Three reasons Blake Griffin is a favorite for MVP award

If you're not including Blake Griffin (middle) in your discussions about MVP favorites, you're making a big mistake.

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The NBA is a crowded league at the top. That’s a big reason why the league is such a joy to watch these days. Take a second and run down the list of basketball superstars: LeBron James. Anthony Davis. Stephen Curry. Kevin Durant. James Harden. These are the names dominating the early MVP discussion, and rightfully so. Each player has a compelling case based on recent performance (Curry and Harden), past production (Durant), expectations (Davis) and simply being the best player alive (James).

But there is one name constantly being left out of the conversation for no apparent reason: Blake Griffin. 

He might not be the sexy pick, and he might need a little more “luck” than other candidates. But Griffin is still a dark-horse candidate worthy of legitimate consideration, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he’s holding up the Maurice Podoloff trophy next May.

Here are three reasons why Blake Griffin could win MVP this season:

1. He’s only going to get better

Griffin is turning 27 toward the end of the regular season, which suggests he’s firmly in the prime of his career. Several all-time power forwards, including Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley and Dirk Nowitzki, registered their highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in their age-27 season, according to Basketball-Reference.com

While Griffin might not be in that echelon of big men yet, the way he dominated the 2015 playoffs — 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.0 steal and 1.0 block on 51.1 percent shooting — indicates he’s still capable of taking his game to another level. Those exact numbers might not be sustainable, but one can assume Griffin will pick up close to where he left off last season and produce like one of the five best players on the planet — if not better.

Griffin has refined his game — drastically improving his free-throw shooting, mid-range jumper, ball-handling and court vision — every season. But what should worry opponents is that Griffin now appears primed to become a better defender. He’s already improved considerably on that end from his rookie season. He has certain limitations — namely his 6-foot-11 wingspan, which is short for his height — that will prevent him from ever being a great or dominant defender. But with proper footwork and a keen understanding of the Clippers’ defensive schemes, Griffin can certainly become a good team defender. And that would bump him up a couple spots at least in the league’s player rankings. 

“Blake has the ability on switches and on other things just with his feet. He has great feet,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “If you ever want to find who has good feet, all you have to do is look at who gets charges, who takes charges. That takes movement. Blake can do that. I think he can do more of all those things with his feet.”

Griffin has vocally expressed his desire to become a better defender, even at the expense of his rebounding or involvement in the offense, as he told ESPN.com. As the Clippers look to play a more conservative defensive scheme next season, we should see Griffin being far more effective defensively with less responsibility. If he can shore up his defense — he registered as one of the game’s best post defenders last season, so he’s no slouch — there is virtually nothing left to criticize about him.

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"Why not?" Griffin told ESPN. "Why not try to be the best player?”

2. Chris Paul could take a step back this season

One of the biggest hurdles facing Griffin’s MVP campaign is the fact that he has to split votes with Chris Paul, another top-10 player who is equally influential to the Clippers’ success, if not more. This season could be different, though. 

Paul, 30, enjoyed his healthiest season in 2014-15, playing all 82 regular season games, before breaking down in the first round of the playoffs and missing the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals. Given his history, that bill of clean health in the regular season was more likely an aberration than the new norm for Paul. He had missed an average of 15.4 games per season because of injury over the previous five seasons.

Moreover, Los Angeles — which added the ball-handling of Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni to a core of Paul, Griffin, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers — can now afford to rest Paul more than ever before. Make no mistake — the Clippers’ best offense is still when Paul has the ball in his hands. But they need him in May and June, and he’ll have to rest more to get there. The jury is still out on how diminutive point guards fare on the wrong side of 30, and the Clips need to proceed with caution. The dip in playing time for Paul will likely come with lower overall numbers, and thus, eliminate him from the MVP race.

Griffin and Paul have shared the limelight since Paul’s arrival in 2011, with Paul getting a lot of the credit for turning the Clippers franchise around. But Griffin is ready to take the reins and establish himself as the team’s primary superstar. Step No. 1 is clearly outperforming Paul this season.

3. This is the best Clippers team ever

The general rule of thumb with the MVP award is that it goes to the best player on one of the best teams in the league. There are certainly exceptions — Anthony Davis could prove that this season — but for the most part, history shows that you have to be at or near the top of your conference standings to have a shot at the award.

On paper, this is the best Clippers roster in franchise history. The small forward position has been a revolving door in the CP3-era, but Stephenson, Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson give the Clips the best and deepest crop of wings they’ve ever had. The Clippers also added Prigioni, one of the better backups in the league, to play third string point guard. Smith might be the best backup big man that’s played behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Newcomer Cole Aldrich can’t possibly play worse than Spencer Hawes did last season. And, oh yeah, supersub Jamal Crawford is still on this team. 

This all before we mention Griffin, Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick, one of the best quartets in basketball. Simply put, this Clippers squad is loaded. The Western Conference will be a battle royale this season, as it always is, but the Clippers are in good position to finally breakthrough and emerge as one of its two best teams with a monster regular season and a deep postseason run. And that’s what matters to Griffin.

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“My biggest thing is, if our team does what we’re supposed to do and we play the right way, then a lot of times those individual things take care of themselves,” Griffin told ESPN.com.

Griffin has some things working against him. The split votes with Paul is a real thing, even if Paul takes a step back. Public perception can be difficult to change. The Clippers have underperformed in the postseason recently, and that sour taste of disappointment could sway voters. If not that, then Griffin’s on-court antics and demeanor — which has turned a solid portion of the league against him and the Clippers — could keep him from gaining the public support or endearing narrative necessary to win MVP. 

At the end of the day, though, if the Clippers blitz through the regular season and win 60-plus games, Griffin is going to force his way into the MVP conversation one way or another. Paul could surely be the leading force behind such a run, but most likely it will be Griffin, leading the Clippers as they transition into the new era of definitively being his team.

“I don’t really care about that stuff,” Rivers said. “I think just winning and getting better will put you into that category. When you’re that talented and winning, you have to be thrown into that category.”

Follow Jovan on Twitter at @jovanbuha.