MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
1. Stephen Curry(Stephen Curry Jersey)
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. LeBron James
4. Kevin Durant
5. Chris Paul
The only drama comes in the last four spots, which means it really doesn’t matter much for historical purposes. Curry has been the best and most valuable player in the NBA — a glitch in the system who transformed a sport. Everything about the Warriors — their style, their identity, their strut — emanates from his historically unprecedented shooting.
There are seven candidates for the last four spots: the four listed, plus Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green. You could build an argument for James Harden, carrying the wheezing wraith of Houston on his back, but he showed up out of shape and played zippo defense for a would-be contender about to limp into the No. 8 spot with a win over the tanking Kings.
Lowry became a superstar, always in hunched motion, waiting to spring into open space when you take a breath. He’s just not as good as these other guys.
Green is the firing brain circuitry of perhaps the greatest team ever, nearly as important to Golden State’s top-five defense as Curry is to their all-time offense. He would be a star anywhere. But you could imagine these Warriors playing good defense without Green; they did under Mark Jackson, using a more traditional scheme. You cannot imagine Golden State with a league-average point guard in Curry’s place. The Warriors would have to reinvent their entire offense, and they might not be very good.
The Warriors’ offense falls apart without Curry, and for the second straight season, opponents outscored Golden State — by a huge margin — with Curry on the bench. Green and Curry lean on each other, and lift the team together, but the value gap between them is large enough to shove Green off this ballot.
That left Durant, Westbrook and Paul for two spots. Paul can’t match Westbrook’s gaudy triple-double numbers, or turn a game on its head with 45 seconds of snarling athleticism. Other teams fear Westbrook. They respect Paul, but they don’t shudder at the possibility of him smashing through their entire team — and the concept of normal basketball — for two or three pivotal minutes.
But on a night-to-night basis, Paul is the more calming, precise player, and he has to be on the ballot after keeping the Clippers afloat amid Blake Griffin’s injury melodrama.
That leaves an impossible choice between Westbrook and Durant — a choice that almost seems unfair given the Thunder’s hit-or-miss supporting cast. Both will make a lot of ballots, and that’s fine.
Durant gets the nod by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin. There isn’t much difference between them statistically, and Durant reclaimed some control of the Thunder offense once Billy Donovan started staggering the Westbrook/Durant minutes in February. Durant seized more possessions, dished more dimes and drove Oklahoma City to a better scoring margin in his non-Westbrook minutes than in the opposite scenario, per NBA.com research.
He’s also a better, more versatile defender — quick enough to guard any wing, and so long, he can dart in from the strong side to snuff a drive and veer back to a sharp shooter without conceding a thing. Both guys can defend up a position, but Durant sliding to power forward opens more lineup possibilities than Westbrook muscling a shooting guard.
Westbrook remains a manic gambler who submarines too many possessions with reckless choices. When two bets in a row hit, it looks spectacular, and we laud Westbrook’s ability to bend the game to his will. We don’t do a good enough job noting the other three or four bets that come up snake eyes, leaving shooters open and hanging teammates out to dry. Westbrook’s decision-making at money time can be scattershot.
Westbrook is incredible, and he might finish in the top three once the votes are in. Not here.
A word on the Leonard-LeBron debate: LeBron at full throttle is the better player, and perhaps still the best player in the league. Both engineer decent shots from nothing, but only LeBron can steamroll to the rim almost whenever he wants. LeBron resides in another universe as a passer. LeBron can be the fastest all-court defender in the league when he wishes; remember, he outperformed computerized ghost defenders programmed to be perfect!
But from start to finish, Leonard had the better season, for the better team. He doesn’t take possessions off. He doesn’t snap at teammates or manufacture chaos with calculated, passive-aggressive social media fits. For all the angst over whether Leonard can generate offense when everything else stalls out in crunch time, he ranks among the league’s best one-on-one scorers — from both the perimeter and the post, per Synergy Sports research.
He’s not LeBron in those situations. No one is. Leonard doesn’t think, or pass, two steps ahead of the defense, and he’s not strong enough to bulldoze his way to the rim every damn time. But he’s plenty good, with a jumper that clicked as LeBron’s broke apart, and he has been the league’s second-best player.