ESPN.com asked a panel to predict the top-five MVP candidates for the upcoming 2016-2017 season. You can check out the original article here, and their criteria here. Kevin Durant, perhaps surprisingly, finished third in the polls, and Stephen Curry fifth.
Aside from the Dubs, LeBron James finished first, Russell Westbrook second, and reigning defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard, fourth. James Harden (sixth) and Chris Paul (seventh) finished in the others receiving votes, category.
I will pick nits with a number of players in these rankings, and not necessarily because the homer in me wants the Warriors' best five to sweep the top-five. Here we go, in order.
First: LeBron James (will finish: fifth)
Why? The King is an NBA Champion and MVP once again, but he's as far away from another MVP campaign as he's ever been. That may sound like a bold statement, but check the tape. The Finals MVP turns 32 in December, and brings nearly 40,000 regular season minutes, and over 8,000 playoff minutes into the new season. For the sake of comparison, Larry Bird retired before he hit either number. Michael Jordan retired with less playoff minutes played, and about one season's worth of extra regular season minutes (when you include the Washington Wizards years). There are guys who have played longer, sure. We saw two of the best just fade into Bolivia (Kobe, Duncan). But none have played at an MVP-level this late into the game.
The fact that LeBron remains an elite player is a testament to his greatness. But he's not the elite two-way player he once was (at least not for entire games at a time), and he can't expend so much energy on both ends for a full season. Like Dwyane Wade a few years ago, he's increasingly forced to pick his spots (cue the Steph Curry block in game seven). Likewise, a Cavaliers franchise that just hoisted its first ever O'Brien trophy ain't about to run James ragged in November. You can count on his minutes, gameday responsibility and (dare I say) effort level to gradually decline, as he focuses on the playoffs, rather than the regular season. This trend began last season, but you know pollsters: it takes them a couple years to catch on.
Second: Russell Westbrook (will finish: first)
This is the kind of prop bet that dreams are made of. Wednesday night, news broke that Russell Westbrook will re-sign with Oklahoma City for three years, greatly reducing the likelihood that Thunder GM Sam Presti trades the superstar combo guard. And if Westbrook stays healthy in OKC, he wins the MVP -- no contest.
Voters love counting stats, and no one puts them up more effectively than Russell Westbrook. The last time he was without Kevin Durant (Durant missed the final 55 games of the 2014-2015 season with a foot injury), he made box scores his personal plaything. In the second half of that 2015 season, Russ averaged a mind-bending 31 points, 9.9 assists, 8.6 rebounds and 2 steals per game. Sure, his efficiency numbers kept skewing the wrong way, and yeah, the team didn't do all that well (they couldn't keep up with the Pelicans to make the post season that season). But this is Russell Westbrook we're talking about: dude only knows one way to play, and that won't change because Durant is gone. If anything, it'll make him even more headstrong.
Russell Westbrook (health permitting) may blitz his way to a 32 / 12 / 10 season, and I'm not even exaggerating. I may be understating. He's your MVP. It's that simple.
Third: Kevin Durant (will finish: not in the top five)
Shocker! It's important to repeat that this isn't a projection of what Kevin Durant will deserve, but rather a projection of what voters will do. And if there's one thing voters don't like, it's bad narratives. When LeBron James joined the Miami Heat (easily our closest KD-analogue), he smashed the NBA's regular season (playoffs? Maybe not so much). Dude posted a 27 / 7 / 7 while leading the entire NBA in PER, win shares, Box Plus-Minus, VORP and Q-score (one of those being somewhat less important than the others). He finished third behind Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard. Sure, that was slightly less hilarious at the time, but it was still stupid, and frankly, kind of indefensible (opinion alert?). Kevin Durant has next to no prayer of winning this thing, even if he really, really, really deserves it.
Voters will write off KD's candidacy, reasoning that Golden State's galaxy of stars also deserve credit, and more still will simply refuse to vote for a player who joined a 73-win team after losing to them in the playoffs the year before.
Kevin Durant will fit in just fine in Golden State, but he's not assuaging all those hurt feelings in one season. It took Bron four whole years, two rings and a return to Ohio. And there will be too many other worthy candidates with nice stories (see below, and above) to spend MVP votes on a 'traitor.'
Fourth: Kawhi Leonard (will finish: fourth)
Leonard is really tough. He's a fantastic player, and certainly one of the league's best and most valuable players. But unless San Antonio improbably repeats their 67-win dream season, it's tough to see him getting as much love as a year ago. Again -- that's not to say that he won't deserve a top-five spot by year's end, but rather that the voters won't give it to him. I fully expect him to improve as a player, it's also tough to justify slating him so far ahead of a guy like Draymond Green, who is pretty certainly belongs on the same court. It'll sound unfair now, but he's going to suffer some fall-back as the MVP votes go to newer stars like Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard.
Fifth: Stephen Curry (will finish: third)
Paradoxically, Stephen Curry will suffer no such backlash as Kevin Durant. The Warriors still figure to finish as the NBA's best team, and someone is going to get most of the credit for it. As long as he performs at his 2014-2015 first-MVP level, he'll easily finish in the top-five. Maybe he can finish second, but I don't see much hope of a three-peat for the league MVP.
Not listed: Karl-Anthony Towns (will finish: second)
Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns may be the two most talented players in the NBA not currently owning MVP hardware. But the younger Towns gets the nod for three huge reasons.
Firstly, Anthony Davis has a rotten injury record, having never played in as many as 69 games in four seasons. That's closer to Andrew Bogut territory than folks in the Big Easy would care to admit. Big KAT has a whopping 82 games on his track record, but he played them all. It's admittedly psuedo-scientific, but I'll take the guy who has done it once over the guy who hasn't in four tries.
Second, the Timberwolves look a lot better on paper, despite having languished in the lottery since Kevin Garnett reminded us that "ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!" They've got a highly regarded new coach in Tom Thibodeau, a talented but young roster full of uber-athletic wunderkind, and if you believe in the emotional angle: playing for the late great Flip Saunders is as good a cause as any. All of this is to say that the Wolves will surprise voters by being competitive this year, and Karl-Anthony Towns will be first in line to receive credit for the turnaround.
Thirdly, the voters are writers. You get votes for the guy who makes the best story. See: Derrick Rose, again. If KAT takes the T'Wolves to the playoffs in a significantly weakened western conference, with a healthy and competitive roster full of good NBA talent, the SI front page headline will be: KAT carries woeful Wolves to playoffs, against all odds. And he's here to win!
Oh yeah, and a very tiny fourth reason: he's damn good. Dude could prove to be the reincarnation of Tim Duncan without the hilarious Onion articles. I'd expect Demarcus Cousins to be better, but his team is going nowhere and he's already got a bad reputation with voters. I can't bet on Anthony Davis to stay healthy, plus last season was really a step in the wrong direction. And for Damian Lillard and James Harden: this spot is yours the day you commit to playing defense (so: this spot is not yours).