The Dark Horses
These guys won't be quite as surprising as "The Man Nobody Sees Coming", but are nonetheless legitimate MVP candidates that can and will be in much more serious competition for the award than most would think.
George, like Leonard, does not face the major obstacle towards winning MVP that those in the "Team's Not Good Enough" category of this segment have to deal with. Indeed, GM Larry Bird has worked wonders for this Indiana squad over the summer, creating a very impressive and talented starting five of PG Jeff Teague, SG Monta Ellis, George at SF, PF Thaddeus Young, and C Al Jefferson, with key reserves such as PG Ty Lawson and PF/C Myles Turner, even if the bench is still average at best. This team is legitimate, and I would even go so far as to say that they are the favorites over the likes of Boston and Toronto to earn the number two seed in the East behind Cleveland.
George had an amazing comeback year last season after his horrific injury at the 2014 FIBA World Cup that kept him out all of that season. In 2015-16, the superstar had his best season ever, averaging 23.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.9 steals per game on an efficient shooting split of 41.8/37.2/86.0 while playing 81 out of 82 regular season games. In fact, other than that gruesome leg injury at FIBA, George has been a relative iron man over the course of his career, playing 80 and 79 games respectively for the two seasons that immediately preceded the injury.
George's defensive prowess is already renowned -- his 6'11" wingspan, physical strength, and excellent instincts made him the league's top "LeBron Stopper" (along with, coincidentally, Kawhi Leonard) during the Pacers-Heat rivalry a few years ago; not to mention George's two All-Defensive Team appearances. But it was his improved offensive game that has enabled PG13 to take the next step -- particularly in the post and from downtown. Now 26 and entering the prime of his career with a polished all-around game, the pieces are all in place for George to make a legitimate run at the league's most coveted award.
However, with that being said, the MVP case for PG will be difficult to make should he finish just behind LeBron himself in every regard -- points, rebounds, assists, percentages, and most importantly, wins. If, in all likelihood, the Cavs do indeed have the East's top seed, there really isn't much of a case for why George should win MVP over LeBron, and that's not even mentioning all of the superstars out West. Conversely, however, in the unlikely event that George's Pacers somehow triumph over LeBron James' Cavaliers in the regular season, then consider George one of, if not the favorites for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Almost everyone can agree that the 25-year old Leonard is now a superstar. After all, the San Antonio Spur recently joined Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win both Finals MVP and DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year), and the small forward also did so as the youngest of those three. Kawhi is also the best player on a top-three team, so why hasn't he been considered as a serious MVP candidate yet?
There really is no good answer to that, other than the fact that Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis all exist. But with Durant's move to Golden State altering the scene for the first three, LeBron turning 32 mid-season, and Davis' Pelicans still sub-par, the field could really be opening up for the two-time DPOY.
Leonard is now also entering the prime of his career, and is coming off a breakout season last year: he averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per game on 50.6/44.3/87.4 shooting splits -- nearly hitting the immortal 50/40/90 mark. This was en route to his first All-Star selection and second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award.
Of course, the Spurs are going to have to be great in order for Kawhi to have a real shot. This, however, is merely a given, despite the fact that the legendary Tim Duncan is now retired. Duncan left the frontcourt in capable hands -- Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge form one of the league's top big man duos -- and the backcourt still features Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green, as well as a plethora of depth up and down the roster that the great General Manager R.C Buford has equipped at the also-great Head Coach Gregg Popovich's disposal. Everything about this franchise, in fact, is simply just great.
So while there is indeed a legitimate chance that Kawhi Leonard could take home the award himself, likely a significantly greater chance than most would think, there still remains an obstacle towards Leonard winning MVP: points. Indeed, among the past ten MVPs, the scoring average has been 27.6 points per game, with none scoring less than 23.8 (Stephen Curry, 2014-15). However, Leonard's 21.2 ppg last year isn't too far behind Curry's mark, and his offensive game is rapidly improving, making the small forward a fearsome two-way threat. I'd have to give Kawhi at least a 10-15% chance of winning MVP this upcoming year.