HANG TIME, Texas — We’ve been to the beach to soak up the rays and the scenery. We’ve dove into a cool mountain lake at the end of an invigorating hike. We’ve got the adrenaline pumping with a whitewater kayak ride through rapids. We’ve taken our inner tubes down the river for a long afternoon float.
What else is left to do on these sultry summer days for relaxation except to lie back in a hammock and dream of MVPs who’ll heat things up on all those chilly winter nights?
While it’s still months away from the season openers, we’re taking off from the free throw line in our lazy naps and soaring all the way to April for the top five contenders on my ballot.
LeBron James, Heat — This is when the big fun and the vegetable throwing really starts as LeBron’s resume begins to more closely resemble that of Michael Jordan, which only means the worshippers at the Church Of His Airness will scream heresy, among other more unpleasant things. He’s averaging 27.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 6.9 apg through his first 10 NBA seasons and as he turns 29, only seems to be getting more comfortable in his own skin. When James again leads the Heat to the best regular-season record on the way to a three-peat as NBA champs, he’ll be moving into lofty air. Three consecutive MVPs will put him in a class with MJ, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. A fifth MVP overall will tie him with Jordan and leave trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six). To think that he could be just getting into the meat of his career.
Kevin Durant, Thunder — As long as LeBron is upright, healthy and not getting bored of steamrolling everything in his path, KD just might have to get accustomed to a career as a great second banana when it comes to the MVP. Well, it did work out OK for Robin, Dr. Watson, Paul Shaffer and Chewbacca. There isn’t a thing anybody can throw out there to knock Durant, the most prolific scoring machine of this age. No shot is out of his range and he makes every shot look oh-so-easy. He’ll either win his fourth scoring title in five years or finish a couple of tenths behind Carmelo Anthony again. Unless Durant really elevates his OKC teammates above an strong Western Conference class of contenders, he’ll simply have to deal with being born at the same time as LeBron. But remember, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were annually overlooked at MVP voting time, winning just one apiece. KD would likely be quite satisfied if he could get just a fraction of their nine combined championships.
Dwight Howard, Rockets — This is how he gets back at the Lakers and all those mean things they said about him. This is how he proves to everybody that he made the right choice by emulating Davy Crockett and settling down in Texas. Howard has already been spending time in the practice gym with his two Houston mentors, Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon. If just half of their knowledge and fundamentals of the game rubs off on him, the Dwightmare will be over. After two seasons of indecision that also included back surgery and a shoulder injury, Howard will go back to being fit and happy on the court. That should produce another season of leading the league in rebounding, putting a chokehold on another Defensive Player of the Year Award and upping his scoring average off the pick and roll with James Harden and Jeremy Lin. There will be a lot of voters with long memories that won’t want to forget his past childish acts. But if Howard lifts the Rockets to 55 or more wins and has them looking like true contenders by April, he’s in the MVP hunt.
Derrick Rose, Bulls — After 1 1/2 years, The Return will finally be more than just a TV commercial for Adidas. No more worries about juking this way or that on a surgically repaired ACL. No more wondering about whether he can jump off his left foot and dunk. No more having to listen to all the imbeciles who wanted him to risk perhaps the next 10 years of an All-Star career by getting out on the floor for a few games at the end of last season to prove his manhood. The Rose who returns will have questions to answer to his fans and to himself, but at 24 he’s young enough to come back even stronger and better than he was. Keep in mind this is a guy who already has an MVP trophy (2011) on his mantle. A lot has changed in the landscape since Rose collapsed to the floor in the 2012 playoffs. The Heat have won two titles and have found their identity. The Pacers proved they’re for real. The Nets are reconfigured and loaded. The East will be a beast, but don’t be surprised if Rose comes back with a roar.
Chris Paul, Clippers — You figure that maybe Paul deserves to be given a truckload of MVP trophies just for transforming the laughingstock Clippers franchise into not just the best in the Staples Center, but a real contender. Everybody knows his on-court talent — great handle, penetrating to pass, hits the jumper, steals your lunch with ballhawking defense — but it’s his fierce competitiveness and overall attitude that have lifted the Clippers. The Western Conference will be even tougher next season with Dwight Howard in Houston and Andre Iguodala boosting Golden State. But you figure that new coach Doc Rivers will grab the Clippers attention and make them more than just the Lob City sideshow. That means he’ll ask even more from CP3 and there’s little doubt that the little guy can deliver. They made not improve on last season’s 56 wins, but should shoehorn their way into another top-four seeding by winning the Pacific Division. Now that Paul has re-signed and committed to the Clippers, the real good stuff has likely just begun.