There has been so many 50-plus point games and incredible individual performances this year. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are obviously filling the stat sheet, but there are other players putting up producing at an extremely high level as well.
The list of potential candidates has diminished a bit, so the race has gotten tighter. We’ve kept the list at seven candidates for now. But 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) as we hone in on the legitimate candidates.
Each Thursday, Basketball Insiders drops our MVP rankings. Did your favorite player make the cut?
Through 36 games, Curry is averaging 24.2 points on 16.9 field goal attempts. These numbers aren’t jumping off the board anymore, but his play still is. His ability to facilitate this offense and find open teammates has been vastly underrated this year due to Kevin Durant’s incredible play. He’s averaging his lowest turnover rate since the 2011-12 season. But his shooting has been inconsistent, as he’s averaging the lowest shooting percentage since his rookie year.
Curry has a gift to score at will, but Durant is doing much more at the current moment. However, in the month of January, Curry is starting to find his stride. He’s averaging nearly 29 points per game, almost five points higher than his season average. But he’s still not the Curry we’re used to seeing. Remember, he’s taken a backseat to Durant and he’s done it with it nothing but class. It’s unprecedented for a two-time MVP (and a unanimous one, no less) to have another player come in and take over the franchise. Keep that in mind when you’re talking about Curry. This team will need him as they get closer to the playoffs and he should only get better as the season progresses. This offseason, everyone discussed which player would lose the most out of this marriage. It appears Curry has made the biggest sacrifice so far, but he’s still averaging 24.2 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds. If that’s him taking a back-seat, imagine what kind of numbers he can post if Golden State can get him more involved and increase his shooting percentages.
6. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (Last Week: 6)
Lowry has taken over the shine in Toronto. His ability to hit the outside shot, coupled with his assist numbers and defensive presence, make him extremely important (and underrated). As statistical and historical data have shown, most MVPs come from a top-two seed. This helps Lowry and DeRozan in their quest for the MVP, as many of the top players this year are lower in the standings. Still, even with that knowledge, they’ve got jump even higher if they really want to be considered for the award. With the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant all leading top-two seeds, the argument to put DeRozan or Lowry over them isn’t strong enough. If DeRozan was continuing his 30-plus point scoring streak with the same efficiency as earlier in the season, he’d have a case potentially. But the problem continues to be that they’re splitting the load. Statistically, they’re not jumping off the charts, and record-wise, while they’re a top-two seed, they have competition that’s greater than them. It’s a tough position, but if they can keep up the pace both individually, and as a team, they’ll certainly be on the outside of the conversation.
Leonard’s team is still winning and that’s good for his stock. The problem we’re starting to see is that his teammate LaMarcus Aldridge is starting to gain some momentum. While Aldridge isn’t gaining momentum in the MVP conversation, he’s performing much better for the Spurs, which seems to be affecting Leonard’s statistics and value. Leonard is one of the best two-way players in the game and has a ton of non-statistical value. But in Leonard’s last 10 games, we’ve seen his numbers drop off. For the season, Leonard averages 24 points, 3.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds. But within the past 10 contests, we’ve seen his statistics drop to 22.6 points, 3.1 assists and 5.4 rebounds. In a smaller, more recent sample size, Leonard is averaging 20.7 points, 3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds in the past three games. While this isn’t do or die for arguably the league’s best two-way player, the fact that he’s taken a step back statistically hurts his cause and it’s something to keep an eye on.
Durant lost on Christmas day to LeBron James and the Cavaliers. It’s just one game, but that was a statement game for Golden State with all of the basketball world watching. While Durant was still at his best, not winning that game hurt his cause in these rankings. We all know the Warriors can beat any team on any given night, but the fact that he lost the most important regular season game hurt his chances in the short-term. We’ll move on soon enough, but that one stings.
As far as the season goes, Durant has been spectacular. His underrated defensive value and ability to score with such efficiency cements him in this conversation for the long-haul. Golden State seems poised to have the NBA’s best record, but with that comes pressure and scrutiny. Durant has handled everything very well considering the circumstances, but there are some alarming statistics that stand out. In losses, Durant averages 30 points, but in wins, Durant averages 25.2 points. While they’ve only lost a handful of times, people will look at this and question if Golden State needs him scoring more.
He’s firmly in the race, but Golden State’s on-court chemistry and decision-making will need to be addressed and fixed in order for Durant to win this award.
James has shown that he’s still the best player in the league. While he’s not the statistical monster that Westbrook or Harden is, he’s on arguably the best team in the NBA and leading the charge. Since J.R. Smith went down, there were some doubts about how the Cavaliers would respond. James stepped up and took on a greater role offensively averaging two more points and more rebounds. While that doesn’t sound impressive, he’s calmly and quietly averaging 27.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game on the best team in the Eastern Conference. As our Alex Kennedy recently wrote, James is (somehow) flying under the radar despite posting monster stats since we take his greatness for granted at this point.
King James is going to be in this conversation throughout the season and if the Thunder or Rockets slip up or if Westbrook or Harden regress, James could be in line for the award.
2. Russell Westbrook (Last Week: 2)
The Thunder have lost three in a row and look like they’re falling back down to earth. Still, Westbrook continues to average godly numbers, but if his team isn’t in the top-four or five in the Western Conference, it’ll be hard to justify giving him the award. In the last five games, Westbrook is averaging 30 points on 38 percent shooting, and that’s not good enough for the Thunder to win games. He’ll need to increase his efficiency to get Oklahoma City back on track but in order to do so, who else can help him? As much as we’d like to think winning as a team while individually averaging a triple-double with efficiency is sustainable, it’s hard to see it happening over a full season. The Thunder have an increasingly difficult schedule coming up and with the recent run of losses, it’ll be hard to see Westbrook as the number one candidate in the MVP race.
Harden’s Rockets are still winning. Even without Clint Capela, who was a primary pick-and-roll option on both offense and defense, they still continue to win. Mike D’Antoni deserves some of the credit and Daryl Morey deserves some as well, but Harden’s play has seemingly been the biggest factor. His playmaking and scoring are on another level. In the last 10 games, Harden is averaging 30 points, 12.3 assists and 8.8 rebounds for a team that has won their last six contests. Shooting almost 47 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from behind-the-arc and 90 percent from the charity stripe in the past 10 games, Harden has some of the best efficiency numbers from a high-volume scorer that we’ve seen.
On Dec. 31, Harden and the Rockets played the New York Knicks. Not only did Harden have a career-best game, he made history. He scored 53 points on 53.8 percent shooting (including 56.3 percent behind the arc), while also contributing 17 assists and 16 rebounds. Harden has changed the minds of a lot of NBA fans, becoming a player that has improved mentally, physically and statistically. His leadership looks vastly improved and the once questioned star is now showing his true self. We documented his transformation over the offseason, but I don’t think anyone expected what he’s doing this season.
Be sure to check out the latest MVP rankings every Thursday night on Basketball Insiders.
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