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Ranking NBA’s MVP candidates in 2017-18

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots in front of Golden State Warriors forward Matt Barnes (22) and forward David West (3) during the first half of Game 1 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, May 14, 2017. The Warriors won 113-111. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images via AP, Pool)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images via AP

In two of the last three years, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player race has been thrilling.

The 2014-15 season brought us an intense battle between Stephen Curry and James Harden, with LeBron James and Russell Westbrook also putting forth excellent seasons. Curry ended up winning.

Last season, Westbrook edged Harden in a season stacked by individual efforts. Kawhi Leonard and James also played at a level deserving of the honor.

The 2017-18 season appears to bring another close MVP race. It’s a great time for superstars in the NBA right now, even though many of them are teaming up.

How will they end up finishing this season? We’ll rank the top five contenders for MVP and also provide 13 dark-horse candidates.

Honorable mentions: James Harden (Houston Rockets), John Wall (Washington Wizards), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors), Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans), Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers), Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Chris Paul (Houston Rockets), Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics), Jimmy Butler (Minnesota Timberwolves), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves), Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder), Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors).

5. KEVIN DURANT, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

2016-17 per-game statistics: 33.4 minutes, 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.6 blocks, 27.6 PER, 0.278 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

Durant is the best player on the Warriors, but it’s arguable. As long as Stephen Curry is Stephen Curry, KD is going to have a tough time winning an MVP. Plus, basically the same core minus him won 73 games two seasons ago.

Even last year before Durant’s knee injury, he was getting very little MVP buzz. Most of the press on KD was just “wow, he’s playing really well on both ends” instead of “he’s the league’s most valuable player.” The voters who pore over the word “valuable” will immediately dock the Slim Reaper for playing on a super team, which is fair.

KD’s numbers will be super next year, though, especially the efficiency ones. He’s an effortless scorer in an environment that makes scoring look effortless. He’ll still get his share of votes from media members who see his immense contributions to a team that’s easily the best in the NBA.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 33.3 minutes, 24.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.5 blocks, 27.5 PER, 0.293 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

4. RUSSELL WESTBROOK, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

2016-17 per-game statistics: 34.6 minutes, 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 30.6 PER, 0.224 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

After a one-year hiatus, Westbrook has an All-Star running mate again. Paul George certainly isn’t Kevin Durant, but he can do a lot of the same things at a comparable level.

It will be interesting to see how Brodie readjusts his game after a year of doing everything himself. How much will his sky-high usage rate drop? George has needs on the offensive end of the floor — after all, he was the Pacers’ leading scorer during his last four healthy seasons there.

There is a very good chance the Thunder will be better than last year, which should help Russ’ MVP chances. He has more offensive help and better defensive teammates around him, which probably means better shooting efficiency and more accountability away from the ball on defense.

The main reason Westbrook has the edge over James Harden, his top MVP rival from last year, is because new Rocket Chris Paul is much more ball-dominant than George. Westbrook will be sacrificing fewer assist and on-ball scoring opportunities compared to The Beard.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 34.5 minutes, 28 points, 9 rebounds, 9.3 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 28 PER, 0.222 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

3. GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE BUCKS

2016-17 per-game statistics: 35.6 minutes, 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.9 blocks, 26.1 PER, 0.210 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

The Black Mamba has issued his challenge for Antetokounmpo heading into the 2017-18 season:

If the Greek Freak improves even close to the amount he did between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 season, he’ll have a great shot at completing the challenge. He went from being a good starter to an All-NBA Second Team performer in a year, so it should surprise no one that he earned 80 of 100 first-place votes in the Most Improved Player voting.

It has been said a million times before, but the last step in Antetokounmpo’s development is adding a jump shot that’s somewhat respectable. He checks all of the other skill boxes and can still be an MVP candidate without the shot, but there’s still another level or two he can hit.

I’m counting on the Greek Freak to get a little bit more confident and competent with his outside stroke in 2017-18, which will result in another career-best year for the 22-year-old superstar. The Bucks should take another step toward the top of the Eastern Conference, which will help him with voters.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 35.8 minutes, 23.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.8 blocks, 26.6 PER, 0.214 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

2. LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

2016-17 per-game statistics: 37.8 minutes, 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.6 blocks, 27 PER, 0.221 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

Like Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year voting, James is going to submit a season worthy of a high MVP finish every year. His impact and statistics are always MVP-caliber.

This season, James’ MVP candidacy does ride a bit on the health of Isaiah Thomas’ hip. If IT comes back to play most of the year at the level he did last year, LeBron’s offensive workload will be smaller and his raw stats less gaudy. If Thomas isn’t near the guy he was last year, Cleveland’s superstar will have to put up monster numbers if the team wants to earn a top-two seed in the East.

Another factor in this year’s race will be James’ defense. He has gradually paid less and less attention to detail to that end in the past few years, especially in the regular season. Will that trend continue? And will more media members catch on?

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 36.1 minutes, 25.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.5 blocks, 26.5 PER, 0.219 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

1. KAWHI LEONARD, SAN ANTONIO SPURS

2016-17 per-game statistics: 35.7 minutes, 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 27.6 PER, 0.264 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

Leonard’s game is constantly evolving to accommodate new skills. He blasts through his perceived ceiling every season. Until that pattern stops, it’s unreasonable to suggest that Kawhi is done improving.

The Claw’s biggest role ever awaits him with the Spurs this season. While Russell Westbrook and James Harden both got shiny new All-Star teammates, Leonard has LaMarcus Aldridge as his Robin. Aldridge is still a solid player, but he hasn’t adapted his play style to the modern NBA. Tony Parker will be out for about half the season, which means Leonard is now the primary scorer and distributor on the team. He has the scoring part down, but he’ll have to continue his improvement as a facilitator.

Oh yeah, and the Spurs are also counting on Leonard to give them All-NBA-caliber defense on the wing. There aren’t many players in NBA history who’ve had this combination of responsibilities.

But Kawhi can fulfill those responsibilities, and he’ll do them at a high level. San Antonio has very good role players and Gregg Popovich, which will give him the necessary help to attain a record fitting of an MVP.

The only thing that could prevent Leonard from being an even stronger candidate is, ironically, also Pop. The Spurs’ head coach will keep a watchful eye on his superstar’s minutes and energy level, often pulling him early in blowouts and resting him against weaker opponents. Because of personnel, Popovich will also likely have his squad near the bottom in pace again, a factor that negatively impacts Leonard’s counting stats.

Projected 2017-18 per-game statistics: 33.9 minutes, 26.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 28.8 PER, 0.253 Win Shares per 48 minutes.

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