I have a confession to make: I irrationally love rankings and awards. I take things like the All-NBA team seriously each year, and genuinely enjoy closely contested races for any of the league’s major awards. It’s not even just for basketball, either – shoot, I can’t stand baseball, but every spring I find myself perusing ESPN’s predictions for each league’s major awards. I think end-of-season awards, while marginalized by many for a variety of reasons, play a large part in the way we recognize players historically. And if the race for a particular award happens to be intriguing, all the better for me.
So naturally, the last several years of MVP races have been something of a letdown. Four LeBron cakewalks, while satisfying to me personally1, sandwiched by the Derrick Rose hype machine in 2011, have made for very little drama down the stretch for the league’s biggest award.
And unfortunately, this year doesn’t appear to be any different, at least in the top two spots. With apologies to my personal sensibilities and LeBron fans everywhere, there’s no longer enough time left for him to mount a realistic charge against KD, and the gap between those two and third place is so large that discussing them in the same category seems foolish.2 But I will not be deterred! I’m having an MVP debate come hell or high water, and if the top two are so rude as to offer me no intriguing way of including them, they’ll simply have to sit this one out.
What follows is my subjective3 rankings for third place on this year’s MVP ballot. I’ll touch on a few guys with cases that were a little too weak for the big list, then count down from five to three on my ballot in reverse order. Let’s get to it:
Fell Just Short
Stephen Curry: A unique offensive force within the league, Curry isn’t quite versatile enough to make the big cut. He still has real issues taking care of the ball and must be hidden on defense in many circumstances, a big knock given his competition.
James Harden: Similar to Curry, only his balance might be even more skewed from one end to the other. He’s an exciting and often devastating offensive player, particularly when he’s getting to the line, but I’m pretty sure you have to be aware that the other team is also allowed possession of the ball before you can be considered seriously for such an award, or even for third.
Anthony Davis: Yes, he absolutely belongs in this piece. His lack of team success is of course an issue, but the guy trails only Durant, James, and Love in PER and is already a two-way force. Not that I’m the first to point this out, but his future potential is downright frightening.
Chris Paul: The toughest omission from the big list, Paul is only left off because, by season’s end, he will have missed roughly a quarter of his team’s games – and the team did alright without him, featuring a name you’ll see later.4 He’d very likely be my pick for the league’s third-best overall player, but that’s not the way the award works.
The book on Noah coming into the year was solid enough – one of the NBA’s premier defensive big men who brings 120% every night and is heady enough to eke marginal amounts of offense out of his limited skill set on that end. And what’s crazy is that, despite his ascent as an all-around player, that description still roughly holds true – he’s simply just gotten that much better at his wholly unique brand of basketball.
For starters, he’s the most complete big man defender in the NBA. He may not quite be a Hibbert at the rim or a Gasol in terms of picture-perfect positioning and timing (though he’s not far behind those guys in those areas, either), but his overall swarming game hurts offenses with a brutality and versatility that’s unmatched. He has excellent foot speed for his size and is capable of switching onto smaller players off picks without issue, and, all things considered, is likely the league’s toughest big man to navigate a pick-and-roll around.
Offensively, outside of one particular element we’ll discuss momentarily, Noah’s game hasn’t changed all that much – but again, there’s just more of it. With a career high in usage percentage, he continues to milk every drop out of his skill set to anchor a “get the job done” style offense5. About that particular element, though:
Uhhhh…WHAT? Yeah, those are from the same half. Noah was never anything less than a very smart player before this year, but his passing IQ has been his largest individual leap. He’s blowing away his previous career highs for assist numbers, becoming a fulcrum for a Chicago offense that would be completely lost without his presence.6
Finally, while his varied skill set on offense doesn’t approach the two names below, no player in the league (and perhaps in history) makes more of an impact with his hustle and effort. Plenty of guys go hard, sure, but none I can remember seeing has ever tangibly impacted games so much through sheer determination and will. It’s not enough to crack the top four, but it gets him on the list.
Don’t worry, their names being together isn’t a cop-out so I only have to write about one of them. Rather, it’s a representation of how similar Griffin and Love are in terms of overall production – though the ways they produce couldn’t be more different.
Love, like Noah above, is the hinge holding Minnesota’s offense together.7 His sets are a sight to behold for basketball nerds like myself, a constantly morphing series of picks and decoys designed to bend defenses around Love’s unique abilities until they break. Picks involving both big men are common, like this pretty set with Gorgui Dieng:
This looks simple enough, but screen sets involving both big men are rare, especially so far from the basket – even a strong defensive duo like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol here fall victim. It helps that Love is easily the league’s trickiest offensive big man, a counter savant who picks defenses apart at the slightest misstep. Leaning the wrong way expecting the hand-off, Paul Pierce? Get some:
Griffin does his own set of remarkable things too, though, and while he can’t match Love as a marksman, he’s a presence down low that Love may never be. We’ve all seen the highlight reels, but Griffin has evolved into a much more well-rounded player this year. He’s a menace from the block who’s only added elements to his post game since last season and is comfortable going to either hand and finishing from anywhere. His improvement to just over 70% from the line has made him less afraid of absorbing contact, and he remains the single greatest aerial threat in the league (sorry, Bron).
Love is the better rebounder of the two, but not by as much as the numbers would indicate. As I’ve mentioned with disdain earlier in the year, Love has a tendency to abandon shot challenges and play lazy D in favor of securing rebounding position, which inflates his numbers, and Griffin is great on the boards in his own right. He’s also the better passer, having developed a nice big-to-big chemistry with DeAndre Jordan this year to add to their personal highlight collection.
But, at least in terms of quantitative production, the two remain quite close together. Griffin is better defensively8, though, and this is where a gap starts to develop – he may not be a lockdown defender, but can you see Kevin Love blocking Dirk’s stepback, one of the hardest shots to block in history? Here’s Blake doing just that last night:
Then, of course, there’s the team context, and it’s enough to nudge Griffin over the line by a hair. As cliché as it may sound to some, the fact that Griffin’s team will host a first-round playoff series while Love’s will watch on the couch means something. Add in Griffin’s performance during Chris Paul’s absence9 to keep the Clippers in good position in the toughest conference in many years, and the picture finally appears clear. Either guy would be great to have, for sure, but Griffin gets the nod as 2013-14’s NLOD10 MVP.