While it’s still very early in the 2016-17 NBA season, we’re starting to get an idea of which players belong in the initial MVP discussion. Some are the superstars who are always mentioned in these conversations, while others are a bit more surprising.
Each week, Basketball Insiders is going to look at the MVP race’s top 10 candidates. Check back each Thursday to see how your favorite player stacks up against competitors across the league. Here are our first MVP rankings of the season:
1. James Harden
This offseason, Patrick Beverley told Basketball Insiders that he expected James Harden to “win MVP and lead us to the Finals.”
Some laughed at the quote, but the Harden critics are pretty silent right now. Coming off a dismal 2015-16 campaign, the Rockets went out and added a new coach in Mike D’Antoni along with two key rotation players in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. Not to mention, Harden restructured his contract and shifted to the point guard position. That’s a lot of change in one summer, and it would’ve been understandable if it took time for Harden to adjust.
Instead, he’s playing the best basketball of his career. Through 11 games, Harden is averaging 28.7 points, 12.6 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals. He’s been more efficient too, shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from behind the arc. With Harden off the court, the Rockets are scoring 88.4 points per 100 possessions. But with Harden, they’re scoring 113 points per 100 possessions. That’s a massive difference and demonstrates just how valuable Harden is to this team.
While Houston is only 7-5, they’ve played a difficult schedule – with eight of their first 12 games on the road. This could be an indicator that their record will improve once the schedule softens up. At this point, Harden’s monster numbers give him the edge over his peers.
2. LeBron James
After the Cleveland Cavaliers won the 2016 NBA championship, James reclaimed his spot as the best player in the world. Even so, we still seem to take his greatness for granted. The Cavs are 9-2 and look like a team that could be ready to play in the Finals tomorrow. While all of the talk this season is surrounding the Golden State Warriors, James is continuing to dominate and another Finals appearance seems very likely.
Currently, James is averaging 23.4 points, 9.6 assists and 8.9 rebounds. Aside from the statistics, he’s the player with the best combination of size, defense, athleticism and playmaking in the league.
While James has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, he’s still the main reason for the Cavs’ success. Ultimately, James becoming MVP won’t come down to his own statistics. Everyone knows he’s one of the best in the league and he can physically do whatever he wants. The Cavaliers’ record likely decides James’ MVP fate. He’s always going to be in the MVP conversation, but this year his candidacy is reliant on how his team does rather than his (seemingly imminent) individual success.
3. Chris Paul
The Clippers have the best record in the NBA and arguably the best point guard in the league. Possessing the longest standing “Big Three,” it’s hard to determine who’s most valuable between Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. However, Paul’s on-court presence and leadership along with his efficient passing and shooting make him the most viable candidate of the three.
Currently, Paul is averaging 18.3 points, 8.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds through 12 games. While 18 points might not jump off the stat sheet like some other numbers on this list, Paul is leading the league in player efficiency rating (31.5), steals (3.1), defensive rating (91) and win shares (3). He’s also second in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.76 and third in offensive rating (131.7). Couple his leadership with his production all over the court and the argument for Paul is pretty easy to make.
If the Clippers and Paul can maintain this level of play, he has a strong case.
4. Russell Westbrook
While Westbrook has continued to post excellent numbers, his team’s record has come back down to Earth. After starting the season at 6-1, they’ve now evened out at 7-5. But you can’t deny his statistics are amazing and he’s extremely valuable to the Thunder. He’s almost averaging a triple-double, posting 31.8 points, 9.8 assists and 9.5 rebounds per game. Along with this, he’s been more efficient this year, shooting 44.2 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three (five percent better than last year).
In order for Westbrook to really be in contention for MVP, he’ll have to vault Oklahoma City into a high playoff spot, which is going to be difficult. Without Kevin Durant, he can put up bigger stats, but if he can’t get Oklahoma City into the playoffs, he isn’t in this conversation. However, if OKC exceeds expectations, he’ll be the odds-on favorite for MVP.
5. DeMar DeRozan
DeRozan has started the season better than anyone expected. Previously known as an inefficient scorer on a good Raptors team, DeRozan has looked like a different player this year. Currently averaging 33.3 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting, DeRozan has become a premier one-on-one scorer. Even with his lack of three-point shooting, he’s making a higher percentage of his overall shots and scoring with ease with mid-range shots and finishes at the rim. And, most importantly, he has Toronto playing pretty well at 7-4.
DeRozan is showing how efficient he can be in the mid-range, even with a player defending him. His ability to create his own shot is one of the best in the NBA and might be the closest thing to Kobe Bryant we’ve seen. If he continues leading this team to a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference, we can expect him to continue to get love in the MVP race.
6. Kawhi Leonard
Last year’s MVP runner-up, Leonard has once again shown that he can be the Spurs’ go-to scorer while remaining extremely efficient and tenacious on defense. There’s no question that Leonard’s humble attitude and quiet confidence make him extremely likable. It’s easy to root for an unselfish guy who puts his team first, just wants to win and leads by example (especially when taking over games). The Spurs sit at 9-3 on the season and a lot of that is due to Leonard’s outstanding execution on both offense and defense.
Leonard is averaging 25 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 steals while shooting 45.3 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three and 95.4 percent from the free throw line. His efficiency on offense and elite defense make him a nightmare for opposing coaches.
7. Damian Lillard
Lillard has been excellent through 12 games, averaging 29.8 points, five rebounds and 4.6 assists. But the difference-maker is his leadership. When discussing Lillard’s impact, fellow Blazers guard C.J. McCollum told Basketball Insiders: “His versatility and ability to lead everyone while staying true to who he is and what he stands for is special. Obviously, he’s a great player, but he hasn’t let success change his foundation and that’s what makes him who he is.”
Lillard has improved vastly from last year. Along with the noticeable scoring increase, he’s also shooting the ball more efficiently. Lillard is taking almost the same amount of shots as last year, but he is averaging five more points and shooting five percent higher from the field.
He’s creating more opportunities for teammates, spacing the floor better and, perhaps most important, driving to the paint like an NBA superstar should. His ability to get to the charity stripe is an addition to his game that we hadn’t fully seen. He’s now ranked fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts and averages 3.3 more attempts per game than last year.
Like Westbrook, Lillard will need some help from his teammates and a very good record to win the MVP award. But if Lillard continues to put up monstrous numbers while keeping his efficiency up, he could certainly be in the running.
8. Kemba Walker
Walker is another point guard who’s off to a great start. His team sits a 7-3 and he’s clearly Charlotte’s number-one option. Shooting 49.1 percent from the field and averaging 25.8 points per game, Kemba is not only scoring, but he’s also been terrific on defense. He’s averaging 1.9 steals on a team that’s allowing under 100 points per game. The Hornets rank fourth in defensive rating, an improvement over last season despite losing some key rotation players over the summer. A lot of the credit should be given to Walker as he’s held all opposing point guards to under 20 points per game.
Walker and the Hornets are off to a tremendous start. If they can continue to stay in the top three or four teams in the Eastern Conference, anticipate seeing Walker in this conversation throughout the season.
9. Kevin Durant (and Stephen Curry)
It’s strange to think of Durant or Curry being ninth in any sort of ranking. But because of Golden State’s struggles early on, it’s hard to rank him above players who have done more with less or have a better record thus far. Because Durant plays with Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, it’s hard to separate how “valuable” he is to his team. Of course, Durant’s averaging 27.9 points, eight rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks with his incredible efficiency. But his teammate Curry averages the same amount of points per game.
Every night, either one (or both) could step up for Golden State, and that’s why neither player will likely win the award. By teaming up, they have a great shot at hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy together, but they’ll take MVP votes away from each other. Either way, Durant and Curry will be in this conversation as long Golden State continues to win.
10. Blake Griffin
Griffin has been the unsung hero for the Clippers this season. After coming back from injury, many questioned whether he could get back to dominating the power forward position. His mid-range game looks extremely polished and he has been physically imposing in the post, making him hard to defend. On the other side of the ball, his defense has also been impressive. The Clippers are playing like the best team in the league and a big reason for that is Griffin’s revitalization.
Currently, Griffin is averaging 20.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, four assists and 1.3 steals per game, while shooting 48.4 percent from the field. He’s continuing to improve as a player while helping this Clippers team to an NBA-best 10-2 record. But, as is the case with the Warriors, the fact that L.A. has two MVP candidates in Paul and Griffin likely hurts each individual’s odds of actually winning the award. Still, Griffin deserves a ton of credit for producing at such a high level in a strong bounce-back campaign.
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