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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – 2/13/18

David Yapkowitz breaks down the frontrunners in the MVP race.

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It’s been a while since we last looked at the MVP race here at Basketball Insiders, and there have been some interesting developments during that time. Lebron James once looked the overall favorite, but since then the Cleveland Cavaliers have been mired in a prolonged slump. The Houston Rockets have maintained their high level of play with James Harden at the helm. The Toronto Raptors have surged into first place in the Eastern Conference. And of course, the Golden State Warriors remain the league standard. Here’s a look at what the MVP rankings should currently look like.

6. Kyrie Irving

Earlier this season, Irving was making a case for the favorite for MVP. The Boston Celtics were off to the best start in the league with Irving taking his game to a new level. The Celtics have since come back down to Earth a little bit and Irving has missed a few games here and there due to injury, but they’re still one of the top teams in the league behind him.

Irving was recently named to his fifth All-Star appearance and second consecutive one. His scoring is actually down some, from 25.2 points per game last season to 24.7 this season. He is scoring on previously unseen levels of efficiency, however. His 48.5 percent shooting from the field is a career-high, and he’s shooting 39.6 percent from the three-point line. He was often maligned in Cleveland for his defense, but under Brad Stevens, he’s looked the part of a capable defender.

5. Kevin Durant

It’s rare that we see a team that has more than one contender for MVP, yet that’s the situation we face in Golden State. Durant had already won an MVP award prior to signing with the Warriors, and he’s kept up his level of play since arriving in the bay. The Warriors hold the best record in the league, and that’s largely due to Durant.

Durant was named to his ninth consecutive All-Star team. He’s one of the few players in the league approaching the vaunted 50-40-90 club. He’s shooting 51.5 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from three-point range, and 88.8 percent from the free throw line. He’s tied a career-high this seasons with 5.5 assists, and he’s emerged as perhaps the Warriors’ best help defender and interior shot blocker.

4. Lebron James

Despite the Cavaliers’ recent poor play prior to the trade deadline, the only reason why the team didn’t collapse completely and managed to stay afloat in the standings was solely because of James. The night before the Cavaliers traded half their roster, James had hit a game-winning shot against the Minnesota Timberwolves for a much-needed shot of momentum. It’s possible that now that it appears the Cavaliers may turn things around, James could shoot back up to the top of the MVP watch.

Not only was James named to his 14th consecutive All-Star selection, he’s been an All-Star every year of his career except for his rookie season. Now in his 15th year in the league, he’s showing no signs of a drop off in play. He’s putting up 26.4 points per game on 54.4 percent shooting from the field. He’s averaging a career-high 8.9 assists. The Cavaliers are six games out of first place in the Eastern Conference, and it’s conceivable that they might be able to get there, especially if James continues his level of play.

3. DeMar DeRozan

It’s probably a bit shocking to some to have DeRozan this high on this list, especially ahead of some of the other guys, but you cannot argue with the results. While Cleveland has been stuck in a rut and Boston cooling off a bit, the Toronto Raptors have quietly continued winning while seizing the first overall seed in the East. DeRozan has been far and away the Raptors’ best and most valuable player all season long. He definitely deserves consideration for the league’s most prestigious award.

The Raptors are a different animal this season and that’s largely because of DeRozan. He’s been accused in the past of being an inefficient volume scorer, but as the Raptors have changed their style of play, so has DeRozan. They’ve implemented a much more free-flowing offense predicated on good ball movement to get better shots. DeRozan often was the culprit of causing the offense to stagnate, but he’s completely bought into this new system. He’s averaging a career-high 5.1 assists per game, and he’s even become a reliable three-point threat.

2. Stephen Curry

Part of what makes the Warriors so deadly is that they have two legit MVP candidates on the team. Although Durant is making his own case for the NBA’s top individual award, Curry has been the best player on the team. The Warriors hold the best overall record in the league and that’s largely due to Curry.

The five-time All-Star and two-time MVP leads the team in scoring with 26.9 points per game. He’s shooting 49.4 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from the three-point line, and he’s second on the team in assists with 6.5. He might be the overall favorite for a third MVP award if not for a certain shooting guard in Houston.

1. James Harden

Harden was neck and neck with Russell Westbrook for the MVP award for a large part of last season before Westbrook ultimately ran away with it. This season, the award is Harden’s to lose. It’s just about the halfway mark of the season and Harden has done more than enough to separate himself from the rest of the pack.

The six-time All-Star is leading the Rockets and the league in scoring with a career-high 31.3 points per game. He’s shooting 44.8 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three-point range. He’s tied with Lebron James for second in the league in assists with 8.9. He also made a big mark on NBA history this season when he had the first ever 60-point triple double with 60 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists in a win over the Orlando Magic on Jan. 30. Even if the Rockets do not end up catching the Warriors for first in the West, the MVP is still his to lose.

There’s still a good chunk of the season left to play, and it’s possible some of these guys might rise or fall on this list depending on how they do the rest of the way. For some of these guys, they’re used to be mentioned in the MVP debate. But for others such as Irving and DeRozan, this is new territory for them. It appears as if this is Harden’s year, and that the award is his to lose, but some of these other guys might make things a bit more interesting as we come down the stretch.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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