Friday March 13th, 2015

In recent years, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award hasn’t garnered much debate.

LeBron James won the honor in the last two seasons of his first stint in Cleveland before Derrick Rose earned it in 2011 through a combination of elite play and the Bulls’ league-leading 62-20 record. Then LeBron returned to the MVP throne twice as a member of the Heat before Kevin Durant trumped him in 2014 with the best season of his career.

Throughout 2014-15, the competition for the league’s most prestigious individual award has been remarkably close. There are at least six viable candidates, all of whom seem to jockey for position on a weekly basis. The frontrunner one day has often been overshadowed in a matter of games as one of his esteemed peers steps up with consecutive performances to steal the spotlight.

[daily_cut.NBA]But what factors have historically been most important to MVP voters? Well, dating back to the 1998-99 season—when Karl Malone won his second MVP for the Jazz—wins and points per game jump to the forefront. In fact, 13 of the past 16 MVP winners have led their roster to the NBA’s best or second-best record (that’s No. 1-2 in the league, not just conference).

The exceptions to that trend were Steve Nash in 2005-06, Kobe Bryant in 2007-08 and LeBron three years ago (2011-12). Nash’s Suns finished with the league’s fourth-best record (they had the third-best mark in the Western Conference, but ended with the No. 2 seed by winning the Pacific Division). Bryant’s Lakers actually had the best record in the West (57-25), but the third-best mark overall. LeBron’s Heat were second in the Eastern Conference behind Chicago and fourth overall.

On the scoring front, every single MVP winner over that span averaged at least 23 points per game with the exception of Nash. In each of the point guard’s back-to-back MVP seasons, however, he led the league in assists. He also posted a 50-40-90 season in 2006 (one of just five players ever to accomplish the feat).

Recent voting history has shown us that winning and scoring is valued the most when determining an MVP. So on that basis, which current candidate should be seen as the favorite? We’ll break down each guy and explain why (or why not) he will be highly considered for the honor.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Pelicans’ superstar big man Anthony Davis is truly in uncharted waters as far as the MVP conversation is concerned.

“The Brow” leads the league with a PER of 31.4. That’s the only mark above 30 for a qualified player this season, and also the eighth-best figure in NBA history. He’s putting together one of the greatest seasons ever in terms of efficiency, but even that likely won’t overcome other variables.

New Orleans holds a tentative grasp on the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference with a 36-29 record. Even if the Pelicans are able to hold off the Thunder when Kevin Durant returns to action, Davis’ award chances will still be a longshot. Add in the fact that the 22-year-old phenom has missed 12 games, and that the Pelicans boast a decent 6-6 record without their star, and his case doesn’t get much stronger.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Russell Westbrook has been on a Godzilla-like rampage in the recent absence of reigning MVP Kevin Durant.

Since KD was put back on the shelf following a 104-89 win over the Mavericks on Feb. 19, Westbrook has rattled off five triple-doubles (including four in a row) while averaging an impressive 33.2 points, 11.1 assists and 10.7 rebounds per contest.

The 26-year-old point guard deserves plenty of praise for the recent explosion. His raw numbers of late have put him in an elite class of players. He’s been carrying the team without Durant, but OKC is still fighting for a playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference.

An MVP from a bottom-tier playoff team would be unprecedented based on recent trends, so don’t expect the UCLA product to get much love in the voting process.

Chris Paul, Clippers

Clippers floor general Chris Paul has been absolutely brilliant throughout the 2014-15 campaign (as he has been for the past eight seasons). The nagging conundrum, though—which Grantland’s Jason Concepcion broke down using analogies of the film Jurassic Park and the Earth’s sun—is that the NBA community has been desensitized to CP3’s greatness. He’s been so impressive for so long that his impact in L.A. doesn’t resonate as much as it probably should.

His closest MVP comparison based on numbers is Nash. Here’s a look at how Paul’s current season (through March 12) stacks up against Nash’s second MVP campaign:

Paul: 18.4 PPG, 10.1 APG, 4.8 RPG, 47.9/37.9/88.1 shooting splits

Nash: 18.8 PPG, 10.5 APG, 4.2 RPG, 51.2/43.9/92.1 shooting splits

Paul’s numbers on offense are inferior to those posted by Nash, but he’s a far better defensive player than Nash ever was. Paul helped force Westbrook into 10 turnovers and a 5-of-14 shooting night on Wednesday.

Unfortunately, the Clippers haven’t been as compelling as the run-and-gun Suns of old. They simply don’t carry the same allure as a team that burst onto the scene out of nowhere, and that hurts Paul’s case. The Clippers also sport the sixth-best record in the NBA at the moment. Nash’s Suns finished first and fourth, respectively, during his MVP years. Paul is likely going to be overlooked for the award once again, fair or not.

James Harden, Rockets

“Take James Harden off our team, and we’re nowhere.” That’s what Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had to say about his superstar’s MVP case last month, according to Pro Basketball Talk.

It’s difficult (and perhaps foolish) to disagree with Morey’s sentiment, as the bearded 2-guard is averaging 26.8 points, 7.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game for Houston—predominantly in the absence of injured center Dwight Howard. Those numbers are huge, but unfortunately for the former No. 3 overall pick, Rockets opponents play a better brand of basketball when he’s on the court defending.

Reading too far into those figures may not give Harden a fair shake. He has made some strides on the defensive side of the ball and remains an offensive juggernaut who can get to the free throw line at-will. With 604 free throw attempts this season, he’s gotten to the line a whopping 141 times more often than second-place Westbrook (463 attempts).

Ultimately, Houston’s final playoff seeding may determine whether Harden is worthy of MVP praise in the eyes of voters. If he can bump his scoring average above Westbrook, though, the 2015 scoring title wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize.

LeBron James, Cavaliers

James would certainly be the ho-hum choice for Most Valuable Player, provided that he’s already won it four times. Nevertheless, voters can’t overlook exactly how tremendous he’s been back in his home state.

Aside from the fact that Cleveland finished 33-49 a season ago and now boasts the Eastern Conference’s second-best record behind the Hawks, some other factors bolster LeBron’s MVP case.

For instance, the Cavs are 2-9 when James doesn’t play. His on/off statistics, meanwhile, have been nothing short of spectacular.

Cleveland’s offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) with James on the court is a whopping 115.5. That mark plummets to 103.5 when the four-time MVP heads to the bench. All told (offensively and defensively), LeBron accounts for a net rating of 17.5 points per 100 possessions.

That mark is better than every other candidate on this list, save for one…

Stephen Curry, Warriors

Curry still isn’t a game-changing defensive player, but Golden State has the necessary personnel around him to negate that flaw (Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, etc.). Instead, the sharpshooting point guard out of Davidson continues to do his damage on the offensive end of the court, where he’s been a majestic ball-handling wizard.

His shooting efficiency from just about everywhere (especially beyond the arc) has been thoroughly impressive. It mostly stems from his offensive prowess, but Curry’s total net difference of 17.9 points per 100 possessions is the best out of every viable MVP candidate.

The Warriors are locked in a duel with the Hawks for the NBA’s best record, but Curry is going to fit the MVP bill as the best player on the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the league regardless of how that plays out.

Add in a solid scoring average (23.6 per game) and Curry should be deemed the frontrunner for the honor in 2015. After all, scoring and a No. 1 or 2 seed has seemed to be the biggest barometer of the award over the past decade-plus.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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