The quarter mark of the NBA season is rapidly approaching, meaning we have just enough of a sample to start looking at the MVP race. This year’s race is shaping up to be one of the tightest in NBA history, with at least four players with legitimate cases.
Before digging into the first rankings, let me throw out my criteria.
1. TEAM RECORD MATTERS
To be frank: if a player’s team isn’t in the top three in the conference — or at least on a 50-win pace — don’t expect that player to be ranked very highly. That may not be fair, but that falls in line with the (recent) history of MVP voting.
2. NUMBERS ALSO MATTER
I mean, duh. My general rule is that if the numbers aren’t All-NBA worthy, they certainly won’t be MVP worthy.
3. THE PLAYER MUST BE THE UNDISPUTED BEST PLAYER ON HIS TEAM
We’ve seen LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry win MVPs in recent memory despite having All-NBA-caliber teammates. Considering they were easily their team’s most productive/important player, there wasn’t much of a reason to dock them for that.
Like last season, the number of players listed will shrink as the season goes on and we get a clearer picture of who the serious candidates are.
Without further ado, let’s fire up these rankings (and blow up my mentions in the process).
KEMBA WALKER (CHA, 10-8)
— Walker is having himself a career year again and has carried Charlotte. A rough stretch last week cratered their record, but Walker has been the real deal.
ISAIAH THOMAS (BOS, 10-8)
— With Al Horford and Jae Crowder on the mend early this year, the scoring and clutch play of Thomas was the biggest reason why Boston stayed afloat (Avery Bradley helped a ton, too!)
GORDON HAYWARD (UTA, 11-8)
— Games played and record keep Hayward out of the loop as a serious contender. For what it’s worth, Hayward is putting up 21-7-4 on the slowest team in the league, the Jazz are 8-5 with him (3-3 without him) and they’re 0-3 when he fails to score 20 points.
BLAKE GRIFFIN (14-5)
— The numbers don’t quite reflect it (though you could do a lot worse than 21-9-4), but we’ve seen some of the best of Griffin so far this year. His offensive versatility has been off the charts, and his defense hasn’t been gouge-your-eyes-out-bad this year.
GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO (8-8)
— Man. Giannis is stupid good. He’s been, at worst, the third-most versatile player in the NBA this year. His all-around stats — 22.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.1 steals, 2.1 blocks — have never been matched in any season in Basketball-Reference’s database.
STEPHEN CURRY (16-2)
— Outside of the 13-three game, it’s been kinda quiet on the Curry Hype Train. He’s been in the shadow of his superstar teammate (more on him later), but is quietly averaging 26-5-6 while flirting with another 50-40-90 season.
8. DEMAR DEROZAN (TOR, 12-6)
- STATS: 29.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals — 48.1/25.8/81.6
DeRozan started off the season with a Michael Jordan impersonation. He became the first player since “His Airness” to score 30 or more points in each of his first five games. Predictably, regression has hit DeRozan pretty hard in terms of scoring, especially as of late.
- First six games: 33.7 points on 24.5 attempts, 52.4 FG%
- Next six games: 32.3 points on 23.5 attempts, 48.2 FG%
- Last six games: 20.8 points on 15.8 attempts, 43.2 FG%
Despite the slippage, the Raptors have gone 4-2 in all three of those six-game intervals. Even with some wonky on-off numbers, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that DeRozan has been the best player on the East’s second-best team.
7. JIMMY BUTLER (CHI, 10-7)
- STATS: 25.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.6 steals — 47.3/40/88.6
Adding a pair of talented-but-declining, ball-dominant guards in Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo gave critics (AK, me), in the words of Stephen A. Smith, “cause to pause” about how it’d all fit. So far, the Bulls have played well, and nobody has benefited more than Butler.
Offensively, Butler has seemingly put it all together. He’s averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, true shooting percentage, free throw rate, usage, PER and Win Shares per 48 minutes. Via Synergy, Butler ranks in the 94th percentile in total offense — easily the best mark of his career.
The increased offensive production hasn’t hindered his defense, as he ranks in the 71st percentile in total defense.
6. KAWHI LEONARD (SAS, 15-4)
- STATS: 24.6 points, 6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.1 steals — 45.7/38/92.2
For the third straight season, Leonard has taken a larger role offensively, this time as the unquestioned alpha. The results have been pretty darn good, though he’s tapered off as late.
His free throw attempts per game have skyrocketed from 4.6 last season to 7.4 this year, which has helped offset the dip in field goal percentage and three-point percentage.
Leonard has been much better defensively than his numbers reflect, as he’s only ranking in the 46th percentile on defense.
5. CHRIS PAUL (LAC, 14-5)
- STATS: 17.9 points, 8.8 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 2.8 steals — 44.8/41.4/89.4
Griffin has slightly sexier numbers, but Paul has been the heartbeat of this year’s Clippers — and their best two-way player. He’s shot the ball at an elite clip, defended at a high level, rebounded at his New Orleans level and has run LA’s offense to near-perfection while averaging a career-low 31.5 minutes.
3b. RUSSELL WESTBROOK (OKC, 12-8)
- STATS: 31.2 points, 11.3 assists, 10.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals — 42.6/33.6/82.8
3a. JAMES HARDEN (HOU, 11-7)
- STATS: 28.7 points, 11.9 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals — 45.2/36.2/86.2
Yeah, I cheated here. This will be sorted out as the year goes on, but I’m not sure how to split these two up right now.
Harden has been more efficient, has defended better (which, admittedly, isn’t a very high bar to clear) and his team technically has a better record. Adding his points with his points created via assists, Harden is creating a league-high 57.3 points per game; Westbrook is at 57.2.
Poor shooting performances aside, Westbrook is averaging a freakin’ triple-double and has inexplicably thrown up some of the better clutch performances of the season so far. Numbers — especially efficiency numbers — are important, but ruthless aggression and being able to get a shot or to the free throw line any time you want still has value, even if we can’t quite quantify it.
In terms of quality of teammates, Eric Gordon/Clint Capela/Ryan Anderson vs. Victor Oladipo/Steven Adams/Enes Kanter is an interesting debate. I’d argue that OKC’s trio is more talented, while Houston’s trio fits Harden better.
I don’t have the answers (yet), Sway.
2. LeBRON JAMES (CLE, 13-3)
- STATS: 23.5 points, 9.3 assists, 8.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals — 49.8/36.2/72
It still feels weird that we seem to forget just how good LeBron James. When you’re this good for this long, it becomes an expectation — for better or for worse.
LeBron seems to be going at half-speed this year, and the man is casually tossing up 23-8-9. Cleveland’s Big Three is playing extremely well together, and they’ve been blitzing teams when locked in. It’s scary that LeBron still has another level (or seven) he can get to.
1. KEVIN DURANT (GSW, 16-2)
- STATS: 27.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks — 57/44.2/84.9
BRING. ME. YOUR. HATE.
Durant ranks in the 98th percentile on offense and 80th percentile on defense.
His shooting percentages are apocalyptic.
He’s tossing up career-highs in PER, true shooting percentage and Win Shares per 48, with a career-low turnover rate.
His transition to Golden State has been smoother than expected — on both ends. Fully recognizing that LeBron isn’t going full speed yet, Durant has been the best player in the league this season.