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Handicapping The 2015 NBA MVP Race

Even though awards are an abstract and often flawed construct, they do hold significant value for how players are perceived at the time and evaluated after the fact.

As someone who has covered the league for a while and followed it far longer, the MVP voting in particular compels me because of its nuances. While many disagree with the philosophy behind it, the best predictor (especially in recent years) of who will win the Most Valuable Player award for a given season is not the most valuable but rather the best player on a great team.

To clarify, these rankings only attempt to measure who I feel is most likely to WIN the MVP at the end of the season- they do not reflect an expected voting order or my own personal preference.

That said, here are the top five most likely winners at the moment:

5. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: Gasol has two huge advantages over James Harden (another worthy candidate): the lack of another player to take votes away and an easier, broader case. Gasol plays the most important defensive position on an elite defensive team and won Defensive Player of the Year his last healthy season. He combines that reputation with quality offense to make him an easy sell at a position where voters have been comfortable before the recent run on perimeter players. I think some writers would like the angle of a throwback player on a throwback team getting the award, particularly if they end up with the league’s best record.

4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: Being the perceived best player in the world has its advantages. Despite lacking the defensive prowess that made him so dominant in his best Miami seasons, King James has an incredibly easy narrative as the best player on a team that can still run away with the East. Putting his hometown team on his back helped propel Derrick Rose to the award the last time LBJ changed locales and now it could work for him. If Cleveland finishes first in the Eastern Conference, expect LeBron to finish in the top three if not win the award outright.

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: As of this moment, Davis has been the best player in the league and likely the most valuable. With all apologies to DeMarcus Cousins and his excellent season so far, if any player on a non-great team wins the MVP it will be AD. Despite being the focus of every opponent and having inferior surrounding talent, The Brow has been magnificent in conventional and unconventional ways alike. He is scoring 24.9 points per game on 55.6% shooting- only two others in the top twenty are even at 50% (Gasol and Boogie). That efficiency and his gaudy rebounding numbers give the more traditional voters something to embrace while others can appreciate him taking this Pelicans team to relevance. That said, he does not stand much of a chance if New Orleans fails to make the playoffs and even then a Davis victory would be truly unusual.

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: While a slower than expected start may doom LeBron James’ MVP chances, they may confirm Kevin Durant’s since we got to see what his team looked like without him. While they were also missing Russell Westbrook and other key cogs at points, OKC’s slow start and high talent level makes for an easy narrative for KD if they can turn it around. Furthermore, Durant gets insulation on team record that Anthony Davis does not because of their 5-12 record in games he missed at the start of the season. Plus, we have learned in various sports that missing games at the beginning of the season does not affect voting as much as the end of the season and recency bias will work heavily in the reigning MVP’s favor.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: For this season, Curry fits a surprisingly rare double as a clear-cut best player on a great team. He has been both dominant and indispensible for the Warriors this season and should continue that as long as he stays on the court. Furthermore, Curry has a strong case because he has the greatest disparity of any major player in terms of team performance with him on and off the court. This season, the Warriors have a 112.7 offensive rating and a 91.9 defensive rating with him off the court, a staggering 20.8 net. That 20.8 goes to negative 10.0 with him sitting. That is a preposterous difference that should not be considered an aberration since it was almost 15 (another high figure) last season on a pretty similar Warriors team. On top of all that, Curry has the flash and panache to get the narrative going, especially if the Warriors can push towards the top of a stacked Western Conference.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Around the basketball interwebs, one of the most popular pastimes of the offseason is grading every team in the NBA, tallying up the arrivals and departures to see which teams came out ahead and which fell behind. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the main avenues for teams to improve from season-to-season - the progression of younger players as they grow into bigger roles and make names for themselves in the NBA.

A team with a bunch of young players can get better without doing much of anything in the offseason. Often times, the biggest improvement they can make is letting go of some of their older players and giving the young guys a chance. This is where the idea of addition by subtraction comes from - last season, the Toronto Raptors improved not just by getting rid of Rudy Gay, but by redistributing his shots and minutes to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

And while some young players are marked for stardom as soon as they come into the league, many others slip through the cracks for a few seasons before seemingly emerging out of nowhere. The days of college players staying four years in school have come and gone - for the most part, guys declare for the draft as soon as they are confident their names will be called. As a result, few are ready to make an immediate impact at the next level.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go division-by-division, looking at a second-fourth year player on each team with room to grow as a player and the opportunity to assume a bigger role this season. One of the best ways to look for surprise teams is to scour the ranks of young players and look for guys ready to make the next step. It can happen fast - in six months, Eric Bledsoe went from a guy trying to earn a starting spot to a guy asking for a max contract.

- San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and coming home with the NBA Finals MVP last season, Kawhi Leonard is set to get paid like a superstar either at the end of the month or next summer. The only thing left to do is for him to start getting used like a superstar in San Antonio. Leonard’s usage rating has increased every year since he has been in the league, but he was still only at 18.3 last season, a role player’s number.

It sets up perfectly for the Spurs - Leonard can pick up the slack as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker see their roles decrease with age. It’s a scenario that allows the older players to age gracefully into a smaller role while the younger player takes on more responsibility without being overwhelmed. The next step for Leonard is becoming more of a facilitator - a guy with the ball in his hands as lot has to be able to make others better too.  

- Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones

Jones is a textbook case for the importance of internal improvement to a team’s success. If you lose a guy like Chandler Parsons in free agency, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace his production is to redistribute his shots to a younger player ready for a bigger role. Jones played 27 minutes a game last season and had only a 18.3 usage rating, but he was awfully productive in those minutes and he seems more than ready for a bigger role.  

He had a 19.1 PER and per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 54% shooting. Jones is big, fast and very skilled for a guy his size - he can handle the ball like a guard and finish at the rim like a big man. Because he wasn’t taken in the lottery and he started his career as a role player on a good team, most people don’t realize how high his ceiling is. If given the chance to create his own offense, he could make a huge leap this season. 

- Dallas Mavericks: Jae “The Beast” Crowder 

For all of their success under Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, the Mavs have had a fairly laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the draft - they haven’t developed a draft pick into a good NBA player since the days of Devin Harris and Josh Howard. They are more comfortable squeezing value out of older players or unearthing reclamation projects off the scrap heap. As a result, there aren’t many plausible options on their roster for internal improvement. 

The best bet this season is Crowder, a third-year swingman who will be given first crack at replacing some of the minutes given to Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The Mavs need an athletic wing player who can come off their bench and defend multiple positions without being an offensive non-entity. The question is whether Crowder can hold off Al-Farouq Aminu, a former lottery pick on his third team whom Dallas thinks can thrive in Rick Carlisle’s system.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Jon Leuer

There aren’t many good young players in Memphis, a byproduct of four straight playoff appearances as well as a shift in philosophy that saw many of the previous regime’s draft picks shipped out on the first bus out of town. Tony Wroten, their first round pick in 2012, is an interesting young player, but a point guard who holds the ball and can’t shoot from the perimeter isn’t a great fit for the new analytics-minded front office that came into power in 2013.

The only plausible candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is Jon Leuer, a prototype stretch 4 who is in the league for one reason - he’s tall (6’10 230) and he can shoot 3’s. He hasn’t managed to get a ton of minutes in his first two years in Memphis, but he shot 47% from 3 and racked up a 17.4 PER in 49 appearances last season and he gives them an option of playing with more of a spread floor instead of their usual two-post look.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

The fact that Davis still has so much room to grow as a player after a year where he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game is one of the main reasons why New Orleans is such an intriguing team coming into the season. Still only 21, he can do a little bit of everything, as he can create his own shot, stretch the floor from the perimeter, clean the glass at a high level, defend multiple positions and generally wreak havoc all over the floor.

The next step for Davis is making his teammates better on both sides of the ball. If he can become an anchor of an improved defense on one end of the floor and command a double team and create shots for everyone else on the other, the Pellies can start rising up the ranks of the Western Conference very quickly. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be - he can continue to improve for the next 5-6 seasons and take the rest of the franchise with him. 

RealGM's Playoff Predictions

Here are the playoffs predictions from eight of RealGM's writers.

Christopher Reina (@CR_Reina)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

The wear and tear of reaching The Finals in each season since the formation of the Big 3 will finally catch up with the Heat against the Thunder. Kevin Durant and LeBron James will be as brilliant as expected in this series, but it will come down to how healthy and effective Russell Westbrook is compared to Dwyane Wade, along with how stubborn Scott Brooks is with his rotations. With superstars potentially moving around again this offseason, this could be the last best shot for Oklahoma City.

Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat. Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Unseating the two-time reigning champions is difficult, but Oklahoma City has the likely MVP and a motivation that still permeates from its defeat in The Finals last season. The Heat's health also could be put into jeopardy this late into a fourth straight run to the championship series.

Jonathan Tjarks (@JonathanTjarks)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Raptors, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Pacers, Heat

Conference Finals: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Heat

Miami still has the best player in the world and they've done a much better job of managing Wade's minutes in the regular season. Watch out for Greg Oden and Michael Beasley - I could see both playing a huge role at certain points in the playoffs. 

Daniel Leroux (@DannyLeroux)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Heat 

Conference Finals Winners: Spurs, Heat 

Finals Winner: Heat

This year is challenging because I feel the Spurs are the best team, but Miami has the twin benefits of being more likely to make the Finals due to a weaker conference and having the best player in the world will of course prove valuable should they make it. Health will be a major factor and it would make sense for it to hit the Heat due to their age but that does not trump their other advantages in my mind.

Andrew Perna (@Andrew_Perna)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Blazers, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Durant will best LeBron as the league’s MVP and deal another blow by preventing the Heat from three-peating in June. Oklahoma City will have two of the best three players in the Finals, which will be the determining factor even if Miami has three of the top five.

Sam Yip (@SamYip_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although Miami has been on top of the basketball world for two straight seasons, San Antonio's roster along with their improved bench will likely dethrone the defending champions. The Spurs were one Tim Duncan layup away from winning their first title since 2007 last season. The new 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format will give the Spurs an edge with their home court advantage.

Benjamin Cantor (@BenCantor_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although the Thunder have given the Spurs trouble in the past, Popovich always seems to have a way to adjust to opponents who have beaten him in the past. Last year, many people thought the Grizzlies might give the Spurs trouble because of what happened in 2011, but Pop and the Spurs clearly showed they knew what adjustments to make when they swept Memphis in the conference finals. I think San Antonio's defense against Miami in last year's finals was outstanding and this year they'll have home court advantage in the finals. 

Dan Friederg (@danfriedberg)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Thunder

With LeBron and KD both at the peak of their powers, the role players will make the difference. Caron Butler, Jeremy Lamb, and an improving Reggie Jackson will tip the scales over an aging Ray Allen, a fragile and unproven Greg Oden, and an empty space where Mike Miller used to be. Durant will hoist his first championship trophy to go with his first MVP award, and the world shall rejoice.

The Western Conference At The Deadline

The Western Conference is highly competitive this season, but that didn't carry over to a deadline in which Steve Blake was the most important acquisition after the Rockets were unable to cash in their Omer Asik chip.

Rudy Gay Faces Difficulty Of Recapturing Budding Stardom

Rudy Gay reached a peak three seasons ago, and at 27 now he hasn’t attained the individual or team milestones that his gifts were expected to bestow. Three games into the Raptors’ season, his shooting is pedestrian and he admits he’s hastily searching for an offensive rhythm.

The Marquee Non-National Teams To Watch

While there are no direct criteria, my non-national teams have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

Pressing On: Lineup Considerations For The Grizzlies In A Post-Rudy Gay World

Evaluating the lineup trends and their net effect on offensive and defensive output since the Grizzlies traded away Rudy Gay.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

Grizzlies Winning 'Big'

While most of the basketball world is going to small ball, the Grizzlies employ a big frontcourt that can pound teams for points in the paint and rebounds. The Grizzlies have reached the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, but can we now consider them a legitimate title threat?

Leroux's 2012-13 NBA Tier Predcitions

While the drop-off from the Heat to the rest of the Eastern Conference is severe, the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder have quick company in the second and third tiers.

Leroux's 30-Team Offseason Review

The Nuggets, Lakers, Heat, 76ers and Nets were amongst the teams with great offseasons, while the Bucks, Magic, Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers and Bulls were in the bad column. Here's how all 30 teams have fared in the 2012 offseason.

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

The Value And Potential Of Josh Selby

If you consider his pedigree, Josh Selby's co-MVP performance this summer could be a sign that a once highly-touted phenom is back on track. Selby has established himself as an NBA talent, and he has the chance to carve out a career as a dynamic combo guard off the bench.

Return Of Arthur, Maynor Will Let Two Contenders Improve From Within

Neither the Thunder or Grizzlies have had the flexibility to make any major moves this offseason, but both should be significantly improved by a talented young role player coming off a year-long injury.

Team-By-Team Top Position Needs

Center represents the position of greatest need for nearly half the NBA, while power forward isn't the top priority for a single team.

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