Admittedly, there isn’t much change at the top of our Most Valuable Player rankings this week, but there are some newcomers at the back end who are playing excellent basketball and are certainly worth paying close attention to on a nightly basis.
The field of MVP candidates is shrinking as the season progresses, but we have kept the list at the same number for now because a lot can change between now and then end of the regular season. But once we have a clear idea of the realistic MVP finalists, the list will shorten. With that said, we will continue the weekly rankings with more of a focus on the candidates’ recent performances and what each individual will need to do in order to hoist the MVP trophy.
For the first time in NBA history, two players – Russell Westbrook and James Harden – recorded 10 or more triple-doubles in the first 40 games of a season. This season, we’re witnessing modern greatness and jaw-dropping performances nearly every night. It’ll be exciting to see how this MVP race plays out, especially since it could come down to the wire.
Basketball Insiders releases our updated MVP rankings each Thursday. Let’s get to it:
With the Milwaukee Bucks above .500 and Antetokounmpo dominating on both ends of the floor, he cannot be ignored any longer. Not only is his play electrifying, but he also fills the stat sheet while being incredibly efficient. This season, he is averaging 23.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 steals while shooting 53 percent from the field – all of which are career-highs. His player efficiency rating (28.2) is currently ranked third, trailing only Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. Real Plus-Minus – an ESPN metric that tracks plus-minus while also accounting for a player’s teammates and opposition – also shows Antetokounmpo’s dominance. To get an idea of just how much he’s impacting the game, his 6.6 RPM ranks ahead of Westbrook and James Harden.
The biggest pause for concern with the Greek Freak is his team’s record since the Bucks currently stand at 19-18. Aside from that, he has emerged as a superstar. Last season, he earned 84,617 All-Star votes; this year, he already has nearly 1,000,000 with three days left to continue earning votes. His three-point shooting still needs work (it’s under 30 percent) and he has shown signs of inconsistency, but there is no doubting his ability to play and defend all five positions. For him to truly be considered for the MVP award, he’ll have to vault his team to top-four seed in the Eastern Conference and keep putting up impressive stats. Fortunately, Giannis just turned 22 years old last month, so he has plenty of time to further his development. Regardless of what happens this season, he’ll likely be in the MVP conversation for years to come if all goes as planned with his improvement.
Of the two Toronto stars, Lowry is seemingly the more likely MVP candidate at this point. But their success is linked in many ways and it’s hard to separate the dynamic backcourt. Lowry has taken on a tremendous defensive workload while continuing to be consistent, efficient and strong on offense. His ability to find open players as a facilitator, hit the outside shot and run effective pick-and-rolls with Toronto’s big men has allowed DeRozan to continue to score at such a high rate. Over his last 10 games, Lowry is averaging 25.7 points, 6.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting above 50 percent from the field. With Toronto having one of the best records in the NBA (25-13), they certainly have the wins to have a player in the MVP race. The question is, can Lowry cement himself as the true number one option and produce at an even higher level to climb up this list?
Meanwhile, if DeRozan can continue his scoring output and put in some more effort on the defensive side of the ball, he could still find himself as Toronto’s best candidate. The MVP discussion is about team record, individual performances, player value and – fair or not – storylines. No one will forget DeRozan’s impressive start to the season, when he put himself in rare company by averaging 35+ points for an astonishing stretch. The biggest problem for DeRozan and Lowry is that they will split votes, unlike some of the other clear-cut top dogs on this list. At this point, neither player seems to have a realistic shot at winning the award due to their success being more of a one-two punch. Still, these guys deserve plenty of credit for the terrific job they’re doing for the Raptors.
The Spurs look like the obvious choice for the Western Conference’s two-seed if they continue playing at this pace. As Leonard receives attention as an MVP candidate, that’s something that will significantly help his case. While he had a huge 31-point night against the L.A. Lakers on the Jan. 12, he hasn’t always been the driving force behind the Spurs’ victories. His teammate LaMarcus Aldridge has started to get some of the attention, as he’s averaged 23.3 points and 8.8 rebounds during the month of January. That’s almost six points and two rebounds more than his regular season numbers and, beyond that, he’s become a guy who San Antonio has started to design more plays for. Leonard’s numbers are down for the month of January, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s playing worse. Teams seem to be honing in on him more and, at times, forcing other Spurs to beat them. In order for Leonard to win the award, he’s going to need more performances like the 31-point outing we saw last night.
Durant is doing everything he can, but it seems as though Golden State has a problem handling late-game situations. Durant is part of that problem, as he’s been the go-to player on his team. After getting yelled at by Draymond Green after one such late play, it just seems the team has some issues to work out (which isn’t uncommon for newly formed “superteams”). They play great against most NBA teams, but have struggled in recent games. The addition of Durant was great for this team, but we all knew it would take some time for everything to work smoothly. Right now, they’re at an impasse in terms of who does what. It seems like they tense up and play careless, sloppy basketball in certain scenarios – particularly late in games. They’ve won four of their last five so it’s not something to go crazy over, but it’s something that could be hindering this team from reaching their full potential at the moment. After the epic Christmas Day game, the Cleveland Cavaliers play Golden State again next week, and we’ll all be watching closely.
James is continuing to do what’s expected of him. He’s averaging a hefty (yet somehow not hefty for James) 28.4 points, 6.2 assists and 8.4 rebounds in the past 10 games. The back-to-back losses to Portland and Utah on the road were bad, but it’s not enough to discount his true value to the Cavaliers. Over the next few weeks, we’ll get to see the new-look Cavs in action with the addition of Kyle Korver. If the move pans out, it’ll add another dimension to this already great Cavaliers team and possibly enhance James’ ability to win the award. Even in J.R. Smith’s absence, the Cavs have played very well and that’s due to James filling in for him in many ways. He’s taken on a larger role – mainly scoring more and putting in better performances on the defensive end of the floor. He’s firmly in this race with plenty of time left in the season.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last Week: 2)
Westbrook is still averaging a triple-double and yet somehow isn’t number one. This is even a shock to us, but while he may be deemed more valuable to his team, the award is historically given to the player who’s performing the best for one of the league’s top teams. Right now, the Thunder are currently sixth in the Western Conference. This could play a huge role in whether Westbrook gets the award or not. Westbrook’s value to his team is probably higher than any other player on this list. But the upcoming schedule for Oklahoma City is not easy and the Thunder may need more from Westbrook in order to stay in the race for a top-four seed. If Westbrook can keep the Thunder in the playoffs, it’s entirely possible to see him in this race until the end (and possibly winning the award). On the season, Westbrook is averaging 31 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.7 assists while shooting 42.7 percent from the field. Considering the circumstances, it’s remarkable that he continues to lead his team with this incredible production.
Harden is still number one by all accounts. If the Rockets continue to win, he’ll be here at the number one spot because of his combined individual and team success. At 31-10, the Rockets are in line to be the shock of the season. No one expected Houston to be this good through the mid-way point of the campaign. Give credit to Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey, who created and changed the philosophy of this team. But it’s Harden who’s put this squad on his back and played out of his mind. His leadership abilities, creativity on offense and growth as a creator and facilitator have made Houston come together flawlessly.
Remember, they added focal points like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson over the offseason, lost Dwight Howard, and hired a new head coach in D’Antoni. But rather than needing a ton of time to adjust, they’re already playing this well. Barring an unforeseen setback, Harden has put himself in pole position to win this award through 41 games.
One final interesting note: While Westbrook leads the league in triple-doubles with 18, Harden has 11 of his own and is actually leading the NBA in double-doubles with 34 through 41 games.
Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday on Basketball Insiders.
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