How Every 2013-14 NBA MVP Contender Can Challenge LeBron James' Throne
He's claimed four total—two with Cleveland, two with Miami. That puts him in elite company with Wilt, Russell, Jordan and Kareem as the only players in history with at least four. Racking up a couple more and surpassing MJ's five may not be James' ultimate objective, but it's within closer reach than trumping those six rings.
As far as legacy goes, James may have to take what he can get. Being remembered as the most valuable of MVPs ain't bad.
But even as his own game reaches new heights, his individual competition stands poised to do the same. This season's MVP race will be more than a two-man affair, perhaps one of the closest yet if Chicago and Derrick Rose narrow the gap out East or Chris Paul's Clippers emerge as legitimate contenders under Doc Rivers.
James is all but guaranteed at least one more MVP award, but that doesn't mean it will happen this season.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
For the better part of the 2012-13 season, it really seemed like Kevin Durant had a shot this time. He took his own shooting efficiency to new levels and set the bar for the rest of the league in the process.
Had it not been for Miami's 27-game winning streak, it might have been enough. But the Heat were too good, and they were that good because of James. He matched Durant's efficiency, save for at the line and from beyond the arc. And he remained the clearly better playmaker, dishing nearly three more assists per game than Durant.
For all the talk about Durant's defense needing to toughen up to LBJ proportions, the true MVP test in 2013-14 will be how well he creates for others.
Russell Westbrook bore the brunt of that responsibility last season, to an even greater degree than when Harden was around. Third-year guard Reggie Jackson is poised to play more of a role, but he doesn't appear to be the pass-first type just yet.
So there's certainly room for Durant to pick up some of the slack, becoming a more regular triple-double threat and addressing the one comparative weakness in a game that doesn't have many. Any significant strides in that department will put James' MVP stranglehold on notice.
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
The perfect MVP storm may be finally arriving for Chris Paul.
Much of the forecast depends on the rest of the Clippers—whether Blake Griffin's ready to be a full-time superstar and if the new lineup of shooters lives up to its potential. Were this still Vinny Del Negro's operation, important questions would linger, but Doc Rivers' arrival could mean any number of fantastical things for Paul's already sterling career.
Rivers broke down Paul's similarity to old pal Rajon Rondo in an interview with the Boston Globe's Gary Washburn:
Rondo was such a smart player. And so far from being around Chris, they do really remind me a lot of each other in their basketball IQ, and it’s really refreshing. Chris can already recite plays that we’ve run. He was talking about the out-of-timeout plays that we’ve always run in Boston. So, he’s got a keen eye for the game. I tell people all the time that Rondo did the same stuff. He knows as many of the opponent’s plays as the opponent does. Chris Paul has turned out to be the exact same way.
That symmetry bodes well for Rivers' ability to get in sync with Paul from the outset.
The real obstacle from an MVP standpoint will be playing the kind of minutes usually needed to grab everyone's attention. The 33.4 he averaged last season were the fewest of his career—a wise move for playoff purposes, but hazardous to awards chances.
Paul's still just 28, but Los Angeles has no interest in pushing its luck after signing him to a brand-new max deal. Keeping him fresh for the duration of Blake Griffin's prime is every bit as important as whatever happens this season.
If he has another obscenely efficient season and notches an extra assist or two per game, minutes might not matter. Pound for pound, it's hard to be more valuable than Chris Paul.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
James Harden finished eighth in MVP voting last season, and that was with his Rockets crossing the finish line with a 45-37 record. Should they notch closer to 55 wins this season—a very real possibility—Harden could find himself firmly entrenched alongside James and Durant as a leading vote-getter.
With the extra wins Dwight Howard will bring Houston's way, however, comes the potentially MVP-damning reality that Harden can't take as much of the credit as he did last time around. Even if the same numbers are there this season, Howard's defensive impact will steal some of the spotlight, and deservedly so.
But Harden still has a chance.
Players of Howard's caliber haven't traditionally ruined teammates' MVP chances, in large part because many voters don't see value as a zero-sum game. No one's been turned off by LeBron playing with a couple of All-Stars; nor was MJ faulted for having Scottie Pippen at his side.
You could potentially blame Shaq for overshadowing Kobe Bryant's early contributions, but Howard is no Shaq—especially when it comes to taking an offense over.
Harden will continue to serve as the basis for everything Houston does on offense. Of the NBA's 10 most relied-upon stars (as measured by usage rate from ESPN), Harden trailed only Durant and James in true shooting percentage last season. Only James, Durant and Bryant were estimated to have added more wins (per ESPN, subscription required).
In other words, Harden does it all and does it well. If Houston rolls to a top-three seed in the West, he'll be hard for voters to ignore.
Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose has had plenty of time to sit and think about returning to MVP form.
Should he do so, it would be an irresistibly good story if he edged out James, the kind of story a few facts shouldn't ruin. It will probably be a fact that James has the better season by any comprehensive metric (PER, wins added, etc.). And it will remain a fact that James can do things on the defensive end that smaller players just can't, like guarding four different positions.
However, if the Chicago Bulls have a remotely dominant season and keep pace with Miami in the East, Rose will be halfway to his second MVP honors.
The rest of that equation will be determined by Rose's shooting.
Fortunately, there are good reasons to believe it will improve. Sheridan Hoops' Jeremy Bauman used Iman Shumpert as an example. When the New York Knicks guard was recovering from a torn ACL and MCL, there were times in the early stages when shooting flat-footed was the most he could muster, forcing him to focus on shooting mechanics until the rest of his physical tools returned.
After Shumpert recovered, he improved his true shooting by 3.2 percentage points according to NBA.com, thanks in large part to a significantly improved three-point stroke.
Rose could use some help in that arena too, both in the name of helping the Bulls and just to spare his body the wear and tear suffered with every trip to the basket. After improving his three-point shot to a somewhat respectable 33 percent in 2010-11, it sank to 31 percent a year later. That needs to come up.
If it does, and if the rest of Rose's game returns to form in relatively short order, this could be an MVP season for the storybooks.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
It's the only story that could possibly trump Derrick Rose playing MVP ball.
What if Kobe Bryant comes back with a vengeance? Unlike Rose, Bryant wouldn't even dream of taking off more time than was absolutely necessary. That's not in his DNA, especially at this stage of his career. Whereas Rose still has a long and uncertain future ahead, Bryant's time is now or never.
And you guessed it, he picked now.
Thanks to a recovery that's progressed at a remarkable rate, Bryant will be ready to lead the way for the Lakers before anyone remembers he's been missing. That might mean easing into the heavy minutes, but there will be heavy minutes. Knowing Kobe, they won't be wasted minutes either.
Besides securing his iron-man status from Day 1, Bryant will also benefit from the significantly reduced expectations surrounding his Los Angeles Lakers. With a panel of ESPN experts already predicting a 12th-place finish out West, you have to wonder how badly the non-experts think this will go.
Odds are Xavier Henry's signing, as announced on NBA.com, won't have those ESPN experts demanding a re-vote, and heroics aside, not even Kobe can get this particular team to a title.
Should he somehow will them to a top-five seed, though, he'll have accomplished something just impossible enough to deserve an MVP award.