We’re past the quarter point of the season, so it’s about time to check in on the Most Valuable Player race. This has been a two-person race between James Harden and LeBron James, but the rest of the field is wide open, so expect a lot of jockeying for positioning as the season goes along.
A reminder that Steve Nash won two MVPs for reasons that may have made more sense at the time. Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Dirk Nowitzki won only one apiece, while Chris Paul has never been bestowed the honor despite being the dominant point guard of his generation. It’s a fickle award, as our current leader knows all too well.
James Harden: The Beard could have been MVP in 2015 if not for Steph Curry and the Warriors’ historic season. He could have been MVP last season if not for Russell Westbrook’s rampage. There’s an understandable level of frustration among Rockets backers about Harden’s annual candidacy. What’s he got to do, exactly?
Well, basically, this.
Coming into play this week, Harden was averaging a career-high 31.7 points with almost 10 assists per contest. He’s an efficiency monster, and he tops out in numerous wonky categories like basketball-references VORP and Win Shares and ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus.
As impressive as they are, the numbers have been a given. It’s on the team level where Harden has separated himself. His Rockets aren’t just good: They’re one of the two or three best teams in the league. Harden ably led them to a 14-4 start when Paul was out to start the season, and he’s blended wonderfully with CP3 back in the lineup, ripping off eight straight wins. That’s the dynamic that will define this season.
Part of the beauty of this Rockets season is that both Harden and Paul can take turns running the team, meaning Houston will always have an elite playmaker on the floor. The either/or configuration has been especially potent (word to John Schuhmann), but Harden and Paul have also been quite good together. This experiment is looking brilliant and if it holds, this will finally be the year for Harden. Really.
LeBron James: It’s tough to put Bron second. He’s putting up 28-8-8 each night with career-high shooting percentages from the field and behind the arc. That he’s doing it while playing a league-high 37 minutes a night for a team that needs every ounce of his production at this stage of his career is absurd. (Tom Ziller has the definitive ranking of LeBron seasons for a historical perspective.)
The huge caveat with early-season MVP rankings is that LeBron has checked out of the race each of the last few seasons. It’s hard to imagine him maintaining this output for all 82 games, nor would it be advisable for a player looking to make his eighth straight run to the finals to go full-bore through the dog days. It would be a hell of a thing if he did, though.
At the moment, he and Harden are the clear co-favorites. Everything that follows is entirely subjective.
Steph Curry: We’ve grown immune to Steph seasons. He’s averaging 26 points with the second-best true shooting percentage of his career in just 32 minutes a night. His three-point shooting is down, but that only furthers the case that his best basketball is still ahead of him this season.
And the team context? The Warriors are almost 18 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions when Curry is on the court. All of their plus/minus numbers are off the charts, but the wrinkle here is that their offense takes a big hit (relatively speaking) when he’s on the bench. Kevin Durant may be a better player, but Curry’s impact on the Warrior whole is undeniable.
All of that is to say that if we’re picking a lead Warrior in December, I’m going with Steph.
Anthony Davis: Maybe he was right about wanting to be a four. The pairing with DeMarcus Cousins looks inspired and because Davis no longer has to do everything, he’s able to become the best version of himself.
While Cousins handles the beef on defense, AD is allowed to stretch his wings. While DeMarcus likes to initiate offense from the perimeter, AD is free to fly around the interior where he’s essentially unstoppable. (Karl-Anthony Towns pessimists, take note. It does take time to learn the nuances on both ends of the floor in this league.)
Davis is still just 24 years old, but this is what he looks like as a grown-up basketball player: 25 points, 11 boards, and a .640 true shooting percentage. Now stay healthy, AD. Please.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: He’s awesome. If you want to have him third or fourth, I wouldn’t put up a fight. That Giannis is able to dominate in this fashion without a reliable jump shot is one of the great joys of this league. That isn’t really supposed to be possible in this day and age. Get him going downhill, and he’s unguardable.
The rest (in some order)
Kevin Durant: Could be higher on this list, and I’d argue he and LeBron are the two best players in the league right now. KD chose this life. It includes rings and wins, and it’s a damn good life. It just might not have many MVPs in it.
Kyrie Horford: We’re really going to do this, aren’t we? We’re going to spend the next five months arguing about whether Kyrie’s clutch scoring is more valuable than Horford’s all-around defense. It’s a dumb argument to have, but when you’re 20-4 there isn’t much else to worry about.
Russell Westbrook: The numbers aren’t quite as eye-popping, and the standings have not been kind to last year’s MVP. If the Thunder figure it out, and I assume that they will, Russ will move back into the conversation. For now it’s a non-starter.
Damian Lillard: One of the best leaders in the game is having a typical Dame season, with two important caveats: He’s not even making his threes at a regular clip yet, and he’s been committed on the defensive end. He’s a sleeper to move into the top five before it’s all said and done.
LaMarcus Aldridge: He’s having a career renaissance in the absence of Kawhi Leonard. The two things may be related. Kawhi’s due back soon, but LMA has kept the Spurs afloat through the first quarter of the season.
LaMarcus Aldridge recorded his 16th 20+ scoring game of the season last night in Memphis. WATCH: pic.twitter.com/nRknR9AgUn— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) December 2, 2017
Jimmy Butler: I got some pushback on Twitter when I suggested Jimmy was a viable MVP candidate. He’s not, really, when you consider the staggering numbers others are putting up this season. Yet, Butler is the biggest reason why the Wolves are finally in playoff contention. That should count for something, even if his numbers aren’t up to their usual standards.
DeMarcus Cousins: I admit, I have no idea what to do with DMC on this list. But he’s on it.
Andre Drummond: OK, now we’re getting out there.