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Early breakdown of the 2016-17 NBA MVP race

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The 2016-17 NBA season is only a few weeks old, but several players are already taking aim at the history books.

Russell Westbrook is threatening to become the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. James Harden has a chance to lead the league in scoring and assists, which hasn’t been done since 1973. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant might become the first teammates to enter the 50/40/90 club in the same season. LeBron James is now the youngest player to notch 27,000 career points. DeMar DeRozan is taking over Toronto, setting a franchise record for most points in a season-opener (40) and becoming the first Raptor to score 30-plus in five straight games. Chris Paul became the Clippers all-time assist leader en route to leading his team to an NBA-best 10-1 record.

The statistical onslaught opens the door for one of the deepest MVP races in recent memory. There are at least nine players with legitimate cases for the league’s most prestigious individual award, with a couple of other dark-horse contenders also in the mix. In theory, that list will get shorter as the season progresses, but the analytical assault we’ve seen thus far makes you wonder if the pool of contenders could grow even bigger.

For now, let’s take a look at the guys with a shot at taking home the Maurice Podoloff trophy.

Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers hold the best record in basketball thanks in large part to the efforts of Chris Paul. In addition to being the conductor of Lob City’s offense, CP3 is also the catalyst behind an L.A. team leading the league in defensive efficiency and points allowed (92.2 per game). He leads the league in steals (2.9), defensive rating (89.4), defensive win shares (1.0) and defensive box plus/minus (5.1).

Paul  also leads in offensive rating (135.6), player efficiency rating (33.6) and win shares (3.0), which bodes well for his MVP candidacy. The 31-year-old is benefiting from Blake Griffin’s healthy return and DeAndre Jordan continuing to establish himself as a force inside. Their health and the good fortune of the supporting cast will be huge for keeping Paul in the running.

In addition to his dominance in advanced stats, Paul is fourth in the NBA with assists (8.5). Even if he can’t take home his first MVP, his work as a stopper should make him the early front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year.

Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

Two years ago, Russell Westbrook gave the basketball world a glimpse of what he can do without Kevin Durant around. With the then-reigning MVP sidelined by a foot injury, Westbrook attempted to carry OKC to the playoffs by becoming a triple-double machine.

Now, with KD in Golden State, Westbrook is taking advantage of having the offense to himself. He leads the league with three triple-doubles (including two in his first three games) and his season averages are approaching “Big O” territory. He’s second in scoring (32 ppg), second in assists (9.9) and his 9.7 rebounds per game is tops among point guards.

However, Westbrook’s gaudy numbers aren’t producing much in the win column. After a hot 4-0 start, the Thunder are now 6-5 and losers of four straight. Much like in ’14-15, Westbrook’s MVP chances go hand-in-hand with team success. If he can’t push Oklahoma City up the standings, his potentially historic season will once again be for naught.

LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers

With Durant and Curry possibly splitting votes in the Bay Area, LeBron James opened the season as the favorite to win his fifth MVP award. It was hard not to like his chances. At 31 years old, he’s in the prime of his career and is the best player on a defending NBA champion destined for another Finals run.

Even with stars out West stealing some of his spotlight, James hasn’t disappointed. Like Westbrook, James is also working on averaging a triple-double (23.4 points, 9.6 assists, 8.9 rebounds) while helping Cleveland to an East-leading 9-1 record. At his current pace, LBJ is on track to finish the regular season in the top-10 of the NBA’s all-time scoring list, narrowly passing Shaquille O’Neal for the ninth spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) gives directions to his teammates during an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks in Cleveland, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Phil Long)

(AP Photo/Phil Long)

James’ MVP bid could be thwarted by the pursuit of a bigger prize. With the miles accumulating on the 14-year veteran’s tires, the Cavaliers may decide to rest James down the stretch to keep him fresh for the postseason. He will also face further competition from teammate Kyrie Irving, who James campaigned for as an MVP candidate earlier this season.

James Harden, PG, Houston Rockets

James Harden’s otherworldly skills and Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced scheme were a marriage made in basketball heaven. Once D’Antoni made Harden his starting point guard, The Beard’s stock as an MVP candidate increased. After all, MDA was the guiding light to Steve Nash winning two MVP awards during their time together in Phoenix. It was only natural to assume he could recreate that magic with an even more athletic talent in Harden.

Harden’s inaugural season as the Rockets’ “points guard” is working out just fine. He’s averaging 30.3 points (fifth in the NBA) on 19.1 shots per game (6th) while still leading the league in assists (12.7). Harden is also one of two players to shoot above 38 percent from three while averaging eight or more attempts from downtown. Steph Curry (47.5 percent on 10.1 attempts) is the other. Houston’s offensive rating is also 30.1 points better when Harden is on the court than when he’s off it.

The flip side to Harden’s MVP candidacy is two-fold. First, the Rockets are 6-4 (fourth in the West) and face an uphill battle in a top-heavy conference. Unless The Beard gets some help, Houston won’t be high enough in the standings to draw consideration from candidates in L.A, San Antonio and Golden State. Harden’s much-maligned defense hasn’t improved much either. His Defensive Box Plus Minus is minus-0.1, which is only slightly better than last season’s minus-0.4.

In essence, voting for Harden would be like taking a designated hitter in baseball over an everyday Gold Glover.

Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs

Already the league’s reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard is carry the Spurs’ torch in the post-Tim Duncan era. His offensive numbers continue to improve, posting career-highs in scoring (25.5), field-goal attempts (18), free-throw attempts (7.7) and free-throw percentage (95.3).

The Spurs are 8-3 despite injuries and an aging supporting cast around Leonard. With the Warriors’ dynamic duo likely splitting votes, the door is open for Leonard to add to his trophy case. His early career accolades already include two DPOY nods and a All-Star MVP.

The case against the San Diego State standout is the increased offensive burden is affecting his elite defensive numbers. He’s posting career-lows in Defensive Win Shares (0.7) and Defensive Box Plus Minus (1.1). Opponents are also shooting 7.4 percent better than their normal overall average with Leonard guarding them.

DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors

After proclaiming “I am Toronto” in the offseason, DeMar DeRozan is backing up those words by putting the Raptors on his back. He’s the NBA’s leader in scoring (33.2 ppg) and shot attempts (24.5) despite the presence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry in the backcourt. DeRozan’s 105 points in the first three games of the season are a franchise record, surpassing the mark held by Chris Bosh in 2009-10 (95 pts). His 33.2 points per game is also the fifth-highest average through the first 10 games in the last 30 seasons.

The most impressive part of DeRozan’s offensive output is it is coming with little help from the three-point line. He is attempting just 1.9 shots from deep. Instead, he is doing most of his damage from mid-range. 120 of his 245 takes are coming from that area of the court, per NBA.com.

DeRozan will need to sustain this offensive momentum to keep his improbable MVP chances alive. He’ll also need to end LeBron and the Cavaliers’ stranglehold on the East to improve his case. As it stands, Toronto is third in the conference at 7-3 and already took two L’s from Cleveland this season.

Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry, SF/PG, Golden State Warriors

As expected, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are proving to be an imposing 1-2 punch for the Warriors. Statistically, the two former MVPs are putting up similar numbers.

  • Durant: 27.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.4 blocks, 56.2 percent on 17.8 field-goal attempts, 40.4 percent on 4.7 threes
  • Curry: 27.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 50.6 percent on 17.8 field-goal attempts, 47.5 percent on 10.1 threes

Durant and Curry are the most consistent members of a Golden State squad still working out the kinks, especially on the defensive side (14th in efficiency). Both players are former members of the 50/40/90 club and are headed in that direction again.

The problem is individual success will be hard to achieve with both healthy and on the same roster. Curry needed historic three-point numbers to stand out on an all-time great team to win the MVP the last two seasons. Durant needed a Westbrook injury to win the award three years ago. As long as the duo continue to dominate together, it will be difficult for voters to pick one over the other.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers: The depth at his position makes him a long shot to win, but Dame Dolla’s early numbers can’t be overlooked. He’s posting career highs in scoring (30.7 ppg, third in the NBA), rebounds (five per game) and field-goal percentage (48.6) for a Portland team that won’t go away.

Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans: The good news is The Anthony Davis Show (30.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, league-leading 2.9 blocks) is the only thing keeping New Orleans from being a laughingstock. The bad news is, even with The Brow’s all-around greatness, the Pels hold the second-worst record in basketball (2-9).

Kemba Walker, PG, Charlotte Hornets: Like Lillard, Walker has no shot of pulling mainstream attention away from his better-known counterparts. Still, he’s the best player (25.3 points, 5.4 assists) on the surprisingly good Hornets (7-3).

Jimmy Butler, SF, Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are off to a somewhat surprising 7-4 start, and Butler is the man behind it. He’s putting up superb all-around numbers with 24.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, and he’s doing it extremely efficiently (28.7 PER, 64.2 TS%).



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