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The 21 players who could win NBA MVP this season

With the Warriors stars stealing votes from each other, the NBA MVP race is wide open this year. Let’s break it down.

This is going to be a wild NBA MVP race
This is going to be a wild NBA MVP race
SB Nation illustration

Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors had an immense number of effects on the NBA. One of them is that Stephen Curry is now less likely to threepeat as the league’s MVP. His numbers and apparent value to Golden State should fall as a fellow MVP joins the lineup. Likewise, being next to Curry and the rest of the stacked Warriors should lower Durant’s own MVP hopes.

In Cleveland, meanwhile, LeBron James is clearly the best player in the world after his NBA Finals performance, yet he has every incentive to lighten up on the gas pedal throughout the regular season. Many other recent contenders are in strange spots, and a new guard is ascendant.

All of that adds up to a completely wide open MVP race as we approach opening night. To help sort it all out, here are 21 leading candidates for MVP sorted into tiers by type.

THE PODOLOFF CLUB

Recent MVPs who are still totally awesome.

Stephen Curry: The reigning two-time MVP set a number of records en route to becoming the first unanimous winner in history. Why wouldn’t he be a favorite to do it again? With Durant in town and the Warriors already admitting they won’t push for the wins record again, there’s little chance Curry matches his 2015-16 performance. There’s a real possibility he becomes even more efficient (if that’s even feasible in this astrophysical realm), but the per-game averages should fall enough to create an opening for someone else.

Kevin Durant: The 2013-14 MVP split votes with co-star Russell Westbrook last season, and he’ll split votes with Curry this year. Like Curry, KD could end up with truly unbelievable efficiency stats, especially if he’s deferential to his new teammates. But the expected lower per-game numbers combined with any residual backlash to his free agency decision should kill his MVP hopes as it did for LeBron in 2010-11. (The good news for Durant: LeBron won the MVP in ‘12 and ‘13.)

LeBron James: Speak of the devil god! There are two competing ideas about LeBron here. One is that he’ll continue to take the regular season relatively easy and be comfortable letting Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love cook more frequently. James isn’t getting any younger, and he has a strong idea that the Cavaliers can stumble into a high seed.

The competing idea is that LeBron sees an opening to claim a fifth MVP, tying Michael Jordan and closing on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Perhaps after ending the Warriors’ magical campaign in Game 7, LeBron wants to further remind Curry, KD, Draymond Green, and the world that he’s still the best. Why not?

THE BRIDESMAID CLUB

Recent second-place finishers just getting into their primes.

James Harden: Harden is going to put up N-U-M-B-E-R-S in Houston this season. Connected with Mike D’Antoni, who will push, and partnered with Patrick Beverley, who will defend and defer when he gets healthy again, Harden has essentially free reign to attack. As the declared point guard of the team, his (already high) usage rate should increase some more, and the per-game averages could approach 33-11-6. (For reference, he had 29-7.5-6 last season.) Those are MVP numbers!

But to get votes, he’ll need to put up a stronger effort on defense (as he did in 2014-15, when he finished No. 2 behind Curry) and the Rockets will need to be a playoff team. That might be a tougher ask than pulling MVP numbers for Harden.

Kawhi Leonard: Leonard finished No. 2 behind Curry last season. Had he not been competing with the best shooter ever having a historic season, he probably would have won. Alas.

Why is Kawhi such a compelling candidate? He’s the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, and he was the leading scorer and best three-point shooter on a 67-win team last season. He is the punchline to every NBA “get you a man who can do both” meme. And he’s my MVP favorite for the 2016-17 season.

THE NARRATIVE FAVORITE

Russell Westbrook: Westbrook became the people’s preseason MVP the second he re-upped with the Thunder in the wake of Kevin Durant’s vanishing. This has Derrick Rose 2011 written all over it, when the world recoiled at an elite player’s decision and searched for the salve.

That said, Westbrook is going to put up massive numbers. He’s already the people’s champion because of his attitude and aesthetic, and he’s been a legit MVP contender for four years now. If he wins it, chances are he will be highly qualified.

THE LEGEND IN WAITING

Anthony Davis: Last year was supposed to be The Brow’s takeover season. It didn’t happen, in part because the Pelicans were decimated and in part because Davis regressed just a bit (primarily on defense). New Orleans is very different in key ways — there’s a lot of defensive help now — but injuries and other misfortune is again hurting the roster. We’re not at the DEFCON level that led to Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson starting on opening night last October, but Davis is lacking his best teammates for the early part of the season.

If the Pelicans falter again, AD’s shot at the MVP might be lost again. If the Pels come raging back, he’s in the conversation.

THE REDEMPTIVE CASE

Blake Griffin: Here’s my No. 2 candidate behind Kawhi and he’s been a top-three player for stretches. Also, he might have ruined the Clippers’ season by breaking his hand when he punched a co-worker. Griffin deserved every bit of criticism and disappointment shot his way in 2015-16, which can turn that into redemption this season. L.A.’s depth is ... well, better than it has been in previous seasons, and the 50-win mark is easily attainable. Most are penciling the Clippers into the No. 2 or 3 spot in the West. That’s a lovely launching pad for an MVP campaign if Griffin puts up the numbers he’s capable of and doesn’t do anything dumb.

THE DARK HORSES

Paul George: Second-best player in the entire Eastern Conference. He was in the MVP conversation early last season before a) Curry made it all irrelevant, and b) he ran out of steam. If the Pacers surprise, PG-13 has a place in the discussion and maybe a case for a ballot spot.

Chris Paul: Man, CP3 is probably never going to win the MVP. If that’s the case, will he be one of the best ever players to never win an MVP trophy? He’ll be rubbing elbows with Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Rick Barry, and John Havlicek. Something truly magical would have to happen in L.A. for CP3 to beat the other contenders plus Griffin (whose numbers will always be more gaudy) for the award. Stranger things have happened.

John Wall: This is a point guard league, and Wall is one of the best. Washington has a chance to leap up the rankings thanks to a new coach and perhaps some health. If so, Wall will receive (and likely deserve) a bunch of the credit. We’ve seen point guards of much improved teams win MVP before! Several times, in fact! That’s Wall’s case (in addition to him, well, being very, very good).

THE DARKER HORSES

Carmelo Anthony: Let’s turn the Summer of Melo into the Year of Melo! But seriously, folks, celebrate and cherish who Melo has become as a human and a player.

Damian Lillard: One of the young gun point guards who could mess around and win an MVP one of these years. The Blazers are well poised for a midseason blockbuster trade. If they nab a dude who can launch them into the West’s top three and Lillard continues to grow as a player, look out.

Kyrie Irving: Here’s the conspiracy theory. LeBron wants to set up the twilight of his career. The best way to do that? Turn Kyrie into a Tier 1 superstar, so he can fully help carry the load. The best way to do that? Spend 2016-17 basking in the afterglow and setting Kyrie and Kevin Love up for success at every turn. Defer when deference is appropriate; boost when help is warranted. But focus on getting Irving to the next level at all regular season costs. (This is what Shaq should have done with Kobe!)

Al Horford: If Boston jumps into the 55-win range and challenges for the No. 1 seed, the Celtics will be deemed elite. They were technically tied for sixth place in the East last year. Such a jump requires reverence, and one suspects Horford would be the most obvious target.

Kyle Lowry: Toronto wins 60 games and Lowry has another career year, means he’s in the conversation.

THE VERY, VERY DARK HORSES

Giannis Antetokounmpo: He’s still only 21 years old! He’s the only non-LeBron player in the league who is his team’s best player at five positions.

Jimmy Butler: Butler does not seem copacetic with handing the reins of the Bulls over to Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. If he can be the alpha dog on this motley crew and Chicago ends up in good shape, he has a case.

Draymond Green: I think Green’s numbers will suffer in the shadow of Durant (as will those of Klay Thompson, a top-15 player not listed in this piece). But his combination of defense and essential offensive skills is a powerful basketball aphrodisiac.

Karl-Anthony Towns: I’m not betting against KAT under any circumstances. Second-year players don’t usually compete for MVPs, but Rose won it in his fourth year ... and first under Tom Thibodeau.

THE DARKEST HORSE OF ALL

DeMarcus Cousins: Redemption, numbers, highlight reels, meme power, shade galore. Bring Sacramento back to the playoffs and Sacramento will bring you the MVP campaign you will so richly deserve. He’s won a gold medal. He has tasted ultimate success. It’s Boogie Time.


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