Who are the top early MVP surprises?
LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul were three of the preseason MVP favorites, but who else has emerged as an early contender for the league's top individual accolade?
1. Who's the top "surprise" MVP candidate in the East?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Paul George is a candidate for defensive player of the year, while scoring almost as much as anybody in the league while leading the team with the best record. That he is emerging is no surprise, but that he has blatantly outclassed LeBron, Rose, Melo & Co. is surprising.
Danny Chau, Harwood Paroxysm: Paul George. His series against the Miami Heat in last season's Eastern Conference finals signaled burgeoning greatness, but who could have foreseen just how good he's been? Three years ago, he was an athlete who couldn't dribble, much less lead a title-contending team. Now, he's one of the most complete players in the game. It's been an inspiring transformation.
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Brook Lopez. Stay with me here. The East is made up of one 8-0 team and everybody else, so there isn't much to choose from. And the question is "surprise" candidate, and Lopez would be quite surprising. Even though his numbers aren't eye-popping, and his team is just 2-4, he has the highest PER in the East. If that keeps up, the Nets will win much more and he'll be a legit candidate.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Paul George. Steady progression is expected once flashes are shown, but, whether because of injury or circumstance, rarely is superstar ascension so seamless. At this point, George is taking off faster than the yodeling "Price Is Right" mountain climber. He's an impact defender on the league's best defense and also the offensive driving force on the league's only undefeated team. Get used to seeing this guy in this discussion.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Paul George. Although the Pacers' overall balance has largely contributed to their best start in franchise history, George is the clear catalyst of the best team in the league right now. He's on pace to continue his meteoric rise from lottery pick to budding star to the NBA's Most Improved Player to, potentially, the league MVP. Move over LeBron, KD and CP3, Mr. George needs a seat.
2. Who's the top "surprise" MVP candidate in the West?
Abbott: It's no surprise that Kevin Love can play. But it's a bit of a surprise that he's eating box scores for breakfast. He leads in roughly one zillion categories.
Chau: Kevin Love. His stat line is a fantasy basketball fantasy. He's the spearhead of the league's most effective offense. He's healthy, and so is the rest of his team. On a team full of zip and panache, Love (more specifically, his old-school outlet passing) is somehow the most exhilarating element of the team's offense. He's off to an undeniable start.
Gutierrez: Anthony Davis. I can't call Kevin Love a "surprise" candidate when he finished sixth in MVP voting in his last healthy season (2011-12). So Davis takes this despite his team's underwhelming 3-4 start, because 21.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.86 blocks and 2.29 steals would mean he'd be up for MVP, most improved and defensive player of the year.
Verrier: Kevin Love, with a nod to Anthony Davis and Eric Bledsoe. That 29.24 PER, second best in the league, is no mistake. In an age of genetic marvels, it's the grizzly plodder who has emerged as the NBA's preeminent stretch big -- not only is Love the best rebounder in the league, he's also among its best shooters. Finally he has enough help around him and is healthy enough to prove it in the standings.
Wallace: Kevin Love. He's leading the league in rebounding, ranks second in scoring and is the only true power forward among the top 25 players in assists so far this season. The question isn't whether Kevin Love has the tools and potential to be an MVP candidate. Instead, it's whether he can stay healthy throughout a season and get Minnesota into the playoffs to convince voters he's worthy.
3. Who's the presumed MVP candidate off to the worst start?
Abbott: Derrick Rose is working it out and I'm inclined to give him a ton more time. But if we're going by the first six games, he has had the worst production of his career, per minute, in basically every category. He can't hit a shot to save his life (33 percent from the floor) and that's only the beginning. Rebounds, assists, steals, blocks ... all fell off a cliff, while turnovers are through the roof.
Chau: Derrick Rose. The hamstring injury suffered in the Cavaliers game throws yet another wrench into the works in Rose's already precarious comeback season. The good news is, prior to the injury, Rose looked as athletic as ever -- but the court processing, and the synthesis of body and mind required to execute at the MVP levels we expect, just isn't quite there yet.
Gutierrez: Derrick Rose, and it's perfectly understandable. His situation is the definition of a catch-22. He needs to work himself into a comfortable rhythm, but when he's on the floor he's asked to be great because his teammates defer to him. That'll only lengthen the process of him returning to MVP-level play.
Verrier: Derrick Rose. Apparently it's pretty tough to come back from a year and a half off. It's a testament to just how good, and entertaining, a healthy D-Rose is that he was already receiving MVP prediction votes after such a long layoff, but, as evidenced by a single-digit PER and a sub-.350 shooting percentage, that guy is nowhere to be found right now.
Wallace: Carmelo Anthony. It's not totally his fault he's on this list. But he was the only other player to steal a first-place MVP vote away from LeBron last season. Still, Anthony is shooting just 41 percent from the field, which is on pace for the lowest output of his career. On top of that, he's leading the Knicks absolutely nowhere at the moment. It's time for Melo to put up or shut up.
4. What level of team success should be necessary for an MVP candidate?
Abbott: None! Free your mind. The simple fact is that it is unlikely, but entirely possible for the best player to be on a mediocre team. Kevin Garnett became a legend in Boston, but his best years were in Minnesota. LeBron was epic in Cleveland, but they only loved him once the titles started rolling in.
Chau: Since 2005, the award has gone to players on teams with at least the fourth-best overall record. There are players with value independent of their teams, and their impact should be acknowledged, but it's impossible to divorce player and team completely. Wins are the most objective truth, and they're a necessary baseline for what is otherwise an incredibly inexact endeavor.
Gutierrez: The team just has to be successful by any reasonable standard. For example, if DeMarcus Cousins plays to his full potential, puts up beastly numbers and carries the Kings to a shocking battle for the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, that's worthy of MVP consideration.
Verrier: Some. In basketball, unlike in baseball, a player's individual success is more closely tethered to the other guys around him. A good player can put up gaudy numbers simply by hogging more possessions (a baseball player, meanwhile, doesn't control when he gets at-bats), but true value in the NBA is derived from a player's ability to aid teammates' performances, and wins are among the better representations of that. That said, a decent playoff seed is good enough.
Wallace: Two easy ways to get high marks from me on a potential MVP resume is to either lead a lottery team into the playoffs or to carry a routinely playoff team into strong title contention. Just putting up great numbers won't necessarily cut it. If a player is of ultimate value, his production directly leads to the success of his team -- not just to a max contract.
5. Who is your MVP after two weeks?
Abbott: With apologies to Love and Anthony Davis, it's George for all that measurable production from a guy who works his butt off on the tough-to-quantify defensive end. And despite my answer to question No. 4, the wins are hypnotic.
Chau: Paul George. He's looking the part of a player on the tail of the league's very best, and his numbers reflect that ascent, too. It's been a perfect storm for George and the Pacers. If the poetic narrative counts in the soft science of awarding a winner, George has to be the favorite so far.
Gutierrez: Paul George. This would seem like the next step in his progression, but it still feels a bit premature. The actual MVP rarely shows himself this early in the process, and we know players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James will eventually float to the very top of this list. But when you're the clear leader of the team that's been most impressive, of course you're the MVP favorite.
Verrier: Love. Durant remains my year-end prediction, but we can't complain about the follies of allowing narrative to drive the voting and then give the award to someone other than the guy playing the best ball. Love's first two weeks check all the boxes: He leads the NBA in estimated wins added and per-game rebounding, has the second-best PER, his Wolves are winning and he has finally embraced the beauty of the full beard.
Wallace: Let's just say that Paul George has done enough overall to overtake Week 1 front-runner Michael Carter-Williams. But let's also give early honorable mentions to Durant, Love, Chris Paul and Jeff Green.