Let's lay some truth down. There are implicit criteria to the NBA MVP award. While the "analytics revolution" may one day change things (I'm not holding my breath) we still exist in an era where to win the NBA MVP requires
1. Being on a winning team. A player has not won the MVP without being on a top 4 team (meaning top four in wins in the entire NBA) since Michael Jordan's award in 1988! In short, you have to be on one of the best teams in the NBA or do something statistically unprecedented. MJ for reference was 5 points per game better than the second best scorer and won Defensive Player of the Year.
2. Scoring a lot of points. The only player to win MVP since the voting was given to the media without scoring twenty points per game or better was Steve Nash in 2005 and 2006. He still scored over 15 points a game while also leading the NBA in assists both seasons. He also had two important narratives. First, he joined the Suns, who were a 29 win team the season before. They turned into a 60+ win team. The next season he improved his scoring, and the Suns stayed competitive with Amare Stoudemire going down injured.
3. Playing lots of minutes. No player has won the MVP with less than 2,500 minutes since the voting was given to the media.
4. Possible having a narrative to overcome "statistical deficiencies." As you may notice with 1 and 2, part of the MVP race is narrative driven. Now, it's not enough to shake the voters away from top scorers or top teams, but it can get them to ignore people (like LeBron and Shaq after changing teams) or be a little more forgiving (Steve Nash). This may come up this season.
When doing an "MVP Watch List." you don't even need to bother with ten names. Let's break down who stands a shot at MVP this season as things sit now. As mentioned, the MVP is likely going to a top four NBA team. And unless the voters completely blow my mind, it will be. Right now the Warriors (84.6% Win/Loss), Spurs (78.9% Win/Loss), Rockets (77.5% Win/Loss) and Cavaliers (75.7% Win/Loss) are the only teams I'm considering, especially as no other teams are really in striking distance as of this article. There's one more possible player, and it'll be pretty obvious why when I get to him.
Of the best teams in the NBA, Harden is the best scorer. What's more, he's leading the NBA in assists as well. Given that the Rockets improved after losing Dwight Howard and James Harden has taken an increased role, he's currently the natural favorite for MVP. If the Rockets lag a bit, though, I could see him falling. He is currently top three in the NBA in Wins Produced, and the top Wins Producer on a contender. So, for now, we agree with conventional wisdom.
Kawhi came in second in the MVP race last season to Steph Curry. He's leading the Spurs in points per game. What's more, he's improved his scoring output by three points per game from last season. Tim Duncan retired and the Spurs, are staying competitive. I think he stands a solid shot at the award depending on how Harden and the Rockets do. He ranks twelth in the NBA in Wins Produced (both total and per minute, minimum 380 minutes) So we don't really think he should be the MVP this season. We've been a big fan for a while though, so we, won't complain if he gets it.
The only MVP candidate from the East! LeBron's numbers are staying great (and that means being pretty close to what he was last season) despite playing tons of minutes. I think he's got a good shot at the award. Getting five MVPs would tie him with Michael Jordan. I don't know if that will help or hurt his case. If the Cavs stay competitive and LeBron stays healthy, he'll have a great shot at the award. He's a top ten Wins Producer, so we won't complain, but I don't think he should get it this season.
Durant is crushing it this season on Golden State. He's currently having his most efficient scoring season (barely) That said, he has pretty much no shot at the award. Shaq and LeBron James changing teams have pretty shown the voters will not give the award to a player "forming a super team" the season after they move. What's more, the Warriors will likely not improve from last season. Finally, Durant's per-game scoring is actually down from last season. An impressive season, and Durant is a top ten Wins Producer in total wins and per-minute. That said, even we don't think he should win it this season.
Alright, Westbrook is averaging a triple-double and leading the NBA in points per game right now. That's absurd! He's also on the Thunder, who lost Durant to a super team. As a result, I think he has a perfect narrative to win this award despite having almost no shot at being on a top four team. However, it'll require the Thunder at least seeming competitive, I'd say fifty wins. Also, he'll need to actually maintain the triple-double average. The Thunder would win 48 games at current rate. An outside shot, but it could happen. We think Westbrook is an elite player and just around the top ten for Wins Producer, so we wouldn't complain about this MVP but he wouldn't get our vote.
That's the list! Being realistic and excluding Durant there are only four names and Russell Westbrook is definitely a darkhorse. I'll be excited to see how it turns out!