This year’s Finals matchup may feel like déjà vu, but Kevin Durant repeating as Finals MVP isn’t a sure thing, even after averaging more than 30 points in seven games against the Houston Rockets. Will Steph Curry finally get a Finals MVP for himself? Can LeBron James win one in a losing effort? Here’s a look at the top candidates (and some possible dark horses) heading into Cavs-Warriors IV:
In hindsight, LeBron should have won 2015 Finals MVP. He averaged 35.8 points, 8.8 assists, and 13.3 rebounds in six games, but lost out to Andre Iguodala, the guy tasked with stopping him from putting up such high numbers. Had James won, he would have been the first player to do so as part of the losing team since Jerry West in the 1969 Finals (which seems fitting given West, then a Warriors executive, was probably in the arena). Three years later, LeBron is still averaging gaudy numbers in the playoffs while dragging the Cavs to the Finals again.
If there’s one certainty in this series, it’s not that the Warriors will win. It’s that LeBron is going to be there every night, scoring 30 to 50 points and doing every other little thing to will the Cavs to have a chance. This could be his last shot to accomplish a such a feat. At 33 years old and with almost all of his realistic suitors this summer offering superstar teammates, this could be his last solo performance. If he continues to kill it, it may not matter whether Golden State wins again.
Can I just replay last year’s five-game series on a loop here?
Durant averaged more than 35.2 points, 5.4 assists, and 8.2 rebounds, and became the Warriors’ trump card; they split their first two Finals against the Cavs without him, but they dominated in five games with him. This is Durant’s case. He is so gifted on both ends that three future Hall of Famers sometimes stand to the side and watch him work. No one on the Cavs can stop him, not even LeBron. All Durant has to do is bide his time and attack.
Curry has two NBA MVPs and two championships, but no Finals MVP. The Finals haven’t been the best stage for Curry, who has been either hurt or overshadowed by his teammates the past three years. Yet it’s no secret that he’s the Warriors’ metronome; Golden State can win without Curry or with a diminished Curry (see: rounds 1 and 2), but it becomes a different beast when he is at his best. Curry is also be the best guard the Cavs will have faced this postseason. If Victor Oladipo averaged more than 22 points against the Cavs, Curry is going to have a field day against J.R. Smith or George Hill. A couple of ebullient, 3-point-filled performances could finally land him perhaps the only major accomplishment that’s escaped him thus far.
The Dark Horse
Klay, as his devout followers will tell you, is an experience. This Western Conference finals was no different. Against Houston, Thompson had games in which he seemed like he didn’t know where he was at all times … and then there were times like Game 6, when he bailed out the Warriors with a scorching 35-point performance. He’s bound to do the same in at least one Finals game. Heck, sometimes all Klay needs to leave his mark is one quarter. The Klay Game will come sooner or later in this series. If he has more than just one, it will be tough to deny him the series’ top honor.
The Wild Cards
Kevin Love and Draymond Green
Here’s where the MVP Index digs a bit deeper. Green and Love are crucial players for both teams, but they can sometimes hurt just as much as they can help.
Love’s status could be in question after sitting out Game 7 against the Celtics with concussion-like symptoms. But when healthy, he can still have a tremendous impact; he is the second-most talented player on Cleveland’s roster and has shown he can still score and rebound in bunches. As the Rockets proved in the first half of Game 7, the Warriors can be vulnerable on the offensive glass when their bigs don’t make the necessary effort or rotations. Love has the Cavs’ third-best offensive rebound percentage this postseason, and his nine combined offensive boards helped spark big back-to-back wins against the Pacers in Round 1.
There’s a case to be made that Green belongs higher on the list, given how he keys the Warriors’ entire defensive approach. The problem is that Green’s, let’s say, enthusiasm, is always liable to be redirected inward. There’s precedent for this, of course, most notably in the 2016 Finals against the Cavs. It also may be difficult to win an award that’s almost always given to the best offensive player while shooting 27.7 percent from 3. But if he can shoot like Iguodala did in the 2015 Finals (40 percent from 3) and help limit LeBron, he has a shot.
The Wilder Cards
Andre Iguodala and Tristan Thompson
It’s unclear whether Iguodala will be ready for Game 1, given that he’s missed the Warriors’ past four showings with a lower left leg contusion. But as we learned in the games he sat in the West finals—which the Warriors split, 2-2—Iguodala is more important than we may think. For instance, he has the highest net rating (13.6) on the team this postseason among regulars. If a healthy Iguodala can defend LeBron like he did in 2015 and add enough playmaking on the other end, he could make his way into the MVP conversation.
Thompson, meanwhile, could be played off the floor within minutes, or he could become a force in the paint against the Warriors’ weak center rotation, like Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker did in Game 7. Capela and Tucker grabbed offensive boards like they were free samples at Costco. Thompson might be able to do the same, especially if the Warriors are unable to go to their Hamptons Five lineup with Iguodala hurt. Rebounds aren’t going to win you a Finals MVP, but creating second-chance points might win you a game—and, who knows, even a series. That’s MVP-like impact, too.