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10. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
Case in a Nutshell: Best player on what could be the best team.
Toronto could feasibly wind up finishing with the NBA’s best record, and Kawhi Leonard is doing work at the offensive end. The Raptors have figured out ways to keep their heads above water without him, but he’s clearly their ticket to title contention.
Still, Leonard isn’t yet playing in both ends of back-to-backs, and in a wide-open Defensive Player of the Year race, he doesn’t profile as a top-three finisher—a slight disappointment by his standards. His is a case that will have to win us over in the latter half of the season if it’s going to be more than an honorary one.
9. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Case in a Nutshell: Proving indispensable to a team with Stephen Curry.
Kevin Durant owns Golden State’s highest offensive- and net-rating differentials. This is not a drill. It his him, not Stephen Curry. And whereas the Warriors are a net minus when Curry plays without Durant, they’re comfortably in the green when the situation is flipped.
This alone should put Durant the top five. And hey: It might. But this pecking order takes into account voter tendencies. Some maintain that Curry is Golden State’s most valuable player, and the two stars will cannibalize each other’s tallies accordingly.
Plus, it doesn’t help that Durant ranks seventh on his own team in crunch-time effective field-goal percentage. The Warriors are 25th in points scored per 100 possessions down the stretch of close games while playing through him. That’s an actual problem.
8. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
Case in a Nutshell: Saving a could-be contender that isn’t supposed to need rescuing.
Kyrie Irving has a sneaky MVP case. I wrote more about it here.
The Cliffs Notes version of his argument: He’s more irreplaceable to the Celtics than last season, when Boston didn’t have Gordon Hayward and when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum hadn’t yet enjoyed big-time breakouts.
Boston’s offensive rating has thus far plunged by 13.2 points per 100 possessions when Irving is on the bench. No other player who makes this MVP cut is having as large of an impact. And this offensive indispensability comes while Irving is playing career defense and flirting with top-10-player status.
Look for his MVP argument to explode if the Celtics ever get on pace for noticeably more than 50 wins.
7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Case in a Nutshell: The MVP of a team with three stars.
Joel Embiid is Philly’s buffer against awkwardness. He isn’t a perfect fit beside his two costars, but his work in the post and from face-up positions, along with a willingness to shoot threes and dive to the rim, helps counteract imperfect lineups.
Neither Jimmy Butler nor Ben Simmons can say the same. Simmons hasn’t yet found his niche off the ball, and Butler is already griping about his role, according to ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski.
Of the three, Embiid is both more suited to carry an offense and find ways to coexist within one that doesn’t call for an absolute lifeline. Asking him to shoulder that burden on top of everything he does defensively is unfair.
Embiid is somehow up for it.
6. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Case in a Nutshell: The Lakers won 35 games last year.
Let’s keep it simple.
The Lakers won 35 games last year. They were playing at a 48-win pace before LeBron James went down with a groin injury. They’ve since grabbed just one victory in his absence.
James has the stat lines. He always has the stat lines. His impact sometimes gets obscured by his regular-season cruise control, but this year is different. The Lakers don’t have another All-Star. They’re made up of youngsters and role-playing vets, some of whom remain questionable fits. And James, barring catastrophe, is taking them to the playoffs anyway.