Over the last few years, any conversation about an NBA MVP has to start and end with the same two players.
The former is our reigning MVP, winning the award after a dominant 2013-14 season in which he averaged 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent beyond the arc. The latter has four such awards to his credit, including the two he earned in 2012 and 2013.
But not only have those two won each of the last three MVPs, they've also finished second in the years they didn't win. Not only have they owned the top two spots, but they've done so to such an extent that no other player in the NBA has been particularly close to them.
In short, they've dominated the conversation.
That hasn't allowed all entertainment to be sucked out of the MVP debates, though, as plenty of intrigue has followed their exploits throughout the past few seasons, especially during early 2014. However, things are going to get even better in 2014-15, as new candidates start making their marks and truly enter the discussion.
Dominance for a While Now
The voting wasn't particularly close on the 2014 MVP ballots.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Durant steamrolled the competition, taking 119 of the 125 first-place votes en route to a blowout victory for his first chance to hold up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy and make a memorable acceptance speech. Each of the remaining first-place votes went to LeBron, and everyone else was left out in the cold.
Of course, the rest of the ballots—each MVP voter is asked to submit five ranked names, not just name their personal winner—made things a little bit closer. Durant's total of 1,232 blew out LeBron's 891, and Blake Griffin was still a distant third at 434.
Can you even name the other two in the top five?
Joakim Noah finished at No. 4, earning 322 points, and no other player finished in triple digits. James Harden, despite his horrific defense, finished up that top five with 85 points, and he was followed by Stephen Curry (66), Chris Paul (45), Al Jefferson (34), Paul George (33) and LaMarcus Aldridge (26).
Basically, the voting followed a similar pattern to what's happened every year since Derrick Rose took home the trophy in 2011, becoming the youngest in NBA history to do so.
Take a look at how LeBron (red) and Durant (green) have fared in voting points, as compared to the NBA's top representative outside that dynamic duo (black) over each of the last six voting sessions:
Even still, it's hard to see just how dominant Durant and LeBron have been over the last few years. It's rare that two players take up such a vast majority of the possible voting points over such a lengthy stretch.
To represent that, here's one more chart. This time, you're looking at the percentage change between second and third place on the ballots:
We're now in an unparalleled stretch in the modern NBA.
Never before has there been such a disparity between the top three over so many consecutive years, much less with the same two players featured at the top of the ballots. Since the turn of the century, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan were the only pre-LeBron-and-Durant duo to finish top two (in some order) in consecutive years, which they did in 2003 and '04.
Now, the two current favorites have trumped that, and they've done so in more dominant fashion.
Up-and-Comers with Narratives
There have been great stories in years past, but the angles haven't come together quite like this since D-Rose earned his award in 2011. Even without factoring in voter fatigue—which could be rather significant, given the dominance the two leading candidates have displayed over the past two seasons—the narratives are going to be significant in 2015.
Typically, MVPs are earned as a combination of three factors:
- Statistical excellence: How well the player performs as an individual, as the numbers have to resonate throughout the realms of media members with voting privileges.
- Team success: It's hard to win the award without making the playoffs and typically finishing at or near the top of the conference (see: Anthony, Carmelo in 2013-14).
- Narrative: You aren't winning without a compelling story.
The important question now revolves around which players can put an end to this two-pronged excellence from Durant and LeBron. Not necessarily by winning the award, but by at least submitting their names for consideration so that they're a legitimate part of the race.
Most obvious is Blake Griffin, who finished third in the 2014 balloting and is still young enough that he's improving. He absolutely has the team success part down, as the Los Angeles Clippers are primed to compete for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and there's no denying the statistical excellence at his disposal.
But the narrative?
His candidacy was boosted by Chris Paul's separated shoulder last year, as he carried the team in CP3's stead. Chances are, that won't happen again, and neither player is dominant enough as an individual to win with such a stellar teammate running alongside them.
They should both be in the running for a top-five spot, but it's hard to view either of them as a leading contender to close the gap.
How about Stephen Curry?
He's continued to improve throughout his NBA career, and now he's spending the offseason playing for Team USA and working to improve the turnover problem that's plagued him ever since he became a featured player.
"Turnovers were a big deal last year. [I'll] try to limit those and get a little bit better at the point guard position," the sharpshooting floor general told Bleacher Report's Dan Favale. "But for the most part, it's just about working on my strengths and trying to get a little bit better at them."
The likable baby-faced assassin has to be considered a serious candidate heading into 2014-15, if for no reason other than his ridiculous offensive numbers. Defense is still a work in progress, but he's playing for a good team and tends to capture attention with his long-range bombs.
Players like Joakim Noah, James Harden, Al Jefferson, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki all deserve mentions (and the point isn't to name all of the second-tier MVP competitors, so forgive me if that list isn't complete), but there are two more candidates for the actual closing of the gap.
The Real Candidates
As reported by SLAM magazine in a recent profile of New Orleans forward Anthony Davis, when [Anthony] Davis texted congratulations to Durant on winning league MVP, Durant responded back to Davis that the 21-year-old is headed for the honor someday.
'You on your way to get it,' read Durant’s text message back to Davis.
And Durant wasn't done.
"I know how good he's going to be," the reigning MVP told reporters about "The Brow" after a Team USA practice in Las Vegas. "I know how good he is now, but I know how good he’s going to be. He's an MVP-caliber player. So he's next. He's next in line—a guy that has grown so much in just a year. I'm excited to see what he does from here. He's definitely on pace."
As broken down here, Anthony Davis can jump right into the MVP conversation as soon as this upcoming season. He's already that good, coming off a season in which he joined the 20/10 club while pacing the Association in blocks per game.
"A team coming off a 34-win season with a backcourt logjam and injury concerns galore? Competing for a championship? Have we lost our minds?" asked Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan after referring to the New Orleans Pelicans as one of the five teams that vaulted into contention over the summer. And then he answered, "No. But Anthony Davis might. And that's a problem for the rest of the league."
If the Pelicans are in the playoff picture in the brutally difficult Western Conference, there won't be a better narrative than Davis', not after leading his team to the promised land as a 21-year-old big man and putting up ridiculous numbers.
Well, there might be.
It depends on Derrick Rose.
What could make for a better story than the former MVP returning from multiple major injuries, ones that have limited him to a handful of games over the last couple years and dominating the league while leading his Chicago Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference?
Sorry, Davis, but that's the trump card right there.
Just as voters, especially those eager to anoint the NBA's next big star, flocked to his side (not undeservedly) after LeBron's decision to take his talents to South Beach, the accolades will come flowing in if he reassumes his place in the Association's top 10.
It's far too early to project that happening. No matter how good Rose looks with Team USA—and he looks pretty damn good, by all accounts and the eye test—these games don't matter yet. It was only one preseason ago that he was tearing things up for the Windy City representatives, and the regular season didn't exactly go swimmingly.
But the point is, Rose could work his way back up near the top of the ballots, and he has more ability to do that than anyone else. Not only has he been there before, but he's still young and dynamic, and, due to those infamous injuries, he has more "Wow!" potential in his storyline than anyone else.
Will the Top Two be Dethroned?
Nope, probably not.
Though there are reasons to doubt each of them, they're the clear-cut leaders of the NBA, remain squarely in their primes (Durant may still be moving toward his) and play for teams that figure to be incredibly competitive. But what are those reasons?
For Durant, it's the return of Russell Westbrook. He benefited from carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder while his point guard rehabbed his meniscus injuries, and he was able to put up absolutely eye-popping scoring numbers as a result.
With Westbrook back and stealing touches, it'll be harder for him to replicate the stats he produced in 2013-14, and any perceived decline will be tough to overcome in the voting. That doesn't mean there will be a decline, just that one might show up on the surface level, which some voters unfortunately don't look past.
LeBron, meanwhile, is joining a new team.
There won't be the same level of backlash as when he joined the Heat and teamed up with two superstars, but he's still going to have an adjustment period, especially since he'll be playing next to a ball-dominant point guard. And if Kevin Love ends up on the Cleveland Cavaliers, it'll be tougher still for him to earn a ridiculous number of votes.
They're still the favorites, but this is no longer shaping up to be another runaway.
There are too many question marks surrounding their candidacies (even if both are talented enough to make those seem foolish down the road), and too many up-and-coming talents with good stories are set to embark upon stellar campaigns in 2014-15.
Chances are, LeBron will add a fifth MVP to his trophy collection or Durant will make it back-to-back seasons with the award under his name. However, things are going to be a lot tighter this year. A new winner could even emerge without it being too shocking.
At the very least, you won't see another huge gap between No. 2 and No. 3.