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.

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

Here’s Why Kevin Durant Isn’t Going Anywhere

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Not going anywhere. (Bart Young / NBAE / Getty Images)

For the past three weeks, the internet is abuzz with stories floating on the speculative nature of Kevin Durant’s impending summer. Rumors range from just plain I-need-to-submit-a-column silly (and admittedly implausible) Durant to the Nets, to the wishful Lakers scenario which was promptly stripped of its legs here and dismissed here, and feel good ideas of Durant playing with longtime USA Basketball colleague Anthony in NYC or even returning home to Washington.

Before we move on, KD addressed free agency at his media availability during the NBA All Star Weekend here. “I want to finish this thing out with my team. I think we got a really good thing going right now”

The biggest, most stupid, and atrociously insane idea is the KD to Golden State rumor. The nightmare it seems. Oooh I’m scared! What a load of rubbish.

Now imagine this scenario. It is mid August and Warriors owner Lacob is addressing the media alongside Coach Kerr and Curry, fresh off beating the Cavaliers in a six game series for their second NBA Championship in a row, coming on the heels of a 75-7 regular season record, the best since the 95-96 Bulls 72-10 season. Lacob is addressing the media, and proceeds to say. “I really like what we have going here. We have one of the three best players in the League, the League’s best regular season record, and I’m confident of seeing ourselves repeating this year. I’m having a lot of fun. But I  need to make this better. So let me lay all rumors and assumptions to rest. Next season, we are going to sign Kevin Durant.” Stop. Hold. I cannot go on. I almost threw up in my mouth. And my fingers want to self amputate.

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“You oughta join us big guy” – said no one ever.

Remember when the Bulls wanted to sign Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway after the 95-96 season? No? Exactly my point.

I will come back to the Durant angle, so let’s look at this from the Warriors point of view. You do not need to be a basketball expert to see why any change of any sort in the makeup of this team is illogical. Hell, you don’t even have to be a basketball fan to witness the joy and fun with which this team gels together and plays the game of basketball in the most beautiful way possible. The right way. Every piece fits, Curry is transcendent as a player / teammate / leader, and through some sheer stroke of luck gets to play with the second best shooter in the league in Thompson, all the while their hybrid forward Draymond Green causes all kinds of havoc running, passing and shooting like a guard and playing center in crunch time, defending players that have anywhere between 3 – 5 inches and 10-15 pounds on him. Proof that these guys are doing it right? Despite all that talent ahead of him Igoudala, a premier D & 3 guy nevertheless, was Finals MVP in a Championship year! Barnes, drafted by Golden State, has been there from the beginning,  Bogut (despite the career low in MPG and PPG) is shooting a near career best from the field because of impeccable ball movement, Livingston has found his element showing us traces of what could’ve been had it not been for that nasty injury in ’07. Rounding off the team with Ezeli, Barbosa, Speights and occasionally Ian Clark and Brandon Rush, and you have the near perfect basketball team. So perfect, in fact, that aside from Klay and Curry, none of these players would thrive on any other NBA team the way they thrive in Golden State. Individually they may have faults, but as a team they are near perfect. Just like those 95-96 Bulls. To even suggest that there is an inkling of an intention to blow this up  by trading and / or renouncing nearly 1/4th the team to sign another alpha star, who everyone knows will not move to Golden State (more on this in a bit), is not just ridiculous, but borderline stupid. And I would completely be in support of Lacob calling a press conference with Kerr by his side and the team at his elbows, telling the world where exactly they can put this Durant to Warriors idea. Hint: It is a dark dark place.

But I digress.

Anyone who has followed Durant’s career, even fleetingly so, knows he is exceedingly loyal. To a fault.:

Flashback to 1995. After reeling off  three back to back 50+ wins regular seasons, the latter two of which ended in an NBA Finals loss to the Houston Rockets (’95) and a loss to eventual NBA Champions the Chicago Bulls (’96), Shaquille O’Neal had two choices. Stay on and continue to build on his legacy in Orlando, or move to L.A. to start afresh with the Lakers and young high school phenom, Kobe Bryant.

Flashback to 2010.  After reeling off two back to back 60+ wins regular season records both ending in losses to eventual NBA Finalists the Orlando Magic (’09) and the Boston Celtics (’10), Lebron James had two choices. Stay on in Cleveland and continue build on his legacy in Cleveland, or move to Miami to form the Big Three there by increasing his odds of winning an NBA Championship.

harden exception
The (unfulfilled) Legacy.

Flashback 2012. After reeling off three 45+ wins regular season records seasons where they went deeper in the playoffs every year, eventually losing to NBA Champions Miami Heat, Kevin Durant had two choices, stay on in OKC and continue to build on his legacy in OKC despite losing one of his closest friends and one of the OKC big three James Harden in one of the worst deals in NBA history, or force a trade to a better situation on any team he wanted. Literally, any team.

We all know what happened in each of the three situations. Lebron scooted to Miami and reeled off two championships in four years, Shaq moved to the Lakers and won three championships.

Durant? Well, Durant stayed loyal and stayed put, fighting his way till this very day all the while carrying the burden of terrible management decisions year-on-year. Now yes, pundits will argue, and I will agree that Lebron and Shaq were free agents, and Durant had just signed his first max contract post his rookie contract. But to dismiss the fact that Durant could’ve thrown a “superstar tantrum” and forced his way out of OKC, considering that the OKC management did not know what it was doing as evidenced by the Harden fiasco, is being naive. Instead, Durant chose to stick by his team and his running mate Westbrook, who felt just as let down in the Harden fiasco.

Fast forward to 2016, the Thunder have the third best record in the league, behind the Warriors and the Spurs who are boasting historically great runs, and finally have a team where the pieces fit.

Ibaka has gotten better with each passing year, Kanter is turning out to be better than expected, and the usual suspects in Adams, Payne and Morrow are doing their bit.

FILE - In this March 8, 2015, file photo, injured Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, left, pumps his fist as teammates Enes Kanter, center, and Steven Adams, right, cheer during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Toronto Raptors in Oklahoma City. Durant will have bone graft surgery next week to deal with a fractured bone in his right foot, and he will miss the rest of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced Friday, March 27, 2015.  (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
The pieces are there (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

But the most important bit is, no matter who they are matched up against in the playoffs, they will have two if the three best players in that series. Simply put, do you really want to meet OKC in a Game 7, when they have two of the three best players in the series suiting up for them? Didn’t think so.

There are a bunch articles explaining why KD renewing for year makes the most financial sense for him. But I don’t believe its about money for KD. This is about chasing a legacy that very few players can boast off…winning a championship with the team that drafted you. And that is what, I believe, KD cares about the most.