento Kings, Thomas carried no expectations on his small shoulders. Listed among his most glaring of weaknesses were “decision-making ability” and “size”. What could anyone hope for from a 5’9” guard, when even Nate Robinson, who Thomas was compared to, was 5’11” and a journeyman at best?

Well, Thomas had other intentions.

From benchwarmer to starter

In his first season as point guard for the struggling Kings, Thomas quickly established himself as a fiery competitor who showed no mercy if the defense gave him an open lane to the basket. He quickly rose from benchwarmer to a starter, starting 37 of his team’s 65 games averaging nearly 12 points per game and five assists per game finishing seventh in the Rookie of the Year voting behind stars like Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.

When the Celtics traded for Thomas in February 2015, all they expected of him was to be the off-the-bench offensive burst of energy he was at Phoenix. Thomas complied, marginally raising his scoring to 19.0 points per game for the 21 games remaining that season. The Celtics were satisfied. Thomas was not.

The subsequent summer, Thomas put in the hours, honing his skills and turning himself into even more of an offensive force breaching the 20 points per game mark (22.2 ppg) for the first time in his career. As the starting point guard for the Celtics, Thomas, along with basketball wizard coach Brad Stevens, led a team with mediocre but tough-as-nails talent to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and the playoffs before falling to the Atlanta Hawks six games. In the meanwhile, Thomas earned himself a trip to his first All-Star game as one of the 12 best players in the Eastern Conference.

This season, as the famous saying goes, is a whole other ball game.

Thomas has blossomed into an offensive threat that has left NBA defences befuddled. They are just not used to dealing with scoring guards this small. Defenders (guards) are always a step too late to catch Thomas off the dribble or taking a shot, and big men are no match for Thomas’ craftiness around the rim.

A whole other ball game

He is scoring a career high 28.2 points per game (fourth behind Harden, Davis and Westbrook) and dishing out the ball at a career high 6.2 assists per game (leading an efficient Celtics team that is tied third in the league with 24.9 apg). He leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring with 9.9 ppg. So if anything, he enjoys the attention defences pay to him and finds a way to thrive under pressure.

Wrap those numbers up with Thomas’s free throw percentage (90.7%, leading all players that attempt at least seven free throws a game) and Thomas has squarely placed himself in the conversation about the ten best players in the NBA.

What about the conversation for 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player?

Russell Westbrook and James Harden are putting on a show. Tallying historically great numbers consistently every night, single-handedly keeping their teams in contention and showing no signs of slowing down, both superstar guards could not make their case for MVP any stronger.

In the event of an injury to their respective superstars, both the Thunder and the Rockets would find it difficult to make the playoffs, let alone stay in contention for the Championship.

Which brings us to the Celtics.

Despite the blockbuster move to bring veteran All-Star Al Horford into the lineup, the Celtics most important player is Isaiah Thomas. The offense runs through him and he thrives with the ball in his hands, which works since none of the other Celtics need the ball to be effective and contribute. Also with the arrival of Al Horford’s dangerous inside-out game, Avery Bradley coming into his own at the offensive end, and Crowder continuing to get better, Thomas has multiple people to take the attention off him.

All this points to the fact that the Celtics are worse off without Isaiah Thomas. Maybe more so than the Rockets would be. Thomas is the Celtics floor leader, and when he is not on the floor playing point, the Celtics struggle mightily.

While his numbers are not as gaudy as Westbrook’s or Harden’s, Thomas is critical to the success and championship contention for one of the top ten teams in the NBA That in itself, is sufficient to place him squarely in the conversation for the 2017 NBA MVP.

Not bad for a 5 feet 9 inch guard who almost did not make it to the NBA.

JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol