To recap what I’ve been saying for a couple of seasons now: The MVP generally goes to the best player on a team with the best record in their conference. Exceptions would be great teams with a balanced attack, players on a team that improves dramatically from one year to the next, and a player who was just too good to ignore, records be damned. After looking at how the league seems ready to play out this season, I see 3 players whose MVP chances seem to be better than the rest: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming. This has more to do with their team situation than anything else, but that’s usually what decides who ultimately wins the award.
1. Kevin Garnett, Boston: His numbers were actually down a little last year and could be down again, because he’s with more talented teammates. But Garnett has to be considered the MVP favorite going in. He’s the top newcomer on a team that’s poised to improve their win total by 30+ games and has a good chance at the best record in their conference. He’s also a veteran, which is something voters have shown a strong preference for in recent years. If Boston wins the 55 games I expect them to, Kevin Garnett would be almost a prohibitive favorite to win the MVP.
2. Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers, Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix or maybe even New York: Kobe is one of the 3 best players in basketball, along with LeBron and Wade. He’s on the block and a trade to Chicago, Dallas or Phoenix will push him to the top of the list as he would transform any one of those teams into a 60+ win team. Even if he stays with the Lakers and leads them to 50+ wins while scoring 35 PPG, he’ll get some votes. There are a lot of variables here though. If Chicago gets off to a fast start, they may stand pat, as a plucky, young homegrown team is always more fun to win with than an imported, selfish superstar. Nowitzki isn’t on the block now, but could be if the Mavs happen to start falling behind the likes of the Suns, Rockets and Spurs. The Suns are the last team the Lakers want to send Kobe to, but they might become a last resort. Then there’s the remote possibility that things start well for the Lakers and the braintrust and Kobe decide the can live with each other. Until games start being played, won and lost, nobody is certain how this drama will play out. Kobe will become the MVP favorite if he lands in Chicago, Dallas or Phoenix.
3. Yao Ming, Houston: Yao’s game was at an elite level when he played last year. If he can sustain that improvement and stay healthy all season, he has a good shot at the award, because Houston is loaded and good enough to move in with the West’s elite. I wouldn’t discount the idea that Yao could suddenly become an ironman either. Zy Ilgauskas followed a series of injury-prone seasons with several seasons of all-star caliber center play. Yao is certainly capable of doing the same.
4. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas: The reigning MVP is definitely a threat to win his 2nd straight, as the Mavs are as strong as any team in the league. What will hurt Dirk’s chances is the Mavs seem likely to decline from their 67 wins of last season and the voters have historically been cool to players on teams whose records declined. Dirk is also right in the middle of the Kobe drama, as either the Maverick who will be demoted to sidekick status when Kobe arrives or the player who was traded for Kobe. Either situation would be a fatal blow to Dirk’s chances of a repeat.
5. Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix: The Suns are also in the mix for the best record and it’s possible the voters will look to someone other than Nash. Stoudemire seems like the player most likely to move into the MVP talk, no matter how much such a scenario would irritate Shawn Marion. Considering he’s already an elite center playing in a fast-paced offense and doesn’t turn 25 until November, Stoudemire has a chance to step up his numbers to monster level. Such a step up, along with the top seed for Phoenix would make him one of the favorites for the award.
6. Steve Nash, Phoenix: No discussion of the MVP candidates would be complete without the 2-time winner and voter favorite. The Suns are still an elite team and Nash is still the leader, so he’ll be in the MVP mix. I just get the feeling that the voters’ crazy infatuation with his game cooled some last year and some were a little uneasy about how history would feel about them making such a player a 3-time MVP. I expect that feeling to carry over to this season, no matter what happens on the court and in the standings. There’s also the fact that he’s 34. I don’t expect much, if any decline in his game, but he is 34 and that’s an age when many players start to fade.
7. LeBron James, Cleveland: A player this good is always a threat to win the award. He still has things working against him though. The biggest is the fact that the Cavs appear to be headed for a season where they take a step back in order to take two or three steps forward in the future. There’s also the feeling I have that the voters just don’t find him all that likeable. Many writers seem cool towards him, giving him due praise, but hardly gushing despite the fact that his accomplishments have him on a pace to smash records, win championships and become a worldwide icon in the next decade. I’m just a guy who watches the game from a distance and mainly concentrates on the statistical end of things, but I think he could stand to get some better advice on promoting himself. When Dwayne Wade is causing my eyes to tear up by buying playground equipment for a youth team and tossing the keys of a Navigator to their coach, the LeBrons commercial seems stupid and self-serving in comparison. And donning that Yankees cap at the Indians game was just plain stupid, if harmless. Small stuff to be sure, but it all adds up when voters are picking the MVP. As good as LeBron is, his image could definitely use a boost.
8. Dwayne Wade, Miami: Miami appears to be in for a tough season. Nothing is certain though and Wade is capable of leading a team with a revitalized Shaq to the best record in the East. When healthy Wade is every bit as valuable the player LeBron, Kobe and Dirk are. Getting Miami to the top spot in what looks like a down year would no doubt get him the MVP. Working against him is the fact he’ll start the season on the injured list and the flimsy supporting cast he’ll join when he returns.
9. Tim Duncan, San Antonio: A perennial candidate because he’s the best player on one of the best teams. As great as Duncan is, I just don’t see it happening for the Spurs this season. I feel they’re too old and the 2007 championship felt like a last hurrah. I feel they’ll fall behind Dallas and Houston in the Southwest this year. But that’s just my opinion. A poll of most experts would probably have the Spurs as the favorite to win another championship, so that has to be considered. If they’re right and I’m wrong and the Spurs do finish with the best record in the West, Duncan is the most likely player to win the MVP.
10. Ben Gordon, Chicago: Every year I like to toss a sleeper into the MVP mix and Gordon seems like a good choice this year. He’s never been a 3000+ minutes player, but that could change this season as it’s the first one where he’s the starter going in. If he does log big minutes, Gordon will be one of the league’s leading scorers. That and the likelihood Chicago will end up with the best record in the East make him a decent MVP candidate. Being the most likely Bull to be included in a Kobe deal would hurt his chances, but that drama has yet to play itself out entirely.