Summer Dreaming: Who will be named Kia MVP in 2017-18?

What else is left to see on these sultry summer days except to lie back in a hammock and dream of MVPs who’ll make things hot on all those winter nights?

While we’re still a couple pages on the calendar away from the 2017-18 season openers, we’re taking off from the free throw line in our naps and soaring all the way to April for the top five contenders on our ballot.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Has it really been more than four season since the best player in the game was officially recognized as the best player in the game? Greatness this consistent and so far off the charts has a way of becoming mind-numbing and taken for granted. That’s the only way to explain why Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won just one of these apiece. James does so much so often that too much time is spent trying to find minor errors and minuscule flaws. Then along came the 2017 Finals.

The Warriors may have won the championship and carried home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, it was a time that James put another stamp on his greatness by averaging a triple-double in the series and reminding everyone who is still rightfully The King. While Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry (2) and Russell Westbrook have all been worthy of special recognition since 2014, it is past time that “LeBron Fatigue” has worn off and the MVP award goes back to its rightful owner in this era that he dominates. Winning Kia MVP No. 5 would pull him even with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan at the top.

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Oh, you thought last season was impressive? Well, that was just a start. He began his first season with the Warriors a bit tentative, trying not to step on toes, seeking a way to slip into the pool without making a splash. That approach didn’t do Durant, Stephen Curry or the Warriors any good. So he became more assertive just before suffering a knee injury in late February that sidelined him for 19 games.

By the time he returned fully healthy for the playoffs, the rest of Warriors had rediscovered their defensive mojo and all Durant had to do was take over and dominate with games on the line. Which he did. This was the vintage KD from his first MVP season back in 2014 at OKC, but without having to look over his shoulder for a Westbrook snarl. Now Durant is in his happy place, a champion’s ring on his finger and joyous bells on his toes as, at just 29, he moves into the second decade of his NBA career with nothing but blue skies ahead. It’s only a matter of time until KD earns his second trophy and more.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

If it’s not Stephen Curry one season, then it’s Russell Westbrook the next who is edging out “The Beard” for the big prize. While Westbrook was getting the nod last season for the second triple-double average in league history, Harden was becoming the first player ever to average 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds in the same season.

That eye-popping production increase was a result of coach Mike D’Antoni rolling into Houston, announcing the Harden would become the full-time point guard and putting the ball into his hands to initiate virtually everything on offense. It worked to produce a 55-win season and the No. 3 seed in the West. Now the Rockets have added Chris Paul to the mix and while that should make their overall efforts to catch the Warriors better, it will likely take a bite out of Harden’s stats. There’s no doubting that he’s an almost unstoppable force, but a better defensive effort would help the cause.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

The 2017 Kia MVP winner achieved a once-in-a-generation feat by becoming the only player other than Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson (1961-62) to average a triple-double. The fact that most voters had ever seen that happen before in their lifetimes was likely what put him over the finish line ahead of Harden. Westbrook will be physically no less capable of repeating that performance this season. But the arrival of Paul George as a running mate will surely cut into the numbers.

The question is if Westbrook can handle giving up the reins of offense at times after such a spectacular solo run. His relationship with former OKC star Durant was always a tightrope walk that got the Thunder close but to the championship promised land. The catch is that Westbrook has got to try to make it work so that OKC will at least have an outside chance of re-signing George when he becomes a free agent. Or perhaps Westbrook keeps charging for another triple-double season and they both end up fleeing to L.A. as free agents next summer.

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Maybe there will come a time when the voters actually do more than give lip service to the defensive end of the court when it comes to MVP voting. Maybe they’ll look at more than historic offensive milestones and take into a account a candidate’s team record. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was apoplectic when James Harden lost last season to Russell Westbrook, noting the difference in win totals (55-47).

But what Morey was actually doing was making the case for Leonard, whose Spurs won 61 games. Leonard’s numbers — 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 38 percent on 3-pointers — were in the ballpark with Harden and Westbrook. Plus, Leonard is also an elite performer who anchors the Spurs’ top-ranked defense. Westbrook and especially Harden are not even close at that end of the floor. He’s a two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year winner. But Leonard is also the least flamboyant of everyone on the list, simply keeping his head down and doing the work, while most voters keep ignoring him

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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