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NBA Most Valuable Player Watch — 11/28/17

As the NBA gets set for their second full month of play, the cream is beginning to rise to the top in the MVP race.

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Another leg of the season has come and gone. Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror and teams are getting set to hit their second full month of the season. With that comes a bit of separation and clarity when ranking the league’s MVP candidates.

Here at Basketball Insiders, our last installment of the MVP Watchlist saw some changes from its first rendition. This time around, a juggling of names at the top, and a newcomer on a rising team are the changes.

Instead of letting the suspense build any further, let’s get into it.

  1. Joel Embiid

By now, everyone knows Joel Embiid’s story. From missing his first two seasons because of injury to having his third season — which quickly become magical — cut short due to another injury, Embiid is finally getting an extended chance to make an impact on the court for the Philadelphia 76ers.

On the surface, Embiid’s numbers are impressive: 22.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game.

But dig a little deeper and Embiid’s real presence can be seen on this upstart Sixers team. When Embiid is on the court, the team’s offensive rating is 109.2, compared to their opponents’, which is 101.3 as the towering big man guards the paint.

As soon as Embiid takes a seat on the bench (or lays down beside it) the story changes. The Sixers’ offensive rating drops to 102.5 while their opponent’s soars to 110.8.

Embiid’s carefree personality off the court and on social media builds the persona of a kid just having fun with the game. But when he’s on the court, Embiid is all business.

His two-way impact has his young Sixers team at 11-8 on the season, with impressive wins over the likes of the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, and Detroit Pistons — not to mention Embiid’s ridiculous 46-15-7-7 line against the Los Angeles Lakers.

If Philadelphia wants to get to the playoffs and make any type of noise, it’ll be on the back of their 7-foot-2 center.

  1. Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving continues his post-LeBron tour with winning at all costs.

The Boston Celtics hold the best record in the entire league at 18-4, and Irving has been the perfect embodiment of the Mamba Mentality throughout it all.

Being the main catalyst of the Celtics’ offense, Irving has come up the most when his team is in crunch time. In 13 games, Irving has found himself in league designated “clutch” time. While in these moments, almost nobody in the NBA has performed the standards Irving has. The 6-foot-3 point guard is shooting a ridiculous 61.5 percent from the field in these scenarios.

While Boston won’t win games in many more 16-game streaks like the one they had ended last Wednesday, they still figure to win pretty regularly. Maybe Irving doesn’t have what it takes yet to dethrone the Cavaliers in May, especially without Gordon Hayward, but so far this year he’s proving his decision to step into his own limelight was well worth it.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

After holding down the top spot in the first two installments in this MVP watchlist, Giannis Antetokounmpo slides down to No. 4 this time.

With a mix of jaw-dropping performances from his competition and a bit of slowed production on his end, the Greek Freak doesn’t look to be in line for his wire-to-wire MVP season like it seemed he would be at first glance.

While still producing incredible averages (29.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game), Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks haven’t been winning as many games as they would have hoped. Sitting at just 9-9 so far, it’s still very early, but a team that made the playoffs last season, with an MVP candidate at the helm, should be asserting their dominance a bit more. That, for the most part, explains Antetokounmpo’s drop in this ranking.

However, with 64 games left on Milwaukee’s schedule, it’s obviously still very much in play that Antetokounmpo will claim the first MVP trophy of his career. But as of right now, he’s going to have to make up some ground on the guys in front of him.

  1. Steph Curry

Even with all of the firepower that surrounds him, Steph Curry still proves to be the engine that makes the Golden State Warriors go.

The addition of Kevin Durant will likely keep Curry from actually winning this award, as we’ve noted here before, but that doesn’t downplay the impact Curry’s been having this season.

On both sides of the ball, something that often been criticized of Curry, the Warriors are taking a step back when he hits the bench. Not only does Golden State’s offensive rating plummet 12.8 points, but the opponent’s offensive rating actually sees a 4.6 point spike when Curry takes a seat.

The scoring and initiating will always be the focal point when it comes to talking about Curry, and rightfully so. But so far this season, it appears that the Warriors’ point guard is having a positive impact defensively as well.

Golden State should have no problem rolling to another Finals appearance this year, but even with their star-studded cast, don’t forget who the most vital piece is right now.

  1. LeBron James

In year 15, LeBron James is somehow having a career year.

James is shooting a career-best from the field, a career best from three-point land, averaging the most points and blocks per game since 2009-10, and is shooting 62.2 percent in clutch scenarios.

Not to mention, after a rough start to the year, he has the Cavaliers in the midst of an eight-game winning streak and has seemingly worked out the kinks to his team’s defensive woes (at least enough to make a difference).

All the while, James, and the Cavs are missing Isaiah Thomas and Derrick Rose — their starting and backup point guards — to injury.

After a decade and a half of pure dominance, it seems like James is doing anything but slowing down. With the departure of Irving, should the Cavs find a way to dominate this regular season when it’s all said and done behind a career year from James, it will be hard to award anyone but the King with the MVP crown.

At this rate, James may want to start clearing a little space on his mantle for a potential 5th MVP trophy.

  1. James Harden

After a long list of impressive candidates, no player is coming close to James Harden so far this season.

The Beard leads the league in both scoring and assists right now, all while Chris Paul has been sidelined for most of the season. In Mike D’Antoni’s hyperspeed offense, Harden appears to be the perfect fit.

Along with shooting a career high from beyond the arc, Harden also is posting his best defensive rating since 2014-15. His spiked two-way play is helping the Houston Rockets look like the best threat to the Warriors since the Golden State dynasty began its run.

Even with Paul coming back into the mix, Harden’s stamp on this MVP race is made. If anything, Harden may even see his scoring numbers increase with another capable playmaker and secondary scoring option on the court with him.

After an MVP-worthy season last year, Harden seems poised to get his this time around.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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