Derrick Rose and the Top 10 MVP Candidates So Far This Season
So far, each NBA team has played around fifty games and the MVP race is suddenly in full swing.
But if you read a sports columnist who claims he knows who is leading the pack in the race right now, he would be hard pressed to offer a definitive answer.
Sure, Derrick Rose looks like the favorite right now, but as we have seen this season, injuries (Rajon Rondo) or a player that started hot and suddenly goes cold (Pau Gasol) can totally change the trajectory of the MVP race. I think that the player on the team that makes the late season surge to obtain a top two playoff seeding will likely win the award. But at this point, the award is very much up for grabs.
Nevertheless, here's how I view the MVP race currently.
These are the top 10 MVP candidates.
10. Kobe Bryant
The Case for Kobe: Love him or hate him, he continues to defy father time and play like a man who's played only five years instead of 15. He is the highest scoring shooting guard in the NBA (averaging 25.4 ppg) and has played sensational basketball since January. While the Lakers have been inconsistent (although playing better of late), Kobe has began to assert himself once again with the playoffs looming.
Kobe has won only one MVP award, so voters may want to honor his continued excellence in the league, especially if the Lakers continue to play well after the All-Star Break.
The Case Against Kobe: When you have an 81 point game and five titles on your resume, leading your team to the third best record in the West seems almost like a backwards step. Kobe is averaging his fewest points per game since the 2004 season. Voters appreciate consistency, but usually reward players for improving their statics from the previous season.
Kobe also faces a similar problem that Wade and LeBron face (does Pau deserve more of the credit for the Lakers' success or does Kobe deserve it? Also, isn't this Lakers team already pretty talented anyway? How valuable is Kobe when he plays with two All-Star caliber bigs and a former Defensive Player of the Year?).
Nevertheless, he is having a great season and will certainly be in the conversation for MVP until season's end.
9. Dwyane Wade
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The Case for Wade: Although the question of whether he or teammate LeBron James is actually more valuable to the Miami Heat still rages, there is no doubt that the team's overall success is tied to the play of Dwyane Wade. During the team's 9-8 start to the season, Wade was struggling to find a rhythm after he was sidelined with a hamstring injury during preseason. He averaged just 20.1 ppg in the first 17 games.
But during the team's post-team meeting surge, Wade really became the Heat's Most Valuable Player, as he averaged 27 per game in December to lead the team to a 21-1 stretch following a loss to the Mavericks. On the season, Wade is averaging 25.2 ppg (fifth in the NBA) and 6.8 rpg (best among shooting guards). Wade also benefits from the perception by some that the Heat is still "Wade's team." If the Heat finish with one of the league's best records, he may garner a bit more of the acknowledgement.
The Case Against Wade: He's playing alongside LeBron James and some feel the two may split the vote. Also, while Wade has been solid throughout most of the season, it has been a uneven season for him. He started off slow, then caught fire, then became steady if not spectacular, then missed games due to injuries and now is coming on again. He would need to remain consistent throughout the post-All-Star portion of the season to garner serious MVP consideration.
His free throw shooting has been on the decline lately as well. Since January 13, he has shot only 64 percent from the line. Perhaps it's due to his still lingering wrist injury, but that may hurt his numbers in the long run. Wade also happens to play on one of the league's most despised teams, so the anti-Heat forces in the media will not want to see Wade honored. He also plays on a talented team, so some believe his team "should have a solid record."
8. Russell Westbrook
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The Case for Westbrook: The talk in preseason was that Kevin Durant, the NBA's scoring leader, was primed to take his game to the next level and secure his first MVP award this season. But Durant started the season very slowly, shooting only 30 percent from the field as he battled more attentive defenses and an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook exploded out of the gate, becoming one of the best point guards in a league filled with elite point guards and carrying the Thunder through Durant's scoring slump. The general consensus is that Durant is the Thunder's best player, but I beg to differ. Westbrook makes the Thunder go. Without Durant in the lineup this season, the Thunder are 3-1, including a win over the Celtics. It's hard to make the case that Durant is the Thunder's Most Valuable Player when the team doesn't miss a beat without him.
Look at the Mavericks' record without Dirk or the Heat's record without LeBron. Westbrook is averaging 22.4 ppg, 8.5 apg and 5.1 rpg, while leading the Thunder to a 33-18 record.
The Case Against Westbrook: The infatuation with Kevin Durant by the media will assure that Durant will get the bulk of the credit for the Thunder's success this season and Westbrook will not shake that "sidekick" perception, even though he has had a better overall season. Yes, Durant leads the league in scoring, but without Westbrook's solid play through Durant's early season struggles, the team would not be in the position to contend for a top four seeding (and home-court advantage in the first round).
It also hurts that Westbrook plays at the one position in the NBA where the competition for "best in the game" is the most fierce and he is not as good as Rose, Paul or Rajon Rondo prior to his injury.
7. Dwight Howard
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The Case for Howard: His scoring and offensive rebounds are up from last year and clearly the time spent in the offseason working on his post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon has paid dividends. He's averaging 22.5 ppg, 13.8 rpg and 2.1 bpg and is the face of the Orlando Magic franchise.
It also helps when he is the best player at his position in the NBA. Unlike the shooting guard and point guard position, where you're likely to get three different answers as to who is the best, Howard is the best center in the league right now.
The Case Against Howard: The Magic are currently sitting at the fifth spot in the East. It's hard to argue for Howard to be the MVP when his team is on pace to have a worse season than the previous year. GM Otis Smith's much discussed decision to break up the team fairly early in the season did not help Howard's cause, as it suggested that even the team GM didn't feel that Howard could elevate the team to greater heights in the regular season after a slow start.
Some of Howard's antics (like mocking LeBron James' pregame rituals prior to James' 51 point night against the Magic) could strike some voters as a sign that Howard still needs to mature as a player. That 57 percent free throw shooting also hurts his cause.
6. Chris Paul
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The Case for Paul: If there's one thing the sports world loves, it's a good comeback kid tale. And when the New Orleans Hornets, largely dismissed by most preseason analysts as the Chris Paul trade rumors continued to fly, began the season 11-1, there weren't many people that were not talking up Paul's chances at the MVP award.
Chris Paul has been consistent and steady all season, averaging just shy of a double-double a game (16.5 ppg and 9.8 apg) and vaulting the Hornets to a 32-22 record (fifth in the West). It is also impressive to see Paul playing so well considering his numerous injuries that have limited his play over the last three seasons.
The Case Against Paul: The Hornets have cooled off considerably since their 11-1 start, have only played .500 ball since (21-21) and despite Paul's efforts, they currently rank 25th in the league in offense.
Chris Paul's minutes have been slowly dropping to keep him fresh for the postseason (he's playing about 35 minutes a game) and if the trend continues, it could mean a fresh postseason Paul at the cost of fewer wins and less chance to win the MVP award. Another issue is that MVP winners generally don't get credited for vaulting a team to a No. 5 seed.
I think the Hornets would need a top three finish for Paul to be even considered. But with the Lakers suddenly rolling, the Spurs having the top seed on lockdown and the Thunder surging, the Hornets will have their work cut out for them to improve their position heading into the playoffs.
5. Manu Ginobili
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The Case for Manu: 44-8. His team has the best record in the league and he is a huge part of the reason why. He has also been clutch (like his game saving offensive foul he picked up on Carmelo Anthony in a game against Denver). Ginobili's stellar play has allowed Tim Duncan to play a career low minutes per game and not miss a beat. Manu leads the Spurs in scoring at 18.4 ppg and throws in 4.9 apg, despite playing with a great point guard in Tony Parker.
The Case Against Manu: He's essentially a victim of the Spurs' success. The Spurs' teamwork and consistent contributions from Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and George Hill (who is having a quietly effective year as backup to Parker) are as much a reason for the Spurs' success as Manu's solid, but not spectacular, stats.
It also hurts Manu because there are still so many shooting guards in the league that are considered better overall (Wade, Kobe) that Manu's numbers suffer by comparison. Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure he'll forgo winning the MVP award for a shot at his fourth NBA title in eight years.
4. Amare Stoudemire
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The Case for Amare: Some people though the New York Knicks front office had laid another free agent egg with its quite generous contract to Stoudemire. However, the investment has payed off with interest, as Amare has led the Knicks out of the basement of the Eastern Conference and into the playoff hunt for the first time since 2004. His stretch of nine consecutive 30 point games in December set a Knicks franchise record.
He has been consistent and productive since December and is currently averaging 26.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 2.2 bpg. He also plays in a large market and certainly the effect he has had on resurrecting one of the league's most popular teams will be a consideration in voters' minds.
The Case Against Amare: The Knicks are only 26-25 (currently sixth in the East) and players don't win MVP awards for leading their teams to "just over .500" records. Although his stats are generally solid, one wonders why his rebounding numbers are fairly low considering the Knicks' fast paced style of play.
There is also the perception that, despite Amare's numbers, he's the fortunate beneficiary of Mike D'Antoni's offense-centric system and does not work as hard as he should on the defensive end despite his 2.2 blocks a game. Amare looked like one of the front runners for the award just a month ago, but the Knicks have cooled off considerably since then, as has his MVP hype.
3. Dirk Nowitzki
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The Case for Dirk: The Dallas Mavericks are having an expected solid season so far and it is largely because of what Dirk has done. He's averaging 23.2 ppg and 6.9 rpg while leading his team to the second best record in the West.
Dirk's team has had some strong outings against the league's elite squads (4-0 against Miami and Boston, a win at San Antonio, a win over the Lakers), which looks good in the eyes of voters. The Mavericks also promptly lost 8 of 10 during his absence, which says a lot for his value to this team (the team is 35-8 with him in the lineup this season).
The Mavericks have so far exceeded most prognosticators' estimates and have been among the top records in the NBA this season, despite their slump. The injury to Caron Butler means that Dirk will have to raise his game even higher in order to secure a top two seed in the West, which will certainly be a consideration in the minds of MVP voters.
The Case Against Dirk: While Dirk's numbers are strong, they don't scream MVP like those of Derrick Rose, LeBron James or Amare Stoudemire. Also, Dirk has a reputation of playoff failure, which may work against him when he is evaluated by voters. There could be a sense of deja vu with the Mavericks once again having a strong regular season and bowing out of the playoff early. Will the voters consider the Mavericks elite despite their stellar play?
2. Derrick Rose
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The Case for Rose: Derrick Rose is having an excellent year statistically and has lead his team to the third best record in the East despite key injuries to Bulls centers Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, preventing the bigs from playing much together this season. Rose has come through in the clutch, as displayed by his key three-pointer that sent the game against the Houston Rockets to overtime and his big shots in a win over the Lakers.
Rose is averaging 24.6 ppg, 8.2 apg and 4.6 rpg, and his defense and three-point shooting have greatly improved from last year. MVP voters love when they can visibly see the work players have put into their games and Rose clearly has worked hard on his. The Bulls' home record is 23-4, which is tied for best in the East. The Bulls are also 11-0 against their rivals in the Central division. I think if the Bulls finish the season with a top two seed in the East, he has to win the award.
The Case Against Rose: But will the Bulls be a top two seed? It's easier to make the case for Rose if the Bulls wind up with a better record than Miami or Boston. But barring major injuries to either team, I am doubtful the Bulls will finish higher than third in the East.
Also, that 11-12 road record stands out like a sore thumb. If Rose wants to secure the MVP award, he needs to lead his team to more wins away from the United Center, especially since the Bulls are seeking to hold off Atlanta and Orlando for a top four finish in the East. There is also the question of whether Rose can win the award while shooting only 45 percent from the field and scoring more than most believe a point guard should.
Most also believe that Joakim Noah's return will add an extra dimension to the Bulls and I agree, but the downside to Noah's return is that it coincides with a decidedly more road heavy post-All-Star break stretch of the season for the Bulls. If the Bulls continue to drop road games with Noah, it will not help Rose's cause from MVP.
1. LeBron James
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The Case For James: LeBron James is the most polarizing figure in all of team sports at the moment. The mere mention of his name results in passionate fans and irate critics to engage in lengthy discussions about his place in NBA history and whether or not the "Decision" will be the final judgement of his playing career. But there is no doubt that he has an an extraordinary first season with the Miami Heat. So much so that he would be my MVP right now, and here's why:
No player in recent NBA history has ever had to enter an NBA season with more pressure and wishes of failure than LeBron James. Every road arena was loud and angry and you could almost see the pitchforks and torches, even though they were not visible to the naked eye. Hundreds of "tough athletes" would have been broken by the pressure and hatred by now, but James has fed off of it better than any player I've seen.
Say what you want about his "Decision," tweets or other off the court choices, no player has endured this much verbal punishment and played this well. James is averaging 26.4 ppg, 7.3 apg and 7.3 rpg, despite playing with two solid scorers and rebounders in Chris Bosh and Wade.
Many felt that after the Heat's 9-8 start, that this team would implode and LeBron was facing imminent embarrassment by not making the playoffs. But following a team meeting after a loss to the Mavericks (still the only team to beat Miami at full strength since November), the team has been on a tear with him in the lineup, as LeBron rallied the troops to excel in the much hyped, but quickly forgotten, return to Cleveland when he scored 38, or his 51 against Orlando, or 41 against the Pacers, or his triple double against the Lakers.
I also credit James with contributing to the Miami Heat's identity. Sure, Wade, by most accounts, is still "the man" in Miami, but the Heat's ability to play through the anger and vitriol of the many road crowds can be attributed to James' "me against the world" approach. The Heat see one of their leaders take it on the chin and still excel, so that elevates their performance as well.
The Case Against James: The two most obvious ones are that he has won two years in a row and voter fatigue may be setting in and that while playing with Wade, his numbers have dropped and no one can agree on which is the Heat MVP, so they will split the votes. LeBron is not the most liked player in the NBA right now and the backlash could impact the voters. There is also the fact that Derrick Rose is having a breakout season minus his two big men for stretches of the season and voters may want to reward Rose for being the unquestioned leader on a top three seeded Bulls team.