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Is Thunder forward Paul George a legitimate MVP candidate?

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Paul George is having an MVP-caliber season...but what would it take for him to win it?

The OKC Thunder are in the middle of an exciting season. Some was to be expected, some was not.

We anticipated Dennis Schröder being the final answer to the annual backup point guard question. Many people knew the Thunder defense would be the team’s greatest strength. Steven Adams’ continual progression was a given.

Perimeter shooting was supposed to be better, but there were no visions of grandeur regarding 3-point percentages; fans largely knew what to expect. Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes are uncharacteristically bad. There wasn’t a way for anyone to anticipate that.

OKC Thunder fans had a rough, sandpaper-edged idea of what this season would be.

But no one seriously considered Paul George an early MVP candidate even up to a month ago. The level he’s playing at is nothing short of remarkable, as all of PG’s skills are manifesting at once, something we rarely saw a year ago during his first season in OKC.

If the MVP award is just that–a celebration of the league’s most valuable player, then Paul George is a true candidate.

The Field

NBA.com’s KIA MVP Ladder has the following players listed as the current top 10 candidates for MVP:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Stephen Curry
  3. Kawhi Leonard
  4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  5. Joel Embiid
  6. Kevin Durant
  7. Paul George
  8. Nikola Jokic
  9. Tobias Harris
  10. Kyle Lowry

Here are the compared stats for the top 6 of the KIA MVP Ladder:

Each player has their strong suit. Were you to go by columns from left to right, the best player for that stat category changes each time you move to the next column, Curry’s stranglehold on shooting notwithstanding.

Each player has their major drawback. Both Curry and Leonard must outperform the weight of their perpetual absences. Giannis is a horrific shooter. Kevin Durant must find a way to outshine his own MVP candidate teammate in a convincing way. Joel Embiid’s FG% is inexplicably low for a player taking over half of his shots within 10 feet of the rim. And with LeBron, voters might just be too bored of seeing his name on the MVP shortlists and want to cling to another season-long narrative than “LeBron plays in Kareem, Magic, Shaq, and Kobe’s shadow.”

This is how PG sneaks into frame as a legitimate top 5 MVP candidate.

PG

George, of course could be inserted into the paragraph above. He can be outmatched in the same slice-and-dice way against his fellow MVP candidates. He cannot rebound like Embiid or Giannis. He cannot score like Durant or LeBron.

These questions, these holes poked in arguments, can go a million ways. Every player has a convincing argument.

The takeaway here is that it’s a wash. There are 7 players who deserve MVP, and each of them have their own distinct quantitative and qualitative pros and cons.

But how do we weigh them?

Net rating, the difference between offensive rating and defensive rating, is a great way to compare players. Offensive rating is the number of points scored per 100 possessions, and defensive rating is the opposite — the number of points allowed per 100 possessions. Together, in net rating, we can see a more holistic picture of a player’s offensive and defensive impact, showing us how many net points a player is worth.

Here are our top 7 ranked by net rating:

  • Steph Curry - 11.7
  • Giannis - 10.9
  • Paul George - 10.3
  • Kawhi Leonard - 9.3
  • Kevin Durant - 8.5
  • Joel Embiid 7.2
  • LeBron James - 2.6

In the same way runs are the currency of baseball, so to are points the currency of basketball. The most valuable player must be the player who can prevent and produce the most number of points. If that is our measure, then Paul George is a top 3 MVP candidate.

No article — including this one —can sufficiently, totally, and convincingly argue the case for any MVP winner this early in the season.

What this article can do is convince you that Paul George should be considered among the best of the best right now. As we speak.

This article can also tell you how the rest of the season would need to play out for PG to win his first MVP.

What Needs to Happen Now?

As of late, Paul George’s numbers are some of the best in the league. Check out this tweet from #NBATwitter folkhero Tweetgood Mac:

Paul George is with the top dogs, no questions asked. What needs to happen going forward for him to win the award?

His numbers can’t drop.

George needs to keep this up until the end of the season. He can’t get injured for any significant length of time, and he’s got to bring it every night. Anecdotally, this seems within his grasp. Since his major leg injury, George has missed just 10 games. Barring a freak injury, availability (which is the greatest ability, per the Washington Post’s Ben Golliver) shouldn’t be an issue for George. Part of sustaining numbers is actually being there to play.

The other part is getting the numbers. George is one of the most consistent players in the league. Check it out for yourself. George is always hovering around his season average stat line when the game is done. PG could very easily play at the level he’s at all year.

His season must have a story.

Much has been written about Russ adapting his playing style. How’s this for a storyline: “Former MVP shares burden and accessory star takes over.” It’s classic. On top of that, Paul George has often been called a “fringe superstar” or an “elite 2nd option.” There is an element of underdog to Paul George winning MVP. Underdogs get narrative points.

The Thunder must succeed.

If all goes as planned, the Thunder should be a top 4 seed in the west, and if things go great, they will be a top 3 seed in the west.

He needs an exclamation point.

You might say that George has already had his season “moment.” Against Brooklyn, George dropped 47 and nailed the game winner after leading a 20-point second-half comeback. These games are coal in the hype-train’s engine, and they’re essential for winning MVP.

Though George already erupted once, doing so one or two more times would help him build a solid MVP case. Remember this?

Paul George belongs in the MVP conversation, and the path to victory is laid out. Watching how this unfolds will be a treat.

Poll

Is Paul George a viable MVP candidate?

This poll is closed

  • 96%
    Yes
    (805 votes)
  • 3%
    No
    (30 votes)
835 votes total Vote Now