The 2016 NBA MVP of Every Age Group

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 19, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 18: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors on January 18, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Stephen Curry hasn't just changed the way the NBA thinks about defending point guards and shooting threes; he's also forced us to find new ways to talk about the MVP race.

In truth, it's pretty much been over since December, when Curry and the Golden State Warriors scurried out to a record 24-0 start. His excellence in service of the Dubs' 62-6 mark has only strengthened his claim to a second straight Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

If not for Curry's all-timer of a campaign, the MVP debate would be as robust as ever in 2015-16. The league is loaded with top-tier talent of all ages and positional designations.

Just because Curry is the cream of the crop doesn't mean the rest of the field is unworthy of recognition. To spread the love around a bit, let's pick out MVPs by age bracket, divvied up roughly according to career phases and chosen according to individual production and impact on team performance.

19-21: Karl-Anthony Towns, PF/C, Minnesota Timberwolves

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
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No team that loses twice as often as it wins—like, say, the Minnesota Timberwolves—is going to put its best player anywhere near an MVP conversation. But when it comes to pure productivity, Karl-Anthony Towns is well on his way to joining the league's elite.

He's not yet old enough to buy an adult beverage, but he's plenty good enough to average 17.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 blocks in 31.3 minutes per game. His 39 point-rebound double-doubles are the fourth-most this season, behind only Andre Drummond's 56, DeAndre Jordan's 42 and DeMarcus Cousins' 41.

But to measure Towns by the usual big-man metrics is to ignore the depth and breadth of his game. He's a smart and savvy passer with fantastic court vision and a surprisingly sharp shooter for a player of his size (7'0", 244 pounds).

"He is our most consistent shooter," T-Wolves coach Sam Mitchell told MinnPost's Britt Robson in January. "K-Mart [Kevin Martin] is supposed to be a shooter. Karl is a better shooter than him. A 20-year-old rookie."

Towns' overall impact on the Minnesota Timberwolves has been unmistakable. According to NBA.com, he's limited opponents to 48.5 percent shooting on nine attempts at the rim per game—well below the team-wide mark of 53.9 percent.

The T-Wolves sport a negative rating whether Towns plays or sits, but they are noticeably closer to their competition with him (minus-2.4 points per 100 possessions) than they are without him (minus-4.7 points per 100 possessions).

Someday, the T-Wolves will start winning more often than they lose. When they do, it will likely be the byproduct of Towns' MVP-caliber brilliance.

Honorable Mentions: Andrew Wiggins, SG/SF, Minnesota Timberwolves; Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C, New York Knicks

22-25: Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 17:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs looks on during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 17, 2016 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Chief among the many bright lights obscured by Curry's Golden State supernova is the shining basketball beacon Kawhi Leonard has become with the San Antonio Spurs.

Leonard's stifling defense alone would be enough to make him a legitimate MVP threat. As Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins detailed, the San Diego State product does his best work against the NBA's most gifted scorers:

The Pacers' Paul George tried to force jumpers against Leonard in a game this season and went 1 for 14. The Knicks' [Carmelo] Anthony went 4 for 17. The Thunder's Kevin Durant went 6 for 19. On Jan. 22, the 10th anniversary of Kobe Bryant's 81-point outbreak against the Raptors, the Lakers faced the Spurs at Staples Center. Matched with Leonard, Bryant marooned himself in the corner, finishing with five points on nine shots. "I'm not going after him anymore," Bryant said with a smile.

Last season, Leonard earned recognition for his defense by edging Warriors forward Draymond Green for Defensive Player of the Year honors, but it's not as though his excellence in other areas has been a secret. His 2014 NBA Finals MVP trophy is a testament to that.

This season, he's put it all together. He leads the San Antonio Spurs, at a sparkling 58-10, in scoring (a career-high 21 points), steals (1.8 per game) and minutes (32.9 per game), while chipping in 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

What's most impressive is that Leonard, who hit just a quarter of his three-point attempts in college, now ranks second in the league in accuracy from beyond the arc (46.8 percent). And with his overall field-goal percentage (51.1 percent) and a few more made free throws (88.4 percent), he'll jump the velvet rope into the vaunted 50-40-90 club.

Not bad for a 24-year-old who still drives a 1997 Chevy Tahoe and subsists on free hot wings.

Honorable Mentions: Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans; Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers; Andre Drummond, C, Detroit Pistons

26-29: Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

Mar 16, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after a play against the New York Knicks during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Knicks 121-85. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Spor
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

However you slice it, Curry is the runaway leader in the MVP race and should probably be the league's first-ever unanimous winner.

For one, he is head and shoulders above all his compatriots on a Warriors squad that is, itself, head and shoulders above the rest of the NBA at 62-6. The very threat of his three-point shot is both the engine that drives Golden State's free-flowing attack and the magnet that bends and twists defenses into uncommon and uncomfortable shapes.

Statistically speaking, Curry's case is ironclad. He leads the league in scoring, at 30.4 points per game; extends his own record for three-pointers in a season with each splash; and is on track to be the ninth member of the 50-40-90 shooting club. According to Basketball Reference, Curry's PER of 32.4 would be the highest in NBA history.

Needless to say, he's also the best player in his age range. Check the honorable mentions below, and you'll see how stacked that field is—and how remarkable it is that he's lapping it.

In the grander scheme, Curry's greatest value isn't in what he's doing to lift the Warriors to all-time heights or leave the rest of the league in the dust. Rather it's in how he's appealing to a new generation of kids that, per ESPN's Henry Abbott, "spend more time than ever on screens and less time doing things like shooting hoops":

...as much as there are big names in basketball who get people to watch it on a screen, or even to buy a ticket, there's nobody like Steph to get kids excited to play. The very tall and strong have always had permission to imagine themselves as NBA champions. Steph's every on-court action screams that scrawny little folks can play the game, too. "That's kind of the new swag," Shane Battier said on TrueHoop TV. "Not everyone can dunk, but everyone can pull up from 30 feet."

The NBA's 29 other teams can only hope that some of those kids will be good enough, and develop quickly enough, to help them close the gap between themselves and Golden State before Curry's career is through.

Honorable Mentions: Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder; Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder; Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors

30-34: LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers

March 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts after he dunks to score a basket against Los Angeles Clippers during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Where would the Cleveland Cavaliers be without LeBron James? The answer depends on how far back you go.

Before James returned to northeast Ohio in July 2014, the Cavs were coming off four miserable seasons, with three No. 1 picks to show for their sorrows. His arrival fundamentally altered the makeup of the organization and, subsequently, the roster around him. Without James, there is no Kevin Love, no Timofey Mozgov, no Iman Shumpert and no J.R. Smith, among others.

Even with all that other talent, Kyrie Irving included, Cleveland still leans heavily on James for everything from scoring and playmaking to leadership. No Cavalier plays more minutes than the 31-year-old James (35.8 per game) or uses more of the team's possessions (31.4 percent share), per Basketball Reference. Nor do any of James' teammates affect Cleveland's bottom line on a per-100-possession basis more dramatically than he does.

On-Off Effect of Cavaliers' Core Players
Net Rating WithNet Rating WithoutDifference
LeBron Jamesplus-10.6minus-5.5minus-16.1
Kyrie Irvingplus-7.3plus-5minus-2.3
Kevin Loveplus-8.8plus-1.1minus-7.7
J.R. Smithplus-5.7plus-6.3plus-0.6
Tristan Thompsonplus-8.3plus-2.5minus-5.8
Timofey Mozgovplus-0plus-8.8plus-8.8
Iman Shumpertplus-7.6plus-5.1minus-2.5
Matthew Dellavedovaplus-10.9plus-1.3minus-9.6

"He gives us everything," Love said of James after a 113-99 loss to the Washington Wizards during which the four-time MVP rested, per Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes. "He's one of those guys that, a very few, that really makes everybody on his team better, and makes everybody play at a very high level. So, yeah, we definitely missed him tonight."

There's a downside to that reliance, though. Without James on the floor to light the way, the Cavaliers, for all their collective basketball ability and experience, become a rudderless ship on the NBA's high seas.

"It makes it tough because the offense, we run so much stuff through LeBron that he's getting everybody involved," head coach Tyronn Lue explained that same day in D.C. in late February, "and now the same stuff you ran with LeBron, you can't run it with different players."

For better or worse, then, James is irreplaceable.

Honorable Mentions: Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers; LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, San Antonio Spurs; Paul Millsap, PF, Atlanta Hawks

35+: Dirk Nowitzki, PF/C, Dallas Mavericks

Mar 14, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) shoots the ball over Charlotte Hornets forward Frank Kaminsky (44) in the second half at Time Warner Cable Arena. The Mavericks won 107-96. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Dirk Nowitzki is the paradigm of a top-10 offense on a playoff-bound team.

That's nothing new for the Dallas Mavericks lifer. He's missed the postseason once since 2000 and has captained an attack that ranked among the league's top third in efficiency every year but twice.

The difference now is that Nowitzki, at 37, isn't the spry young baller he used to be. Fortunately for the Mavs, time has done little to diminish his size, at seven feet, and shooting ability (38 percent from three this season).

Nor have the years chastened Nowitzki's willingness to work outside of his comfort zone and sacrifice himself for the good of his squad. Lately, he's spent more time at center to tremendous effect. As ESPN's Tim MacMahon noted: "According to data from nbawowy.com, Nowitzki has averaged 24.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes as a center. The Mavs have outscored their opponents by 69 points in 215 minutes with Nowitzki as the big man."

Nowitzki told MacMahon:

I'm ready for everything, whatever it may be. I think there's a few dominant forces at center that I'd rather not see, but other than that, we all know that it's not a post-up league anymore. It's a pick-and-roll league, it's a movement league, it's a transition, line-your-guy-up, drive-it league. The league has gone smaller and smaller and smaller, so if that's an option for us, great.

How many superstars with Nowitzki's Hall of Fame resume would bite that bullet, especially after giving up as much money as he has in recent years? That, in essence, is what makes an MVP: a player's willingness to do whatever his team needs from him to win. 

Honorable Mentions: Tim Duncan, C, San Antonio Spurs; Pau Gasol, PF/C, Chicago Bulls

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless noted otherwise and accurate as of games played on March 17, 2016.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@JoshMartinNBA), Instagram and Facebook.

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