The NBA has crowned an MVP since the 1955-56 season when Bob Pettit took home the honor for averaging 23.8 PPG and 15.0 RPG. The game has changed quite a bit in the 60 years since Pettit won the first MVP, but one thing has been a constant: Every Hall of Fame-eligible player who has ever been crowned MVP has also been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Last year's award went to Steph Curry after he had an excellent, efficient season for the best team in the league. While Curry took home 92.2% of the total voting points, there were plenty of strong candidates last season. James Harden put up better raw numbers than Curry while carrying the Rockets. Anthony Davis was the best two-way player in the league. Russell Westbrook dragged a dinged up Thunder roster to the brink of the playoffs, laying 11 triple doubles in his wake. Oh, and LeBron James had a down season by his standards that still was good enough to place third in MVP voting. The same cast of characters, plus a healthy Kevin Durant, should be in the race again this year. Here are the ten players, in order, that I think have the best chances to hoist the Maurice Podloff trophy.
1: Anthony Davis - F/C - New Orleans Pelicans
If you don't take the "Most Valuable" part of the award to mean "a guy who plays for a title contender", then Davis really should have finished much higher than fifth in voting in 2014-15. He averaged 24.4 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.9 BPG and posted the 11th-highest Player Efficiency Rating in league history. On top of that, he's a better overall defender than the four players who finished above him, and probably meant more to his team than any other player in the league. Let's face it, replace Davis with an average starting PF and the Pelicans don't sniff 35 wins, let alone the 45 they got last year. Plus, he's only 22 years old, so it's likely he has an even better year in 2015-16.
2: LeBron James - F - Cleveland Cavaliers
James wasn't up to his personal standards last season, but he was still damn good, which placed him third in MVP voting. He'll turn 31 at the end of the calendar year, so we're theoretically entering the end of his prime, but a player of James' caliber tends to stay elite for longer. I think he'll bounce back from last year's down season to the point where he's daring voters to give him his 5th MVP crown. Helping matters, he, Love and Irving should be more comfortable this season, which should mean Cleveland wins the Eastern Conference. Right or wrong, that's something voters tend to take into consideration. It just wouldn't be smart to not include James in one of the top spots when placing bets for MVP.
3: Steph Curry - PG - Golden State Warriors
It wouldn't be shocking to see Curry post numbers similar to what he did last season, and also for the Warriors to lead the league in wins. Will that be enough for a repeat MVP title? Obviously it depends on the quality of the seasons of his competition, but it will also depend on how dynamic he is in doing so. Voters take any opportunity they get to go in a different direction than they did the year before, so it's going to take a major year for Curry to repeat as MVP.
4: Kevin Durant - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Durant's been fully cleared for basketball activity, which is good news for the Thunder, the league and basketball fans. The last time we got to see a fully healthy Durant, he was ripping the NBA to the tune of 32 PPG en route to his selection as the 2013-14 MVP. He may not hit that mark again this year, but you can bet that if he's healthy for 70-80 games, he'll be right in the thick of the MVP race. The only thing that could hurt his case is playing with Russell Westbrook, who commands his fair share of the possessions.
5: James Harden - SG - Houston Rockets
The Beard had himself right in the thick of the race all the way until the end of last season, eventually finishing second in MVP voting. If you go strictly off the "most valuable" measure, Harden was right there with Davis too. Dwight Howard missed half the season, Patrick Beverly missed 26 games, and Harden shared the starting lineup with players like Isaiah Canaan, Tarik Black and Joey Dorsey for chunks of the season. Yet the Rockets finished second in the Western Conference, thanks to the stellar play of Harden. He'll have to repeat last year's 27.4 PPG/7.0 APG/5.7 RPG performance to be in the mix again in 2015-16. This is a very deep pool of candidates, assuming health doesn't take out any of the frontrunners.
6: LaMarcus Aldridge - PF - San Antonio Spurs
The biggest name to change teams in free agency this summer should enjoy a stronger supporting cast and a big role on one of the best teams in the league. If he can put up averages of around 20 and 10, and have the Spurs in the thick of the race in the Western Conference, why wouldn't he receive a respectable amount of MVP votes? Kawhi Leonard could also earn some votes.
7: Chris Paul - PG - Los Angeles Clippers
Paul's practically a lock to put up something in the range of 20 PPG and 10 APG with great scoring efficiency for a team that contends in the brutal Western Conference. Somehow, Paul's only finished in the top three in MVP voting twice in his career: 2007-08 and 2011-12.
8: Russell Westbrook - PG - Oklahoma City Thunder
This changes dramatically if Kevin Durant misses significant time again, but it's pretty clear that he's option 1B, not 1A, when The Slim Reaper is healthy. Westbrook deserved all the hype he got last season for dragging a damaged Thunder team to the brink of the playoffs, but it's hard to see him generating the same attention with Durant on the floor.
9: Marc Gasol - C - Memphis Grizzlies
Gasol is one of the more underrated players in the league, and probably the only other player on this list (with Davis) who is worth just as much defensively as he is offensively. The Grizzlies are a well-built team, but they're nowhere close to being title contenders if you replace Gasol with a lesser C.
10: DeMarcus Cousins - F/C - Sacramento Kings
This last spot could go to any of the following: Cousins, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Blake Griffin, Paul George or Jimmy Butler. I'm going with Cousins because A) I'm a big Cousins homer and B) I think he's got a huge season in store, the kind that would see him finish higher in MVP voting if the Kings had a shot at the playoffs.