Ranking the Dark-Horse Candidates for 2015 NBA MVP Award

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 15, 2014

Ranking the Dark-Horse Candidates for 2015 NBA MVP Award

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    With Kevin Durant battling LeBron James for NBA supremacy, the league's MVP race has been more of a heavyweight prize fight between the game's two most prominent players.

    Last season, Durant collected the coveted hardware by earning 119 of the 125 first-place votes. James, a four-time award winner, claimed the other six top votes while finishing in the second spot on another 118 ballots.

    The 2014-15 campaign might not be any different. Both Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder and James' Cleveland Cavaliers figure to factor prominently in the championship race, which would put either player in prime position to add to his trophy collection.

    However, the MVP galaxy is bigger than these two shining stars.

    There are a host of dark-horse candidates poised to challenge the throne, all of whom will enter the season with convincing cases to be made.

    So, what makes one case more compelling than another? Well, team success is key. The past 10 MVPs have suited up for clubs that won an average of 60 games.

    Statistical dominance also weighs heavily on the voters' minds. This can help strengthen the argument for a select group of players who anchor elite teams without sharing the locker room with another full-fledged superstar.

    With that said, let's look ahead at the dark-horse candidates with the best chances to secure the 2015 NBA MVP award.

Honorable Mentions

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    Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers

    At 35 years old, Kobe Bryant may be running out of time to add a second MVP award to his mantle. The Mamba missed all but six games last season, sidelined first by the torn Achilles he suffered in April 2013 and later by a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee.

    With so many miles already on his NBA odometer—1,245 career regular-season games, plus another 220 playoff contests—it's hard to imagine his body fully recovering from the damage already done.

    "In terms of explosiveness and athleticism, the smart money is probably on a major reduction in both," wrote Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes. "Bryant will be 36 before the season starts, and nobody retains all of his bounce at that age."

    Fueled by the motivation to prove his doubters wrong, Bryant is smart enough to prevent his physical limitations from completely sapping his stat sheet. Even if his numbers show signs of life, though, they could ring empty to the voters if the Los Angeles Lakers put another dismal entry in the win column.

    Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans

    Anthony Davis' ceiling isn't measured in heights, it's tracked by superlatives. Only, there's nothing hyperbolic about the rave reviews the former top pick has drawn from his NBA peers.

    "In my 16 years, I’ve never seen anyone like him," former MVP Dirk Nowitzki said of Davis, per Grantland's Zach Lowe.

    The hype is either real with Davis, or it simply shouldn't be considered as hype any longer. The lanky cornerstone of the New Orleans Pelicans finished the 2013-14 season ranked 15th in points (20.8), 10th in rebounds (10.0), first in blocks (2.8) and fourth in player efficiency rating (26.5), per Basketball-Reference.com.

    Davis won't turn 22 until March. He might need multiple shelves to store his MVP awards when it's all said and done.

    However, his collection won't start yet if the Pelicans can't make serious noise in the fully loaded Western Conference. It's quite possible that Davis' MVP campaign may stop in the same place as his franchise's playoff hopesjust on the outside looking in.

    Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Explosive, wildly productive and confident almost to a fault, Russell Westbrook has the physical gifts and overstuffed stat sheets needed to pull off an MVP heist. The fact that his Oklahoma City Thunder have averaged 54 victories over the past five seasons only adds to his allure.

    Except, there's a big problem—these aren't his Thunder.

    As good as Westbrook was last season (21.8 points, 6.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 24.7 PER), he led the Thunder in only assists and steals (1.9). Durant led the way in scoring (32.0) and efficiency (29.8), while Serge Ibaka snagged a team-high 8.8 boards.

    Westbrook is an immense talent, particularly if he can put his knee problems behind him, and he would be his team's best player on a number of different clubs. But the Thunder aren't one of them, and voters won't hand the MVP award to someone who isn't even the most valuable player in his own locker room.

    Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers

    Chris Paul's MVP resume speaks for itself.

    Last season, he poured in 19.1 points a night while tossing out a league-best 10.7 assists and pacing the NBA with 2.5 steals. Throw in his 46.7 field-goal percentage and 25.9 PER, and it's easy to see why his point guard throne still hasn't really been challenged by his peers.

    So, why isn't the game's top floor general on the actual list? Because his teammate, Blake Griffin, is higher up here, and it's hard for two players from the same team to both be considered among the league's most valuable individuals.

    Last season, Griffin and Paul became the fourth set of teammates in the last 10 years to each finish in the top seven of the MVP voting (third and seventh, respectively), per ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi. Assuming the ballot isn't big enough for both Clippers, Griffin gets the nod over Paul since the former is four years younger and the latter has lost 32 games to injuries the past two seasons.

8. Carmelo Anthony, SF/PF, New York Knicks

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.7 blocks, 24.4 PER

    Did Carmelo Anthony prioritize money over immediate contention during his first free-agency foray? One could certainly make that argument considering the New York Knicks cannot give him the same on-paper championship chances that the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets could have.

    That said, Anthony secured more than a Powerball-type payoff when he did put pen to paper on his new five-year, $124 million deal.

    He also ensured his place as the central figure on one of the league's most storied franchises. He'll have the platform and the opportunity needed to present quite the compelling case for MVP honors.

    With a slimmed-down physique and an offensive system built to help lighten his load, Anthony should continue his transformation from ball-dominant scorer to efficient offensive machine. His reputation has struggled to keep pace with his improving box scores, but it should be noted that his top two player efficiency ratings were posted over the past two seasons.

    Anthony's supporting cast isn't great, but it's much better than last season's 37-45 record would indicate. The degree of that improvement will determine whether Anthony belongs on this list at all or deserves a much more favorable ranking.

7. Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Dallas Mavericks

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 21.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.6 blocks, 23.6 PER

    At 36 years old, Dirk Nowitzki should have signed a lifetime-achievement contract over the summer.

    That couldn't have been farther from the case. The Diggler inked a three-year, $25 million deal that not only pays him for his present and future production, but actually shortchanges him quite a bit on those fronts.

    Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said last summer that "there's no reason why he can't be considered in an MVP conversation at 35," per ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon.

    Those words might have seem wrapped in sentimental ties, until Nowitzki went out and posted an MVP-caliber stat line. He finished 13th in scoring while coming dangerously close to the second 50/40/90 entry of his career, shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from distance and 89.9 percent at the free-throw line.

    As good as he's been on his own, his best MVP chance may come as the designated best player on a really good team. The Mavericks quietly had a very strong offseason, bolstering an already explosive offense with the addition of Chandler Parsons and bringing back Tyson Chandler to plug some of this team's defensive leaks.

    Dallas had 49 victories last season, then pushed the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs. If the roster additions look as good on the court as they do on paper, the Mavs will help Nowitzki get another crack at the award he took home in 2007.

6. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 21.8 PER

    After years of patientlyand sometimes not so patientlywaiting, the Portland Trail Blazers finally fielded an ideal core around All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge.

    Portland's starting lineup boasts shooters galore, capable creators in Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, plus energetic center Robin Lopez, who provides rim protection, post defense and an active presence on the glass.

    The results of that roster building were impressive. The Blazers violently snapped a two-year playoff drought with a dominant 54-win campaign. Portland's starters posted the eighth-best net rating (plus-8.5 points per 100 possessions) of all five-man lineups with at least 300 minutes played, per NBA.com.

    With offseason investments made to bolster the second team (free-agent deals with Chris Kaman and Steve Blake), the Blazers seem ready to not only match last season's success but potentially build on it.

    And that could work wonders for Aldridge's MVP credentials. The Blazers aren't rubbing elbows with the NBA's elites if Aldridge isn't doing the same on an individual level.

    "Aldridge's has been a career built, in both style and statistical substance, on steadfast sturdiness and steady improvement," wrote Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan. "And judging by his latest breakout year, there shouldn't be many more small steps left before the floor that hangs the banners."

    If the Blazers are contending for a title, then Aldridge will find himself higher up on this list. But if they are simply really good again, he could struggle to move up from the back end of the top 10, as Lillard will continue making his own MVP argument.

5. Al Jefferson, C, Charlotte Hornets

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks, 22.7 PER

    Critics rarely let Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson stray too far out of their sights.

    His throwback, low-post play isn't supposed to survive in today's pace-and-space NBA. His defensive deficiencies should have kept Charlotte from a posting a top-six efficiency rating at that end of the floor. Last summer, the only people that noticed his signing were the ones lambasting Charlotte for "overpaying" a one-way center with a specialized gift.

    But something quieted those critics over the past year. Maybe it was Charlotte's first playoff run since 2010. Or Jefferson's 42 double-doubles. Or the All-NBA third-team honors they helped him capture.

    His 2013-14 campaign was initially cast as a high-price experiment, but by the end of the season, it was a reminder about the dangers of making premature judgments.

    "Jefferson's impact on Charlotte is proof that the so-called experts need to take a step back when grading the free-agency moves of players in the summer," wrote NBA.com's Sekou Smith.

    The Hornets have a plan. With Jefferson, Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson leading the way, theirs is a blueprint that should lead them even higher up the Eastern Conference standings. That will keep Jefferson entrenched in the MVP discussion. But Big Al could come up slightly short in both team performance and individual production.

4. John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 19.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 19.5 PER

    Last season was a badly needed breakthrough for Washington Wizards point guard John Wall.

    The former No. 1 pick set personal bests in points, assists and true-shooting percentage (52.4), per Basketball-Reference.com. He made his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game while making good on a season-long promise to end the Wizards' five-year playoff drought.

    Rather than celebrate his accomplishments, Wall is eager to help continue this ascent.

    "The Finals. All you can ask for now is the Finals," Wall said of his goals for next season, per Michael Lee of The Washington Post. "We’ve been to the second round. We know what it takes to win. We know what we need to do."

    It's an ambitious claim, but not one that falls outside the realm of possibility. The Eastern Conference isn't as top-heavy as it has been in recent years, and Washington's roster packs a potent combination of experience, youth and, most importantly, an abundance of talent.

    Wall has plenty of help—namely from Bradley Beal and Paul Pierce on the perimeter, Marcin Gortat and Nene underneath—but this is without question his team. The 23-year-old is still working on becoming a more efficient player, but his physical gifts and hunger give him a strong foundation to build upon.

    Of course, there might be too much room for him to grow to climb all the way up the MVP ladder. He'll make a spirited run at it, but there are a few players better equipped to compete for the hardware right now.

3. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 23.9 PER

    Blake Griffin was the only player other than Durant and James to garner a second-place vote in last season's MVP race. And while that's an impressive accomplishment in itself, it's hardly a stopping point for the Los Angeles Clippers' explosive star.

    "Third place, you don't really get a trophy for that, maybe a bronze medal," Griffin said, per ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi. "It's nice to be considered as that, but I have a lot of areas for improvement."

    Finding those areas for improvement isn't as easy as Griffin makes it sound.

    He has already established himself as a top-tier scorer (sixth) and rebounder (16th). His playmaking prowess—he averaged 4.2 assists in the 19 games he played without Chris Paul—opens the door to some potential production, but it will be hard for Doc Rivers to take the ball out of Paul's hands for prolonged stretches.

    Griffin has the talent to once again push hard for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, but it takes more than talent to snatch this award. Opportunity also factors heavily into the equation, and while Griffin will have the chance to get his numbers, so will Paul.

    It's a good problem to have for the Clippers' championship chances, but it's also what prevents Griffin from climbing any higher on this list. The top two players on this board don't have a second superstar blocking their path to the podium.

2. Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 15.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, 9.7 PER

    Those really don't look like MVP numbers, do they? That's OK, they don't have to. Derrick Rose isn't this high on the list for what he did—or really, didn't do—last season, but rather the former MVP has such a prominent position here for what he could do going forward.

    A pair of serious knee injuries—first an ACL tear in his left, then a torn meniscus in his right—limited him to only 10 games over the last two seasons combined. For today's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately fans, it might be hard to remember how good a full-strength Rose really is.

    The last time he was healthy (2011-12), he averaged 21.8 points and 7.9 assists. His Chicago Bulls tied for the league lead with 50 wins while enjoying top-five efficiency rankings on both ends of the floor.

    A healthy Rose is a powerful two-way beast. And judging by the rave reviews he's drawn at Team USA training camp, that monster might be unleashed in the 2014-15 season.

    "He looks, to me, as good as when we had him in the world championship in '10, when he was at full strength coming [into] an MVP year," Syracuse coach and Team USA assistant Jim Boeheim told ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. " ... He's been the most impressive guy here."

    If Rose is really healthy, the youngest MVP in NBA history could be even better than before. The Bulls have worked to surround him with scoring (Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic), and they still have a number of defensive roadblocks in place (Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson).

    That depth should both keep Rose fresh and help him become even more efficient. The supporting cast also lacks an in-house threat to Rose's MVP bid, assuming Noah's stat sheet takes a plunge with all of the weapons added.

    Still, there's one player on a rising contender in an even more favorable spot to crash Durant and James' two-man party.

1. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

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    2013-14 Per-Game Averages: 24.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 24.1 PER

    Stephen Curry, the sharp-shooting floor general of the Golden State Warriors, knows how to get an MVP discussion started.

    During a recent appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, via ESPN.com, Curry said he's a better offensive player than James. That comment ignited a round of debate surrounding his claim, giving him the spotlight needed to orchestrate an MVP run.

    Voters like narratives, and Curry has an incredible one to tell. He has NBA lineage, a likable personality, an injury history that threatened to derail his rise and a three-point cannon that can drop jaws, send a scoreboard spinning and crumble a defense with a single flick of the wrist.

    He is incredibly fun to watch, equally productive and constantly improving his game. In other words, he wouldn't be hard to vote for.

    His Warriors are also poised to vault up the Western Conference standings if head coach Steve Kerr can unlock this team's offensive potential without sacrificing its defensive discipline. And if the Warriors indeed rise, Curry will undoubtedly play the starring role for this team.

    "He has the collective help to be on a team that finishes top-two in the West, but there is no one who can rival him for the best player on the team," wrote Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta.

    If voter fatigue and/or the supporting casts of Durant and James open up the MVP voting, Curry is in the strongest position to seize that opportunity. With the boxes checked for both team success and statistical prosperity, Curry could be on the cusp of claiming the game's greatest individual honor.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.