Predicting the Next Wave of NBA MVP Candidates
Tomorrow is in good hands.
Contrary to what many of us may hope, current NBA superstars won't be around forever. They are rich and they are famous, but they are also mortal.
It stinks, I know. The thought of watching anyone other than LeBron James and Kevin Durant duke it out for league MVP honors feels wrong—interesting, yet wrong.
Lucky for us, though, James and Durant aren't going anywhere anytime soon. But they won't be standing alone on the mountaintop for much longer, either.
At some point, it's going to be more than James and Durant and then everyone else. There will come a time when others legitimately challenge them, when they are not the NBA's two most valuable players.
That time isn't here yet, as we saw only this season, but it is coming. And it's coming soon.
Whip out those crystal balls of yours and come peer into the NBA of tomorrow with me, won't you?
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 43.3 percent shooting, 19.5 PER
Max contract extension?
John Wall is a calculated player who understands the importance of goals and balance between confidence and humility. That much has been clear for the last four years, and it was made even more apparent when yours truly spoke to him in January.
Making the playoffs was a goal. Earning an All-Star selection was a goal. Establishing himself as an unquestionable superstar was a goal. Now that he's done all that, now that he's helped the Washington Wizards return to prominence (yes, prominence—do you realize they have a real chance of landing in the Eastern Conference Finals?), it's on to the next stage of his career.
This season was something of a wake-up call for Wall and the league. He came on in a big way, improving his outside shooting and infusing meaning—playoff contention—into routinely gaudy stat lines.
Only five other players in NBA history, aged 23 or younger, have averaged at least 19 points, four rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.5 steals for an entire season. The last player to do so was Chris Paul in 2008-09. Look how his career panned out.
Given the current state of affairs in Washington, Wall's importance to his team will only increase. The Wizards are barreling toward an offseason of potential turnover. Both Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza could leave in free agency. Nene's health isn't a sure thing.
Drastic change could come often in Washington over the next few years. One of the few constants will be Wall, the evolving All-Star point guard a heartbeat away from garnering plenty of MVP attention.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 42.4 percent shooting, 18.6 PER
By a show of hands, how many people expected Damian Lillard, a 20-something score-first point guard out of Weber State, to establish himself as a future MVP candidate two years into his career?
Those of you who kept your hands down, your honesty is applauded. Those who shamelessly threw a hand or two up, you're lying.
No one saw Lillard coming. Not like this, and most certainly not this soon.
The reigning Rookie of the Year is only just putting the finishing touches on an incredible sophomore campaign that saw him make the Western Conference All-Star team while participating in every All-Star event under the sun—save for the running of shirtless dipsomaniacs down Bourbon Street—and hit clutch shot after clutch shot (after clutch shot).
Lillard also became just the second sophomore in NBA history to average at least 20 points, five assists and three rebounds per game in addition to converting 39 percent or more of his long balls. Unlike some of his shoot-first peers—Kyrie Irving, for instance—his stats didn't come in vain. The Portland Trail Blazers made the playoffs. They spent a good portion of the season sitting atop the Western Conference. They're one win away from unseating the Houston Rockets and advancing through to the second round.
While that also says the world about LaMarcus Aldridge and friends, Lillard is the future in Portland. Aldridge is going on 29 and headed for free agency in 2015. There's no guarantee he sticks around. Even if he does, there's no promising he remains productive well into his 30s.
Lillard, on the other hand, is just getting started. This year's All-Star and postseason appearances are the first of many.
This year's performance was a sign of things to come, all of which are good and MVP-ballot worthy.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 52.8 percent shooting, 23.9 PER
Had you told me the Los Angeles Clippers would finish with the Western Conference's third-best record this season despite Paul missing 20 games, I would have called you insane. I would have struggled to piece together complete, coherent sentences.
"James Harden!" I may have exclaimed. "Rockets! Something, something about the Golden State Warriors!"
Like many others, I would have been wrong—very, very wrong.
Blake Griffin carried the Clippers more than anyone this season. The notion that he remains overrated is cute—provided that you think all stupid, senseless concepts are adorable.
The time Griffin spent leading the Clippers without Paul was baptism by fire. It had to happen. The Clippers needed it. Griffin needed it. We needed to see it, to understand that he was something more than Paul's partner in crime.
On the back of an expanded offensive arsenal, Griffin became the first NBA player since Shaquille O'Neal in 2002-03 to average at least 24 points, nine rebounds and three assists on 50-percent-or-better shooting. That's some company for a guy often considered more athletic than talented. Griffin also finished tied for sixth in win shares (12.2).
Winning an MVP award will be tough as long as he's playing next to a perennial MVP candidate, but it's not impossible. There was an on-court power shift in Los Angeles this season. The Clippers run their offense through Griffin. He is no longer a budding, overrated superstar prospect; he is a full-fledged superstar.
Griffin is Paul's equal.
"He led with his voice," Jamal Crawford told USA Today's Sam Amick of Griffin. "He led by example. He led us every single night when Chris went out.
Largely because of the job he did in Paul's absence, Griffin has been cited as an outside MVP candidate, someone who deserves a place on the ballot behind James and Durant.
One day, though, Griffin will be James and Durant.
One day soon, he'll be more than an honorable MVP mention.
2013-14 College Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks, 44.8 percent shooting, 21.4 PER
Entering this thingamajig, I told myself I would use one college prospect. That prospect was almost Duke's Jabari Parker.
Until it wasn't.
Less than a year ago, this wouldn't seem too bold. Andrew Wiggins was prematurely deemed the second coming of LeBron James in a draft class that was rashly coined the best crop of talent in 10 years. But as Wiggins struggled to remain consistent at Kansas, his stock slipped and questions arose.
Yet even so, no one coming out of college offers what Wiggins does. Once polished, he will be the entire package, equal parts prolific scorer and staunch defender.
Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman had this to say about Wiggins in his latest mock draft:
Wiggins made significant progress from day one—he actually finished with a better true shooting percentage and more three-pointers than Duke's Jabari Parker. From step-back and pull-up jumpers to explosive takes to the rack, Wiggins flashed the whole package—he just has to polish it up so he can execute with more consistency.
Defensively, he has the potential to lock down three positions.
Doubt Wiggins as you will, but he's still a possible superstar.
There's no definitively forecasting how his transition to the NBA will go. There's also no telling how well or how poorly his eventual team will handle his development.
But if it all works out, Wiggins will be an MVP hopeful at the NBA level soon enough.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 24 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 47.1 percent shooting, 24.1 PER
Do I realize Stephen Curry is 26 and closing out his fifth NBA season?
Do I care?
Curry's jump from injury-prone prospect to undeniable superstar has been both meteoric and long overdue. We've waited for him to have a season like this one, when his name would crop up in MVP conversations, even if halfheartedly. And this is something he can, he will, build upon.
Think about how important Curry is to the Warriors. That's not going to change. His value to the franchise will only increase.
David Lee is getting older. The Warriors don't really know what they have in Harrison Barnes. Andre Iguodala, for the most part, makes his impact beyond the box score. Andrew Bogut's bill of health will never be clear.
We've seen how the Warriors are impacted when Curry is taken out of the offense. The Clippers did a nice job grounding him for most of Games 1, 2, 3 before he caught fire in Game 4.
Put simply, Curry is a superstar. It took him a while to receive that type of recognition, but he is a superstar. No one else in NBA history has maintained benchmarks of 24 points, four rebounds and eight assists per game while knocking down at least 42 percent of their treys for an entire season. Just him.
This season was the beginning of something for Curry, a prelude to the life of a superstar, who will tether himself to MVP arguments for years to come.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.8 points, 10 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 2.8 blocks, 51.9 percent shooting, 26.5 PER
In a league dominated by point guards, Anthony Davis is a 6'10", wiry forward who could probably run point if you asked him to.
Because Davis can do anything.
The one-eyebrowed phenomenon spent his sophomore campaign breaking records and solidifying himself as a top-10 superstar and the ultimate building block. He became the youngest player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game for an entire season and set the player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes record (.212) for players under 20, beating out James in both categories.
There is no limit to what Davis can do. None. MVP candidacy is inevitable. It's a formality. We're bearing witness to a player without a ceiling, with potential we cannot fully understand because we've never seen anyone like him before. His skill set is vast, his versatility unprecedented.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), there were seven different offensive situations that Davis used at least nine percent of the time this past season. Who does that? What player scores in so many different ways, so often?
Realistically, Davis is someone who can lead the NBA in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, PER and win shares all in the same season. He is a possible Defensive Player of the Year and league MVP. He is, as Eye on Basketball's Matt Moore put it, "the thing under the bed that the things under the bed are afraid of."
When all's told, Davis will—he absolutely will—go down as one of the greatest NBA players ever. All that comes with it, MVP candidacy included, is simply a given.