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Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
In terms of pure talent, Stephen Curry deserves to be considered a first-tier contender for the league’s most prestigious individual award. You can make plenty of convincing arguments that the 30-year-old floor general is unquestionably among the league’s top five players, and he’s likely to continue rewriting the three-point record books throughout the 2018-19 campaign.
However, Curry is disadvantaged by the enduring presence of Kevin Durant on the Golden State Warriors roster. The small forward may not be the true face of the franchise or the linchpin around which the offensive scheme is built, but his well-rounded play and prominence while winning back-to-back Finals MVPs make him the team’s most likely candidate for regular-season MVP.
Sorry, but we’re simply not going to list two players from the same team as top-five candidates. And right now, Curry is the one attempting to make an uphill climb in even steeper fashion.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Do we have confidence in Joel Embiid playing enough to work his way into the top tier (limited to five players because a ballot only has five spots)?
If the Philadelphia 76ers center could cut back on his turnovers and improve his work in spot-up situations, he’d morph into the generational talent envisioned by so much of the NBA world. Couple that with a climb up the Eastern Conference standings into the No. 1 spot, and he’d have quite a case to hold up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
But MVPs typically don’t miss much time in their jewelry quests, and Embiid has yet to prove he can endure the rigors of a full professional season without significant maintenance time. Even in 2017-18, he suited up just 63 times and (due to a fluke collision with teammate Markelle Fultz) was unable to participate in the entirety of a first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat. Without showcasing more durability, he simply can’t rise any higher at this early stage of his increasingly impressive career.
Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
This isn’t a knock on Kyrie Irving, so much as a compliment aimed at the entire Boston Celtics organization.
Sure, the dazzling point guard could continue to improve on defense and become a more willing passer—the latter seemed to be an early-season development before he settled in to fill a role not dissimilar to the one occupied with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But even with those distinct flaws, his ball-handling wizardry and preternatural scoring chops allow him to function as one of the NBA’s most potent offensive forces.
The bigger issue in the MVP conversation is the perceived egalitarian nature of the Celtics, which wasn’t exactly aided by the team falling just one game shy of a Finals appearance while operating without both Irving and Gordon Hayward. So long as those two established All-Stars are suiting up alongside Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, it’s hard for any one man to rise far enough above the pack to make a serious award push.
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Of all the men listed as second-tier contenders (or honorable mentions), Kawhi Leonard may have the best shot at blowing away expectations. He was widely viewed as a frontrunner for the San Antonio Spurs heading into the 2017-18 season—and was my personal pick for MVP—but the mysterious quadriceps injury threw everything out of whack.
What if he’s fully healthy and motivated for the Toronto Raptors? In that situation, he could easily remind voters that he’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year capable of exploding for an efficient 30 points on any given night, making him one of basketball’s most complete entities.
But we have no idea how likely that is. He could still be suffering from that balky quadriceps. He could never be the same player. He could struggle to fit in with a new set of teammates. He could be unmotivated, knowing he’s just ready to leave for a third organization in the summer of 2019. Too much is still in flux to have confidence in his candidacy quite yet.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
For his triple-double efforts in 2016-17, Russell Westbrook was awarded MVP. One year later, he finished No. 5 in the balloting despite averaging 25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists—yes, another season-long triple-double.
That’s not mere happenstance. The novelty has worn off. With the spotlight focused directly on him for so long, Westbrook has been exposed to legitimate criticisms of his shot-happy nature, defensive inconsistencies and—whether fair or not—struggles elevating the Oklahoma City Thunder to the same pedestal occupied by the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.
Westbrook could replicate his 2017-18 efforts moving forward, but changing this narrative will be difficult. And without changing it, he won’t be adding to his trophy collection.