Handicapping the 2012-13 NBA MVP Field

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistOctober 3, 2012

Handicapping the 2012-13 NBA MVP Field

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    With NBA training-camp hype well out of hand, there's no better time to survey the league's landscape and make some sense of the hyperbole being spewed by coaches and players alike.

    Optimism may be brimming in October, but by the start of 2013, the NBA's contenders and pretenders should be sorting themselves out.

    At the helm of said contenders will be the players featured in this slideshow—the most likely MVP candidates of the 2012-13 NBA season.

    In reverse order, let's look at the 10 players who should be most favored to walk home with the NBA's regular-season MVP award.

Honorable Mention

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    In alphabetical order...

    Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

    Is it possible for Griffin to average 20-to-25 points and 10-to-15 rebounds per game while leading the Clippers to a Top Three seed in the Western Conference this coming season? Assuming his medial meniscus is all healed up from offseason surgery, sure, why not?

    Does he have a teammate who's almost certain to be more responsible for just how far the Clippers go this season? Will you see him later on this list? There's a good chance.


    Steve Nash, Los Angeles Lakers

    The Lakers will have no shortage of MVP candidates this season, between Nash, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. Of the three, the 38-year-old Nash is least likely to take home the award, despite having more MVPs to his name than Bryant and Howard combined.

    He may be the conductor of the Lakers' offense, but he's got two younger teammates who will command most of the team's possessions this season. Unless Nash somehow goes back to his nights of averaging 20 points and 10 assists on 50-40-90 shooting, he's not even the MVP favorite on his own team.


    Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

    Speaking of not being the MVP favorite on his own team...how about Dwyane Wade, teammate of three-time MVP LeBron James?

    The 30-year-old Wade will start the year limited after offseason knee surgery and has sharpshooter Ray Allen to back him up at the 2. There's a good chance Wade will average a career low in minutes played this year, which isn't the typical route to an MVP award.


    Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Like Nash and Wade, Westbrook won't be the MVP favorite even on his own team, as teammate Kevin Durant has led the league in scoring for each of the past three years.

    If Westbrook somehow learns to rein in his often-reckless shot selection and averages LeBron James-esque numbers, he's got an outside shot at the MVP. Otherwise, he'll need Durant to have an off year and still guide the Thunder to the No. 1 seed in the West to have any sort of realistic chance.


    Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets

    One NBA scout told Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick that he expects an MVP-type season from Williams, now that he's got Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and a healthy Brook Lopez at his disposal.

    If Williams can maintain his momentum from the Olympics this summer, helping establish the Nets as the better of the two New York teams in the first year of this new rivalry, he'll have a strong media contingent pushing for his MVP candidacy.

10. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

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    Tony Parker won't be the flashy choice for 2012-13 MVP, but in case you missed it, he finished fifth in the 2011-12 MVP race, only 21 points behind Kobe Bryant.

    Parker finished with a career-high 7.7 assists per game in 2011-12, in only a shade over 32 minutes a night. His command of the offense helped ease the transition from Tim Duncan being the focal point to a more team-centric style of attack.

    Parker also managed to shoot a career-high 79.9 percent from the charity stripe last season while averaging nearly five free-throw attempts per game. On the other hand, he shot a career-low 23 percent from downtown.

    Duncan didn't get any younger over the summer, so it stands to reason that Parker will once again be the Spurs' key player this season.

    If the Spurs somehow manage to keep defying Father Time and land a Top Three seed in the playoffs, with Parker averaging around 20 points and eight assists per game, it's not inconceivable that he'd be named the MVP. There are far likelier candidates, though.

9. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Carmelo Anthony's place on this list is one of the most unsteady of all, based on the recent Wall Street Journal interview where he said he was "tired of scoring 30 or 40 points a game."

    In a separate interview with ESPNNewYork.com, he said, "I don't want to try to put all that burden on myself...If my scoring goes from 27 to 23, I'm cool with that."

    If Anthony isn't joking about decreasing his scoring averages, he's likely all but off the list of MVP candidates. In 2011-12, Anthony posted his lowest points-per-game average (22.6) since his sophomore season in 2004-05, and now he's talking about shooting even less?

    I'm in let's-see-it-to-believe-it mode with this new offensively reformed Anthony, but his Olympic experience with Team USA this summer may have opened his eyes to how he could be a lethal off-ball scorer while involving teammates more.

    He's always been compared to LeBron James since they were both Top Five picks in the 2003 draft playing the same position, and Anthony has the talent to start averaging five or more assists per game if he focused on that aspect of his play.

    That well-roundedness, if it comes to fruition, will only benefit the Knicks. But, unless Anthony starts posting 25-10-7 games on a nightly basis, he won't be a serious MVP candidate in 2012-13.

8. Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers

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    As usual with a 7', 285-pound big man, Andrew Bynum's MVP candidacy boils down to health, first and foremost.

    The Philadelphia 76ers announced on Monday that Bynum would miss the next three weeks of training camp and preseason due to a bone bruise on his left knee. The Sixers say it's only a precautionary measure to allow Bynum's offseason Orthokine treatment to work to its full effectiveness.

    If Bynum comes back opening night and manages to stay healthy for the full 82-game season, he's about as good of a sleeper MVP candidate as they come.

    After posting career-high averages of 18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in 2011-12 with the Los Angeles Lakers, he now gets to be the offensive focal point of a team for the first time in his career. He won't have Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol around to open up easy looks for him, but Sixers coach Doug Collins has made no bones about structuring his offense around Bynum.

    If Bynum averages 23-to-25 points, 13-to-15 rebounds and two blocks per game while leading the Sixers to a Top Three seed in the East, he could very well be in the thick of the MVP race late into the 2012-13 season.

7. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

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    With Ray Allen having taken his talents to South Beach this past summer, the Boston Celtics will only heap more responsibility upon Rajon Rondo in 2012-13.

    The mercurial point guard still has a few warts to work out. His 11.9 points per game in 2011-12 certainly don't scream "MVP!," and the Celtics desperately need him to improve from the free-throw line, where he shot 59.7 percent in 2011-12, if he's to become a legitimate MVP candidate.

    Rondo did lead the league in assists per game (11.7) last season, however. He's also averaged nearly two steals per game over the course of his career, as he has the tendency to gamble defensively almost to a fault.

    If Rondo can keep fixing up that jumper and boost his averages to around 15 points, 12 assists and two steals per game, he's got a chance at becoming a serious MVP candidate.

    Rondo finished eighth in MVP voting in 2011-12 (only garnering 12 votes), but should finish at least a few spots higher this time around.

6. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    It actually pains me to not put Chris Paul higher on this list. Of anyone in the bottom five, he's the one with the potential to make me look like a complete idiot, as he finished third in the MVP race in 2011-12.

    The Los Angeles Lakers stole all of the summer attention by landing Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, but the Los Angeles Clippers made some sneaky, solid moves of their own. As ESPN's J.A. Adande wrote recently, the Clippers get to experience a rarity this coming season by building on continuity.

    Blake Griffin, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups and DeAndre Jordan were all around for the 2012 run into the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Clippers then went out and added Lamar Odom, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill and Matt Barnes, among others.

    With a full training camp, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Clippers mesh offensively and become a nightmare for any team to guard. With Paul at the helm, the Clippers could easily be a 50-win team in 2012-13.

    If Paul can lead the Clips to a Top Four seed in the West while averaging at least 20 points, 10 assists and two steals per game, he'll be right up there as an MVP candidate.

5. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Dwight Howard's candidacy, first and foremost, depends on whether or not the MVP voters forgive him for putting us all through the "Dwightmare" of his impending free agency. If not, he's toast.

    There's one thing that can swing public sentiment back your way pretty quickly after a public-relations disaster, as LeBron James learned this past season: winning.

    Despite having back surgery only five months ago, Howard plans on playing for the Los Angeles Lakers on opening night, according to a recent Yahoo! Sports report. If Howard comes back 100-percent healthy and stays that way for the whole season, he'll have a shot at the MVP.

    It all depends on how the Lakers mesh, given the addition of Howard and Steve Nash. If those two can make sweet basketball music with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, the Lakers could be the media's new Miami Heat.

    For Howard to win MVP, he'll need to be the defensive anchor for the Lakers that he was for Orlando in winning three Defensive Player of the Year awards, while averaging at least 20 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game.

4. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    If Kevin Love leads the Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs this year, the odds favor him staying in the thick of the MVP-contender race throughout the season.

    Love averaged an eye-popping 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game for the Timberwolves in 2011-12 while shooting over 37 percent from three-point range. A 6'10" player who can stretch the floor like Love presents matchup nightmares for virtually every T-Wolves opponent.

    This past summer with the Olympic men's basketball team, Love struggled to find a niche early, but eventually grew into one of coach Mike Krzyzewski's most relied-on players by the gold-medal game.

    If Love carries that confidence back over to the Timberwolves this season, knowing he belongs in the conversation with the NBA elite, a repeat of 25-point, 13-rebound per-game averages isn't at all out of the question.

    Love likely needs to make strides defensively to become MVP-worthy in 2012-13. If he and Nikola Pekovic fortify the Wolves' interior while he averages at least 25 points, 13 rebounds and somewhere around a block per game, Love will be considered an MVP favorite.

3. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Much like Chris Paul can burn me for being too low, Kobe Bryant's the likeliest at risk of dropping out of the top five of these rankings.

    Unlike Paul, Bryant won't drop because of injury. It's all a factor of his team's new additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, and what that means for Bryant's offense.

    At the Los Angeles Lakers' media day Monday, Bryant said that the Lakers are still "[his] team," but Howard and Nash didn't just come to Los Angeles to stand around and watch the Kobe show on the perimeter.

    This season could go one of two ways for Bryant and the Lakers. Nash and Howard could mesh with Bryant and Pau Gasol, the four could turn into basketball's version of the Fantastic Four and Bryant could average 25 points on 13 shots per game.

    On the other hand, Howard and Nash could start taking shots away from Bryant while averaging a combined 35 points per game, and Bryant would be powerless to stop it if it meant wins for the Lakers.

    If the first scenario comes to fruition, and the Howard and Nash acquisitions lead to a hyper-efficient Bryant this coming season, he could be right in the thick of the MVP race once again.

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    If anyone should be considered the favorite to dethrone the reigning MVP, it should be the 24-year-old Kevin Durant, who's led the league in scoring each of the past three seasons.

    Durant finished second in MVP voting in 2011-12 with 24 first-place votes and 83 second-place votes. He's the only player to even have come close to the eventual MVP, LeBron James. (And by "close," I mean within 65 first-place votes.)

    K.D. made a considerable effort to expand his game last season, showing off his defensive chops and attempting to involve teammates in the offense more. That effort helped the Oklahoma City Thunder make it all the way to the NBA Finals before running into the buzzsaw that was James and the Miami Heat.

    After an incredible showing in the Olympics this past summer, where he led the gold-medal Team USA in scoring, Durant should enter training camp in 2012 brimming with confidence and ready to make a charge back to the Finals.

    Durant will need to lead the league in scoring for the fourth straight year, averaging in the neighborhood of 30 points and eight rebounds per game, to have a realistic shot at dethroning James as the MVP. The scary thing is, that's not totally unfeasible.

1. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Why does LeBron James start the 2012-13 season as MVP favorite, besides the fact that he's the reigning MVP and is the only active three-time MVP in the league?

    With the championship monkey finally off his back, James appears locked and loaded to take his aggression out on the rest of the league this coming season.

    ESPN's Heat Index has been doing a great job chronicling how James will spend the majority of his time in the paint this coming season in a "point power forward" role.

    Considering how dominant James became in the 2012 playoffs once Chris Bosh's injury forced him to cover the paint for Miami, that's a terrifying prospect for the rest of the league.

    James finished with one of the greatest single-season PERs in league history in 2011-12, averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game on 53.1 percent shooting from the field. He cut down on his three-point attempts, pounded the paint relentlessly and dominated like never before.

    The Heat didn't add any major prospects at center this summer, so they fully expect James to pull a repeat performance this upcoming season. Assuming James plays anywhere near the level he reached during the final two rounds of the 2012 playoffs, he's the clear favorite heading into the season to win his fourth MVP award.