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Give-and-Go: Handicapping the MVP race

By Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney

Is 2013 the year Kevin Durant takes the MVP crown from LeBron James? (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Give-and-Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward's Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.  

On Wednesday, the online sports book Bovada released its preseason list of 2013 NBA MVP favorites. These odds, like most everything in life, are for entertainment purposes only. Here's how the top of the field shakes out with the regular season set to open in less than two weeks:

Seven of the eight players with the best odds come from the three teams deemed the early title favorites: the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers. Last year's top five, for reference: James, Durant, Paul, Bryant and Parker.

Let's break down this year's field in a little bit more detail.

1. Is this LeBron James versus the field? Does anyone besides James, who has won three of the last four MVP awards, really have a shot?

Ben Golliver: This is James' award to lose, as it is every season, but there are a few reasons to believe his stranglehold might be interrupted. At the top of the list: voter fatigue. MVP voting has regularly shortchanged the league's best player in the past, opting instead for a fresher storyline, a career achievement award or just a new flavor of the month. Another issue: James' minutes. Not many players can claim to be in better shape than James, a fact reinforced in full by his dominant performances in the postseason and the London Olympics. Free from the burden of pursuing his first NBA title, and free from much competition at the top of the Eastern Conference thanks to Derrick Rose's unfortunate knee injury, it's possible that James'  workload will be managed a bit more carefully during the regular season. He's clearly not wired to mail in any game but perhaps his overall production plateaus, or his shot attempts decline slightly, if Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, armed with a slightly deeper roster, decides to go just a touch easier on him this year.

Rob Mahoney: There are definitely some scenarios in which James doesn't win, but I think it says plenty about this race that each alternate possibility requires a pretty specific and delicate construction. James is the prohibitive favorite and will undoubtedly be the most deserving of the honor; the only things even hypothetically standing in his way are circumstantial factors (injury, minutes, etc.) and observation bias. It's within the realm of possibility that James somehow, in some way, loses this thing. But I'm not even sure I would take the field over James. He is too good and his public regard too strong that even a fresher narrative won't be enough to sweep voters off their feet.

2. Three Lakers, including two new additions, appear in the top six of this list. Of Bryant, Howard and Nash, who will wind up being most valuable to the Lakers this season?

RM: This one definitely depends on your interpretation of "value." If we're looking at the top player in terms of his intrinsic basketball value, Howard's your man. Howard is simply a different class of defender than any other player on the Lakers' roster, and his game is broad enough to make up for the limitations and missteps of each of his teammates. His offensive game is somehow underrated, which is incredible for a superstar. Howard opens up easy scoring opportunities for his team just by being on the court and complements his magnetic effect on opposing defenders with first-rate finishing ability and a sturdy -- if rigid -- post game.

Yet if we're picking out the player with the most specific value to his team (a flawed interpretation that many voters nonetheless prefer), I think Nash will prove to be the best choice. L.A.'s offense was all over the place last season. For weeks at a time the Lakers looked to be one of the best offensive teams in basketball, only to follow up with a solid month of inefficiency. Nash will assuredly bring those inconsistencies to an end and orchestrate a far more dependable operation. He doesn't know any other way. Nash has led a top-five offense in all but two seasons since becoming a full-time starter, and he's never had this much firepower at his disposal. The results should be breathtaking, and though Bryant, Howard and Pau Gasol will all play a part, it will be Nash's playmaking that keys the Lakers' cohesion.

BG: If I'm reading you correctly, you made two arguments for two different Lakers and neither was Kobe Bryant. Gulp. Surely, no Lakers fans are reading this. Bryant finished fourth in last year's voting and it's hard to see how he climbs higher than that at 34 years old. Howard, to me, is the most valuable here. The league's best defender and most prolific rebounder is an excellent finisher who just happens to be entering his prime. Howard is simply likely to have a bigger impact, in more ways, than Bryant this year. If he doesn't, that will spell trouble for Mike Brown and company. How Bryant reacts to and processes this fact is surely one of the must-watch storylines of the season.

Russell Westbrook finished 12th in the MVP voting last season. (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

3. Does Las Vegas know something about Russell Westbrook's taking a next step that we don't or is he a touch overrated here as No. 4 on the board?

BG: Given that Westbrook registered just one fourth-place vote last season (he tied for 12th overall), his placing here definitely qualifies as a surprise. His fundamentals are all trending upward, though, so maybe we shouldn't be shocked. He's getting more difficult to defend by the year, he's added a mid-range shot and he's found a better balance between creating and deferring late in games. He's also much more famous than he was 12 months ago, thanks to his silly postgame attire, the 2012 Finals appearance and an Olympics gold medal (not necessarily in that order).

Still, this seems like a bit of a reach, if only because grabbing the best-point-guard-in-the-NBA mantle or helping lead the Thunder to the league's best record likely wouldn't be enough. He still needs to overcome the major inertia that comes with the Thunder's being "Durant's team." To win the MVP award, he would need to outperform Durant so significantly that years' worth of ingrained opinions about the relative worth of the two players were reversed. That seems a tall task, at least for this season. Durant's own improvements just set the bar that much higher.

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RM: That last point is a crucial one. As unlikely as it is that Westbrook might somehow overtake James in the MVP race, it's somehow even more unlikely that'd he'd also top Durant in the voting. As good as Westbrook is, he's fighting an uphill battle against public perception that won't cease unless he dramatically changes his style. Score-first point guards (Rose's rare case excepted) just don't have much of a command over the NBA voting base, and Westbrook is far too easy a target for all that goes wrong for the Thunder. He's a fantastic player and will be deserving of a place in the MVP discussion, but I'm not sure how he swung such favorable odds.

4. If you were forced to pick a dark horse, who would it be?

RM: Based on these odds, I'd say Chris Paul. He's a top-five player, and his contributions are as impressive as they are obvious. One can't watch the Clippers without coming away enamored with Paul's ability to read and produce in a half-court setting, and his exploits shine through just as brilliantly in more objective statistical analyses. Paul has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the brightest stars eclipsed by James, but if the race opens up for any reason (injury? Conspiracy? Divine intervention?), he should be able to make a decent claim.

BG: Can I give a tip-of-the-cap split here to Tony Parker (25/1) and Rajon Rondo (28/1)? Parker does fall an awful long way on this list considering that he finished fifth in last season's voting and is just as essential to the Spurs' plans this year. Parker just feels like a value play: He's established himself as really, really good and his team has been known, on occasion, to go weeks and weeks without dropping a game. Those are pretty good fundamentals to make a move in from the outside of this discussion.

The biggest knock on Rondo's candidacy is that perhaps he doesn't have the consistency and temperament to dominate in a Most Valuable way on a night-to-night basis. When James and Durant have set the bar at "absolutely sensational at least 75 times a season," it's difficult for any player prone to swings in engagement level to squeeze into this discussion. Still, he's the best player on a top team, he's one of the best at his position and he has a commanding influence on both ends of the floor. His Celtics are sure to win their fair share of games, even if they don't always make it a point to amass the highest possible playoff seeding.

5. Call your shot. Who will win the award?

BG: I'll take Durant. He has the upward momentum from last year's second-place finish. He's been in the conversation for long enough to be embedded in everyone's mind. He's taken the next career step, leading his team to the 2012 Finals, and doing so with plenty of attention-drawing late-game dramatics. His statistics are guaranteed to be eye-popping and it would qualify as a fairly major upset if someone besides him winds up as the league's scoring champ. The Thunder have a great chance to post the league's best record and his health has been excellent.  If the voting winds up becoming a "We're bored with LeBron" sweepstakes, and it easily could, Durant seems positioned as the clear favorite there. His gracious personality and global star power don't hurt his case, either.

RM: I'm sticking with James. If it weren't enough for LeBron to simply be the best basketball player on the planet and the reigning MVP of both the regular season and the Finals, I think there's enough development in the James narrative to keep voters enthralled. If last season's playoff run was any indication, we can expect a wholly different Heat team in the year to come, and a somehow improved version of James. He sacrificed his traditional position for the good of the team and came out all the better for it. The fawning coverage practically writes itself, particularly if the Heat are as good in the regular season as expected.
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