With the football season coming to a close last month and baseball's Opening Day still looming on the horizon, the American sports fan's attention switches to basketball. Some fans never watch an NBA game up until this point in the season, when each game seems to mean more, play-off seeding solidifies, and ultimately it becomes clear which five or six teams realistically have a shot at taking home the Larry O'Brien trophy. But what really draws people to basketball is, obviously, the stars.
There's just something special about watching a player conveniently catching fire when his team is down 20 in the fourth quarter and seemingly single-handedly willing his team to victory; there is simply no equivalent in the other major American sports. Yes, basketball is a team sport, and the teams that end up going deep in the playoffs typically have two (and more recently, a "big three") outstanding players. But excluding the '04 Pistons and '08 Celtics, every single championship team in the last 30 years has had one clear alpha-male running the show. (For the record starting at 1984: Magic, Bird, Isaiah, Jordan, Olajuwon, Duncan, Shaq, Wade, Pierce, Kobe, Dirk, and LeBron. The only reason I can't bring myself to include Paul Pierce on this list is the fact that Kevin Garnett was such a huge factor in that 2008 title run, and it just doesn't feel right deeming either one of the two more important.) Of course the best overall team is expected to win each season, yet no team wants to go into a playoff series against a team with a better best player. And so perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the season's final stretch is seeing for one's self who truly deserves the most prestigious individual award: League MVP.
The MVP is the most debated award every year, due largely to its vague definition historically. It does not simply go to the league's leading scorer, nor to the best player on the team that finishes with the most wins. It is the player that (believe it or not) is the most valuable to his team (I know, hard stuff to follow here). As close as anyone might get to creating a formula for how much "value" a player has (See, PER, PIE, etc.), it is impossible to create an exact measure of how much having a certain player affects a team's chances of winning a ball game. Some find it more convenient to think of the award in terms of which player is the most irreplaceable to his team. This too, does not paint the entire picture, as this gives usage rate as much if not more value than actual wins by that player and his team. (Essentially the reason Kobe didn't win the award for those middle-years of his career; the Jordanesque numbers he was putting up simply weren't resulting in team success, as great and talented as he was.) Rather, it is those special players who refuse to let their teams lose, the ones who can be relied on to take over a game and deliver a win.
To find who truly is the most valuable, and therefore deserves to be considered the best player in that given season, one must determine not just who is the greatest individual performer, but also whose effect on the game results in the most success for his team. This current season features many players playing some of the best ball of their lives while leading their teams to wins, with young West guards like Curry, Harden, and Dragic all having career years, and veteran leaders like Anthony, Nowitzki, and Parker continuing to demonstrate their mastery of the art of basketball. But, as is the nature of the competition, there is really only one player deserving of the distinction. In reverse order from five, here are this year's candidates for MVP of the NBA.
5. LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland Trailblazers, 40-18)
PER: 22.46 PPG: 23.9 RPG: 11.4 APG: 2.8 FG% .466 FT% .821 TPG:1.8
Portland is the non-surprising huge surprise of the year, as they have always had good teams on paper, but historically awful luck (see Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, Brandon Roy...). The future looked pretty bright for Portland in the off-season, as Damian Lillard was coming off winning Rookie of the Year last season and was looking poised to make a jump to the level of other promising young point guards like Irving, Curry, and Westbrook. That is until word leaked that LaMarcus Aldridge, the team's top scorer and rebounder, had unofficially been requesting a trade. The talks never amounted to anything, as they often don't in the grand scheme of how trading happens in the NBA, and since the season has started Aldridge has been all business. He ranks sixth in the league in both scoring and rebounding with averages of 24 and 11.4, both career highs. The Trailblazers are exceeding expectations beyond what any one could have reasonably expected, as they were only projected to barely make the play-offs in the deep Western Conference. Currently they are competing to win their first division title since 1999, and have proven they can win games against the likes of Indiana, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. If Aldridge continues playing out of his mind as he has all season, the Blazers could very well reclaim the top spot in the West they held back in December. However, even if Aldridge and The Blazers pass their competitors in the standings, he still may not be statistically impressive enough to the judges in the media as some of the other candidates. If Aldridge can come back from the groin injury that has sidelined him as of late and put up 25 and 12 a night, continue winning games against the league's top contenders, and take the best record in the West? The award would be rightfully his, though this is about the only scenario in which he could realistically win and would require a lot of dominoes to fall his way.
4. Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers, 40-20)
PER: 24.14 PPG:24.3 RPG: 9.9 APG: 3.5 FG%: .533 FT%: .700 TPG:2.7
To be completely honest this is about the cut-off point for players with a legitimate chance of taking home the Maurice Podoloff trophy. No disrespect to Lamarcus Aldridge, who is having a season to remember in an NBA that's as rich with talent as ever before, but the chances of one of these four players not winning seems pretty slim. With the level Chris Paul was playing at before he got injured, many assumed the Clippers would take a tailspin without their All-Star point guard to lead the team. Those are probably the same people who were surprised when Griffin averaged more than 27 points a game while leading the Clippers to a 12-6 record with Paul out (not to mention 31 and 10 so far in February). Griffin has been proven capable of rising to the occasion when his team needs him most, the sign of a true superstar. The typical NBA player reaches his statistical prime around ages 27-29, a fact that terrifies the rest of league bearing in mind Blake is hardly 25. Since Griffin has arrived The Clippers have become the most dominant team in California, as they're on pace to win the Pacific division for the second year in a row. The Clippers are in prime position to pass Portland and San Antonio for the second best record out West, though with Paul barely coming back this week and playing limited minutes the onus will still be largely on Blake, who has established his reputation as a player who will give 100% every night no matter what. People doubted him after he missed his first season to a knee injury, and people doubted him before he developed the post game he is sporting today and appeared to be a one-dimensional dunker. Griffin has silenced the naysayers by doing what he does best and what matters most: getting results and winning games.
3. Paul George (Indiana Pacers, 44-13)
PER: 21.15 PPG: 22.6 RPG: 6.4 APG: 3.5 SPG: 1.8 TPG: 2.8 FG% .440 3P%: .377 FT%: .865
George was considered a front-runner in this race from the get-go, as his dominant play and outstanding leadership has gotten his team the best record in the league thus far. He's improved every season since he's gotten into the league, and can finally add starter for the Eastern Conference All-Star team to his résumé. (A distinction John Wall should be able to brag about too, if the starters were determined by merit rather than popularity. The presence of Wade and Kobe on the roster combined with the fact that Jeremy Lin got more votes than James Harden are all indicators that the current voting system is flawed.) Despite being the third youngest player on the roster George carries himself like a captain, and produces results on both ends of the floor to back it up. He's about five games short of reaching the total number of points he scored all of last season with 25 games left to play, and has inherited the role of "Player Most Likely to Stop LeBron out East" since Rose has gone out. He is, after all, the only player this season besides LeBron James and Kevin Durant to be named Player of the Month.
So why is Paul George only ranked number three on this list? Well for one, The Pacers are a great team beyond just one player, and their stellar record has much to do with their league-leading defense. George is averaging just over 20 points on 39.5% shooting in 2014, and has turned the ball over more than three times a game. He's simply being out-produced by his counter-parts statistically, and if he had this type of season on a middle-of-the-pack team, including him in the debate would be laughable. If the margin Indiana leads by gets much larger, however, then George has a realistic shot of pulling an upset and being named the MVP.
2. LeBron James (Miami Heat, 41-14)
PER: 29.59 PPG: 27.0 RPG: 7.0 APG: 6.4 SPG: 1.5 TPG: 3.5 FG%: .579 3P%: .368 FT%: .746
No matter how things end up by the end of the regular season, it must be stated that this year's award is LeBron's to lose, as he has brought the Heat to the Finals for three consecutive seasons and won twice. Pretty much the main plotline of this season is "Will LeBron and The Heat Three-Peat or Not?" It has the feel of the 1993 race, where there's a player out West (Charles Barkley) with a better overall record who ends up winning MVP, only to be ultimately defeated in The Finals (by Michael Jordan, of course). If anything Barkley and Jordan weren't even as neck-and-neck as LeBron and Durant though, with Durant dominating the MVP narrative through January as the Heat struggled, and in February vice-versa. Miami remains the team to beat in the NBA, and LeBron is producing like a machine per usual. However, there is a reason it seems as if LeBron's time on the regular season throne is coming to a close, and it isn't just the exceptional play of his peers.
For one, LeBron's numbers have been better in every one of his successful MVP campaigns. Every time LeBron has won MVP he's averaged more points, more minutes, more rebounds, more assists (with the exception of 2012), and fewer turnovers than he has this season. The Heat have been uncharacteristically struggling significantly on the defensive end, where they have dropped out of the top ten in both points allowed per hundred possessions (referred to as "Defensive Rating") and are only opponent field goal percentage -- a position they have not been in since Lebron's arrival. Where the Heat end up ultimately seeded may not matter in the long run, as the best team does always win after all, and until someone beats them they remain the center of attention. Dwyane Wade certainly looks like a shell of his former self, and given that he's now getting the Tim Duncan treatment. (i.e. permission to sit out the second night of back-to-back games/ any game he doesn't really feel like playing. It's something that has been happening more and more in recent years as players such as Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, and Kobe Bryant all wish to extend their Hall Of Fame legacy as much as possible.) LeBron has had to carry a greater weight for Miami many nights. But just as LeBron has gotten a tremendous amount of credit since joining the Heat and finally getting an NBA championship, he must take responsibility when his team appears vulnerable as they have this season. If LeBron and The Heat can't pull their act together and reestablish themselves as the best team in their conference (let alone the entire league), winning this year's MVP race may be too difficult even for the perennial favorite LeBron James.
1. Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder, 44-15)
PER: 30.64 PPG: 31.5 RPG: 7.7 APG: 5.6 SPG: 1.5 TPG: 3.6 FG%: .510 3P%: .404 FT%: .875
And so after a career as runner-up to LeBron James, it looks as if this is the year Durant finally gets a taste of victory. From the moment the 2013-2014 NBA season began, the race for MVP has been LeBron James vs. the field, with the field looking like the underdog since James has won four of the last five available awards. (He would have an unprecedented five MVP awards in a row if it weren't for the efforts of Derrick Rose in 2011, when he became the youngest player ever to earn the distinction.) That being said, The Heat have been the clear favorite in the entire NBA for the last three seasons, but this one not so much. It looks as if Indiana, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio will all take home better overall records this season (with Portland and The Clippers possibly joining that list too). Moreover, The Thunder look poised to control their top seed out West for the rest of the season, as they have proven capable of beating the other five teams just named on multiple occasions (eight out of an available twelve times, to be exact). Even if Indiana finishes with a better overall record, taking home the top seed out West is more impressive; the third seed in the Eastern Conference wouldn't even be in the playoff picture out West. Combine that with the fact that The Thunder play 52 games against the superior West to the Pacers' 30, it appears quite evident that The Thunder are the best team in the NBA.
Durant's role on this team has been nothing less than legendary; he's producing at the highest level of his young career and in the entire NBA this year. He's putting up a career high in points at 31 per contest, an impressive feat considering he's already led the league in scoring three times. He is nearly a lock for the scoring title once again, as the next closest player is Carmelo at 27.4 (not to say who wins the scoring title this isn't a potential sub-plot for the rest of the season, as it is not unlike Carmelo Anthony to average more than 30 a night for a month or two). His twelve consecutive games of scoring more than 30 is the third longest in three decades of basketball, and the first streak like this in a decade. If Durant can get his free-throw percentage up just 2%, he would be the first player ever to win the scoring title while shooting 50-40-90. He's getting a career high in assists, he's captaining a top-5 defense, and he leads by example and by remaining humble and taking a team-first attitude despite his individual greatness. He's done all of this without Russell Westbrook, and for God's sake he's only 25! He's quite simply having the best individual season while playing for the league's best team, making any other player winning the award just seem wrong.