Most Valuable Players:
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cleveland Cavaliers are abysmal in outings without the King. In the last three years, of 24 games in which LeBron hasn't played, the Cavaliers have a 4-20 record, bad even by the standards of the Brooklyn Nets. Even though the award is based on regular season performance, the unparalleled play of post-season LeBron should factor into the selection. Although the voting media seem to have grown tired of giving LeBron the award, LeBron has shown growth in his own game in this season, moving from an unbeatable force to a team player that elevates the play of those around him. By this measure, I have LeBron as finishing third in MVP voting. As the MVP debate often weighs on the individual strengths of a player in perspective with their supporting cast, LeBron has no leg to stand on. Despite exorbitant spending on the big three; James, Irving, and Love, the Cavaliers have acquired great depth in the buyout market signings of Deron Williams and former Golden State Warrior Andrew Bogut. They also deceived the Atlanta Hawks in a trade to acquire three point gunner Kyle Korver. All said, LeBron is still the best player on the planet, and can will his team to win games, but his reservations in the regular season and preservation of himself for the important games in June will likely keep him out of the running for his fifth MVP trophy.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: Leading the league in fourth quarter scoring with 10.1 points in the final frame, Thomas has been huge in close games for the Celtics, putting them up against teams that had run up early game leads. Advanced metrics show Thomas to be a notorious liability on defence, posting a defensive box plus minus of -3.6 on the year, a stat that damages his MVP portfolio, but is generally skimmed over in the eye-test, given that Thomas is protected by defensively minded teammates Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and Al Horford. Thomas provides the C's with an invaluable scoring punch, and his clutch factor has to be worth something, but in as deep an MVP race as I've ever seen, his limited defensive play will work him out of this race. I project Thomas to finish fifth in MVP voting.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: The back to back defensive player of the year, Leonard has always been known to be an uncompromising defensive player, but this year he has unleashed an offensive arsenal that has drawn comparisons to Kobe and MJ. In 2016-2017, Kawhi is averaging 26.1 points per game, a career-high, to go with 6.0 rebounds per game, 1.9 steals per game, as well as bringing 0.7 blocks per game to the table. He has done this at a career-high 31.3% usage rate, indicative of his rise to superstardom, a title that is softly spoken about the Spurs organization. To debate whether he's worthy of MVP, it’s helpful to look at his teammates. With LaMarcus Aldridge posting his lowest scoring numbers since his rookie campaign, and Pau Gasol showing his age, Leonard has had to carry the team, and has done so with remarkable efficiency, posting career highs in player efficiency rating (28.2), and true shooting percentage (61.8%). In a year where the San Antonio Spurs might steal the top record in the league from a banged up Golden State Warriors, don't rule out 2017 as the year of the claw. I project Kawhi finishes second in MVP voting, ousting either Harden or Westbrook to third place, in what should come as a surprise to everyone, myself included.
The likely scenario for this year's MVP will be either James Harden, the assists champion with the marquee beard, killer crossovers, and silky smooth jumps, or Russell Westbrook, the scoring champion averaging a triple double, dunking mercilessly on centers, and putting hoops into the junkyard with his vicious assaults on the rim. However, if chaos prevails, do not be surprised to see one of the above candidates take home the trophy.
Here's hooping for the best,