Last season’s NBA Most Valuable Player race was compelling theater, carried by individual stars on heroic quests to battle the combined might of superteams. The superlative runs of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Isaiah Thomas were the regular-season antidote to the inevitability of a Cavs-Warriors rubber match in the Finals.
The 2017-2018 season is already different in tone. Westbrook and Harden’s clubs have brought in star-level reinforcements. Thomas is now a Cavalier, while Kyrie Irving gets the benefit of Boston’s ascendance. A new generation of young stars will also be in the hunt for MVP validation. LeBron James, as always, will be there at the end.
This year’s field shapes up to be one of the most expansive in memory. Here are a dozen who could crack the top five:
KEVIN DURANT: One of the more interesting subplots of last season came in March when Durant missed more than a month with an MCL sprain and tibial bone bruise. While KD was on the mend, Steph Curry reasserted himself and the Warriors hit their stride right in time for the postseason. When Durant returned, he fit right back into the Warrior machine and took over in a Finals performance that was punctuated by his game-winner in Game 3.
KD’s injury occurred right about the time people would have had to seriously consider his MVP candidacy. He wouldn’t have won, given the antipathy directed toward the Warriors in general and Durant in particular. For historical precedence, see the year Derrick Rose interrupted James’ MVP run. Still, Durant would have been a top-five candidate on most voters’ ballots. With a career-high True Shooting Percentage, as well as a demonstrable defensive presence he might have gone top three.
There are lots of reasons why Durant won’t win this year: he and Curry will divvy up the offensive spoils, he’s not exactly the people’s champ, and the state of Warrior fatigue promises to grow even stronger. The narrative, as such, is not in his favor.
Yet, Durant will be able to play free and easy after winning his first championship and the Warriors should be even better this season, given their experience together. It would take a monster year to overcome all the other obstacles, but it’s all set up for KD to stop worrying and simply dominate.
LeBRON JAMES: This is the first time this decade when I haven’t made James the presumptive favorite before the season begins. Frankly, if he and the Cavs hadn’t let up toward the end of last season he would have been number one on my ballot instead of fourth. That said as much about the quality of the competition as anything James did, or didn’t do. There’s also no question that he ceded his front-runner status down the stretch, much as he has in the past few years.
That’s entirely his right as a four-time winner and three-time champ. Still, only Bill Russell and Michael Jordan have won five MVPs (Kareem has six), and James is entirely capable of joining that company if he wants it badly enough. He and the Cavs are also playing for their future this season, which adds a bit of urgency to the campaign. Doubt him at your peril.
GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO: Up until last season when Russell Westbrook won the award, there was no historical precedent for a player on a mid-level small-market team winning MVP. Of course, Russ had a lot more history than Giannis and a lot stronger narrative. On the other hand, Giannis himself is a historical precedent.
We really have no idea how good he’s going to be, but enough people have suggested to me that he’s a top-five player already to slot him high into this mix. Part of me wanted to make Giannis the pick just for kicks, but the feeling here is that he and the Bucks are a year away from seriously contending.
KAWHI LEONARD: Is it OK to be worried about Kahwi? Can we acknowledge that missing the entire preseason and the beginning of the regular season with an injured quadricep that began to manifest itself last season is a bit problematic? I’m officially concerned. The one thing we know is that the Spurs won’t rush him back into the lineup, which will be good for his long-term prognosis but not great for his MVP candidacy in this crowded field.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK: Last year’s winner will be judged on an entirely different set of criteria this season. It will no longer be enough to dominate the box score and rack up triple doubles. Points and production will be secondary to the overall health and wellness of this makeshift superteam in Oklahoma. How Russ interacts with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will define his season. He’s perfectly capable of blowing up the box score and keeping everyone happy. If he does both, then he’ll move right back up the MVP rankings.
JAMES HARDEN: You have to feel for Harden who might’ve been a two-time MVP if it weren’t for historic performances from Curry and Westbrook. Like Russ, Harden will be judged on how he interacts with a superstar teammate. Unlike Russ, who remains OKC’s unquestioned floor general, Harden will be adjusting to life with another ball-dominant guard in Chris Paul. Like Russ, Harden is absolutely capable of managing the transition and thriving with his new teammates. That will be as important, if not more so, than accumulating numbers.
STEPH CURRY: Oh, it’s just the two-time former MVP healthy and well adjusted after winning yet another championship. It’s easy to forget about Steph, but he’s good for a half-dozen annual reminders of his greatness. I’d move him up if it wasn’t for Durant.
ANTHONY DAVIS: Not many noticed after the Pels struggled through another lost season, but AD put up career-highs in points and rebounds while playing 75 games. Lord only knows how he and Boogie Cousins will interact for a full season, but AD is an MVP in the making. Some day.
JOHN WALL: The player many consider the best point guard in the East is primed for a huge season and the Wizards are just dangerous enough to push for 50+ wins and maybe even a run at the top spot in the conference. Lots of things would have to happen for Wall to move into the top five, but it’s possible.
KYRIE IRVING: The Celtics’ offense could be terrifying this season and Kyrie stands to benefit the most. If he puts up video game numbers in Brad Stevens’ system and the Celtics make a run at the top spot in the East, he could sneak into the top five. He and Wall are basically battling for the same slice of the vote share.
KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS: One of these years KAT is going to dominate the league from start to finish. That year is probably not this year, but he belongs in the conversation.
JOEL EMBIID: The ultimate “why not?” pick. Let’s say Embiid plays 70 games and gets the 76ers into the playoffs. Let’s say he dominates 2,000+ minutes the same way he devoured those 786 minutes he played last season. NBA Twitter can dream.
THE FIELD: Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward, Damian Lillard, Rudy Gobert, Blake Griffin.