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.