As the season nears the half-way point, the MVP race becomes closer and closer. At the same time, as the race becomes tighter, the list of potential candidates diminishes. So we at Basketball Insiders decided to scale our rankings accordingly. Rather than looking at 10 candidates each week, we’ll now hone in on seven. As the season progresses, look for the list to go down to five and potentially three or two (looking at you, James Harden and Russell Westbrook).
Each Thursday, Basketball Insiders drops our MVP rankings. Did your player make “the cut”?
Curry has probably been the biggest loser in terms of touches and minutes since Kevin Durant made his decision to sign with Golden State. Since Durant joined the Warriors, Curry is averaging three fewer field goal attempts per game and two fewer makes. His points per game are also down by 6.7 and his efficiency has decreased as well.
Despite all of that, Curry is among the best in the NBA and still has an outside shot at the award. He’s top-10 in scoring and he’s still shooting above 47 percent from the field (better than 70 percent of the top-10 scorers). However, this month he’s averaging just under 20 points per contest and has been inconsistent on both ends of the floor. In fact, the past two games he’s scored just 13.5 points, but has averaged a positive net rating of 20.5. Value is typically demonstrated in many ways and people underestimate Curry’s playmaking ability. He’s taken a hit on points and shot attempts, but he is doing a lot on a team that’s the best in the league.
Lowry has undoubtedly been overlooked this season because of DeRozan’s scoring streak early in the season. Lowry has been incredibly consistent on both offense and defense, driving to the rack with confidence and forcing turnovers against some of the best point guards in the league. While both of Toronto’s backcourt players deserve ample credit, it’s still hard to imagine either of them taking home an MVP trophy. Toronto is playing at an incredible level, controlling the game like an Eastern Conference team that could compete with the Cavaliers. Unfortunately, with Westbrook and Harden in the limelight, it’s hard to see Lowry and DeRozan stealing the show.
James didn’t climb our list, but we may find him ranked higher next week. With key guard J.R. Smith out due to a broken finger for the foreseeable future, James will need to carry even more weight on his shoulders. Smith, who’s averaging 8.6 points and roughly eight field goal attempts per game, will be a crucial loss for the Cavs. His touches and minutes will be dispersed throughout rotation players, but we should expect to see James take a greater role in scoring.
James is averaging 25.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists while playing more minutes per game than the previous two seasons. James is doing it all on a team that’s the best in the Eastern Conference. If there was a knock on James, it’s that he’s turning the ball over more than he ever has (3.84 turnovers per game).
The next big test? Golden State on Christmas day, where we’ll see a rematch of last years’ Finals (and potentially a preview of this year’s).
Leonard has proved many people wrong. He’s become the number one option on a Spurs team that continues to win. Not only has he become extremely effective on offense, he’s still maintaining his Defensive-Player-of-the-Year level play on that end. Currently, Leonard is averaging more minutes (33.4) than any other season in his career. Even though his shooting attempts and percentages have dipped a bit, he’s still shooting above 45 percent from the field and over 37 percent from behind the arc.
Outside of the Houston game on December 20, the previous two games were stellar for Leonard. He had a combined net rating of plus-17 and shot 50 percent from the field. While he only averaged 15.5 points in those two games, his playmaking ability and rebounding were on full display. Against Phoenix, he grabbed 10 boards in only 27 minutes of play.
Leonard has a real shot if Harden and Westbrook (or their teams) start to struggle.
When will Golden State show signs of vulnerability? Never? This team looks so polished on both sides of the ball and a lot of that is due to Durant. His ability to read defenses, find open teammates and play extremely effective defense separates him from almost any NBA player. Durant now averages 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting the highest percentage of any top-25 scorer (53.9 percent).
As much as you’d like to think Golden State would be just as good without Durant, it’s hard to believe it with his sheer talent. Durant’s added another dimension to this team and Steve Kerr, one of the best coaches in the league, is doing a good job of utilizing Durant’s talent while getting him acclimated at the same time.
Durant is turning the ball over less this season than any year in his NBA career. He’s playing remarkable defense and has shown no signs of dropping off. Durant is right there in this conversation based on his team record and overall value to Golden State.
How is Westbrook not number one? It’s a close, close race and Westbrook has been nothing short of incredible. But his team has started to show signs of vulnerability, more so than in previous stretches. While he’s still averaging a triple-double, the Thunder have only won two of their last four. In their losses, Westbrook has an assist to turnover ratio of below 2-1. He’s made some costly mistakes late in games (pointing to the Atlanta game earlier this week), but he’s bound to have them. We don’t expect Westbrook to play perfectly when he’s putting up jaw-dropping numbers and helping his team in anyway possible. But as much as that’s true, his productivity and efficiency have taken a hit. Shooting just over 42 percent from the field and a little over 30 percent from behind the arc, Westbrook has had more struggles than in previous outings.
While he’s leading the league in points, and creating opportunities for his teammates, his team hasn’t helped him in key moments. If the Thunder hadn’t lost to the Hawks and Blazers, Westbrook would still be number one. It’s just hard to justify a player who’s team has a below .500 record in the past five games.
Harden’s Rockets are putting together some incredible statistics and performances. Currently, Harden is averaging 27.8 points, 11.7 assists and 8.1 rebounds while stealing the ball 1.4 times per game. We can talk about his excellent offensive play at the point guard position, but his defense has been much improved from a season ago. With less of an imbalance on this team, Harden is posting up career numbers under Mike D’Antoni. His leadership has been clear and obvious on and off the floor, while his teammates are helping him with their consistent shooting. With Clint Capela out four-to-six weeks due to a lower leg injury, Harden will be carrying more of an offensive load. Even so, Harden should be able to keep this team afloat in Capela’s absence.
The Rockets have lost only one of their last nine and are one of the hottest teams in the league. Their defense has gotten better as they are only allowing 104.7 points per game. Considering the fact that they score 113 a game, the point differential is one of the best in the league just behind Golden State, Cleveland, L.A. Clippers and Toronto.
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