Last season saw Russell Westbrook and James Harden put up such ridiculous numbers that it turned a deep pool of quality MVP candidates into a two-man race (which Westbrook won). Then this summer they both got help — Harden is now paired with Chris Paul, Westbrook with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Adding that kind of talent will cut into their numbers (even if it’s best for the team).
All this throws the 2018 MVP race wide open. Here are our staff picks.
Things just set up for LeBron to win this award for the fifth time. In recent years it seems we’ve become complacent to his greatness — the man averaged 26-8-8 last season, played great defense, and we shrugged. This season, with Kyrie Irving gone and Isaiah Thomas out until January, the spotlight on LeBron will be brighter. Combine that with Westbrook and Harden getting superstars to go next to them, Kevin Durant being on a flat-out loaded team that wins a lot (same with Stephen Curry), and LeBron seems the favorite. (Either LeBron or that two-way player down in San Antonio seem the frontrunners, and I like Giannis Antetokounmpo as a dark horse, but the Bucks need to win more). I think this just sets up for LeBron to pick up award No. 5, the only question is how bad he wants it.
Leonard is the safe choice, an elite player who’s not playing with another. The Spurs are always an excellent regular-season team, and Leonard dominates both ends of the floor. Kevin Durant (Stephen Curry), Curry (Durant), Russell Westbrook (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) and James Harden (Chris Paul) all must share the spotlight. LeBron James lost his highest-usage co-star and gained motivation to show out this regular season, but 82 games is a long time to sustain peak performance. I’ll go with the 26-year-old over the 32-year-old who has played in the last seven Finals.
Dane Carbaugh: LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
The Eastern Conference didn’t do itself any favors this offseason with many stars heading West. LeBron James has always beaten up on his conference opponents, but this season will be different. There’s less Kyrie Irving to go around, and Kevin Love is playing the 5. James is slated to go back to the role he played on offense for the Miami Heat, one in which he excels as a wing creator and point forward.
That’s not a huge departure from how he has played with the Cavaliers in the past, but we are talking about small tolerances here. The margin between LeBron, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and James Harden is so razor thin that something like a simple change in style could make all the difference.
The main challengers in the East still have to go through Cleveland, and there are some serious doubts for each of those teams. Are the Celtics deep enough? Can the Raptors be less Raptors-y? If LeBron can dominate his conference opponents yet again, I think the MVP goes to him one more time.