We can all agree that the name on this season’s Maurice Podoloff Trophy will either belong to Kevin Durant or LeBron James.
Whichever of the two you like, you can’t be wrong. Both are having MVP seasons and almost any rational NBA thinker can see either side of the argument.
(For the record, I still like Durant, based almost exclusively on how well the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Durant, played in Russell Westbrook’s absence.)
But who should finish third? After all, that’s the unknown. As compelling as the Durant vs. LeBron battle will be, and the hunch is that Durant still has an edge, that’s a two-man race. The battle for third is more encompassing.
First, personal preference in interpretation matters. For example, I believe an MVP has to come from a good team because how can a player be the most valuable to a team that has no success? If the yardstick is “where would team X be without player Y,” what’s the difference if team X isn’t anywhere?
That disqualifies statistical freaks like Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves or Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks or even Al Jefferson of the Charlotte Bobcats. All have sensational numbers, but don’t belong in this conversation.
(Side note: At what point does Love have to make the playoffs before he’s considered a superstar? He has two guys scoring over 18 points per game with him and yet it’s another missed postseason. Love is grand, but tick tock …)
Chris Paul is always a contender, but he missed too much time for the Los Angeles Clippers with his shoulder injury. He’s out.
The Houston Rockets have been sensational this season, but how do you separate Dwight Howard, who has taken them to a different level, and James Harden, who is their best player? Teams with two stars, one of them can be an MVP contender, but these two are just on the outskirts.
Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge is a nice story, but just doesn’t stir up MVP feelings. Plus, he has Damian Lillard as well.
Goran Dragic may have to settle for the Most Improved Player award, but it would be nice if the Phoenix Suns point guard figured into the top 10 of voting.
That leaves three players with my best chances at the third-place finish — Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls and Blake Griffin of the Clippers.
George is the best player on the best team. Don’t underestimate that when it comes to voting. In the James/Durant era, it’s not enough, but MVPs have won for fulfilling that major criteria.
At 22.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, coupled with being one of the best defensive players in the league, George has a solid resume. Problem is, the Pacers’ success is a product of system, defense and veteran leadership. George is the biggest part of all three factors, but the whole is greater than the parts in Indiana.
Noah has been incredible, and became the first center to get three triple- doubles in less than a month since David Robinson registered three in February 1990.
When Derrick Rose went down, everyone thought the Bulls were done. When they traded Luol Deng for Andrew Bynum, who never saw a minute in a Chicago uniform, everyone thought the Bulls were done. Noah, and head coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t allow it.
What Noah has done is infuse a franchise with his will. His style and approach are infectious and the Bulls have responded by getting within an eyelash of the third seed in the East.
People were talking of Chicago tanking once Rose and Deng were memories. Noah has impacted both sides of the floor and not just kept the Bulls afloat but improved them in the standings. To do so with the two biggest pieces elsewhere is remarkable and the very characteristic one should look for in an MVP.
Noah’s problem is that this improvement the Bulls have shown can get them to the third seed in the East, tops. That will get them a thrashing at the hands of either the Pacers or Heat in the second round and a record maybe 10 games over .500.
What Griffin has done for the Clippers is vault them into legitimate contention for an NBA title and that’s why he should finish third.
If Westbrook’s absence is my biggest rationale in favoring Durant over James for the award, that same criteria should apply for the bronze medal.
Paul missed 18 games with his shoulder ailment. The Clippers were 12-6 with him dressed more like Cliff Paul and Griffin was the reason why. During the 18-game stretch, Griffin averaged 27.5 ppg, which is almost three points higher than his season average.
The very fact his scoring improved showed Griffin was willing and able to shoulder the load. And Griffin didn’t slow down once CP3 returned. Griffin won Western Conference Player of the Month honors for February with averages of 30.0 points and 10.7 rebounds. Paul came back on Feb. 9.
It’s like Griffin finally realized how good he was and decided to maintain his status at the top of the Clippers’ throne. Paul is still the best player, but Griffin’s ascension to the level he’s at now makes the Clippers a fully-formed championship contender. Teams need more than one superstar to win.
And Griffin hasn’t just done the heavy lifting when Paul was out. J.J. Redick has been shelved with a back issue and Jamal Crawford, the team’s second- leading scorer, has been out for a week. Jared Dudley has been a bust. Matt Barnes isn’t a great scorer, but he looks like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar compared to DeAndre Jordan.
(Side note: Jordan’s boost in confidence, defense and rebounding has been vital for this team, especially as thin up front as they are. Give Doc Rivers credit for that.)
What makes Griffin’s season even more impressive, and different from the Durant/Westbrook situation, is that Durant continued to be the Thunder’s best player with his Robin injured. He just took up the slack of two by doing a little more play-making.
Griffin became Batman. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Again, Paul is still the best Clipper, but Griffin knew that the fate of L.A.’s season rested on his shoulders and he accepted the fact he had to do more. That’s a lot to ask of someone, especially someone who has been criticized as frequently as Griffin, who is still only 24.
Once I called him the most overrated player in the league. My basis for that was that there was no improvement in his game. It was dunks and athleticism. Watch the Clippers now and that’s not the case. He is a multi-faceted offensive weapon, an always solid rebounder and improved defender.
His own teammates slammed Griffin for basically backing down and being a pushover. One doesn’t need to fight to be a tough guy, but Griffin probably needs to show a little more moxie or risk the wrath of opponents who will look for any advantage.
The Clippers are 43-20 and in position to reach as high as the third seed in the West. Rivers is a war-time consigliere (credit “The West Wing”), but this team would be nowhere without Griffin.
It’s time to appreciate Griffin for what he is, not ask why it took him so long to get there. What he is, is a legitimate superstar now, not just a freak dunker, and the man who should finish just behind Durant and James in the MVP voting.
(Jim Brighters is NBA Editor for The Sports Network)