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.

The Wizards’ John Wall Seeks To Disrupt The NBA’s Pecking Order

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on February 13, 2017

With four minutes and 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter of a thriller against the reigning NBA champions, John Wall uses the screen distraction from teammate Bradley Beal to blow past his defender Kyrie Irving, only to be greeted at the rim by two more defenders, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love.

Everyone senses the play is done. Not John Wall. He splits the two defenders with a slick euro-step, gets them both in the air, and lobs a pretty looking layup off the glass between them, making it seem as though it were part of the plan. The play makes John Wall look like a star. The kind of star that ought to lead his team to the playoffs every year. The kind of star that ought to be playing point guard in the NBA Finals. The kind of star that ought to be the best player on a Championship team.

John Wall ought to be that star. He is not. Yet.

Over the past four seasons, the Washington Wizards have settled into a routine of mediocrity. Keep one of the NBA’s three best backcourts (Beal and Wall) intact, and barely make or miss the playoffs. In NBA speak, this is called “no man’s land”, i.e, not good enough to compete for a championship, and not terrible enough to land a top draft pick.

No man’s land

Coming into the 2016-‘17 season, then, the Wizards were hoping to dramatically alter that routine by snaring superstar free agent Kevin Durant who grew up in Maryland, a state that shares a border with Washington. The preparations began the previous season, when they did not extend Beal’s deal, did not add any talent or contracts of significance to their roster, and even signed on former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks as their Head Coach, believing that they had a real shot at landing Durant.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, Durant did not even give them a meeting, let alone consider coming back home, putting a huge dent in not only the team’s Championship hopes, but also the probability at landing a superstar in the future. Sensing a semblance of doom to the season if they did not take immediate action, they hastily signed Beal to a monstrous deal for five years at $130 million (approx), and fortified their depth at centre by signing Ian Mahinmi for 4 years at $64 million (approx).

In all this commotion, everyone, including yours truly, wondered if this was fair to John Wall, the Wizards’ only star.

That the Wizards are Wall’s team is beyond any doubt. He has been the team’s most consistent player in the last six seasons, steadily getting better every season. In fact, Wall is the only Wizards player still on the roster from his rookie season 2010-‘11, when he caught the tail end of the tumultuous Gilbert Arenas era. Two of his running mates this season, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter Jr, have been with him for just three seasons, with Kelly Oubre Jr and Morris joining the roster just last season. Even Beal, one of the NBA’s top five shooting guards when healthy, has struggled to stay on the floor, playing just over 294 out of a possible 410 games in his five seasons with the Wizards.

Washington’s one true wizard: John Wall

With all the instability on the organisational front and on the floor, was it fair to blame Wall for the Wizards’ mediocrity? Irrespective of how easy the East is, it was unfair to burden Wall with the expectations of carrying a team that cannot hold on to talent, whose second best player sits out 30% of the season with injuries, or an organization that does not surround it’s star with the right talent to compete.

Things are looking up since last season. Beal is having his healthiest season (playing in 49 out of 53 games) since 2013-‘14 and showing signs of reaching his potential of becoming the best shooting guard in the NBA. Gortat is a still a pick and roll threat, despite not having added range to his shot over the summer. Add to that the development of Porter (quietly the NBA’s number best three-point shooter at 46%) and Oubre into legit threats on both sides of the ball (offensively & defensively), and Wizards’ fans can be assured that, subject to this core staying healthy and together they have a legitimate chance at going deep into the Playoffs.

Wall has had a ton of reasons to complain. He has not this far. It is not his style. However, with this core in place, he has no more reasons. More importantly, he recognizes the moment. Stepping up to the challenge he is dishing out the ball at a career high 10.5 assists per game, second only to James Harden, while also stepping up his commitment on defense to steal the ball 2.2 times per game, second to league leading Chris Paul. He is also averaging a career highs in 23.0 PPG while shooting a solid 45.4% from the field.

Everything seems to be clicking at the time of this article. Washington are the second best team in 2017 with a 16-5 record (two losses more than the Golden State Warriors who also have 16 wins). They are in the top-10 in nearly every offensive and defensive category, and have quietly climbed into the third spot in the Eastern Conference.

The ball is now in John Wall’s court. Can he disrupt the NBA’s pecking order?