The Hustle: Week One – MVP Favorites and Dark Horses

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Welcome to the first edition of The Hustle, a back-and-forth exchange between Chris St. Jean and Paul Mitchell concerning the latest, and also the more abstract, NBA topics.

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MVP odds courtesy of Bovada

Chris St. Jean:  Always one of the dominant story lines of every season, this year’s MVP race may be one of the most unique in years. With Durant and Curry cannibalizing each other’s votes, former favorites like LeBron James and Chris Paul aging a bit, and the favorite (Westbrook) on a team that may not win 50 games, in some ways this race is as wide open as it was two years ago when Curry unexpectedly won his first of two consecutive MVPs.

With that being said, Mitchell, who is your pick for MVP? And looking at the odds, which pick, with greater than 15:1 odds, do you like as your dark horse?

Paul Mitchell:  There is no preseason prediction I have been dreading more than that of the league’s Most Valuable Player for the 2016-17 season. The award in and of itself is almost intentionally vague in its language; meant to invoke discourse over semantics rather than on-court production, and can far too often allow narratives to dominate the voting process. Elite talent usually wins out, and can shape its own story in the process, but the need to craft a narrative is all too real, from the dreaded “Hangover Effect” that cost Michael Jordan on two separate occasions to the rare “Heel Turn” popularized by LeBron James upon his move to Miami in 2011. Even the league’s first-ever unanimous MVP award voting in its 70-year history – Steph Curry in 2015-16 – came from perhaps the perfect storm of individual success, team dominance, historical significance, and popularity/relevance.

Context, and some extenuating circumstances in the form of Kevin Durant, will change the league-wide perception of Curry’s Golden State Warriors vastly in a year’s time. Placing two of the league’s premier players in the same starting lineup will surely feed into each other’s scoring numbers and could lead to some strange stat lines, while the team’s focus and success should be consistent as the popularity turns to notoriety.

Durant will bear most of the heat for his controversial decision in free agency, in joining the team that came back to defeat his Thunder in last season’s Western Conference Finals, and watching him adjust to the “LeBron in 2010-11” treatment will be an interesting early-season storyline. I’m expecting both he and Steph to cancel each other’s MVP votes out, even if one of them posts a ridiculous efficiency rating or shoots 60-percent from deep, and share the blame for another possible 70-win season by the Bay as they reside as “co-villains” of 2016-17.

Which brings me back to LeBron James and his situation in 2011, when he suffered for his sins of choosing to change cities in free agency. The season saw James post nearly identical numbers to prior campaigns – with a per-game average of 26.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, and 7.0 APG – yet lose the narrative battle to Derrick Rose (25 PPG, 7.7 APG, 4.1 RPG) and his first-seeded (and 62-20!) Chicago Bulls in a surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference. With the numbers being relatively close, the context and narratives began factoring into the MVP discussions late in the 2011 regular season – which is fine when the determining factors are team wins or success against elite opposition, and less so when the argument devolves into who is more humble or clutch.

But there is no doubt that LeBron’s new role and status within “The Heatles”’s infrastructure had a negative impact upon his perception around the league and in media circles, much as Kevin Durant-to-the Warriors should this season. So with Steph and Durant out of the picture, and docked due to their “Super Friends” meetup, could that leave the door open for a LeBron James goodwill MVP award? Think of the irony!

James’s numbers are always worthy of MVP consideration, even if he is indeed coasting to preserve himself for long playoff runs, and his ceiling as a two-way impact player might still be unmatched as he enters his late-to-post-prime stretch. Add in team success, as the Cavs should again run away with the East, and the story-fodder that comes with defending his home town’s first-ever championship – which, if you haven’t heard, came in a 3-1 series upset to those Golden State Warriors – and the karmic MVP award should be a lock for LeBron James in the ‘10-11 season.

(Unless, of course, Russell Westbrook truly defies the odds and posts a triple-double statline with average efficiency numbers, and drags a Durant-less Thunder team to a mid-tier playoff seed. That would be a pretty tough story to overcome…)

If I’m asked to choose dark-horse contenders to bet on to take home an unlikely MVP trophy, I might have to rely even more heavily on the “what if?” and stretch the concept of logic with some narrative ideas. For instance, let’s say neither the Clippers nor the Spurs can command that second seed in the West behind Golden State, and the Portland Trail Blazers continue to overachieve and posts a league-average (or better!) defense. If Portland again surpasses their preseason expectations, and Damian Lillard can continue to increase his free-throw attempts per game, putting him above his 25.1 PPG average of a season ago, then he should be the beneficiary of a bunch of “How about the Trail Blazers?!” pieces throughout the course of the season.

As far as other dark-horse contenders, we’re sure it’s too early for a Karl-Anthony Towns explosion in his second season? (I’ll see myself out…)

Chris Paul is always a safe bet, as it’s pretty ridiculous that he doesn’t have an MVP award on his resume, and the Clippers are poised to take that two-seed almost by default in the West.

However, if we’re talking point guards with long odds, I’ve got to put my money on the coolest Boston Celtic in recent memory… 

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St. Jean:  Mitchell! Of course the MVP is intentionally vague and decidedly reliant on narrative. That’s why it’s so much fun! In no other sport does the MVP mean so much and in no other sport does it garner passionate and legitimate (and also illegitimate) debate. It’s one of America’s core arguments.

It inspires people to write thousands and thousands of words. And yes, that gets overwhelming and monotonous and cliched and repetitive. But it also inspires true discourse and analysis. Something undefinable that so many are so desperate to define. That’s kind of beautiful in a way.

As for this season in particular, I find the field to be wide open. As much as I’d love to see one more season where LeBron tears through the NBA regular season annihilating everything in his path, I think we might be past that point of his career. Keeping his body fresh for another Championship run is more important than anything else this season. Another Ring > Another MVP.

You mentioned the Curry/Durant paradox, and I think that team will embrace rest as well this season, although I’m not counting out a pissed off Durant taking the off-season criticism to heart quite yet.

Westbrook is the overwhelming favorite, but it’s hard to imagine him having any better of a season than he did when Durant was injured.

If I have to pick a favorite, I’m going with Curry again. How quickly we forget how insane his season was last season. He’ll have more space and room to work this season and he’ll likely have the ball more than Durant as the primary ball handler. His efficiency will carry him to having adequate counting numbers despite the rest he’ll have.  He’ll flirt with 60/50/95 for percentages and cut down on turnovers as he faces less traps and double teams.

I can see Curry once more blowing all of our minds with his continued offensive dominance of the sport. His shooting ability is a true revolutionary skill, a la Kareem’s Sky-hook and Wilt’s sheer size and mobility.

If I’m considering longer shots however, I could get behind Blake Griffin at +3300. Just a short time ago, we considered Blake to make a clear statement as the third-best player in the NBA. Last season was a disaster for Blake and that’s left a bad taste in most NBA fans’ mouths, but let’s not forget Blake’s combination of superhuman athleticism and almost unmatched (at his position) playmaking skills.

The West will be even more top heavy than in years past, but if there is any team that can hang with San Antonio and Golden State in the West it is the Clippers, and the only way they do so is with Blake having an amazing season.

There are certainly red flags here. Chemistry could have been permanently destroyed in this locker room after the mess last season. But if there is one thing that helps solve chemistry issues it is Kevin Garnett on the practice floor.  

Blake’s shooting has been a work in progress for quite some time, but shooting is a developmental skill, there’s no doubt that Blake has been putting in the work and pushing himself to improve in that aspect of his game, and the 3-point range rumors are already flying.

As Chris Paul ages but this team still performs, Blake’s going to get some MVP love this season. I’ll put a dinner at a Toronto restaurant on it.

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