Steve Kerr gives early support to Damian Lillard for 2016-17 MVP

The eve of the 2016-17 NBA season seems like an appropriate time to crank up the never-ending debate about who will be the league’s most valuable player.

Fans are talking about it, as are NBA coaches and players, too.

That includes Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, the man who has coached the reigning and two-time KIA MVP, Stephen Curry.

Kerr gave his forecast of the MVP race that will rage on for the better part of the next seven months, but threw his early vote behind Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard as his dark horse candidate this season. He singled out the Trail Blazers’ star to the San Francisco Chronicle as beneficiary of split votes for some of the usual suspects:

Sunday afternoon, when asked about the 2016-17 MVP race, Kerr drew parallels to the presidential election.

“I think (Kevin Durant) is kinda like Gary Johnson, a third-party guy who might come in and take a few votes from Steph (Curry), takes some votes from LeBron (James),” Kerr said. “Then, Damian Lillard wins the election. That’s my forecast.”

Curry and Durant are in an intriguing position: The first pair of back-to-back MVPs to play together in their primes, they could inhibit each other from putting up the production necessary to win the league’s top individual honor.

Still, many think they remain strong candidates. The oddsmakers at Bovada, for example, tabbed Curry (4-1) and Durant (12-1) as the likeliest players to win MVP not named Russell Westbrook (2-1) or James (5-1).

“The good thing is I don’t think either guy minds too much,” Kerr said of Curry and Durant. “I think the fact that they’re both here and wanted to be here tells you that’s not their main goal.”

As for Kerr projecting Lillard as the 2016-17 MVP? The Oakland native and Portland point guard has 28-1 odds, per Bovada, but Kerr has long praised him. Twice last season, after Lillard erupted in wins over the Warriors, he compared the former Rookie of the Year to Curry.

Lillard, for his part, isn’t being shy about his pursuit of the MVP award.

“I want to win MVP,” Lillard told reporters in Portland on Sunday. “If we come out and do the things we’re capable of doing and we win games, then that means my performance will be at a level of MVP.”

Lillard’s public acknowledgement that he wants in on the MVP fun is a refreshing twist. Previous winners tend to try and sidestep MVP talk, especially this time of year.

James, a four-time MVP, loves to deflect and redirect questions about the MVP race. But even he couldn’t resist weighing in over the weekend, going back and forth with reporters about the topic that will underscore the season for the league’s elite.

He’s not worried about the proposed minutes restriction/maintenance plan Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue has in mind, pointing out to ESPN.com that it seemed to work for Curry last season:

No,” James said Saturday when asked if he was concerned that planned rest could affect his MVP case. “Because Steph played 31 minutes a game and he won the MVP.”

James was a little off in his stats — Curry averaged 32.7 minutes per game in 2014-15 and 34.2 minutes last season en route to back-to-back MVPs — but his point was clear: Even at age 31 and playing his 14th season, with Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue hoping to keep him fresh for the postseason, it’s possible to add another MVP award to his collection.

James is tied with Wilt Chamberlain for the third-most MVPs in league history with four.

A reporter suggested that James could enter into even more elite company with a fifth.

“So, I’m not elite?” James quipped.

Another reporter gave it back to James, arguing that of course he knows the names of the people who have won five.

“I do,” James admitted.

Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five) and Bill Russell (five) have won more MVPs than the Cavs superstar.

While Lue wouldn’t target a specific number of minutes for James after he averaged a career-low 35.6 minutes per game last year — “I’m not telling you,” Lue said — he admitted that he and James have discussed how they can juggle rest with still being able to sufficiently showcase his abilities during the regular season.

“We’ve talked about it,” Lue said. “He understands that we want to keep his minutes down, and when there’s games where it makes sense to take off, we’re going to take those games off. We’re being smart about the situation. We have one goal in mind, and that’s winning a championship. So, accolades, personal accolades, they come later.”

James — who finished third in MVP voting each of the past two seasons — echoed Lue’s stance, stressing that he is prioritizing the Cavs’ team success over anything else.

“Well, I’ve never set into a season saying I want to win MVP,” he said. “I’ve always thought of the season saying I want to be MVP for my team and it’s resulted in me getting four of them. So I’ve been available, for the most part, every night and I’ve been available on both sides of the floor. I’ve been healthy.

“So the simple fact that I’ve been able to win four has been an honor, and it’s been a tribute to what I’ve been able to accomplish in my career, but more importantly being able to be on the floor with my teammates. So, it will be great if I’m able to accomplish another one by doing what I need to do to help this team win. Because we got to win to get one. No matter how great your individual numbers are or your play is, your team has to be successful, and I’ve been able to be a part of some successful teams so far.”

It’s a wide-open race to start this season, with James sure to be among the short list of legitimate candidates.