Top Candidates for NBA's First Conference Finals MVPs

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 25, 2022

Top Candidates for NBA's First Conference Finals MVPs

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    For the first time in NBA history, the league will name Conference Finals MVPs.

    The new honor, announced earlier this month, includes trophies for both the Eastern and Western Conferences. The former is named after Larry Bird, while Magic Johnson is the namesake for the latter.

    The two legends revitalized the league in the 1980s, and this year's Conference Finals are yielding performances worthy of their names.

    On each side of the bracket, there are multiple legitimate candidates. To narrow in on three from both the East and West, we'll do a little prognostication. This isn't a breakdown of who'd win if the series ended today. Instead, these are predictions within predictions.

    There are up to three games left in the Eastern Conference Finals, which means there's time for Jayson Tatum to strengthen his case. In the West, the Dallas Mavericks trailing 1-3 means the likelihood of one of their guys winning is dramatically diminished.

    With that bit of background in mind, let's peer into the future and discuss the top three contenders for the award from each conference.

East's No. 3: Al Horford

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Numbers: 11.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.7 blocks, 2.0 threes, 7.6 box plus/minus ("...a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court.")


    Scoring is always going to be a big part of the argument for awards like this, and Al Horford is nowhere near the top of the Eastern Conference Finals in that category. He still deserves consideration for the award, because he's doing everything else.

    Beyond averaging a double-double, Horford's playmaking continues to open up opportunities for high-usage Boston Celtics like Tatum and Jaylen Brown. And his ability to play inside with Bam Adebayo or stay in front of guards and wings on the perimeter has helped Boston look dominant when he's on the floor.

    "Al Horford looking like the DPOY right now," Toronto Raptors forward Precious Achiuwa tweeted during Game 4. "First team at least."

    Horford may not have secured that honor, but he now has an outside shot at a bigger one.

    This series, the Celtics are plus-23.9 points per 100 possessions when Horford is in the game and minus-7.3 when he isn't.

    If overall impact is given more weight than raw point totals, Horford is in the race.

West's No. 3: Andrew Wiggins

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    Greg Nelson/Getty Images

    Numbers: 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 threes, 0.8 box plus/minus


    Andrew Wiggins' case for this award may have peaked when he dunked all over Luka Doncic in Game 3. He finished that night with 27 points, 11 boards, three assists and almost 40 minutes of dedicated defense all over the floor, especially on Luka.

    Throughout the series, Wiggins has guarded Doncic for roughly 171 possessions, and the Mavs have only managed 170 points on those possessions. That's well shy of the 1.15 points per possession that Dallas scored in the halfcourt during the regular season.

    And combining that consistent defense with timely drives and reliable spot-up shooting has given Wiggins the biggest net rating swing of any Golden State rotation player in this series, by far.

    When he's on the floor, the Warriors are plus-15.2 points per 100 possessions. They're minus-16.2 when he's not.

    The case starts to fall apart when you look at the numbers of Stephen Curry and Doncic, though. Both are doing quite a bit more in all the flashier categories, and Doncic's production cuts against the argument for Wiggins' defense.

    He's been solid, but giving up 33.0 points, 6.0 assists and 3.8 threes to Luka looks pretty bad on paper.

East's No. 2: Jimmy Butler

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Numbers: 21.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 7.3 box plus/minus

    Odds: +185

    The Eastern Conference Finals are tied 2-2, and two of the last three contests will be home games for the Miami Heat, but it still somehow feels like the Celtics are in control.

    The Heat have only won three of 16 quarters this series, and Jimmy Butler missed the second half of Game 3 before looking nothing like himself in the next bout.

    Butler may not be on the injury report for Game 5, but it's fair to be a little concerned about the knee injury that has limited him this series. And that's enough to nudge him to second here.

    If Miami turns the tide, it'll almost certainly be because of Butler, though. And he's shown as recently as Game 1 against Boston that a healthy Butler can control a game on both ends of the floor.

    He had 41 points (including 17 free throws), nine boards, five assists, four steals and three blocks in that one. If he's able to attack the basket and play with the kind of aggression he had on defense in Game 1, Miami has a shot.

    If the Heat advance to the Finals, you can be pretty sure it will be because Butler carried them.

West's No. 2: Luka Doncic

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Numbers: 33.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 3.8 threes, 1.8 steals, 1.3 blocks, 9.2 box plus/minus

    Odds: +1400

    Despite a season-saving win in Game 4, the Mavericks' slim-to-none chances of winning this series didn't improve much. And considering the fact that the league has only given Finals MVP to someone from the losing team on one occasion, Doncic's argument seems borderline impossible.

    On numbers alone, though, his case is tough to nitpick.

    Per game, Luka leads all conference finalists in scoring, trails only Horford in rebounds, is third in assists, tied for second in threes and steals and tied for third in blocks. This is very much a pre-Heatles LeBron-esque performance from Luka.

    Even if his team goes down in five games, it wouldn't be difficult to argue that he was the series' best individual player.

    Beyond the control he exercises over so many aspects of Dallas' offense, Luka has stepped it up on the other end too. He's moving the needle in the right direction in every facet of the game.

East's No. 1: Jayson Tatum

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Numbers: 24.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 threes, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 3.9 box plus/minus

    Odds: -135

    Consider this one of those aforementioned predictions within a prediction. The Eastern Conference Finals is tied, and Boston's leading scorer right now is Jaylen Brown.

    But if the Celtics can stay even relatively healthy, Tatum should be able to lead them to two more wins and erase the memory of his stinker in Game 3.

    That night, Tatum went for 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting and turned the ball over six times. But as he'd done with every off performance prior to that one, he bounced back.

    Tatum has had five games this postseason in which he posted a sub-45 effective field-goal percentage. After going for 31 in Game 4, he's now averaging 35.0 points in the five outings immediately following those performances.

    Now, he'll ride that momentum to a couple more victories and the first Eastern Conference Finals MVP in league history.

West's No. 1: Stephen Curry

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Numbers: 26.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 4.0 threes, 6.7 box plus/minus

    Odds: -950

    There's a reason Curry's odds to win this award are so much shorter than everyone else's. He's pretty much ended the debate already.

    FiveThirtyEight's projection system gives Golden State a 90 percent chance to win the series, and Curry's numbers overwhelm every other Warrior's.

    This is a team that relies on ball and player movement, unselfishness and a connected defense, but it's still obvious who the best player and driving force is. It has been for a decade.

    Curry continues to command attention all over the floor, making life significantly easier for his teammates. When he's been in against the Mavericks, Golden State is scoring 120.9 points per 100 possessions. In the regular season, Dallas' eighth-ranked defense gave up 110.3 points per possessions.

    The Mavs (like every other team in the league) don't really have anyone who can neutralize Curry's range, off-ball movement and passing. At this point, it's just about how long it'll take the Warriors to close this thing out.