Durant has been clutch for the Thunder all season
For much of the 2012 NBA season, the quality of play has often resembled a high quality pick-up game rather than the quality of play we are used to seeing throughout the regular season. This season has been more of a war of attrition; the winners are those who are surviving the grueling schedule.
The MVP race has mirrored this season, and while a few players have made excellent cases for winning the award, few have distanced themselves from the pack to make airtight cases for their consideration.
So while many deserve consideration, here are the top seven candidates for the 2012 MVP award.
Rondo has been the conductor of the well oiled Boston Celtics machine
No. 7: Rajon Rondo:
The Line: 37.1 MPG … 48%/23%/60% … 12.2/5/11.4/1.8 steals per game … PER: 17.3
Looking at the numbers, one can see that Rondo is genuinely more concerned with making those around him better rather than trying to score on his own—almost to a fault, at times. In wins, he has 10.6 PPG and 12.5 APG; in losses, 14.4 PPG and 10 APG.
What’s truly amazing is that since the All-Star break, when the Celtics turned around a 15-17 campaign that would be lucky to grab the eighth seed, Rondo has averaged 13 assists per game, leading the Celtics to a 19-7 record since.
The Celtics have moved from a borderline lottery team to a title contender in the past two months. And while several other players on the team are stepping up, Rondo has been the conductor. He always finds Brandon Bass on the elbow for that jumper he likes, hits Ray Allen right in the chest when he comes off screens to fire up threes and runs the pick and roll with Kevin Garnett to get him those open 18-footers to perfection.
Rondo—notoriously sensitive and mercurial—shook off trade rumors, and after an inconsistent start to the season, settled into being one of the best floor generals in the league. The Celtics are now contenders, but will only go as far as Rondo can take them.
The Spurs' success this season is the biggest testament to Tony Parker's MVP worth season
The Line: 33.2 MPG … 47%/25%/80% … 18.7/3/7.7 … PER: 21.4
Like Rondo—and to a much greater extent—numbers don’t tell the whole story. The biggest accomplishment that Tony Parker has made is carrying the Spurs to one of the top-two seeds in the Western Conference.
His numbers, especially his efficiency rating, put him in the upper echelon of NBA players, but the Spurs are playing it smart with their veterans and resting them in order to prepare for the playoffs. Before the season started, the Spurs knew the endgame was just to make it into the playoffs. So Parker, as well as Tim Duncan, has often taken a huge cut in his minutes—he has the fewest of any MVP contender.
So while I’d love to point to specific numbers to make the case for Parker, the most important number is this: .719. That’s the winning percentage for the Spurs this season. And they have done this with an aging roster in the brutal Western Conference while missing considerable time from Manu Ginobili.
With Tony Parker at the helm, the Spurs could make some noise in the playoffs.
Chris Paul is the best floor general in the game
The Line: 36.3 MPG … 48%/37%/86% … 19.3/4.5/9.8/2.5 steals per game … PER: 26.4
Earlier, I said that Rondo had established himself as one of the best floor generals in the game.
The best: Chris Paul.
Paul has led a sneakily not-so-good Clippers team to the fourth seed in the West. He’s changed the culture of the team. The Clippers are Paul’s team, despite him only joining the team at the start of the season, and he’s putting up great individual numbers, as well.
The most noticeable stat he’s had this year is his PER of 26.4, second in the NBA. But he’s also put up numbers consistent with his career averages despite being in a compressed season. It’s not '08-’09 Paul, but it’s nothing to scoff at.
And remember the Clippers last year? I do because of Blake Griffin winning the Rookie of the Year award and dunking over a Kia. But when the Clippers were Griffin’s Clippers—nightly highlight reel and all—they were 32-50. Now, they are 36-23, have won eight of their last ten, and are contenders in the Western Conference.
None of this happens without acquiring Paul. If you were to replace Paul with an average point guard—say, Ty Lawson—the Clippers would be fighting for that eighth seed in the West. Chris Paul might be the most irreplaceable player at his position for a team in the NBA. That is, except for…
Kevin Love has carried the Minnesota Timberwolves this season
The Line: 39 MPG … 49%/37%/82% … 26/13.3/2 … PER: 25.4
If Parker and Rondo made this list, in part, because of how they have carried their teams into contender status, Kevin Love needs to get docked a little bit because of his team’s performance, 25-35, 1-9 over the last 10 games.
Of course, this can’t be all pinned on Love. If he were replaced with an average power forward, the Timberwolves are a lottery team from the start of the season. But this team was on its way to sneaking into the playoffs with the eighth seed until Ricky Rubio tore his ACL. Rubio and Love’s on-court chemistry was infectious to the rest of the team. They would have been scary as a first-round matchup.
I was at the Thunder-Timberwolves game on March 23 and watched Kevin Love put a far less skilled team on his back and carried them to double overtime against one of the top teams in the West. He dropped 51 points and had 14 boards, but the most impressive thing was that at the end of regulation, there was no question—on either side—of who was getting the ball. And with a hand in his face and the ball held over his head, Love drained a three to tie the game with almost no time left.
Love’s been the victim of having a bad supporting cast and bad luck this season. But because his team isn’t in the playoff hunt, I can’t rank him any higher than four.
Kobe Bryant is in the top five in minutes played during his sixteenth season
The Line: 38.4 MPG … 43%/30%/85% … 28.1/5.4/4.6 … PER: 22.2
More impressive than being in line for the scoring title: Kobe Bryant is in the top-five in minutes per game with 38.4. Yes, the same Bryant that has been playing for 15 seasons; the same Bryant that had his nose broken during the All-Star game and didn’t miss a game for it; the same Bryant on the same Los Angeles Lakers that looked done after last year’s sweep out of the playoffs.
The fact that he is in the top-five in minutes in this compressed season—and is just now missing time with an injury—is unbelievable. He’s not playing the prettiest ball, nor does he seem to trust his teammates. But Larry Bird said it best on the B.S. Report a couple months ago: "If you want to have fun, like I did with Bill Walton, play with LeBron. It would have probably been more fun to play with LeBron, but if you want to win and win and win, it's Kobe.”
Kobe has shot the Lakers into the three seed in the West, despite having no point guard for most of the season and having very little depth. Can he keep shooting to get them through the playoffs? It won’t be easy.
Lebron James is having one of the greatest statistical seasons ever...but should that make him the MVP?
The Line: 37.9 MPG… 53%/37%/76% … 27/7.9/6.4/1.9 steals per game … PER: 30.4
A 30.4 PER? In this season? That is borderline unbelievable. Let’s put that in perspective: If LeBron James can keep up this rate, his season performance would be the 13th most efficient season in the history of the NBA.
For James to do this during a normal season, well, that would be expected. He already ranks fourth and ninth on the list of most efficient seasons, according to basketball-reference.com. But to do it in this insane, condensed schedule, where many teams are resting their starters to keep them fresh for the playoffs, is especially impressive.
James hasn’t taken a night off.
James has done everything right this season: He distributes the ball, drives and creates his own offense, collects rebounds and is overall one of the most impressive players to ever play the game.
But at the end of the game, it’s still musical chairs trying to decide who takes the last shot. He still looks scared, like he doesn’t want to take over the game when it matters most. And that’s ultimately why he should not win the MVP. Because despite the best statistical year of any player in the league, the MVP has to be able to carry his team when they need it the most—not just in the first 46 minutes, but in the last two, as well.
With the game on the line, Kevin Durant wants the ball in his hands
The Line: 38.6 MPG … 50%/38%/86% … 27.5/7.9/3.5 … PER: 26.2
There’s a reason why the award is called "Most Valuable Player" and not "Best Player." The Best Player award would have to go to LeBron James. But the MVP needs to be able to put his team on his back, to lead them at all points of the game and to say, “I will not let us lose.”
And when it comes down to who you want holding the ball at the end of the game with the clock running down, in my mind, there’s no debate: Kevin Durant.
During that same Thunder-Timberwolves game, Durant hit a three to put the pressure on the Timberwolves to tie the game with about five seconds left. The highlights showed Durant hitting that three, but what they didn’t show was him getting the inbound pass at the top of the arc and just holding the ball there. For 19 seconds, he just stood there. No set play, no screens to give him a shot. Durant knew he was going to take (what he thought was) the last shot of the game; he knew he would make it.
Durant is more than just one of the best scorers in the game. He’s evolved into a clutch shooter who wants the ball in the final moments of a game.
We know whose getting the ball at the end of a close game—and he knows it’s going in. That’s who deserves to win the MVP.