With the 2016 NBA season being a couple weeks old now, the early MVP talks have already started.

 

With Kevin Durant joining the Golden State Warriors, it would be hard pressed for Steph Curry, the league’s reigning two-time MVP, to garner the honor for a third straight year because he would presumably have to carry less of the load than the previous two seasons.

 

What we have to understand about the race for MVP in the NBA is that it’s more about stats and popularity than it is about who actually is the most valuable player to their team.

 

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

LeBron James made note of this last year when Curry won the MVP in an unanimous vote for the first time in history, by basically saying that the criteria for choosing an MVP isn’t based on the true merits of being the most valuable as much as being the most liked.

 

LeBron has a point here.

 

If we think about this, if the award was truly based on value, meaning if you take this player off of their respective team, they wouldn’t be nearly what they are now, then James would have a great argument as to why he should win it every year. His teams have gone to six straight NBA Finals, when he left Cleveland in 2010, they went from having the best record to the worst record and now they have just won the NBA Title for the first time in team history upon the second year of his return. When James joined Miami in 2010, they went to the Finals every year, winning two of the four. After James left in 2015, they missed the playoffs that year and were knocked out in the second round last year.

 

Merits like those should play the biggest role in the MVP vote, but they don’t, they only split that role between popularity and stats.

 

With this formula of true value, stats and popularity in mind, there are four players who have a legitimate shot at winning the award this year: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

 

To start, although James might be the most deserving, unless he does average a triple-double this season(very likely) while also being at the top of the league in scoring and achieving the NBA’s best regular season record, he probably won’t the award because many people take what he does for granted due to his consistency. This is an epidemic that needs to stop, but I digress.

 

(Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)

(Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)

Harden will put up video game-like stats this season. With his switch to the point guard position by Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden has already proven that he can rack up the points and assist number that will propel him in the MVP discussion. So far this season, Harden is averaging 31.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 12.7 assists per game. On top of this, he has scored at least 30 points and dished out at least 10 assists in his last four, becoming the first player to do that since Michael Jordan since 1988. Despite these stats, and the growing popularity of Harden and his beard, his team’s success will ultimately determine where he stands in this race. With the Rockets looking to finish in the middle to lower pack of the playoff race in the West, this will hurt Harden’s stake, even though he may be one of the two overall most valuable player’s to his team this season.

 

I believe that this race will ultimately come down to Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook.

 

(Bleacher Report)

(Bleacher Report)

Starting with Kyrie, he will have his true breakout NBA season this year. After hitting one of the clutches shots in NBA history last year in the Finals, and the growth of his own signature shoe line, Irving’s ever-growing popularity has gained even more steam. Add to this fact that Irving has now become the Cavaliers number one scoring option as James has made it a point for Irving to go for the MVP. Due to the volume of shots he will take and get, as well as his continuing evolution as a point guard and playmaker, his stats will be right up there this season and he has a legitimate shot at a scoring title.

 

Through seven games, Irving is averaging 24 points, four rebounds and four assists per game. These stats will improve throughout the course of the season and even though they might not match those of Harden, his team is much better and will have more success this season. This helps and hurts Irving in this race because being the number one option on a top team is definitely a plus, but when that team features a LeBron James who has openly admitted to making it a point to encourage Kyrie to go for the award, especially with his minutes likely to be down this year, it offers a deterrent in the mind of voters who know that he’s not the best overall player on his own team. For these reasons, Irving will finish second in the race.

 

My prediction: Russell Westbrook will be the 2016 NBA MVP

 

Now, this is not a bold prediction by any stretch, as many people also carry this sentiment.  

 

(Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY Sports)

(Jennifer Stewart/USA TODAY Sports)

With Durant leaving for Golden State and Westbrook staying, he has become the hero of Oklahoma City and of the NBA. People feel for Westbrook as he now has to fully shoulder the load of a team who’s supposed “best player” left for greener pastures and because of this, his popularity among the fans has risen.

 

Westbrook was already putting up amazing stats with Durant, but now his stats are just mind-blowing. This season, Westbrook is averaging 30 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Westbrook, along with James, are the most likely candidates to legitimately have a shot to average a triple-double in a season for first time since Oscar Robertson. Statistically, Westbrook, due to his role in this respective offense, will score more than James which will give him the edge in that perspective. Team-wise, the Oklahoma City Thunder are off to a surprising 6-1 start and Westbrook is clearly the reason why. In the big picture, the Thunder have a shot to finish near the top 4 in the West and if they do this and win close or more than 45 games, Westbrook will be the clear cut winner.

 

If this happens, then the award would have some merit again because this season, there is no question that Westbrook is the most valuable player to his individual team. If you take him off of the currently constructed Thunder roster, they have no shot at making the playoffs in a deep Western Conference.

 

If the Thunder and Westbrook keep up this pace, this race will be no contest.

 

Do you think Westbrook and Irving will finish first and second in the MVP voting? Let’s talk about it here or find me on Twitter @Phenombc3.