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Laying out 2016 MVP Cases for NBA's Top Candidates

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2016

Laying out 2016 MVP Cases for NBA's Top Candidates

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    This year's NBA MVP race would be an epic affair if not for the infinite pre-eminence being displayed by a certain superstar who shall temporarily remain nameless.

    But while the chase for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy appears lopsided, it doesn't always feel that way. Other contenders have played insanely well enough for us to host bar-stool debates and entertain the idea that someone out there has the clout necessary to turn the 2016 MVP ladder into something other than a protracted formality.

    Basketball-Reference's MVP probability tracker will be our guiding light throughout this journey. We are interested only in players who, as of now, have at least a 1 percent chance of snaring the Association's foremost individual distinction.

    These MVP cases will be rooted in reality and rely heavily on personal statistics, team performances and the circumstances under which these successes are borne.

    Does anyone have a case strong enough to rival our unidentified mutant?

7. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    MVP Probability: 1.1 percent

    Case For: "Hey! Look at what I've done without Blake Griffin."

    Blake Griffin rumors reached fever pitch ahead of the trade deadline for a number of reasons. 

    The Los Angeles Clippers' Big Three, for starters, is stale. They are in their fifth season together and have yet to make it out of the second round.

    Superstars make the NBA go 'round, but the Clippers have been unable to use what's left of their flexibility to surround Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul with the right mix of talent. And you can only justify flipping first-round picks to add the Jeff Greens of the NBA for so long.

    The other, more important part of Griffin's uncertain future in Los Angeles is Paul and the job he has done since his superstar comrade last played. The Clippers are 20-6 and have posted a top-five offense and defense in his absence, a balance matched only by the San Antonio Spurs over this stretch.

    Paul specifically has averaged 21.3 points, 10 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from three during that time. He ranks in the top seven of assist percentage, steal percentage, player efficiency rating and win shares, and in the time Griffin has missed, CP3 is the only player the Clippers are a net negative without.

    Losing a top-15 megastar could have crippled Paul and the Clippers. But they remain on track for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and, if not for the Golden State Warriors and Spurs, would check in as a Western Conference favorite—an impressive feat under less-than-ideal circumstances, thanks in large part to Paul. 

    Case Against: Stephen Curry exists

6. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

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    Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    MVP Probability: 2.8 percent

    Case For: "I'm the best player on one of the best teams ever."

    Kawhi Leonard's MVP case is quiet and emotionless but deadly. In other words, it's so Kawhi Leonard.

    San Antonio remains on track to finish with the highest margin of victory in Association history. Basketball-Reference's Simple Rating System, which ranks teams according to point differential and strength of schedule, lists the Spurs as the fourth-best team in the NBA's existence.

    Leonard is the most valuable player for this historically great squad. He leads the Spurs in box plus-minus (BPM), and no one else is even remotely close. His per-game averages of 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.8 steals on 51 percent shooting, including an NBA-leading 48.2 percent clip from downtown, are straight absurd—so much so that not even perceived rivals can refrain from lauding his performance.

    "We always talk about two-way players and how important it is, especially in the modern NBA, where you can't hide a guy at either end," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in January, per CSNBayArea.com's Monte Poole. "He's probably the best two-way player in the league now."

    This is not an exaggeration. Leonard is the lone player this season with a defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) greater than 2.5 and an offensive box plus-minus (OBPM) north of 5.0. 

    Just nine other players throughout NBA history, in fact, have matched Leonard's BPM output. James was the last to do so; he eclipsed those benchmarks in 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2011-12, earning MVP honors each and every time.

    Feel free to assume Leonard has the strongest, most ridiculous MVP case of anyone to ever boast a 2.8 percent win probability. You're probably right. 

    Case Against: Stephen Curry exists

5. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    MVP Probability: 3.2 percent

    Case For: "Where would the Cavs be without me?"

    Hypothetical, self-promoting LeBron poses an interesting question: Where would the Cleveland Cavaliers, who play host to a pair of other superstars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, be without James?

    Nowhere good. 

    Some brave, sorely misguided souls have been quick to criticize the four-time MVP this season. His three-point percentage is at an all-time low. He is shooting a lower percentage from inside the paint (44.1) than Stephen Curry is shooting from beyond 25 feet of the basket (44.5).

    But James is still clearing 24 points, six rebounds, six assists and one steal per game for the 12th time in his career, giving him at least twice as many such seasons as anyone else in league history. And, most importantly, he is the sole player standing between Cleveland and irrelevance:

    Cavaliers...Net RatingRank
    With LeBron10.83
    Without LeBron-6.726

    If this is what an off year looks like for the 31-year-old James, then, you know, holy crap.

    He is still slated to finish in the top five of player efficiency rating, BPM and win shares, and the Cavaliers are once again favorites to waltz through the Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals almost entirely because of him.

    Case Against: Stephen Curry exists

4. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    MVP Probability: 3.6 percent

    Case For: "It's not my fault Steph exists."

    Draymond Green will not, relative to this year's MVP makeup, go down without a convincing fight.

    No other player has ever exceeded 14 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and one block per game. Green is the first, and it might take an illicit government lab experiment to find the next.

    Golden State uses Green unlike any team has used another player. At 6'7", he is their pointcentermabob—the undersized defensive anchor who often directs the offense, strokes threes and allows for positionless lineups in which organized chaos reigns supreme.

    The Warriors' identity, quite simply, does not exist without Green. Their net rating with him on the floor drops by 27.8 points per 100 possessions when he sits. That's the largest disparity of anyone else who will appear on this list.

    Curry isn't even immune to Green's on-court charm. His net rating without Curry (7.4) is noticeably higher than the reigning MVP's net rating without his pointcentermabob (4.4).

    That's just crazy enough to make you believe Green's MVP probability creeps into double-digit percentage points.

    Alas, the strength of his case, while admirable, doesn't even approach 5 percent.

    Case Against: Stephen Curry exists

3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    J Pat Carter/Getty Images

    MVP Probability: 6 percent

    Case For: "I'm back."

    Three foot surgeries over a span of six months left many to wonder whether the same ol' Kevin Durant would run rampant across hardwoods ever again. That train of thought is now a distant memory—a memento from a past no one will remember.

    Durant has been that good.

    This is the second time he has averaged at least 27 points, seven rebounds, four assists and one block per game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron are the only other players to have simultaneously posted those lines more than once.

    We spend a lot of time discussing the implausibility behind Curry's combination of efficiency and volume, and rightly so. But Durant is an O.G. of efficiency in volume as well.

    Assuming his present numbers hold, this will be the fifth time he finishes with a true shooting percentage better than 60 after maintaining a usage rate greater than 30. No one else in league history has done the same more than four times (James and Michael Jordan).

    To say that's incredible would grossly undersell the difficulty of Durant's sustained greatness. He is a (pretty much) 7-footer with the game of a point forward and the shooting percentage of someone who exclusively attempts strong-side layups.

    Add in the fact he ranks inside the top three of PER and win shares, and the idea of an MVP ladder that doesn't include Durant feels sacrosanct.

    Case Against: Stephen Curry exists

2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Dave Sandford/Getty Images

    MVP Probability: 9.1 percent

    Case For: "You seen the last two All-Star games? That's how I roll on the regular."

    Russell Westbrook? More valuable than Durant? 

    Something must be wrong.

    And yet, this feels so right.

    Super Russ is an atomic and molecular miracle. He plays at only one speed—full bore on crack—and churns out legendary efforts in his sleep. His per-game line of 24 points, 7.5 rebounds, 10.2 assists and 2.3 steals is the first of its kind, and he ranks in the top two of assist percentage, steal percentage, BPM, PER and win shares.

    Westbrook is playing so well that he's starting to make people uncomfortable—forcing them to wrap their heads around a once unheard-of notion. As FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine wrote:

    Before last season, Westbrook was firmly ensconced behind Durant as the Thunder’s second banana, a configuration that — if history was any kind of guide — appeared ordained to stay in place as long as both players wore an OKC uniform. But Westbrook blossomed in Durant’s absence last year, and the changes to his game have stuck. He’s upped his offensive efficiency — despite a crushing workload — and he’s even improved to become one of the game’s best defensive point guards this season.

    So far at least, this hasn’t become an issue between the two. Russ and KD seem like genuinely good friends, with none of the signs of a fracturing relationship that crop up in other pairings. Still, this is quite the phenomenon: Recent MVPs just aren’t overtaken by one of their teammates.

    Courts of public opinion (stubbornness?) may never let Westbrook officially transcend Durant. There's also the matter of Durant himself being a superhuman and fully capable of ripping this intrasquad crown from his partner in crime—courteously, of course.

    Still, it's fitting that Westbrook finds himself as the NBA's second-most likely MVP. His body of work doesn't just deserve it but demands it. 

    Case Against: Stephen Curry exists

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    MVP Probability: 72.4 percent (seriously)

    Case For: "I am Stephen Curry."

    Other MVP cases will, unfortunately, be an exercise in futility. They matter on the perception scale, but despite the best efforts from his colleagues, Curry has turned this year's race for the league's most esteemed individual honor into his own personal chew toy.

    Last season's MVP is shattering everything we thought we knew about offensive value. His shot selection is, in theory, untenable. But he's registering the third-highest true shooting percentage of anyone to jack up at least 25 total triples, so we have no choice except to embrace it, even though we can't understand it.

    Curry is set to join Jordan and Dwyane Wade as the third player to average 29.5 points, five rebounds, 6.5 assists and two steals per game. He doesn't just lead the NBA in PER; he has the best PER in league history (32.1).

    There has never been a more valuable player on the offensive side of the floor. Curry's OBPM of 12.6 would obliterate Jordan's initial record of 9.8. His offensive antics are so potent that he is within striking distance of the best-ever overall BPM despite a barely average defensive performance.

    And when you pit Curry against the field, his case only strengthens:

    MVP CandidateTeam Net Rtg. WithTeam Net Rtg. WithoutDifference
    Stephen Curry21.1 -5.326.4
    Draymond Green21.1 -6.727.8
    LeBron James10.8 -6.717.5
    Chris Paul11.8 -3.915.7
    Russell Westbrook11.8 -2.814.6
    Kevin Durant11.8 -0.312.1
    Kawhi Leonard14.8 10.34.5

    Green slightly edges out Curry in the net-rating battle, but that's splitting hairs considering everything else the point guard has done. He is, without question, the best player for a Warriors contingent that will go down as the greatest team of all time.

    At this rate, Curry is not only the overwhelming favorite to win the MVP award but one of the most valuable players ever, period.

    Case Against: LOL 

     

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on Feb. 24.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.

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