Contenders for 2016 Athlete of the Year So Far

Zac Wassink@https://twitter.com/ZacWassinkFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2016

Contenders for 2016 Athlete of the Year So Far

0 of 10

    LeBron James will forever be a Cleveland hero.
    LeBron James will forever be a Cleveland hero.Associated Press

    Numerous athletes produced historic performances throughout the opening half of 2016. 

    Perhaps the biggest news from the first six months of the year is that neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo is the best footballer in the world. Luis Suarez, Messi's Barcelona teammate, left no doubt during this past La Liga campaign that he is the top goalscorer on the planet, and Suarez's dubious acts from the past are now faded memories for those who cheered him on time and time again this past spring. 

    Suarez is one of two footballers to make the list of contenders for 2016 Athlete of the Year. Riyad Mahrez is now an international superstar after helping Leicester City complete an improbable run to a Premier League title. Mahrez could make a summer move to one of the biggest clubs in the world, or the Leicester maestro may decide to remain with the club to defend the Foxes' first-ever top-flight crown. 

    Two members of the Cleveland Cavaliers make the list. LeBron James fulfilled a promise and contributed to the end of the supposed Cleveland sports curse that haunted the city for roughly 52 years. Kyrie Irving, James' Cleveland teammate, is also an NBA champion, and Irving will have opportunities to make additional headlines during the summer. 

    Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby silenced critics for good. Michael Bisping will always have a UFC championship on his resume. Nobody should forget all that Stephen Curry accomplished these past six months just because the Golden State Warriors failed to repeat as NBA champions. 

    Remember that none of these candidates are finished for 2016. Suarez will suit up for Barcelona before the summer ends. James and Irving remain vital parts of a Cleveland roster set to defend a title beginning in the fall. Bisping will hopefully return to the cage before the calendar turns to 2017. There is an entire National Football League campaign ahead of us. 

    2016 is not done yet. It's just getting started. 

Von Miller

1 of 10

    Von Miller is the best football player of 2016 to date.
    Von Miller is the best football player of 2016 to date.Associated Press

    It's difficult to name any NFL player as a candidate for 2016 Athlete of the Year at this stage of the process. After all, only a handful of games occurred in the first month-and-a-half of the calendar year. 

    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player, failed to impress on football's biggest stage. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots fell one game short of playing on Super Bowl Sunday. 

    Don't look now, but the best pro football player of 2016 as of June 29 is Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller. 

    Miller and his Denver defensive teammates made life difficult for the previously mentioned Newton throughout Super Bowl 50. Both of Miller's strip-sacks in that game resulted in Denver touchdowns. Per ESPN staff writer Paul Gutierrez, Miller posted 2.5 sacks, six tackles, a pair of forced fumbles, a pair of QB hits and also a pass defended en route to winning Super Bowl MVP honors. 

    As well as Miller played in the final game of the 2015-16 NFL season, his performance against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game shouldn't be forgotten. Miller, per ESPN.com, finished that contest with 2.5 sacks, five tackles and an interception. 

    Miller is no one-hit wonder. The first-round pick from the 2011 NFL draft turned 27 years old this past March, and thus his best football may be ahead of him. As John Breech of CBSSports.com recently explained, Miller and the Broncos are currently not on the best of terms during contract negotiations that could result in Miller either signing a franchise tag or threatening to sit the 2016 campaign out. 

    Memo to Denver: You probably want to keep Miller around. 

Stephen Curry

2 of 10

    The legend of Stephen Curry grew in 2016.
    The legend of Stephen Curry grew in 2016.Associated Press

    Both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving outplayed Stephen Curry in the last three games of the 2016 NBA Finals. Those three games do not eliminate all that Curry accomplished throughout the bulk of the first half of the year. 

    Curry, per NBA.com, made history by becoming the first unanimous winner of the league MVP award. Think about that. Michael Jordan can't make that claim. Neither can Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant or James. Regardless of what anybody ever says about the voting and about any other MVP candidates for this past season, nobody can ever take this achievement away from Curry. 

    The Golden State Warriors fall short of making a return to the NBA Finals this past May without the league MVP stepping up for the final three games of the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Curry, per ESPN.com, dropped 31 points, 31 points and 36 points in three straight elimination games versus OKC, and the Warriors became the first team since 1981 to rally back from a 3-1 deficit to win a conference finals. 

    Per the Elias Sports Bureau (via ESPN.com), Curry's 98 points over the final three games of the conference finals is a record for "any player for Games 5 through 7 of a series while leading his team back from a 3-1 hole." Curry and Klay Thompson became the first players to drain at least 30 three-pointers during a playoff series. The Warriors, as a team, set the record for most three-point field goals made in a series by draining 90 threes against the Thunder. 

    No one player wins or loses any playoff series. Curry's MVP form vanishing in Game 7 of the NBA Finals doesn't erase his candidacy for 2016 Athlete of the Year honors. 

Daniel Murphy

3 of 10

    Daniel Murphy is a favorite to win the batting title.
    Daniel Murphy is a favorite to win the batting title.Associated Press

    Timothy Finnegan of Amazin' Avenue recently explained how Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy made adjustments last season to improve at the plate. Those adjustments clearly worked: 

    It's helped lead Murph to—by far—the best season of his career, as he's hit .349/.391/.577 with a .228 ISO so far this year. Murphy has been the Nationals' most productive hitter in 2016 by OPS at .968, and he looks similar to the guy we saw dominate in the playoffs last year.

    Murphy, per MLB.com, is responsible for the second-highest batting average in all of Major League Baseball (.349) and is in the top 20 for RBI as of June 28. Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post suggested at the end of May that Murphy could flirt with hitting .400. While Murphy cooled off in June, he remains a top contender to win the batting title heading into July. 

    For the sake of argument, let's say Murphy experiences peaks and valleys but never hits extremes in either direction between July 1 and October. In such a scenario, Murphy could win a batting title, hit about 23 home runs, drive home around 100 runs and finish in the top 10 in OPS. 

    Those are MVP-esque numbers for somebody featuring for a Nationals team in first place in the National League East standings. 

    Did the New York Mets mess up in not re-signing Murphy after the 2015 postseason? Murphy would look good in that slumping New York lineup, and Murphy could play third base in place of the injured David Wright. 

    What could have been, Mets. What could have been. 

Riyad Mahrez

4 of 10

    Riyad Mahrez is currently the top player in the Premier League.
    Riyad Mahrez is currently the top player in the Premier League.Associated Press

    The fairytale of Leciester City winning the Premier League title is made up of smaller incredible stories of players such as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Both Vardy and Mahrez emerged from obscurity to lead the Foxes to an unprecedented achievement. 

    Mahrez, per the official Leicester City website, featured for Le Havre of the French second division before signing for the English outfit in January 2014. While the midfielder impressed during his first several months with his new club, Mahrez proved to be a revelation throughout's Leicester's historic campaign. 

    Mahrez scored 17 goals and added 11 assists in Premier League play during the 2015-16 season. The Algeria international's performances earned him Leicester City Player of the Year honors and also the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year award. 

    Mahrez's future past the end of June remains in doubt. As Charles Sale of the Daily Mail recently explained, Vardy landing a £100,000-a-week deal from Leicester will likely lead to Mahrez and other Leicester stars seeking similar contracts either from the Premier League champions or from different clubs. 

    Nobody should be surprised if Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are contenders to win the Ballon d'Or next January. All three are household names among football fans. Mahrez isn't yet at that level, but the 25-year-old's rise to the Premier League mountaintop is right up there with other top sports stories of the past year. 

    We'll see you in the Champions League, Mr. Mahrez. 

Michael Bisping

5 of 10

    Could Michael Bisping be the top UFC performer of 2016?
    Could Michael Bisping be the top UFC performer of 2016?Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    Is Michael Bisping lucky to be where he is today? That's a matter of opinion. 

    Bisping defeated Ultimate Fighting Championship legend Anderson Silva at UFC Fight Night 84 in a bloody affair in February. Bisping won via unanimous decision, but not all believed the judges got it right. UFC President Dana White, per Damon Martin of Fox Sports, stated after the bout that he thought Silva had won:

    Bisping wins the decision in the end. I had -- and I have to watch it again, there was so much craziness going on here after the flying knee -- but I believe I had it even going into the fifth round and whoever wins the fifth round wins the fight, and I thought that Anderson Silva won. By the same score, but the other way.

    Bisping's official victory over Silva landed the British fighter a middleweight title fight against champion Luke Rockhold. The judges weren't needed this time around, as Bisping landed a pair of left-handed strikes and then several punches to the head of the floored Rockhold to win UFC gold for the first time via first-round knockout. 

    ESPN's Brett Okamoto wrote that the 37-year-old Bisping beating Rockhold is, to date, "the third-biggest betting upset in UFC history."

    The UFC landscape right now is fascinating. Ronda Rousey still isn't scheduled to fight in the UFC at any point in 2016. Conor McGregor is 0-1 this year. Bisping may realistically be a victory away from having the best 2016 of any UFC competitor. 

Kyrie Irving

6 of 10

    Decades down the road, grandfathers will explain to grandsons how LeBron James returned home from the Miami Heat, guided the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA championship and ended Cleveland's title drought of 52 years. Those grandfathers will tell tales of James' heroics during the last three games of the 2016 NBA Finals and of the majestic block James made with 1:51 to play in Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors. Some will tell these stories while standing in front of a James statue placed outside of Quicken Loans Arena. 

    Kyrie Irving, not James, drained the championship-winning three-pointer over reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry with 53 seconds left to play in Game 7. 

    The Cavaliers don't win the NBA Finals without Irving's contributions. Irving, per ESPN.com, added 30 points and eight assists in Cleveland's blowout win over Golden State in Game 3. Like James, Irving scored 41 points with the Cavaliers facing elimination in Game 5. Irving made five of seven three-pointers in that Cleveland victory. 

    At 24-years-old, Irving buried the bucket that buried the supposed Cleveland sports curse.

    James, Curry, Kevin Love and others elected to skip the upcoming Summer Olympics. Irving, meanwhile, is set to represent the United States in this summer's top basketball tournament. A gold medal would only add to Irving's already impressive legacy. 

    Remember that Irving is theoretically not yet in his physical prime. Would winning gold be enough to put Irving ahead of James for this award in your eyes? 

Carlos Beltran

7 of 10

    Carlos Beltran is 39 years old and an MVP candidate.
    Carlos Beltran is 39 years old and an MVP candidate.Associated Press

    Scott Pianowski of Yahoo Sports blog Roto Arcade recently offered the following praise for New York Yankees slugger Carlos Beltran: 

    May we all age as well as Carlos Beltran, who is far and away New York's best offensive player in his age-39 season. His stats are wonderfully portable to most situations — he has an .873 OPS against righties, a .966 OPS against lefties; his home OPS is .936, his road OPS is .861. Beltran is no longer able to steal bases or do much on defense, but we’ll pay up for a four-category contributor. Methinks he’s already filled in a Hall of Fame resume, but every little bit helps.

    Beltran, per MLB.com, trails only six players in home runs hit this season as of June 28. Beltran's 54 strikeouts in 72 games are good for an average of .75 K's per game. Only seven players are ahead of Beltran in total RBI. 

    Beltan turned 39 years old in April. 

    So what if Beltran isn't the best overall player in the game? The veteran of 18 professional seasons is a legitimate MVP candidate in the early days of summer. Beltran's Hall of Fame CV is already impressive, but it has one glaring hole: a World Series championship. 

    Head on over to a search engine such as Google, enter "Carlos Beltran trade," and enjoy the articles and blog posts of your choosing. Imagine a scenario that involves Beltran helping a club such as the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians win a title before he rides off into the sunset. 

    Those who would prefer to see David Ortiz, who consistently crushed the baseball during the opening half of the season, mentioned ahead of Beltran in such a piece should remember that Beltran can still play in the outfield. Thus, Beltran may be dealt to a National League club before the upcoming trade deadline. 

Sidney Crosby

8 of 10

    Sidney Crosby is now a two-time champion.
    Sidney Crosby is now a two-time champion.Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Penguins replaced head coach Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan in December 2015. A month later, the Penguins appeared to be in real danger of missing the postseason. Passionate Penguins fans saw the writing on the wall: Sports talk radio would be flooded with callers suggesting the Pens needed to trade Crosby or Malkin, or both, blow things up and start over again. 

    Then, Crosby once again emerged as the best player in the National Hockey League. 

    Crosby, per the Associated Press (h/t CBC Sports), notched 12 goals and 22 points across 11 games during a streak that ended on February 10. As Doug Harrison of CBC Sports explained, Crosby followed that with a 12-game points streak that helped the Penguins climb back up the standings. 

    The rest, as the famous saying goes, is history. 

    Pittsburgh defeated the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals in the first two rounds of the postseason. The Penguins then rallied back from a 3-2 deficit to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning and secure a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.

    Pittsburgh defeated the San Jose Sharks in six games to win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in franchise history. 

    Crosby won the Conn Smythe, the award given to the man named MVP of the playoffs, in somewhat controversial fashion. Ryan Lambert of Yahoo Sports blog Puck Daddy wrote that Phil Kessel, who led the Penguins in postseason goals and points, deserved the honor over Crosby. 

    As David Pollack of the New York Times pointed out, the numbers don't tell the full story of Crosby's playoff performance. 

    From the opening round of the playoffs all the way to the Pittsburgh captain hoisting the Stanley Cup, nobody played better than Crosby. Along with burying six goals and assisting on 13 tallies during the playoffs, Crosby, per Hockey-Reference.com, blocked 15 shots in postseason play. Four of those blocks occurred in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. 

Luis Suarez

9 of 10

    It's understandable if Luis Suarez isn't your favorite footballer. During his Liverpool stint, Suarez received bans on separate occasions after he allegedly racially abused Patrice Evra and after he bit Branislav Ivanovic during matches. Suarez missed the the first several months of his Barcelona career back in 2014 after he chomped down on Italian player Giorgio Chiellini during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. 

    Your personal feelings aside, Suarez is currently the top goalscorer in a league that also features Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. 

    Sid Low of the Guardian wrote the following about Suarez after the conclusion of the La Liga campaign: 

    Finished the season with more goals and more assists than anyone else in Spain, scoring Barcelona’s first goal of the year at San Mamés and their last at Los Cármenes, to take them to the title. On 40 league goals, no one other than Messi and Ronaldo has ever got more in a season, and he has finally broken up their domination of the Pichichi awards, seven years on.

    Suarez led La Liga in goals and, via Peter Smith of Sky Sports, beat all other contenders to the European Golden Shoe. Per ESPN FC, Suarez ended the 2015-16 campaign with 63 goals and 23 assists across all competitions. Suarez notched a hat-trick against Granada on May 14 to clinch the league title for Barcelona. 

    Suarez's assault on opposing goalkeepers and defenses resumes later this summer. Is Suarez destined to win the Ballon d'Or? 

LeBron James

10 of 10

    LeBron James may be the greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland sports.
    LeBron James may be the greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland sports.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    LeBron James: the hero Cleveland needed and deserved. 

    It's easy, particularly for Cleveland fans, to get swept up in the emotions created by the events of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers won a title for the first time in franchise history, and the Cavs became the first team in NBA history to complete a comeback from a 3-1 deficit in an NBA Finals. James, the hometown hero who ditched Northeast Ohio for South Beach and the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, erased any bad feelings left by The Decision and contributed to the end of Cleveland's often-mocked championship drought. 

    James' individual greatness during the last three games of the Finals should never be forgotten. 

    James dropped 41 points during a must-win Game 5 contest at the Warriors to keep Cleveland alive. He matched that and also, via ESPN.com, added 11 assists in Game 6. James then, per CBS Sports RotoWire Staff, became the first player since 1988 to post a triple-double in a Game 7 of an NBA Finals, and he made what should go down as an all-time defensive play when he sprinted down the court and denied Andre Iguodala with 1:51 left in the contest. 

    There are probably some Cleveland fans who would, right now, name James the greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland sports, let alone the 2016 Athlete of the Year. James is a three-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP who refused to be denied in three straight win-or-go-home games. 

    Regardless of how well or how poorly James plays this coming November and December, he is currently the leading candidate for 2016 Athlete of the Year in the eyes of at least one individual.