Top Candidates for 1st-Time NBA MVPs: How Far Can Giannis, KAT Leap?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2017

Top Candidates for 1st-Time NBA MVPs: How Far Can Giannis, KAT Leap?

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Russell Westbrook cracked the first-timers club last season, breaking a half-decade streak in which LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry retained possession of the NBA MVP award.

    He also knocked down another critical barrier, which could open things up for future MVP candidates. 

    Until last season, every winner since 1987-88 came from a team with the first- or second-best record in its conference. For 30 years, if a team wasn't challenging for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, an MVP was out of the question. And if that player's team didn't grab at least 50 wins, MVP talk was basically a nonstarter.

    Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder finished sixth in the West with 47 wins.

    That doesn't mean the race for the league's highest individual honor is suddenly a free-for-all. Westbrook's win may only prove that it takes a historic achievement, like averaging the first triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, to get noticed. But at least Russ' groundbreaking victory indicates that failing to win 50 games and finishing with one of the conference's top two seeds isn't a complete bar to MVP consideration.

    And that's good news for a slew of potential first-time winners heading into the 2017-18 season. 

    Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have already won their hardware, and they're set to split votes. Westbrook has Paul George now, which should cut into his gaudy numbers. LeBron James has four trophies and must slow down eventually.

    The relaxation of team-success standards and the consolidation of talent mean there's a good chance we get another first-timer this season.

    Who has the best shot?

Honorable Mentions

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    James Harden and Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

    If we assume Westbrook's numbers are going to decline with Paul George taking up touches, we have to do the same with James Harden's. Perhaps we'll see an increase in efficiency, but it's impossible to imagine another 29.1 points and 11.2 assists per game from Harden with Chris Paul around.

    The Rockets will be better, but Harden's numbers won't be. And if Houston is really good, it'll be because both he and Paul stay healthy and produce the league's best offense. In that scenario, it'll be difficult for them to avoid splitting votes.

    Both Harden and CP3 will be awesome, but one obvious rule about the MVP award is you have to clearly be the best player on your team. Barring injury, it'll be tough for either of them to prove that designation. Honorable mention is the best we can do.

                                                              

    Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

    Green is one of the most valuable players in the league, but he's also widely regarded as the third-best on his own team. It's a shame, but he'll never get serious consideration.

                                                     

    John Wall, Washington Wizards

    Wall tied for seventh in last year's MVP vote, and he could easily do that again. But his Wizards made no significant improvements to the roster, and there are too many more intriguing first-time candidates ahead of him.

                                   

    Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

    It doesn't take 50 wins to secure an MVP anymore...but we haven't progressed to the point where the winner could conceivably come from a sub-.500 team.

    Which is what the Pelicans might be this season.

    Davis is one of the better bets to grab this award someday, but his team's best-case outcome feels like the seventh seed.

5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    Wins are going to be a problem for Rudy Gobert's candidacy, but only if you're talking about the team variety.

    Because he's got the "individual" kind sewn up.

    I'll explain: Last year, Gobert ranked sixth in the NBA in wins added, as measured by ESPN's real plus-minus. He was second in Basketball Reference's win shares. Turns out 14.0 points per game on a 66.1 effective field-goal percentage, 12.8 rebounds and a league-leading 2.6 blocks per game go a long way toward success.

    If voters are prepared to accept the value of elite rim defense and if they're willing to consider the first true center since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 (we're calling Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett power forwards), Gobert should get a shot.

    At the same time, it'll be difficult for his Utah Jazz to approach 50 wins. And even though we've established that mark is no longer a strict prerequisite, it may be necessary for Gobert to overcome the anti-center and anti-defense voting bias.

    This is admittedly a long shot, but Gobert deserves consideration. If he can somehow carry an offense-starved Jazz team to 48 wins, he'll force his way into the MVP conversation.   

4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    The narrative sets up nicely, doesn't it?

    Ignoring the fact that he couldn't lead a successful team as an alpha in his early career or even keep the Cleveland Cavaliers afloat when playing without LeBron James last year, Kyrie Irving strikes out on his own anyway. In so doing, he accepts mountains of pressure. In so doing, he is telegraphing to the NBA-watching world that he believes in himself with a degree of certainty that can only be described as delusional.

    What if, against all odds and logic, he turns out to be right about himself?

    What if he leads the league in scoring on a Boston Celtics team that goes 60-22?

    What if he becomes the player he thinks he is?

    Irving will have to overcome his atrocious defensive reputation, lead like he never has before and prove he's objectively better than both Gordon Hayward and Al Horford.

    His level of motivation should be at capacity, and the Celtics employ several strong passers in a free-flowing system that should get Irving good looks.

    We're still in long-shot territory, but you can see the path for Irving. It's there, but only if he vindicates his own wildly self-confident belief.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    If Karl-Anthony Towns makes the defensive strides he was supposed to make last year, if he becomes an average defender in his second year under Tom Thibodeau, he has a legitimate crack at becoming an MVP in his third season.

    Offensively, he may be the most complete big man in the league. And there's every reason to expect improvement as he continues to get stronger and polish his game inside and out. Dominant in the post, he should continue developing his off-the-dribble game while nudging up an already excellent 36.7 percent conversion rate from three-point range.

    The elephant in the room: Jimmy Butler was objectively better than Towns last year, and right now, the 28-year-old seems like a safer choice in the event the Minnesota Timberwolves win enough games to have an MVP candidate.

    But Towns remains the Wolves star with the most upside. We can't assume he'll merely settle into a groove in his age-22 season. He's bound to get better. And even if giving him a chance at MVP means betting on him to get significantly better—largely in areas voters appreciate less, like defense—why assume that's unlikely?

    "It's clear Towns has more to learn about what goes into defending at a competitive level," Rob Mahoney wrote for Sports Illustrated. "It's also clear that in all matters of basketball (including defense, in time), he figures to be an absolute monster."

    Minnesota can win 55 games if Towns progresses as expected. That success, coupled with averages that should approach 28 points and 13 rebounds per game, will catch a lot of voters' eyes.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Credit: Bucks TV

    Let's be honest: There's a yawning chasm between the top two spots and everyone else on this list.

    We've entered a separate class of serious, no-questions-asked MVP candidates now.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds. 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals in his age-22 season. No one has posted those averages in the same campaign. At any age. Ever.

    He flashed the ability to play all five positions on offense while defending all five on the other end.

    Antetokounmpo's is a skill set we've never seen before, and even if his growth comes in the form of simple maturity, even if the only improvements manifest in his mental understanding of the game, of angles, of exploitable weaknesses in his opponents, he'll be one of the five or six best players in the NBA.

    If, in addition to that expected development, he becomes a 35 percent three-point shooter...it's over. He will immediately be one of the most complete basketball players to have ever walked the planet.

    And he'll only be 23 years old.

    Even with Antetokounmpo's unprecedented gifts, the Bucks may not make it to 50 wins and probably won't grab one of the top two seeds in the East. But if we were willing to look past Westbrook's team performance last season and focus on his individual impact, we'd better be ready to do it for Antetokounmpo.

    For what it's worth, Kobe Bryant's on board.

    When Bucks TV told Antetokounmpo that he probably couldn't win a second straight Most Improved Player award, his smirking response was: "Why? I might be the MVP this year."

    His expression during that response, shown in the screen cap above, should caution all of us against assuming we've seen the best from him.

1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    If Kawhi Leonard has exactly the same season he did a year ago, it'll be enough to earn his first MVP award. But he's not going to settle for that.

    Teamed-up superstars will get in each other's way, splitting stats and clearing the road for the guy who finished third in the voting after the 2016-17 campaign. Westbrook has George to share numbers with; he won't average a triple-double again. Harden, who finished second, has Paul.

    Leonard remains the unchallenged, singular star on his team—a team that should win more games than anyone this side of Golden State. Though win total may not mean everything anymore, it still means something. And if San Antonio grabs another 60 victories, someone (read: Leonard) is going to deserve a heap of credit.

    James always looms as a threat, and if Isaiah Thomas misses significant time, it could lead to a monster statistical season from the game's best player. That's to say nothing of the possibility James gets extra motivated in what might be his final year with the Cavs.

    But Leonard garnered nine first-place votes after adding ultra-efficient top-option offense last year to a profile that already included two Defensive Player of the Year awards. For a guy who has improved in every single season of his career, adding facets to his game and somehow increasing his efficiency while taking on a progressively higher-volume role, it's unwise to expect a mere repeat of last year's performance.

    Leonard, as he's always done, figures to get better.

    What would that look like?

    Try 27 or 28 high-efficiency points per game with the best perimeter defense in the league. Try, perhaps, improved passing out of the post that leads to more assists. Try a few extra minutes at power forward, which could produce cleaner looks from long range against opponents too slow to close out.

    The Spurs' calling card has been sustained excellence for two decades, always staying highly competitive when everyone expects them to slip.

    Leonard is different. He keeps improving while most expect he's topped out.

    If he's not done growing, the MVP is his to lose.

                                                     

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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