Arena: MVP Race is Looking More Blurred Than Ever

Last season, the basketball world watched Steph Curry in awe and embraced his undisputed greatness. Already characterized as the best player in the game, he somehow still managed to shock thousands every night with video-game like plays and talent that could not be explained by statistical measures. It was a given; he would be MVP. When it came time to announce it, the news was simply a formality with a predictable outcome. After all, the decision was unanimous and met by a chorus of approving comments from athletes across the nation. This year is a different story, with many unexpected players and thrilling competition. While the sharp shooter from Golden State still stuns the world, a slew of talented players are taking their game to the next level. Basketball season may have just started, but it is already looking like the hardest MVP race yet. The craziness has officially ensued, making every week a guessing game and constantly changing the order of likely candidates. Everybody has something to prove and will stop at nothing to claim the title.

Here are the top picks for MVP 2016-2017.

Russell Westbrook, OKC Thunder: The lone wolf, the lightening rod, the offensive assassin. This guy can do it all and he makes it look easy. When Durant left the Thunder to join the dominant forces behind the Warriors, it automatically set Westbrook up for a career-best season. Sharing the limelight with his former backcourt MVP, Westbrook was part of a duo that seemed unstoppable. Now, he has to take on a leadership role in an effort to prove his success as an independent superstar. While some doubted his resilience, he came in for the kill this season (hold for the sly smirks from anti Durant fans). He could end the season with a triple-double. He currently averages 30.9 PPG, 8.9 APG, and 9.4 RPG. 

Lebron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: James will always be in the MVP conversation. Why? Because he's the king, the guy that remains the face of the league. This is another candidate who could average a triple-double for the entire season with 22.9 points, 9.9 assists, and 8.9 rebounds. His reign as the league's best player is far from over. Last year, he gave Ohio the dream of a lifetime by ending their 53 year championship drought and proving to us all that he remains the most clutch player in the NBA. He carried the team on his back in the MVP face-off, surmounting the talents of Curry and the lethal Warriors lineup. It was the most watched NBA finals since Jordan's last championship game with the Bulls. Everybody loves watching Lebron: fans, athletes, and random people who don't particularly follow the sport closely.

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James Harden, Houston Rockets: Through all of the countless memes and criticism about Harden's minimalistic defensive efforts, he still dominated the league. Can we all take a minute to appreciate the fact that Harden was once part of a lethal trio with two of the other candidates on this list. If him, Westbrook, and Durant had stayed together, it would have been complete chaos. The stars drifted in different ways, but have all become part of the NBA's elite. Averaging 30.6 PPG, 13.0 APG, and 7.6 RPG, Harden is having his best season yet with no decline in sight. Perhaps it has to do with his new thriving role as a PG. Harden has not been shy about staking his claim as the player who most deserves the MVP title. This season is no different. Just recently, a reporter asked Harden about the league's best player. The Rockets' leading scorer then asked: “Best point guard or best player?" The reporter responded by saying either one, and he once again expressed his dominance: “I am," Harden said. The stats certainly back it up, but consistency is key as it is only the beginning of the season. 

 

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: He's been an MVP and certainly radiates stardom wherever he plays. He has the ability to take over the game in minutes and is a fourth-quarter monster. Durant is the guy you want to have the ball in the final seconds of the game, always being a leader and staying poised under pressure. Hate him or admire him, he stays true to his game. Durant is arguably one of the three best players in the entire league. 

Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: Griffin has always been known as the super athlete with a crazy vertical. A fan favorite, the crowd embraces his pre-game dunks and fiery character. It's what makes him one of the more well known power forwards in the league. But last year, he became a more vilified player when he was forced to sit out for a duration of the season after punching the team's assistant equipment manager. He needed to step up this year and that's just what he did. His comeback has been incredible to watch as he averages 20.2 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and 0.5 BPG. He's everywhere, knocking down mid-range jumpers and dominating down low. His versatility makes him stand out and it's a big reason why the Clippers are 9-1. 

Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors: Can we never not include Steph Curry? He's the reigning MVP and the leader of arguably the best team in the league. Curry's percentage from behind the arc remains incredibly high and his superstar qualities make him the face of the NBA, alongside King James. When he gets hot, there is virtually no way to stop him. He puts fear in the face of defenders because of his crazy handles and accuracy. Who else can go 0-10 from the 3 and then break the NBA record for most 3-pointers the following game. He is unpredictable, thrilling to watch, and there is no doubt that he is more motivated than ever to bring home a title this season. 

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Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: There is no question that this guy is the best defender in the league, but now he's become a key part of the Spur's offense as well, averaging a career-best 25.6 PPG. Unlike some of the more vocal guys on the list, Leonard stays out of the media and remains focused, making notable improvements every year. He has truly made strides this season, developing a crazy midrange jumper with a quick release and showcasing his vertical. The 6'7 versatile starter leads one of the most competitive teams in the NBA and continues to be a playmaker. He does not generate a lot of attention because of his more reserved persona; Leonard lets his playing do the talking and that is one of the reasons he is admired in the league. He is one of the most complete players in the game and continues to get better every season. 

Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: CP3 has largely been considered one of the most elite point guards in the league for the past few years. He is leading an unbelievably talented team with guys like sharp shooter JJ Redick, big man Deandre Jordan, and of course MVP contender Blake Griffin. Averaging 8.5 APG, Paul has amazing court vision and is the kind of guy that can take over in high pressure situations. In last week's intense matchup against the Thunder, Paul lead his team to victory, finishing the game with 17 points, 6 rebounds, 10 assists, and 0 turnovers. When the game demands intensity, he's ready for it. He leads the league in steals (2.7 per game) and continues to have an overwhelming presence in the fourth quarter. It is likely that the Clippers will be a force in the playoffs and Paul's ability to lead will no doubt come into play. 

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: After being left out of the All-Star game, Damian Lillard let the basketball world feel his presence. He would not be ignored anymore. His stats were unbelievable, he put up a battle against Curry and the Warriors in the playoffs, and yet, he is somehow still overlooked. Lillard is leading a young Blazers team, while maintaining his powerful backcourt duo with CJ McCollum. There is potential to be real playoff contenders this season and his leadership continues to guide their efforts. Make no mistake about his intentions. Lillard is often considered the "dark horse" in the race, but he announced that his ultimate goal is to be MVP this season. Coach of the Year Steve Kerr even believes in the young PG, relating the race to an election: “I think (Kevin Durant) is kinda like Gary Johnson, a third-party guy who might come in and take a few votes from Steph (Curry), takes some votes from LeBron (James),” Kerr said. “Then, Damian Lillard wins the election. That's my forecast."

Some interesting factors to consider:

* 3 people on the list (Durant, Curry, and James) have already won the award in recent years

* The teams with the best record so far are the Cavs from the Eastern Conference with a 8-1 start and the Clippers at 9-1 in the West

* No one from the Clippers franchise has ever received the MVP title

AthleticsSara Eljouzinba mvp, nba