With the NBA season tipping off tonight, I thought it would be good to look at the top five MVP candidates and their odds of winning the trophy. I will use the Westgate odds found on CBS Sports (last updated September 4th) to discuss what will help or hinder their chances to earn the most prestigious regular season award in the association.
Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo- Milwaukee Bucks (8/1 odds)
I will discuss Antetokounmpo here since he and James Harden have the same MVP odds. Plus, he is SO fun to watch. “The Greek Freak” basically carried the otherwise mediocre Bucks to the playoffs, where they gave the Toronto Raptors a run for their money. Last year, Antetokounmpo led the team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, player efficiency rating (PER), and win shares. With Jabari Parker rehabbing his torn ACL, Antetokounmpo will likely do that again this year. However, he likely won’t win MVP this year for two reasons: the quality of his team and the strength of the remaining MVP field. That said, this might be the season Antetokounmpo projects this low on an MVP odd list. His time is coming.
5. James Harden- Houston Rockets (8/1 odds)
Harden would have likely won the award last year if it weren’t for the supernova that was Russell Westbrook. He finished second to his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate in assist rate last year, fifth in player efficiency rating (PER) and lead the league in both offensive and overall win shares. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni moved Harden to point guard and surrounded him with great shooters last year, leading to Houston ranking second in points per 100 possessions and a 14 game improvement from the previous season. With the likes of Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and Eric Gordon along with the addition of P.J. Tucker, Harden could find himself in the thick of the MVP race again in 2017-18.
The Rockets biggest offseason addition, point guard Chris Paul, might keep the Maurice Podoloff trophy out of Harden’s reach. General Manager Daryl Morey brought Paul in to help shoulder Harden’s offensive responsibilities this season, as “The Beard” clearly ran out of gas in the second-round against the San Antonio Spurs. Harden should still have a fantastic season, but the presence of Paul will limit his offensive role, causing him to fall short of the MVP.
4. Russell Westbrook- Oklahoma City Thunder (5/1 odds)
Last year’s MVP might face more difficulty in becoming the 12th player in league history to win the award in back-to-back seasons. After a historic campaign where he averaged a triple-double, Westbrook is bound to regress somewhat this year. For one thing, he won’t have the ball in his hands as much (he finished with the highest single-season usage rate in league history a season ago) thanks to the improvements Oklahoma City this past summer. The additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will give Westbrook much-needed help, which should bring Russ’ numbers back down to his career levels.
Last year, Westbrook more than proved himself capable of carrying a substandard team to the postseason. As their prompt first-round exit proved, the Thunder needed players that could hold leads whenever he needed to sit. With George and Anthony in OKC, Westbrook won’t need to do as much. It might cost him another MVP, but it could bring him closer to obtaining his first NBA title.
3. Kawhi Leonard- San Antonio Spurs (5/1 odds)
Leonard finished third in MVP voting last year, as the two-way star continues to improve each year. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged career-highs in points and assists per game with a .485/.380/.880 shooting line. Plenty of NBA fans believed Leonard should have walked away with the MVP award last year due to San Antonio’s stellar regular season record. He further proved his importance in the Western Conference Finals last year. With Leonard leading the charge, the Spurs challenged Golden State like no other playoff team did up to that point. Then Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, sending San Antonio’s championship hopes down the drain.
Critics will use San Antonio’s lack of reliance on Leonard as a key impediment to his MVP hopes. Gregg Popovich built his offensive system on ball movement and constant screens; not stagnation and one player holding the ball. Voters might still view Leonard as a cog in the Spurs machine, regardless of how true that is. That said, Leonard is one of the ten best players in the league and will always be in the MVP discussion.
2. LeBron James- Cleveland Cavaliers (9/2 odds)
The best basketball player walking this earth has not won an MVP award since 2012-13 when he played for the Miami Heat. That isn’t necessarily a knock on James, it simply speaks to the type of seasons the likes of Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry have had over the past four seasons. Like Westbrook, James is a walking triple-double; a player who can defend all five positions on the floor and run the offense, making his teammates better in the process.
As was the case when he returned to Cleveland, LeBron’s Cavs may experience an adjustment period with a plethora of new faces. Once they develop their chemistry, Cleveland should reach the NBA Finals once again with little difficulty. Barring injury or a rapid decline in skill, James will always be one of the frontrunners for MVP. This season, James probably has his best chance to win the award since his return to Cleveland. There might be one player who could snatch it away from him…
1. Kevin Durant- Golden State Warriors (4/1 odds)
When he left Oklahoma City for the Bay Area, some basketball analysts (like Stephen A. Smith) chided Durant’s decision as a “weak move”. While he did join a stacked Warriors team, the 2013-14 MVP often looked like the best player on the floor for Golden State, leading the team in PER (27.6) and true shooting percentage (.651). Durant further cemented this with a 3-point dagger in game three of the NBA Finals against Cleveland, torpedoing the Cavs title hopes in the process. The former number two overall pick put up MVP numbers last year before spraining his MCL last March. Nothing suggests that he won’t do the same with another year of experience in head coach Steve Kerr’s system. He might face the same problems Leonard will in winning this award (a piece in a system), but a healthy Durant is one of the three best players in the NBA and he will certainly have a good chance to win both his second MVP and NBA title.