With the start of the 2012-13 NBA regular season nearing, You Only Blog Once is previewing the season with a series of "countdown" posts.
Tuesday: 7 storylines to watch for this season
Wednesday: 6 players on a ring-quest
Thursday: 5 League Pass Choice teams
Friday: 4 potential first-time All-Stars
Today: 3 non-LeBron MVP candidates
LeBron James enters the 2012-13 season as the presumptive favorite for MVP, based on his status as the best player in the league. However, if history has taught us anything, it's that simply being the best player in the league doesn't guarantee you the MVP award. Voters can get caught up in narratives, particularly when given a chance to give the award to someone who hasn't previously won it multiple times. That's how Charles Barkley won in 1993 over Michael Jordan, it's how Karl Malone won in 1997 (again, over Jordan) and it played a major role in Derrick Rose beating LeBron in 2011.
So with that in mind, here are three players I think could have the right mix of productivity and narrative to knock LeBron from the MVP perch.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Let's start with the obvious choice. Durant has entered the past few seasons as an MVP favorite, based on strong offseasons each year (2010 in the World Championships, 2011 in streetball and summer charity games, 2012 in the Olympics). He's finished 2nd, 5th and 2nd in the last three MVP votes. It's a quite similar track record to LeBron, who finished 2nd, 5th and 4th in the three seasons prior to winning his first MVP.
So what does Durant have to do to take the next step and win it this year? Well, a couple of round numbers would help. First, if he can get his scoring average back over 30.0 PPG, that would go a long way toward boosting his candidacy with the voters. He averaged 30.1 in 2009-10 (the first year he won the scoring title) but has been around 28 each of the last two years. Second, if the Thunder win 60 games, particularly in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, Durant would be seen as a big reason why.
One thing working against Durant is the strength of his teammates. If Russell Westbrook takes a big step forward, then you could have a LeBron/Dwyane Wade 2011 type of vote splitting, which could prevent Durant from winning MVP.
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
Personally, I don't think Rajon Rondo is an MVP caliber player. I'm just putting that out there to be entirely honest. However, he's had times when he's performed like an MVP, and he has a huge narrative working in his favor.
Looking at the latter first, the Celtics are seen as Rondo's team now, for the first time since he's been there. Boston still has two veteran leaders in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but there is a huge sense that with this team it's "as Rondo goes, so goes Boston."
For Rondo to make the leap to "MVP candidate", he'll need to make "national TV Rondo" into "every night Rondo." It's been something of a running joke for the last two or three years that Rondo performs significantly better in national TV games. While I don't have full regular season splits on that, one look at Rondo's playoff numbers suggest that he's capable of stepping up his game, particularly in the scoring department. If Rondo is an 18 and 12 player, like he was in last year's playoffs, as opposed to a 12 and 12 player, then he'll garner serious MVP consideration.
(Note: you can ignore all the preceding text if Boston doesn't win 50 games. Rondo doesn't need a 60-win season like Durant, but voters aren't giving the MVP to a guy from a 47-35 team).
Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
Sometime back in August, post-Olympics but pre-training camp, I sent out a tweet the contents of which were basically that I thought this season Carmelo Anthony would finally have performance and production to match his superstar status (I can't find the exact tweet, because searching Twitter is impossible). I couched the prediction by saying that I might be insane, but I truly believe that Carmelo Anthony not only has room for improvement but is capable of making that improvement.
That did all happen before 'Melo's frequent "I'm a swingman" declarations, which ignore both his natural abilities at the 4 and the league's shift away from positionality in general, but with Amar'e Stoudemire missing the first couple weeks of the season, Anthony might get a chance to get comfortable at the 4, leading to better productivity from him.
Many Anthony supporters treat "efficiency" like a dirty word that stat geeks created just to rag on Melo because they hate volume shooters. Personally, I have no problem with Melo taking 20 shots a game, but there's no reason someone with his size and athletic ability should be shooting 43%. Last season, Carmelo took 5.8 shots per game at the rim, the lowest average in his career. He also took 5.6 shots per game from 16-23 feet, and shot 35% on those attempts. If Anthony can leave those long twos for the J.R. Smiths and Raymond Feltons of the world and get back to taking 8 shots per game at the rim, it'll do wonders for his production. He's done it before, he can do it again. Maybe if he gets into some good habits with Amar'e out, he can continue them once Amar'e comes back.
Even if he does, the same caveat that applied to the Celtics applies to the Knicks. Anything less than 50 wins is going to put a serious dent in any MVP candidacy.