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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – 3/26/18

David Yapkowitz breaks down the frontrunners in the MVP race.

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Updated 10 months ago on
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It was last month when we last checked in on the MVP race here at Basketball Insiders, and since then, we’ve seen some new faces enter their names for consideration.

The Golden State Warriors have lost both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant for an extended period of time due to injury. The Cleveland Cavaliers have somewhat emerged from their earlier slump with LeBron James leading the way. And of course, the Houston Rockets, powered by James Harden, continue to excel.

Here’s a look at what the updated MVP standings should look like.

6. Kevin Durant

While Steph Curry’s injury is supposed to keep him out for at least the first round of the playoffs, Kevin Durant should be back before then. The Warriors are pretty much locked into the second seed in the Western Conference. They may not be as good record-wise as the Rockets have been, but they’ve been good nonetheless. Durant has been one of the main catalysts for that.

Prior to his injury, Durant was still playing at an MVP level. He’s incredibly close to the 50-40-90 club. He’s shooting 52 percent from the field, 43 percent from the three-point line, and 88.7 percent from the free-throw line. He’s putting up a team-best 26.6 points per game, pulling down 6.8 rebounds and dishing out 5.4 assists. However, it’s likely that because of his injury he’s out of consideration for the running.

5. DeMar DeRozan

For the past month and a half or so, the Toronto Raptors have climbed atop the Eastern Conference standings and it’s looking likely to remain that way. How that translates to postseason success remains to be seen. But the reason they’ve surged in the standings is largely due to DeMar DeRozan. He’s been the best and most important player for the Raptors all season long.

One of the major knocks on DeRozan has been his lack of a three-point shot and reliance on the mid-range game in a league that is trending towards outside shooting. He’s become a much improved three-point shooter this season which has helped the Raptors offense tremendously. He’s also been criticized for causing the offense to stagnate at times and he’s responded by dishing out a career-high 5.1 assists.

4. Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard didn’t appear on our last Basketball Insiders MVP watch. But in the month or so in between, without a doubt, he’s made a solid case for the NBA’s highest award. The Portland Trail Blazers have gone from a team that was hovering near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff standings to a team that is now a serious threat to having home court advantage in the first round. That’s strongly in part to Lillard having an MVP type season.

Not only has Lillard become one of the most potent scorers in the league, he’s one of the best in crunch time. He’s been playing some of the best basketball of his career since the All-Star break. It’s no coincidence that the Blazers rise in the standings has come at that same time. The Blazers recently rattled off a 13-game win streak with Lillard putting up 30.5 points per game and 6.4 assists during that stretch.

3. Anthony Davis

Another newcomer to the race since Basketball Insiders last looked at the MVP watch, Davis has been nothing short of amazing this season. To begin the season, the New Orleans Pelicans looked like a fringe playoff team—good enough to make it, but wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t. Even before DeMarcus Cousins went down for the year, they were closer to the bottom half of the playoff picture. Davis has gone on a tear since then.

The Pelicans hit a bit of a rough patch following Cousins’ injury, but a 10-game win streak with Davis playing some of the best basketball of his career saw them surge in the standings. They currently sit fifth out West, only a half-game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for fourth. Last month alone, Davis had games of 43, 44, 42, 45 and 53 points—all Pelicans wins. He’s averaging career-bests across the board with 28.2 points, 53.8 percent shooting from the field, 34.2 percent from downtown and 2.3 assists.

2. LeBron James

The Cavaliers have had their ups and downs this season, including some brutal losses. But the sole reason why they haven’t collapsed completely is LeBron James. At age 33, James is still showing no signs of slowing down. The Cavaliers are 7-3 in their last ten games and currently own a five-game win streak. They’ve catapulted themselves back up to the third seed in the East.

James is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career while almost single-handedly keeping the Cavaliers afloat. His 36.7 percent from beyond the arc is the third highest for his career. His 8.6 rebounds per game tie a career-high, and his 9.1 assists are a career-high. His 27.4 points per game are good enough for third in the league. Cleveland has looked plenty vulnerable at times this season, but any would-be challengers still have to face the prospect of beating James four times in a series.

1. James Harden

All season long, James Harden has been the overwhelming favorite for MVP, and nothing has changed at this point. When we last looked at the MVP race, the Rockets were trailing the Warriors in the Western Conference standings. They’ve since surpassed them and are in firm control of the top seed. They’ve also reached the 60 win plateau already.

While Harden made a solid case for MVP for much of last year, he ultimately lost out to Russell Westbrook. This year is a completely different story. Harden’s 30.9 points per game are the best in the NBA. His 8.6 assists per game are good enough for third in the league, and it’s his second-best career-mark. The MVP is his to lose at this point and he’s already done enough to separate himself from the rest of the pack.

With the regular season winding down, it’s likely that the MVP race won’t change too drastically from here on out. Davis is making a very strong late season surge and so is James, but realistically, Harden is too far ahead of them.

Barring any unforeseen developments, look for Harden to walk away with his first MVP award.

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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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