Step aside, Russ? Predicting 2018’s MVP

Last season, Russell Westbrook triple-doubled his way to NBA history and the MVP award. Which superstar will take home the hardware after the 2017-18 season?

Is it LeBron James‘ time to reclaim the MVP throne? Will former MVPs Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant — building off the momentum of a dominant NBA Finals run — add another trophy to their respective mantles?

We asked the ESPN Forecast panel to rank its top three choices for the 2017-18 NBA MVP, with a first-place vote receiving five points, a second-place vote receiving three and a third-place vote receiving one.

Here are the results:

2017-18 NBA MVP forecast


Kevin Durant
Golden State Warriors | SF
First-place votes: 17
Total points: 116

Comments: After taking less than the max to assist the Warriors in retaining their top role players, Durant enters 2017-18 as an MVP favorite ready to build off his Finals MVP performance.

Had he not missed all of March, Durant would have warranted MVP consideration last season. He led the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, delivered the most efficient shooting season of his career and morphed into an All-NBA-caliber defender.

He’s perhaps the most gifted scorer in the world, but it was Durant — not Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green — who led the Warriors in lowest field goal percentage allowed as a primary defender last season. — Micah Adams, ESPN Stats & Info


LeBron James
Cleveland Cavaliers | SF
First-place votes: 9
Total points: 88

Comments: The 2016-17 season snapped James’ eight-year streak of finishing among the top three in MVP voting, one shy of tying Magic Johnson for the longest streak of its kind.

Though he’s entering his 15th season, James is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s coming off a season in which he led the league in real plus-minus, and he became the first player in history to average a triple-double in the Finals.

If the Cavaliers trade Kyrie Irving, it could ultimately bolster James’ MVP narrative. Even before factoring in what Cleveland might get back in a potential Irving deal, it’s worth mentioning that in the 840 minutes the Cavaliers played with James on the floor and Irving on the sideline, they posted the scoring margin of a 51-win team. — Adams


Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs | SF
First-place votes: 9
Total points: 58

Comments: Leonard is the only player to finish among the top three in MVP voting in each of the past two seasons, and he is likely the best two-way player in the NBA after elevating his offensive game to new heights in 2016-17.

According to Kevin Pelton’s projections using predictive real plus-minus, the Spurs are projected to win 53 games next season, which would rank third in the loaded West. Should they finish in the top three, the lion’s share of credit would go to Leonard. He’s the only unquestioned superstar in San Antonio, unlike his primary MVP competition in Golden State, Houston or Oklahoma City. — Adams


James Harden
Houston Rockets | SG
First-place votes: 5
Total points: 48

Comments: Harden moved to point guard last season and promptly led the NBA in assists, while somehow managing to set career highs in points and rebounds per game. With Chris Paul now in town, an MVP campaign by Harden would likely be built on the premise of increased efficiency and team success, given that his basic statistics will surely take a hit.

Paul’s presence should take some of the playmaking burden off Harden, allowing him to focus a bit more on the defensive end. Harden was still rated as a negative defender last season, ranking last in defensive RPM among players who were top 50 overall in RPM. — Adams


Giannis Antetokounmpo
Milwaukee Bucks | SF
First-place votes: 2
Total points: 29

Comments: There’s an episode in Season 5 of “Game of Thrones” where one of the dragons unleashes a combination of size, strength and skill that nobody has ever seen. In the fighting pit, a hoard of bewildered enemies has no clue how to fight back. The awestruck opponents try a few tactics, but nothing works. It’s the culmination of four seasons of buildup dotted with prolonged glimpses of promise and potential.

In a related story, Antetokounmpo is entering his fifth season in the NBA. Last year, he led the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and now he has them ready to compete. ESPN’s real plus-minus projects Milwaukee to finish fourth in the East; should the Bucks exceed that, Antetokounmpo could be a threat to bring home the MVP hardware. — Adams


Russell Westbrook
Oklahoma City Thunder | PG
First-place votes: 1
Total points: 20

Comments: Turning the chapter on Mr. Triple-Double’s historic campaign, you’ll quietly stumble onto the fact that the reigning MVP is already entering his 10th season. Just as Paul will ease the burden for Harden in Houston, Paul George‘s arrival in Oklahoma City should help temper Westbrook’s one-man band tendencies that led him to utterly annihilate the usage percentage record last season.

Though Westbrook could certainly win a second straight MVP award, the same gunner mentality that was necessary in the absence of another elite playmaker last year likely won’t be rewarded in similar fashion in 2017-18. Westbrook’s field goal percentage of 42.5 last season was the third-worst among the 62 MVP winners in league history. — Adams


Stephen Curry
Golden State Warriors | PG
First-place votes: 1
Total points: 19

Comments: Could the NBA Finals be foreshadowing for an MVP campaign for Curry? With all the attention on Durant and James, Curry quietly had one of the most dominant NBA Finals ever, averaging 26.8 points, 9.4 assists and 8.0 rebounds per game. He had at least 25 points and 10 assists in three games, something only Michael Jordan has ever done on the Finals stage.

Two months later, the focus is once again on Durant and James when discussing MVP favorites. Let’s not overlook the fact that Curry just averaged more points than he did in his first MVP season, made the second-most 3-pointers in a season in NBA history and finished second behind only James in RPM’s wins metric. — Adams


Also receiving votes: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets (9); Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves (3); John Wall, Washington Wizards (3); Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (2); Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics (1).

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