Dark Horse NBA MVP Candidates

The NBA is a superstar driven league. But the NBA world concentrates too much on the upper echelon superstars, think LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Anthony Davis. These guys, along with a few more, are the players that you would expect to win the MVP award, the favorites for the prize. So, instead of focusing on that select group, it's time to look at some other contenders for the 2015-16 NBA MVP.

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

Last season, DeMarcus Cousins had an incredible season. He made his first All-Star appearance, first All-NBA team appearance and had some of the best statistics in the entire league. His points and rebounds per game averages were both good enough to be among the top five players in the entire association. He also improved defensively after being rather weak in his first four seasons.

Had Cousins made the playoffs, he and his 24 points and 13 rebounds may have been in the MVP race. Last season, he was so valuable to his team, especially on offense. According to Basketball-Reference, his usage percentage of 34.1 percent was the third highest in the league. He was, in fact, the only big man to be in the top six in terms of usage percentage last year. Cousins is always the number one option for George Karl's offense. His ability to finish at the basket with his brilliant blend of power and skill make him tough to guard. His full range of offensive skills forces the defense to double team him, which creates easier looks for his teammates.

This year will be no different. With no move made to gain another dominant offensive option, Cousins should continue to get his share of looks and his usage percentage will remain high. His improved roster around him will make his life easier and his MVP case stronger. Rajon Rondo gives Cousins a real point guard to play with for the first time in his career. Rondo will be able to get Cousins the ball in perfect spots and make his shots easier, especially considering some of the ridiculous shots he had to take last season. Their connection has been evident in preseason:

The signing of Marco Belinelli gives the Kings better spacing and will allow Cousins to go to work a lot easier down low. Also, the draft pick of Willie Cauley-Stein makes Cousins' job easier on defense, since he has such a great rim protector behind him.

Cousins has shown throughout the preseason that he is willing to shoot the ball from range as well. Boogie attempted 12 three pointers in the preseason and although he only made one, his willingness to shoot them shows he has been working on it and is ready to add another facet to his already devastating offensive game.

For Cousins to be a true MVP contender, he has to make the playoffs. Given the amount of talent, defensive improvement and offensive firepower that they have, and the fact that the Western Conference's eighth seed is there for the taking, the Kings will be battling for a postseason appearance all season long. As long as they get there, Cousins might be in the MVP talk at season's end.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

How John Wall didn't get in the MVP discussion at all last season is baffling. Wall almost single handedly led his Wizards to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and while many will say that it's just the East and that the Wizards probably should've gotten a higher seed in such a weak conference, here are some things that Wall had to deal with last year:

  • Bradley Beal being out for 19 games and suffering a down season in terms of production.
  • Nene starting at power forward.
  • Rasual Butler playing 20 minutes per game.
  • Having Randy Wittman as his coach.

Yet, Wall managed to get these guys into the second round of the playoffs and they could've beaten the Atlanta Hawks if he hadn't missed games in that series due to a fractured hand.

Wall developed a lot last season. He turned into a mature, composed leader who didn't look like a kid anymore, but a true superstar point guard. He took his scoring down a notch to 17.6 per game, but compensated by improving his field goal percentage to 44.5 percent and his assist numbers to double digits at 10 per game, which was second in the league. His defensive game is fantastic too. His speed and athleticism makes him tough to get past and therefore, most of the time is able to stay in front of his man.

What makes Wall so valuable in Washington is that on the offensive side of things, he basically has to create everything. With barely anyone else who can create their own shot and without a good low post threat, Wall is tasked with the job of creating shots for others, himself and controlling the pace of the game. Wall actually managed to get this team to averaging 98.5 points per game and while this was good for only 17th in the league, considering that the Wizards rely so heavily on Wall, it is not surprising that they couldn't achieve a higher placing.

The Wizards improved this offseason by acquiring some good pieces that included Jared Dudley, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Gary Neal. With an upgraded roster, Washington's wins should go up, which will show the voters just how good and important John Wall is and give him a legitimate shot at the MVP.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

Jimmy Butler took a gargantuan leap last season. Prior to the 2014-15 NBA season, Butler was seen solely as a defensive stopper who had shown that he was one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He was seen as a wing with great defensive ability, but with an incredibly raw offensive game that led him to 13 points on less than 40 percent shooting during the 2013-14 NBA season. That clearly changed heading into last year, as Tom Thibodeau began to trust Butler with more and more of the offense, especially in the absence of Derrick Rose.

Butler jacked up his numbers to 20 points on 46 percent shooting, an unprecedented improvement. He increased his three point percentage by nearly 10 percent, as he went on his way to becoming a key part of Chicago's offense. His offensive outburst, to go with his still great defense, made him a first time All-Star in 2015, a title he most definitely deserved.

Under new coach Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls have shown a lot of new things in preseason that under coach Thibs wouldn't have happened. There is a lot more movement offensively, floor spacing has become a key, as has playing smaller lineups. More movement allows Butler to get off easier shots and better floor spacing and small lineups will open up driving lanes for Butler. Hoiberg is also bound to decrease Butler's minutes from the astounding 38.7 that Thibs played him last year. His form clearly started to tail off at the end of the season and a big reason for that would be that he was simply getting tired.

For Butler to become a real MVP candidate, a couple of things need to happen. First, he will need to become the focal point of the offense. This starts by lowering Rose's shots from over 16 per game and increasing Butler's attempts to more than the 13 he averaged last season.

The other thing is that the Bulls have to become one of the best teams in the league. If Butler is the biggest part of the offense and continues to be valuable defensively, by continuously guarding the other team's biggest perimeter threat, the only thing left to complete his MVP case would be for the Bulls to be in the 55-60 win bracket and be a contender for the championship.

Overall, Butler is a true underdog for this award as many don't see him as more than just a secondary star. But if Jimmy Buckets shows even more improvement offensively under coach Hoiberg, continues to be excellent defensively and the Bulls are one of the best teams in the league, Butler will be in the race from day one.

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Remember Steph Curry's MVP case last season? The whole best player on the best team argument and the argument that won him the award? Well, apply that debate to this year's San Antonio Spurs team and their best player Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard struggled with injuries for most of last year, missing 18 games with his niggling hand. He was pretty average up until he returned after his time out. The step forward that many thought he would take after his 2014 NBA Finals performance, was seemingly not there. In the 35 games he played before the All-Star break, Leonard averaged just 15.4 points on 44 percent shooting from the field. But after he was able to recover, Leonard exploded, becoming the Spurs' best player. He looked a lot more comfortable and aggressive, as in the last 29 games of the season he improved to 17.9 points and 52 percent shooting.

His real value comes on the defensive end, where he is able to guard anyone at any time. Like Jimmy Butler, Leonard always guards the other team's best offensive threat. This was shown in the playoffs last season when he guarded Chris Paul for large parts of the series. Last season, he averaged 2.3 steals per game throughout the course of the season, but nearly 2.6 per game after the All-Star break. He is so incredibly important to a Spurs defense that ranked third last year in terms of points allowed, which led to him gaining the honor of Defensive Player of the Year.

The great thing about a possible Leonard MVP season is that nobody really knows how high his ceiling is. His injuries last season derailed anyone from seeing just how good he can be for an entire season. His defensive game somehow keeps getting better and offensively he is showing the NBA world things that nobody thought he could coming out of college. This is giving Gregg Popovich the confidence to keep giving Leonard more jobs to do around the floor and giving him bigger roles on both sides of the hardwood.

As mentioned above, Leonard's whole MVP case is the best player on the best team argument. The recent addition of LaMarcus Aldridge makes the Spurs a whole lot stronger as a team, possibly making them the best team in the league. If this is true and the Spurs are a dominant side, Leonard will be in the MVP conversation. As long as Kawhi can continue to be one of the best defensive players in the league and continue to add to his ever expanding offensive game, Leonard will have a real shot at the NBA's most prestigious individual award.