The NBA's MVP of Every Age Group
Two years have passed since we last named an NBA MVP at every age. Let's fire up that process yet again, because handing out just one Maurice Podoloff Trophy is lame.
Twenty-two different age groups, spanning from 19-year-olds to 40-year-olds, are represented in 2016-17. Players are sorted by how old they were as of Feb. 1. Stephen Curry is 29, but he's up for consideration in the 28-year-old block since his birthday was on March 14.
Selections are not necessarily a referendum on who is having or will have the better career. This season is the only one that matters. Career context will be used to shed light on player progression and value, but winners are being selected based off their performance in 2016-17 alone. So, technically, Sasha Vujacic is eligible to beat out LeBron James in the 32-year-old ward.
Players who are injured or aren't getting a ton of minutes can receive a nod. It all depends on the depth of every group. Large sample sizes will be viewed more favorably, but the impact someone has on his team and what he's able to make of time spent on the court are the priorities.
19-Year-Old Division: Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Field of: 9
Don't let a tiny field fool you: Jamal Murray is good. Like, really good.
The Denver Nuggets already trust the rookie, now 20, to run point guard more than Emmanuel Mudiay. He plays with endless bounce, even on defense, and his offensive IQ is unfairly high for someone who can't (legally) order his own umbrella-clad cocktail. As FanSided's Adam McGee wrote:
Murray's quick first step forces opponents into constant decisions. If a defender sags off him, he'll trigger his quick release and knock down a shot before they've even managed to raise their hand to contest. On the other hand, if the defender tries to contain him, Murray initiates a direct style of driving attack to create openings for those spacing the floor around him.
Murray has hints of a chucker in him but plays, for the most part, under control. He emphasizes threes and looks at the rim over long twos and doesn't jack an unruly number of contested jumpers.
Better efficiency will come in time. Murray is shooting 50 percent from the floor, including 41.9 percent from deep, since his 3-of-14 disaster against the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 24. If he's ever able to wall off dribble penetration at the 1, 2 or even 3, Denver could have an All-Star on its hands.
Runner-up: Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
20-Year-Old Division: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Field of: 20
It's no accident that Myles Turner is frequently mentioned in the same breath as fellow sophomore skyscrapers Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Last season, as a teenager playing among adults who can rent a car, Turner flashed glimpses of everything you want in contemporary bigs—a rim-runner with three-point range who doesn't shy away from putting the ball on the floor and is hyperactive on defense. This year, those brief peeks are his default setting.
Opponents are shooting 49.7 percent at the rim when challenged by Turner, down from 50.7 percent in 2015-16. His success rate from long range has jumped by nearly 13 points, from 21.4 percent to 34.0, amid more volume, and he's once again hitting 40-plus percent of his looks just inside the arc.
Even Turner's passing has improved a great deal, as ESPN.com's Zach Lowe outlined:
Turner is making more advanced reads, and he's making them faster -- even while gliding through heavy traffic. Turner can map the floor in the heat of a pick-and-roll. He's increasingly confident flinging cross-court lasers to corner shooters, or dropping slick interior dimes to a big man partner loitering along the baseline -- a Thad Young speciality.
According to NBA Math's Total Points Added (TPA), Turner has added more value to the Indiana Pacers this season than anyone else—including Paul George. And that's with the 20-year-old being a net minus on offense.
Imagine what Turner will be able to do when that changes—because it will change.
Runner-up: Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons
21-Year-Old Division: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Field of: 28
We can't crown Nikola Jokic, now 22, the MVP of an unfathomably deep 21-year-old division without addressing the KAT in the room: runner-up Karl-Anthony Towns.
There's still a chance Towns ends up being the better player. He's further along defensively than Jokic may ever be. But the Serbian superstructure is having the more impactful season—and, yes, there's also the chance he ends up being the more accomplished pro.
Just look at where these two studs place in this season's catch-all categories:
|Player||Box Plus-Minus (Rank)||ESPN's Real Plus-Minus||NBA Math's TPA|
|Nikola Jokic||8.4 (No. 3)||6.31 (No. 6)||268.81 (No. 11)|
|Karl-Anthony Towns||5.2 (No. 17)||1.83 (No. 56)||248.32 (No. 14)|
Denver has the NBA's best offense since permanently reinserting Jokic into the starting five, during which time he's averaging 19.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 60.3 percent shooting. He has the look of a 6'10" plodder, but his long strides let him get up and down the floor, and his offensive anticipation is unguardable.
Jokic puts the ball where players are going to be before they get there; he knows their next move before they do. He works angles we didn't know existed, with precision we didn't think possible.
All-Star projections no longer do his outlook justice. He's outpaced those forecasts. His trajectory is taking him in a slightly different direction: toward future league-MVP candidacy.
Runner-up: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
22-Year-Old Division: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Field of: 35
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a point guard, forward and center all rolled into one.
With arms that go on for galaxies, he's turned into a formidable rim protector. Opponents shoot 47.5 percent against him around the basket—a top-20 mark among 130 players who have defended at least 160 point-blank looks.
With an incomprehensible gait, he's become one of the most incisive playmakers in the game. No one has attempted more shots in the restricted area, where he shoots 68.8 percent.
With vision that allows him to see over walls, he's establishing himself as a tried-and-true floor general. He has orchestrated more pick-and-rolls than Ricky Rubio and is sniffing a top-30 assist rate.
Forget other 22-year-olds. Are there five players, age be damned, having a better 2016-17 than Antetokounmpo?
The answer is no.
Runner-up: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
23-Year-Old Division: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Field of: 45
Two years ago, it never seemed like there would come a time when Anthony Davis needed the words "Hey, idiots! I'm here too!" sewn onto the front of his jersey, in lettering larger than his No. 23.
Alas, here we are. The recent influx of young unicorns has stripped Davis of some notoriety. It doesn't help that his New Orleans Pelicans are toiling away in the middle, or that DeMarcus Cousins, his teammate, does more of what it takes to generate goo-goo eyes from hoops heads (shoot threes).
Mostly, Davis is being taken for granted. Just as many are immune to LeBron James' superhuman behavior, the accolades of the one-eyebrowed terror are presumed, to the extent they're forgotten.
Everyone should do their part to remedy this immediately. Davis is averaging at least 24 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game for the third straight year. No one in NBA history has done the same as many times before their age-24 season. Only two players reached those benchmarks even once by then: Hall of Famers Bob McAdoo and Shaquille O'Neal.
Davis is the same player he was in 2014-15, when he finished fifth on the MVP ballot. This infusion of other living myths shouldn't preclude us from celebrating someone who is still a top-seven player.
Runner-up: Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
24-Year-Old Division: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Field of: 48
Traditional towers can still toe the line of superstardom. Protect the heck out of the paint, set hard screens and finish around the rim, and you needn't go full unicorn from beyond the arc.
Rudy Gobert is proof this blueprint can work to extremes.
Rivals shoot just 43.3 percent against him around the iron, even though he's faced more of those looks than anyone. He seldom journeys beyond 10 feet of the basket but shoots 73 percent as the diver out of pick-and-rolls, and he has established himself as a legitimate post-up option. And he spaces the floor for others with his screens; Marcin Gortat is the only player in the league averaging more screen assists per game.
The Utah Jazz don't have a more important player. Gordon Hayward and even George Hill get a lot of love, but Gobert is more indispensable than either of them.
Case in point: Utah maintains a positive point differential per 100 possessions without 14 of its 15 players. Gobert is the lone exception.
Runner-up: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
25-Year-Old Division: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Field of: 42
Playing for the San Antonio Spurs works against Kawhi Leonard. Some of his value gets lost in their depth. They are so good without him—without any one player—it's uncomfortably easy to overlook his importance.
Defense is the foundation around which Leonard, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, built his reputation, but he's progressed into an MVP-level scorer. His scoring and assist averages have improved through each of his first six seasons, and he's now the No. 1 option for a top-six offense.
Though Leonard gets more open looks than any other wing, the notion of him being a system player is absurd. He's made and attempted almost as many pull-up jumpers as Kyrie Irving, and his free-throw rate (.419) is right in line with DeMar DeRozan's (.412).
"I think he's very much deserving of getting the MVP this season," Pau Gasol said, per Bleacher Report's Mike Monroe. "The way he's playing, the way he's contributing on both ends of the floor. He's not the guy that just puts up 30 points and that's it. He makes huge plays defensively so, to me, he's my MVP."
Gasol wears black-and-silver goggles, but that doesn't make him wrong. Russell Westbrook is the only player matching Leonard's offensive and defensive value per 100 possessions. There's barely anyone in the league, let alone Leonard's age bracket, as effective as him.
Runner-up: C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
26-Year-Old Division: John Wall, Washington Wizards
Field of: 35
While the Washington Wizards own the Eastern Conference's best net rating since Christmas, it all falls apart without John Wall. They go from playing like the league's third-best team with him (plus-8.8) to devolving into a bottom-three outfit (minus-8.0) when he takes a seat.
Bradley Beal is having a similar effect on the Wizards during this stretch, but he, unlike Wall, cannot carry them on his own—a gap most evident while isolating how they fare when Otto Porter sits.
None of which is meant to discredit Beal. He's having a fantastic season.
But there's a clear alpha in Washington, even during this hot streak—and it's the All-Star point guard who's averaging career highs in points (23.2), assists (10.7) and steals (2.0) per game.
Runner-up: Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz (Sorry, Boogie)
27-Year-Old Division: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Field of: 35
James Harden isn't just the MVP of 27-year-olds. So long as this near-universal numbness to LeBron James being LeBron James exists, he's the odds-on favorite to win the NBA's official MVP award.
"You kind of have to reward the better team, I would think, recordwise," Stephen Curry, the two-time reigning MVP, told The Dan Patrick Show of this year's race (via NBC Sports' Dan Feldman). "That's just kind of going in the history of the MVP award. So, I think James will probably edge him out just off of that."
Curry has a point.
Just one of the 37 MVPs during the three-point era have repped a team that won less than 60 percent of its games (Moses Malone, 1981-82 Houston Rockets). James' Cleveland Cavaliers fit the bill, but Russell Westbrook, Harden's most popular competition, plays for an Oklahoma City squad that's on pace to win less than 57 percent of its matchups.
Wherever you stand on this front doesn't matter. Harden isn't an undeserving pick, even if your loyalties lie elsewhere. He has handled the transition to full-time point guard beautifully, doling out a league-leading 11.3 assists per game while averaging almost 29 points per game.
Houston posts the net rating of a playoff team without Harden (plus-5.3), but the offense craters relative to its own standards. He is a guiding force unlike any other, threading passes on the move and remaining efficient enough from the floor, turnovers aside, for us to accept his 9.1 three-point attempts per game without thinking twice.
Souped-up Steve Nash? Not so much. Right now, Harden is more jacked-up 2015-16 Curry than anyone else.
Runner-up: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
28-Year-Old Division: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Field of: 37
Finally, some controversy!
This sector is stacked with MVP talent, most notably Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. (Not-so-fun fact: Durant was injured the last time we rapped about this group, when they were 26-year-old toddlers.) Curry and Durant bilk each other of merit by playing on the same team, but removing that caveat doesn't do anything.
Westbrook has his cake and eats it too.
His triple-double barrage is cool. He has 33 on the season—more than twice as many as anyone else—and is about to join Oscar Robertson as the second player to average one for an entire campaign. Go ahead and write him in for this year's scoring title as well.
But Westbrook seizes this category, along with league-wide MVP dap, by being beyond irreplaceable for the Thunder.
Including free-throw and secondary assists, Oklahoma City has generated 1,578 points off Westbrook's passing. Combine this with the 2,133 points he's scored on his own, and he accounts for roughly 52 percent of the team's total offense.
Neither Curry (33.2 percent) nor Durant (28.2 percent) is close to meeting this mark. LeBron James (40.9 percent) and Harden (48.7 percent) come within punching distance, but those are different age brackets. In this one, and perhaps overall, Westbrook stands alone.
Runner-up: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
29-Year-Old Division: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Field of: 27
Plucking out the single most impressive aspect of Mike Conley's 2016-17 crusade is excruciatingly difficult.
Or maybe it's that the Memphis Grizzlies, a team still struggling to get consistent buckets, scores like a top-eight offense when he's in the game?
Let's cop to being smitten and go with all of the above.
Runner-up: James Johnson (!!!), Miami Heat
30-Year-Old Division: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Field of: 30
Kyle Lowry's offensive transcendence is being reinforced in his absence. He has been sidelined with a wrist injury since the end of the All-Star break, during which time the Toronto Raptors, while above .500, are 16th in points scored per 100 possessions—a far cry from their fourth-place ranking on the season.
This doesn't come as a surprise. It's impressive the Raptors aren't worse without him. Kudos to DeMar DeRozan, professional bucket-getter, and Cory Joseph, a driving machine. They've kept the ship from capsizing.
Lowry grades out as the fifth-most valuable offensive player for 2016-17, trailing only Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Isaiah "Supernova" Thomas, according to NBA Math. That's with him missing almost 15 percent of the schedule (and counting) and registering the lowest usage rate of the bunch by nearly five points.
Assuming his production holds upon return, Lowry's season will go down as one of the most efficient in league history. Just one other player has ever cleared 22 points per game while matching his assist (29.5) and three-point (41.7 percentages): Stephen Curry, who has done it four times, because he's Stephen Curry.
Runner-up: Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
31-Year-Old Division: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Field of: 24
So it turns out Chris Paul's game is going to age well.
At 31, going on 32, the Los Angeles Clippers' quarterback is averaging 17.7 points, 9.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game. This is the seventh season through which he's hit those statistical yardsticks—at least four times more than anyone else in NBA history.
Paul is showing some signs of age. The frequency of his drives are down, from 6.4 per game last season to 5.3 now, and a career-low 7.3 percent of his field-goal attempts are coming inside three feet.
This would be noteworthy, possibly alarming, if Paul looked like an inferior player. He doesn't.
Floaters and layups are being replaced with more three-pointers, which he's converting at an all-time high (42.1 percent). And he's assisting on 47 percent of the Clippers' buckets when in the game—right around his 47.9 percent average since arriving in Hollywood.
Oh, and as always, the Clippers score like the league's best offense when Paul's on the floor. That doesn't change when he plays without Blake Griffin. It barely changes when he's playing without DeAndre Jordan and Griffin.
He's just that valuable.
Runner-up: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
32-Year-Old Division: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Field of: 17
Fast forward 20 years. It's the stretch run of the 2036-37 season. Kobe Bryant is acting owner, general manager and head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. Kawhi Leonard's titanium metal body is starting to rust. The NBA has teams in Europe. And on Mars. Commissioner Sam Hinkie has just fined the New York Knicks after they inadvertently tanked for a 24th consecutive year.
LeBron James is 52. And working toward his 27th straight NBA Finals cameo.
Is it weird I'm only, like, 91 percent kidding?
Nothing seems too ridiculous when it comes to James. He's 32 and setting career highs in rebounds and assists per game, probably because he feels like it. He isn't getting a ton of love in the MVP race, but only because he's already won four Maurice Podoloff Trophies. He doesn't need another to validate his worth.
Yet, with James Harden and Russell Westbrook detonating nightly, James could grab his fifth award and even the most devout detractors wouldn't be able to say squat. Look at how his on-off impact compares to other top-five MVP hopefuls, as determined by Basketball Reference's probability ladder:
|Player||Team Net Rtg. With||Team Net Rtg. Without||Difference|
See you in 2036-37, 'Bron.
Runner-up: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
33-Year-Old Division: David Lee, San Antonio Spurs
Field of: 9
Washed up. That was the intel report on David Lee in so many NBA circles last summer. He was finished, at least as far as being relevant to a championship contender. Some teams didn’t believe the 33-year-old former All-Star — fresh off a second consecutive lost and injury-marred season — was worth even the veteran minimum.
Jump ahead to now, more than three-quarters of the way through the season, and Lee has added more value to the second-best team in the league than anyone not named Kawhi Leonard or Pau Gasol, per NBA Math.
This is not a joke. Or a prank. It doesn't matter that Lee predominantly plays with second-stringers. He's moving well. Protecting the rim. Shooting better than 60 percent as a pick-and-roll diver. Creating more points off assists than Myles Turner. And Kristaps Porzingis.
Andre Iguodala is a close second here. His adaptability is truly something else. But 33-year-old Lee is a genuine anomaly—a case unique even to the Spurs.
Runner-up: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
34-Year-Old Division: Nene, Houston Rockets
Field of: 11
Nene is the David Lee of Houston.
Head coach Mike D'Antoni deploys him in measured doses. Nene rewards him with small bursts of excellence.
One other player is matching Nene's point (17.8), rebound (8.4), steal (1.7) and block (1.4) totals per 36 minutes in as much court time: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Prorated production favors the seldom used, and Nene hasn't yet cracked the 1,000-minute milestone. That doesn't make this performance, at age 34, any less impressive.
The Rockets need stability off the bench to help bridge those gaps when the offense isn't at its most lethal. Nene is giving it to them.
Runner-up: Tyson Chandler, Phoenix Suns
35-Year-Old Division: Dwyane Wade, Chicago Bulls
Field of: 6
Dwyane Wade almost forfeited this spot to a certain crunch-time superhero in Salt Lake City who's mastering role-player status like a boss. The Chicago Bulls aren't good, and before being shut down for the rest of the season with a fracture in his right elbow, he didn't make them any better, statistically, when in the lineup.
Punishing Wade for Chicago's clumpiness isn't fair, though. (Ditto for Rajon Rondo, FYI.) The 35-year-old was shooting at a career-low clip around the rim, but he was still averaging 18.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the only players doing the same—and they're all more than six years Wade's junior.
Wade, in fact, was just the second player to sustain this per-game production after his 35th birthday. He joins Karl Malone, one of the NBA's most prominent billboards for agelessness.
Despite Chicago's collective floundering, Wade was adding above-average value per 100 possessions on both ends of the court. That hasn't happened since 2013-14, when LeBron James was his teammate and playing out of his mind.
As far as expectations for age-35 seasons are concerned, Wade was doing his part for the Bulls. Many of those around him—including in the front office—cannot say the same.
Runner-up: Joe Johnson, Utah Jazz (shooting 56.5 percent in crunch time—Joe-Joe forever.)
36-Year-Old Division: Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs
Field of: 11
Pau Gasol is playing less in San Antonio, and his usage rate is down from last season by nearly four points. This isn't to be confused with him falling off. His per-minute output has barely dipped, and he's been one of the team's most consistent contributors.
The Spur who played like a Spur before actually joining the Spurs is helping the frontcourt carve out extra space without constantly relying on Kawhi Leonard as a small-ball 4. Head coach Gregg Popovich has Gasol firing more threes than ever—a late-career gambit that's paying off. The 7-footer is putting down 51.4 percent of his triples and shooting above 52 percent on a high volume of long twos.
Moving to the bench hasn't rattled Gasol, either. He recognizes that his usage climbs beside backups and is taking advantage of the switch.
"I think [Pop] is trying to do a good job of putting the best lineups and how they work together, and also maximizing everyone's talents," Gasol said, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright. "With the second unit, I have more opportunities to score, to play my game."
As if we needed more proof Gasol was meant to play for the Spurs, right?
Runner-up: David West, Golden State Warriors
37-Year-Old Division: Metta World Peace, Los Angeles Lakers
Field of: 1
In a tightly contested, fiercely overcrowded race among the NBA's swath of 37-year-olds, Metta World Peace ekes out a victory. Here's hoping he prints out this page and puts it on his refrigerator for all his houseguests to see.
Seriously, how perfect is it that World Peace of all people goes unchallenged? And how perfect is he for the Lakers?
World Peace doesn't play much; he's tallied under 90 minutes across 20 appearances. But the Lakers are minus-37.9 points per 100 possessions when he's in the lineup—the lowest net rating for anyone who's played in at least 12 games. That's super convenient for a team trying to keep its top-three protected first-round draft pick.
Plus, World Peace is now the ultimate subliminal message.
The Lakers shut down Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov for the rest of the year so they can play the youngsters, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne. If you're one of those kiddies and you get yanked for World Peace, aren't you making sure you correct whatever it is you messed up?
38-Year-Old Division: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Field of: 2
Singling out Dirk Nowitzki would be so much sweeter if his sole competition wasn't the unemployed Chris Andersen. Whatever. The sentiment stands: He would dominate a pack of almost-40 basketball geezers by playing like anything but.
Nowitzki's entry into the 30,000-point club on March 7 is enough to build him an altar. He began the night by hitting his first six shots and dropping 18 points in the first quarter. And the look that helped him make history was (basically) a vintage Dirk fadeaway.
Even on a more macro scale, his season is special.
Nowitzki is now the oldest player to clear 19 points, nine rebounds and two assists per 36 minutes. Tim Duncan, Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal are the only other three to match that output after their 36th birthdays.
And they, unlike Nowitzki, didn't shoot threes, let alone swish them at a 38.3 percent clip.
Runner-up (by default): Chris Andersen (now a free agent)
39-Year-Old Division: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
Field of: 3
Manu Ginobili is, without question, the NBA's best shot at getting a productive 40-year-old next season—assuming he plays or is even open to a return.
"I'm about to be out," he said in December, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jabari Young.
Anyone else just get inconsolably sad?
On most nights, Ginobili looks like a spunky 29-year-old stuck with a 39-year-old's birthdate. He's shooting a career-worst 38.8 percent from the floor but hitting 39.1 percent of his threebies while headlining what is the NBA's most effective second unit by a laughable margin.
There is enough juice left in his legs and torque left in his handles for Ginobili to play another year or 10.
Still, as a precautionary measure, we must cherish every Eurostep and funky-looking jumper as if this is his swan song. Because it just might be.
Runner-up: Jason Terry, Milwaukee Bucks
40-Year-Old Division: Vince Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
Field of: 1
Vince Carter, like Metta World Peace, doesn't have a challenger. But, like Dirk Nowitzki, it wouldn't matter if he did.
At the spry age of 40, Carter is averaging 12.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes while drilling 37.7 percent of his threes. Though he remains the poster child for transitioning from superstardom to complementary capacity, he has games when he recaptures icon status.
Case in point: His 24-point, five-rebound, two-assist, three-steal, 6-of-6-from-deep spree against the Bucks on March 13. Basketball Reference rates that as the ninth-best game from a 40-year-old since 1983-84, behind four performances from Michael Jordan, three from John Stockton and one from Robert Parish.
Sometimes, it's not even an entire game, but a moment of flight.
Carter has eight dunks this season—one less than Iman Shumpert, who is nearly 15 years his junior.