What it would take for Isaiah Thomas to be the NBA’s MVP

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas  scores after beating LeBron James (23), Kevin Love (0) and Kyrie Irving to the basket on Nov. 3, 2016, in Cleveland.
Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas scores against LeBron James (23), Kevin Love (0) and Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers on Nov. 3, 2016, in Cleveland. –AP Photo/Ron Schane

COMMENTARY

Isaiah Thomas began his NBA career as the 60th and final pick in the 2011 draft. At 5’9”, Thomas has been one of the league’s shortest players since the day he first put on a uniform. Last season, he defied the odds by making his first All-Star appearance. What can the Celtics’ point guard do for an encore in 2016-17?

During the preseason, Thomas joked about winning the league’s MVP award. He recently spoke more seriously about the possibility to ESPN.com’s Chris Forsberg:

“I tell people: I want to be All-Star, I want to be All-NBA, one day I want to be an MVP. That’s not just me talking. That’s goals that I have.”

Could Thomas actually be named the NBA’s most valuable player this season?

A lot of things would have to go his way, but it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Let’s start building Isaiah’s case by breaking down the candidacies of several leading contenders for the award.

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Out West, two prime MVP candidates are teammates: Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors. Combined, Curry and Durant have won the last three NBA MVP awards. However, the chances of either winning again for the 2016-17 season took a hit when they became part of the same starting lineup. If Curry and Durant each put up their regular superstar numbers, they’ll likely split many MVP votes.

More importantly, what if the Warriors fail to live up to the hype of being a record-setting 73-win team that added a top-five player in the offseason? Any sort of regression from Golden State could easily cause voters to look elsewhere for an MVP.

How about Durant’s former running mate in Oklahoma City: Russell Westbrook? Westbrook is the MVP favorite in Las Vegas, as he is now a one-man wrecking crew with the Thunder. Oklahoma City is off to a 6-2 start with Westbrook scoring more than 30 points per game and nearly averaging a triple-double. The high-octane guard is doing his best to prove he doesn’t need Durant by his side, but is his early-season performance sustainable?

Previous MVP winners have played almost exclusively for teams that finished at or near the top of their conference standings. Steve Nash captured the award (his second in a row) while leading a 54-28 Suns squad in 2005-06 that finished third in the West, but that’s the exception to the rule. Even if Westbrook can maintain his absurd statistical output, it’s hard to envision the Thunder reaching 54 wins in the Western Conference.

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The Houston Rockets’ James Harden is in a similar boat. Harden is leading the league in assists through eight games, while also scoring upwards of 30 points a night. Like Westbrook, Harden can be expected to post MVP-type stats, but his team’s record could keep him from figuring seriously in the conversation.

Anthony Davis dropped 50 for the Pelicans on opening night, then followed it up with a 45-point showing in his second game of year. Unfortunately for Davis, New Orleans is sitting dead last in the Western Conference at 1-8 and his MVP campaign never even had a chance to get off the ground.

In San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard poses a serious threat to Thomas’ MVP dreams. The Spurs appear very good once again, and Leonard is clearly their go-to guy. Last season, Kawhi logged 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. The 25-year-old is expected to take another leap forward in 2016-17, but if his scoring average plateaus he may not get significant MVP consideration.

Back East, there’s one thing that must happen in order for Thomas to have a shot at MVP: LeBron James needs to miss time due to an injury. After 13 seasons in the league and nearly 1,200 total games played, maybe he’s finally due?

Considering he’s a defending champion and hasn’t taken home an MVP trophy since 2013, James is a great bet to win the award this year. However, that won’t happen if he misses a significant portion of the season. An injury could also open the door for Boston to capture the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

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Through the Celtics’ first seven games, Thomas is averaging 25.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest. With a slight bump in assists, those would definitely be MVP-caliber numbers. When Al Horford returns, Thomas will have a big man who thrives at  running the pick and roll, something he’s been missing since coming to Boston. Horford’s presence on the floor should do wonders for Thomas’ ability to distribute the basketball.

Last year, Isaiah finished 11th in the NBA with 22.2 points per game, while knocking down 7.6 free-throws per contest. Over his past three outings, Thomas is 35 for 36 at the charity stripe. A few more points from the foul line per night might be exactly what he needs to rank among the league’s elite scorers.

What if Thomas winds up sixth in scoring behind only Curry, Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Davis? What if he also guides the Celtics to a high-50s win total and a No. 2 seed in the East? Maybe even the conference’s top spot if LeBron needs rest at any point during the regular season? If he does all that, why can’t Thomas be NBA MVP?

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