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The Top 10 Candidates For NBA MVP

Contrary to what some critics of the modern game believe, we have bushels of future NBA legends currently playing. Kobe. LeBron. KD. Garnett. Duncan. Nash. CP3. I can go on. But what separates the truly great players, the ones who’ll be remembered 30 years from now, are the MVPs. Sure there are some exceptions, and a few players become infamous for their lack of Most Valuable Player trophies (Shaquille O’Neal for instance). But for the most part, it’s a pretty exact science: the greatest players of all time win the majority of these things. Everyone else is just fighting for second place.

At some point though, the brains behind the league must do something about the MVP. It’s too often about hype, rewarding the best stories, and giving the trophy to players who furthest exceeded expectations. The best players in the league – right now, we’re looking at you, LeBron – have to go above and beyond to get the same recognition. People expect greatness from them.

Why didn’t Michael win the MVP every year from ’87 on? People expected him to average 33. They expected the game-winners and the championships and the lockdown defense. Not much of the criteria has changed since, and you’ll see that theme play out in these rankings. Don’t get mad at me if I failed to include a top ten or even a top 15 player. We all know the race for the Maurice Podoloff isn’t always about that.

As part of a two-week long celebration of a new season, Dime is projecting the major NBA awards all week, and today, finally, I’m taking a look at the top MVP candidates. Here’s my list…

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10. ANDREW BYNUM
I’ve heard arguments for Dwyane Wade, but we all know they go as the King goes. I’ve heard arguments for any of San Antonio’s Big Three, but they spread the wealth too much to have a legitimate chance. I’ve even heard arguments for James Harden, but as long as Houston doesn’t make the playoffs – and I don’t think they will, yet – then he really doesn’t have a shot. That leaves me with Philly’s finest.

Presently, Bynum is still out nursing knee problems and becoming the walking definition of an Internet troll. But even if we want to call him Frederick Douglass all season, we also know the dude can be a hell of a basketball player when he’s healthy.

Last season, his first with the Lakers where he finally usurped Pau Gasol as the No. 1 option in the paint, Bynum averaged career-high numbers pretty much across the board: 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and saw his usage rate skyrocket to 23.75, per HoopData. Kobe Bryant finally backed off, and Bynum flourished, even making a game-winner while dropping 20 and 14 against Kevin Garnett in a nationally televised tilt with Boston in March. He was always a tough matchup in the paint, and now with the 76ers, a team with a number of athletic perimeter options, as well as big men who can stroke it from 15-18 feet, Bynum should have more opportunities than ever before. He IS the franchise at this point, and franchise players get more than 13.3 shots a night like he did last season.

Just as I’ll explain later with Howard, Bynum is in the perfect position to make some MVP noise. Philly is a solid team, but with the East up in the air after Miami and Boston, if he plays well enough we could see the Sixers advance a round or two in the playoffs. They have talent, but Bynum is the difference maker. They haven’t had a legit center, or even someone to command double-teams, in a long time. As an individual player, Bynum’s biggest weakness is possibly dealing with those double-teams. He was never comfortable in that regard last year, possibly because it was the first time in his career he’d ever dealt with them. His assist rate dropped nearly five points to 7.75, and he turned the ball over at his highest clip since becoming a full-time starter. He’s the prototypical black hole: when he sees the double coming, he doesn’t look to make a play for someone else – he dishes it back out to the perimeter, and repositions in hopes of getting it back for a shot. It’s not wrong. It’s definitely effective. But now as the No. 1 option, he must do a better job of locating shooters and cutters.

This year he’ll get plenty of practice, and if he can somehow lift the play of his Sixer teammates, and earn Philly a top-four seed, he’ll have the storylines you need to win an individual honor like this.

9. KOBE BRYANT
As you’ll later read in this piece, it’s basically impossible to win an MVP if you aren’t the best player on your own team. We all love Kobe. All of us. We even rated him the Player of the Century in the last issue of the magazine. But we also need to be realistic – Dwight Howard is the Lakers’ best player. Now in the later stages of his career, Bryant can still summon the old tricks and look like the best player in the world for a quarter, a game, perhaps even a week. But to keep it up over the course of a season is too much to ask. There’s a reason Kobe’s lost his legs during the last two postseasons. L.A. simply needed too much from him.

That shouldn’t be a problem this year, although so far the Lakers haven’t exactly looked like world-beaters in two season-opening losses.

If anything, I expect Bryant’s numbers to diminish (expect his scoring to drop to around 24 or 25). However, this is still his team. He’s still the leader, and in a sense, the Lakers go as he goes. If he plays within himself, and gets everyone else involved, L.A. should have no problems stacking up at least 55 wins. If he gets into a battle with Howard over egos and shots, the Lakers could suddenly find themselves on the road to start the playoffs. That’ll likely mean a quick exit.

OKC has Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but we all know KD is the leader, the guy they look to when things get difficult. He’s their best player. In the Staples Center, it’s a little different because of Bryant’s legacy, his mounting accomplishments, and the fear he instills in his teammates. They respect him. Dwight’s the best player. Kobe’s the leader.

In an MVP race, that could hurt both of them. They’ll steal votes from each other. But if this super team gets it together like everyone expects, Bryant should find himself somewhere in the conversation for the Maurice Podoloff.

8. KEVIN LOVE
Despite his incredible rebounding numbers (15.2 and 13.4 boards a night respectively in his two seasons as a full-time starter), Love’s defensive presence on the court has virtually no effect on Minnesota’s output. According to BasketballValue, Love’s net defensive output last season was -.19, a miniscule difference. It was on the other end, where Love stretches the defense with a laser outside jumper and scores bushels of points without needing plays run for him, that the team’s newest All-Star, and our No. 1 power forward, made a significant difference.

With Love on the court, the T’Wolves were plus-8.47 offensively, the highest net rating on the team. It’s easy to see why – 26 points a game, and the super rare combination for a big man of 37 percent three-point shooting and 82 percent from the charity stripe. Minnesota was the surprise team of the season until Ricky Rubio tore up his knee, and the Wolves limped into the finish by losing 21 of their last 26 games (to his credit, Love didn’t play in the last seven games either – six of them were losses).

But now that he’s out for up to two months with a broken hand, we’ll really see what his real value is in Minnesota. The team has a lot of talent, and even if certain Civil Rights leaders want to criticize them for the number of white guys on their team (this really happened), the T’Wolves certainly have the goods to make the playoffs. If they start slow, which is expected, it’ll be up to Love to pull them out of the gutter. If he does that while putting up his customary 25 and 14, then he will rocket up this list.

7. CARMELO ANTHONY
Whereas the deck is stacked against New York this year with Amar’e Stoudemire sidelined, and a combined 155 years of backup old age sprawled out along the bench, Carmelo is facing the most important year of his career. He wants to be known as an elite player, and considers himself an elite player. Yet at 28, he’s in his physical prime and hasn’t maintained any level of consistent team success during his career.

You probably know by now that Anthony sports the worst postseason record of any player in league history (.308 winning percentage), even after entering the NBA in 2003 with big-game credentials. Carmelo’s incredible success at Syracuse didn’t pass over, proving again why NBA champions are so glorified. It’s super hard to win.

Do the shearing lights of New York City play a factor here? Of course. Everything is magnified in the Big Apple, especially when your homecoming as an NBA superstar was hyped like he was General Maximus reappearing to lead the Roman army. Manhattan will always add a little extra. But this is more about Anthony’s maturation as a player, and his career legacy, not the fact that it’s coming in New York. The 6-8 scoring machine could be playing in Minnesota, and we’d still be discussing his repeated flameouts in the NBA’s second season.

Since Denver nearly made the Finals in 2009, Anthony is just 3-12 in 15 postseason games with the Nuggets and Knicks. In two years in New York, he’s just 1-8 in the playoffs (Even though in two of those games against Miami (Game 4, 2012) and Boston (Game 2, 2011), ‘Melo unleashed some of the best individual performances in pressure-packed situations that we’ve seen over the last few postseasons.). Because of this, Anthony’s now stereotyped as a selfish player who can’t win, won’t defend and doesn’t know how to make his teammates better.

I’m not saying it’ll happen, but if you were building a story about redemption – especially in basketball terms – those would be some of the key ingredients needed.

His success as a small power forward is often discussed, and since he’ll be playing a lot of it this year, he could be on the verge of his best statistical season yet. If that happens, and if New York somehow reaches 55 wins, Anthony will finally reenter the discussion.

6. DERON WILLIAMS
It’s hard to say Williams is underrated when he’s consistently rated in the top five players at his position. The point guard spot is so loaded you can’t really blame the fans for anointing Derrick Rose after he won an MVP, or Russell Westbrook after the Thunder made the Finals. We all sort of forgot about D-Will, who languished for years in Utah as a fabulous player that didn’t exactly excite most of the national audience (even though he’s always been one of the best breakdown talents in the league), and then went to New Jersey where literally no one cares about the Nets.

Enter Brooklyn, a godsend for Williams, who needs some juice, something extra to push his game to another level. During his final three and a half seasons in Utah, Williams’ true shooting percentage was consistently in the high 50s. His turnover rates were down, and his assist rates were up. He was a deadly efficient 20-10 machine that got the best of Chris Paul in virtually every head-to-head matchup. Yet in his first full season last year with the Nets, his assist rate plummeted all the way to 36.58. That was lower than a number of players, including names like Andre Iguodala, Derek Fisher, Boris Diaw and Devin Harris.

Playing on a bad team (a REALLY bad team), Avery Johnson asked Williams to be more aggressive, and the 6-3 guard abided. He took the most shots of his career (17.4) and by far the most triples (6.2 a night). Williams did average 21 points a game, but those numbers didn’t come easily. It didn’t feel right watching someone with all of that power, strength and change of direction characteristics launch contested jump shots for 55 games.

Now, thanks to Joe Johnson, a healthy Brook Lopez, a re-signed Gerald Wallace, and a place called Brooklyn, Williams not only has a team behind him, he has a whole city. Brooklyn projects to be terrible defensively, but they’ll score a lot. The wins will come too. In the end, that’ll be what determines Deron Williams’ chances at the biggest individual award of the regular season.

5. DWIGHT HOWARD
Let’s see. We have a perennial top-five player who just crossed the nation to bring glory back to a former power. He’s due for a career season, as he’s just entering his physical prime. He’s playing next to a player (Pau Gasol) who will bring out the best in him by gift-wrapping three or four easy dunks a night (and actually enjoys doing it). And, he’ll be on perhaps the most high-profile team in the NBA, a team that desperately needs him to engineer their defense, and realign their offense. Dwight Howard has no excuses this year. This also all depends on the Lakers not totally falling apart, which seemed outlandish even 72 hours ago. Not so much anymore.

Lost amid their 0-2 start, and Howard’s embarrassing 3-for-14 showing from the line during the season opener against Dallas, is that Superman is looking fantastic in the paint. He’s more patient, ringing up five dimes against the Blazers, and he’s unleashing an array of moves we’ve never seen from him before. Hooks with both hands. Skyhooks. Spin moves that don’t look super mechanical. Against Portland, he was baking and serving everyone they threw on him. No one noticed because the Lakers were getting run off the floor, yet Howard could’ve scored 45-plus if he got the ball more.

Turn the Lakers around, get them to 57-60 wins, do your usual “dunk everything in sight” routine, and scare a few children in the stands with wayward blocked shots, and Howard will be in the conversation. Everything is there for a nice story. Howard only needs to write it.

4. CHRIS PAUL
Everything is lining up in Paul’s favor for a monster season. He’s healthy, and coming off a fantastic run in the summer Olympics. He hasn’t had a transcendent year since 2008, another season where he very nearly won the MVP before narrowly losing out to Kobe Bryant’s career achievement. And his team is LOADED. Like scary good. Seriously, I’m really not sure how they’re fitting in Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill once they get back from injuries, and Matt Barnes once he gets back from being stupid (suspension). They are so deep, so explosive, so exciting, so potentially dangerous that I think there’s a chance they end up with the best record in the West. If you told me that even a week ago, I wouldn’t agree. But Oklahoma City will spend large chunks of the season relying on two players, and the Lakers look like they spent the entire summer frozen in Carbonite.

But what makes L.A. so dangerous (their depth) also threatens to derail CP3’s shot at a Maurice Podoloff. It’s not just the minutes either, although I doubt Paul matches last season’s 36.4 a night. Because the team has so many offensive weapons, CP will spend portions of the season watching. Jamal Crawford. Eric Bledsoe. Blake Griffin. Caron Butler. Billups. Jordan. Hill. Every game will end the same way – with Paul shredding defenses off high screen-n-rolls from the top of they key. But even last year, his first in Los Angeles, Paul wasn’t dominating the ball. It seems hard to fathom, but among point guards who played at least 25 minutes a night, he finished just 12th in usage rate, per HoopData. The best point guard in the world was used less often than Jeremy Lin, Lou Williams, Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, John Wall AND J.J. Barea. Everyone stop and give Vinny Del Negro a round of applause.

Paul will throw up his customary 19 and nine, with solid shooting percentages, great defensive numbers and a sky-high assist-to-turnover ratio, as well as a major flair for the dramatic (don’t overlook this aspect). It’s everything else that’ll determine his MVP candidacy.

3. KEVIN DURANT
You are probably wondering where Russell Westbrook is on this list. He’s a top ten player in the NBA, and by the end of the season, I think there’s a chance he vaults even higher. Westbrook is already possibly the best offensive point guard in the league, scoring nearly 24 a game last season and that number figures to rise this year without James Harden. His weaknesses (up-and-down playmaking, gambling defense) could be exposed without a secondary point guard like the Beard, but more likely, with his obsessive work ethic, Westbrook will turn those into strengths. Because… he almost has to this year. OKC counts on him too much.

All of that should add up to a major MVP contender right? Well there’s one problem. He plays with Kevin Durant, and even the biggest Westbrook fans know he’s not as good as Kevin Durant. More often than not, the MVP race comes down to the stories, aka what the media can pitch, write about, galvanize. With Westbrook, it’ll always come back to this: he’s not even the best player on his own team. That’ll follow his MVP credentials like a reeking fart. You know the last time a player won an MVP when he wasn’t the knockout leader, the ultimate, ultimate alpha dog on his own team? You have to go back to 1972-73 when Dave Cowens won the award even though John Havlicek led the team in scoring, and was often the team’s best player. That was 40 years ago.

Meanwhile, Durant is coming off one of the most efficient seasons of any player in the league, finishing just outside of the top ten in true shooting percentage (61), and of the players above him, only one had a usage rate above 22: Manu Ginobili (For comparisons sake, KD’s usage rate was 28.4). This year, he has a chance to join the elusive 50/40/90 club even as the rest of his game is vastly improved (check his rebounding numbers from last night’s season opener). No longer just a scorer, Durant’s all-around numbers should expand again now that OKC is counting on him more than ever.

The added bonus is the loss of Harden puts even more pressure on the second-best small forward in the league. If the Thunder survive without Harden, and lock down the league’s best record, how can you not give it to him?

2. RAJON RONDO
So how did we get here where everyone is suddenly chalking Rondo up as a potential MVP player when the majority of them didn’t respect his game even so much as 12 months ago? Rondo IS one of the best players in the NBA. I don’t care that he was the 61st-best shooter among point guards who played 500 minutes or more last year. I don’t care that he quarterbacks one of the worst offensives in the league.

But Rondo faces three major hurdles in his quest to win the first MVP by a Celtic since Larry Bird‘s run of three straight in the mid-1980s. The first one: he routinely goes through regular season funks. Part of that has to do with his demeanor. By all accounts, Rondo is moody. He can sulk. He often gets frustrated. While his maturation was well documented this summer, you can never take summer evaluations too seriously. If we did that, we’d have to believe every player in the NBA came into camp 20 pounds lighter. The second major hurdle is his scoring average. In the playoffs, his career averages of 14.5 points (and rising every year… last year he dropped 17.3 a game), 9.2 dimes and six rebounds a game make him look like the best lead guard in the league. But in the regular season, his career-high was the 13.7 points he averaged in 2009-10. The lowest scoring average ever in an MVP season was 13.8 by Wes Unseld back in 1968-69. Bill Russell also routinely won MVPs despite almost always averaging in the mid-teens. But perhaps the best comparison for Rondo is Steve Nash, who averaged 15.5 points during his first MVP season in 2004-05. That might not seem like a big jump, but still, Rondo’s never done it before. Yes, we all know about his all-around game, and I think he’s by far the best playmaker and passer in the league. But in order to actually win this thing, he needs to up those scoring numbers to career-high digits.

The third and final hurdle actually doesn’t have anything to do with Rondo. He, and everyone else here, must hope the next player on this list just has an off year. Or people get bored…

1. LeBRON JAMES
What, you expected to be surprised? The best player in the game on the best team in the game, LeBron will be in the conversation for MVP until he’s Earth-bound and filming commercials for Rogaine. Statistically, there have been few like him. We celebrate 25/5/5, but for James, that’s a night off. He’s in another stratosphere, a 27/7/7 expectation that would whittle the will of anyone else.

It’s not easy being the man night after night, as James Harden will surely find out soon enough. But LeBron’s been so good for long they might as well give him his own record book. We know what he brings on the court, and I’m not going to rehash the numbers here (check this article for that). The only thing that can truly stop LeBron’s run, which would be four out of five if he wins this year, is boredom. I’m not exactly sure when the trend started, but the MVP isn’t really about the most valuable player anymore. It’s more about the best player with the best story. Expectations factor in as well. James’ expectations are so high that he has nowhere to go but down. If Miami were to only win 54 games, and James were to only average somewhere around 26/6/7, even if he still brought more to the Heat than any other player brought to any other team, voters would look the other way.

At this point, he almost has to be better than last year, and that’s almost impossible. The media and the voters always want to seem smarter than everyone else, and they’re always willing to follow the big stories. Remember Karl Malone in ’97? Or how about the fact that Shaquille O’Neal only has one career MVP to his credit? Or how about Steve Nash winning two straight? It’s the storylines that’ll carry an MVP case, and even if that doesn’t really make sense, it’s a reality.

Some of us in the Dime office argued about putting Rondo at No. 1 just because it’s hard to see LeBron winning four of the last five MVPs, even if he’s the runaway player of the year, and regularly puts up astronomical numbers. But at this point, can you really argue Rondo should be ahead of LeBron? You can’t. You’d almost have to take the field versus James, which might be the only way you can deny him. His chances of winning the trophy probably equal the combined chances of perhaps the next five guys on this list. He’s just that good.

Who are your picks for the most likely candidates to win the MVP?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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