We're only two weeks into the season. Teams have played fewer than eight games. There are more than 4 1/2 months remaining in the NBA season, so we can't possibly have any idea of who the MVP should be.

And that would be the case if no one had elevated themselves to that level. But we've seen the opposite. There have been incredible performances by top stars. Multiple players are within striking distance -- or at least can see a vague horizon -- of averaging a triple-double for an entire season. You could not have asked for a more compelling start to what was a wide-open race.

So what does the race for MVP in these early days look like?


You can offer up anyone, but I restricted it to two camps: name candidates who must be included (like Stephen Curry) and players among the top 15 in Win Shares and Value Over Replacement Player. There's a level of subjectivity inherent in any MVP discussion, but there also are tiers separating serious names from the rest.


These evaluations aren't based on who I would vote for today. I don't have a vote. It's a consideration of criteria voters are likely to utilize in a matrix ranking candidates on a 1-5 scale with 5 being strongest. As follows:

Team Performance: You have to win games. No player since 1985 has won MVP without a top-three seed, and the lowest since 1980 was Moses Malone, whose Rockets were a sixth seed when he won one of his three (1982). Putting up numbers on a bad team is likely to get you more bad press than good.

Statistical production: Per-game stats still rule the day, but more voters are incorporating advanced stats, player-tracking data, and numbers from outlets like Synergy Sports. Or at least, those voters have people and media outlets feeding them that info. Stats matter. You must have concrete evidence.

INFH (If Not For Him): The word "valuable" always gets under people's skin. A lot of people simply define "valuable" not as the best player, but as the most valuable to his team. So this variable ranks how much that individual player makes the team better. For example, Kevin Durant's team is very good ... but it was good before he got there.

2WP (Two-Way Player): Defense matters. And more than ever (as James Harden has discovered), if you laze around on one end, you're won't escape that reputation. You need to be able to showcase at least some level of competency on both ends.

LeBron James might just be leading the MVP pack right now. USATSI

Narrative: Now we're in the weeds. How do you judge a narrative structure on a 1-5 scale? You can't, so this is vague yet important. Derrick Rose's story, a kid from Chicago returning his hometown team (the team mythologized by the Jordan era) to prominence, in the same year LeBron James joined the Heat, was powerful, and influenced voters. Rose was a powerful story and many (but not necessarily most) voters are writers who value a good story.

Eye Test: Harden's impact statistically is never going to match the eye test. He will always do more than it seems. In many ways, James is kind of similar to this, astounding because watching him is awe-inspiring. Basically, when you watch a player, how impressive is he? How many games and individual moments do voters remember?


What's interesting is that before I put together the table with those variables, this is where I would have put the race:

Tier 1: Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden

Tier 2: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis

Tier 3: Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan

Now, here's where I landed after evaluating them on those characteristics.

Player Team Performance Statistical Production IFNFH 2WP Narrative Eye Test TOTAL
LeBron James 5 4 4 5 3 5 26
Russell Westbrook 5 4 5 2 5 4 25
James Harden 4 5 5 2 5 4 25
Kawhi Leonard 4 4 4 5 4 4 25
Blake Griffin 5 3 3 3 4 5 23
Chris Paul 5 2 3 5 5 3 23
Damian Lillard 3 4 5 1 5 4 22
Kevin Durant 4 5 2 4 2 4 21
DeMar DeRozan 4 3 3 3 3 2 18
Steph Curry 4 3 2 3 1 4 17
Giannis Antetokounmpo 2 2 4 4 2 1 15
Anthony Davis 1 3 1 4 3 3 15

Breaking it down from there:

Tier 1: Frontrunners

LeBron James
LAL • SF • #6
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James winds up No. 1 by a point. Much of this is on account of that five-score on team performance; the Cavaliers are 6-1 (entering Monday). James is at a 22.9-8.9-9.0 statistical line, almost averaging a triple double. He's not scoring more than 25 per game, so he loses a tick, and he suffers on narrative, having won the award four times. Will voters want to reward him for the Finals run last season (which they absolutely should not, given that it's a regular-season award)? He has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but those two aren't thought of the same way that Kevin Durant and Steph Curry suffer with each other's presence in INFH.

Russell Westbrook
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Westbrook has Thunder off to a 6-1 start, and is also flirting with a triple-double, with way more points. The problem is efficiency. Westbrook is averaging more than 23 shots and 5.3 turnovers. Basically, he always has the ball. I tend to be more impressed when a player produces with the ball in his hands that much (it's easy to just waste time dribbling -- cough, John Wall, cough) but a lot of voters will want to dismiss Westbrook's nitro-boosted production as just a product of Durant's departure.

Westbrook gets 5 on Narrative, because if he leads the Thunder to a top-three seed the year without Durant while averaging something close to a triple-double, that's going to resemble the Rose vote in 2011.

James Harden
PHI • SG • #1
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Harden unleashed! Unlike a few previous superstar players to play for Mike D'Antoni, Harden has embraced Seven Seconds or Less and it is amazing to watch. He's third in scoring and leads the league in assists. He has a legitimate chance to lead the league in scoring and assists, and that would carry him a long way to the vote if the Rockets land even a top-five seed.

I know. The defense, you're saying. He's up to a "2" in that category because the Rockets haven't been the disgusting, disappointing mess at that end they were last season. More specifically, you don't watch Harden and notice him the way you did last season. It's still a liability, and one that could cost him, but it's better. He's also a lot more fun to watch in D'Antoni's system, which makes his foul-drawing less obnoxious.

All of this makes his narrative more appealing, but it's hard to see how that's going to play out. He almost won in 2015. If the Rockets are way better than expected, he'll reap most of the rewards.

Kawhi Leonard
LAC • SF • #2
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Leonard is just lethal this season. He's shooting 48 percent overall, but only 33 percent from deep, so that will be interesting to watch. Leonard benefits most from his defensive persona as the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and his narrative effect could be strong. If the Spurs are the No. 1 seed over the Warriors with Leonard as the best player taking over for Tim Duncan, that's going to go a long way. The question will be how many national TV big performances he can have and how those impact voters.

Tier 2: The Clippers

Blake Griffin
BOS • PF • #91
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Griffin's stats aren't great; the Clippers' offense has been oddly off. But the Clippers are 6-1 with wins over the Blazers, Grizzlies and Spurs, the past two on the road on a back-to-back. Throw in the fact that the Clippers really do look like the best team in the league pushes them high here. You can expect the Clippers to cool off in the win column, but Griffin's stats may go up.

Griffin is also forcing steals, running the floor with the ball and finishing. He looks like more of a complete player than ever and the Clippers are playing with the most joy. You do wonder how badly Griffin would be hurt by the strong play of Chris Paul if CP3's numbers normalize.

Chris Paul
PHO • PG • #3
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His stats are low-volume, high-efficiency. He's the anti-Westbrook. Fewer than 20 points per game, and he's only fifth in assists per game. That's great for a normal player or a young star, but Paul will be judged against previous success. Mostly right now, Paul is trending so high based on team success, his strength as a two-way player and narrative.

As much as Paul may drive fans of opposing teams nuts, he's respected as a player, leader and off-court role model. Add his career success and how this could be a lifetime achievement award, it makes Paul's case compelling. However, his stats would need to normalize (expected), he would have to stay healthy (always tough after previous knee surgeries) and for the Clippers to keep pace (the most unlikely variable). But still, the Point God deserves a spot.

Tier 3: Two Warriors, a Dame and DeMar

Damian Lillard
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There are three big reasons why Lillard merits such consideration. First, even with C.J. McCollum, the Blazers are likely a late-lottery team without him. Second, he's got a really strong narrative because he's perceived as an underdog. Again, not to go back to it, but the Derrick Rose vote stands out here. Third, the eye test. Lillard won the game against Denver basically by himself, and buried the Grizzlies. He hits highlight reels and pops on social media. He's popular for a lot of reasons.

Lillard's 4.9 assists per game aren't going to get anyone excited, you want to stump for his combination of points (second in the league) and shooting efficiency (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep, 89.9 percent from the line). Stephen Curry was the first player in league history last season to lead the league in points per game and shoot 50-40-90.

Kevin Durant
BKN • SF • #7
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Durant's numbers are insane. He's averaging 28.9 points (on 58-41-85 shooting splits), 7.3 boards, 3.6 assists and 1.3 blocks. The Warriors have a 107.5 offensive rating and 101.6 defensive rating with Durant on the floor. Durant would be way higher if the Warriors hadn't face-planted out of the gate against the Spurs on national television, struggled with some bad teams and lost to the Lakers. His biggest challenge, as it is with Curry, is INFH. It's just going to be really hard for the voters to pick any of the Warriors with that collection of talent. If they win 67 games, that's an amazing season ... but they wouldn't be as good as last year. Expectations based on prior performance matter.

However, here's the good news: He hasn't dropped off at all in production or efficiency. He's been a monster, and there were questions about that with Golden State. He and Curry are basically playing "my turn, your turn," every other game going off, and if they get in a groove, that could really boost him. But again, that win total is going to be tough.

One more thought, and it applies to Curry. The rest may actually help those two. If the Warriors rest all starters instead of staggering rest, voters might be more considerate of that and say, "Well, if they hadn't rested..." That rarely happens, but the Warriors are an outlier case.

DeMar DeRozan
CHI • SG • #11
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DeRozan has been a man on fire. He's the first player since Jordan to start the season with five 30-point performances before 23 in a loss to the Kings on Sunday. But if you lead the league in scoring, carrying a top team in the conference, you're on this list. DeRozan is also shooting 55 percent, an outrageous figure for his shot selection. DeRozan likely will not be on this list long, so it's good to note how impressive he's been this year.

Stephen Curry
GS • PG • #30
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Curry was even lower on this list before his volcanic eruption Monday night against the Pelicans when he set the NBA record for 3-pointers in a game. His shooting efficiency is still stellar, but not by last season's standards, and his 5.7 assists per game are fewer than Giannis Antetokounmpo's, for example. A big key is that Curry has won the past two MVPs with sheer volume combined with incredible efficiency from deep.

He's lost some shots to Durant, which is to be expected, and he's unlikely to gain in any other categories. His biggest limitation is in narrative. How does he win three seasons in a row after the bar he set last season? That's tough. However, expect Curry to go up on this as the Warriors figure out their new players and improve their record.

The If Not For Him variable is killer for Curry, as it is for Durant. If either is gone, you don't feel like the Warriors would even be middle of the pack. They have four All-NBA selections. That's a tough sell. Curry has drifted for some games, then in games like the outburst vs. the Pelicans, looked like his old self. I would expect to rate him a "5" on the eye test within a few weeks as he settles in.

Tier 4: Great players, bad teams

Giannis Antetokounmpo
MIL • SF • #34
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I know, I know. Giannis? Really? But listen. He's ninth in Player Efficiency Rating, 15th in Win Shares and fifth in Value Over Replacement Player. He's averaging more points than Griffin and Paul, more assists than Lillard and Curry and as many rebounds as Westbrook. He's also shooting 51 percent.

Statistically, he belongs. The Bucks are 4-3, one loss behind the Raptors. If they go on a run, his push could get really strong, but that's a big ask for a team with a lot of flaws. If you're wondering about that "2" vote in narrative, it's largely only because most people don't know Antetokounmpo outside of knowing he's crazy long and has a hard-to-pronounce name. Personality can matter. Finally, his "1" on the eye test is a combination of no national TV games (voters have league pass but pay more attention to key matchups) and hasn't had a game where he just puts up a ridiculous stat line. This one will probably improve considerably as the season goes on if he keeps this pace up.

Anthony Davis
LAL • PF • #3
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Poor Unibrow. The Pels are winless. I put him on here 0ut of respect for that outrageous 31-10-3 stat line, but he's got no chance. You aren't going to win MVP if you don't make the playoffs, unless you average a triple-double. Even then, it would take a much better team performance. The reason Davis' statistical variable isn't higher is that he's shooting less than 50 percent and not producing in assists the way other players are. His numbers are also wild in terms of game-by-game production. We'll have to see if he holds onto that kind of production, but honestly, with how bad the Pelicans are, this is a courtesy spot.


Jimmy Butler: He's is 9th in Win Shares, 19th in VORP, and the Bulls started off really impressively. If the Bulls get back on track after a slip in the least week, Butler's going to worm his way onto the back half of this list.

Paul George: His 20-6-3 line is great, and he's shooting way better than he did last season, but the Pacers have been so all over the place, and mostly for the bad. He might get on the list if the Pacers put it together, but with just 20 points per game, he can't land.

George Hill: Qualified with being impressively 6th in Win Shares and 8th in Value Over Replacement Player. He's been fantastic for the Jazz, but he's going to struggle to catch any real momentum for MVP based on Jazz visibility, overall production, anything.