NBA MVP Rankings: James Harden in charge; LeBron James in a unique spot; Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid knocking on the door

Two weeks ago, in the first edition of the CBS Sports NBA MVP Rankings, three players occupied the top tier of candidates: Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and LeBron James. Since then, two things have changed among the favorites. The top two have flipped, and LeBron, who is finally back after missing 17 straight games, has all but fallen out of the race. But that could change depending on how he plays going forward -- and whether his body holds up -- for the Lakers (who could trade for Anthony Davis and go on a crazy run and shake this whole thing up). 

Below I have ranked the top five candidates as of Friday, Feb. 1 -- with a sponsor's exemption for LeBron, who is in an interesting MVP situation. 

THE FAVORITES

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James Harden HOU • SG • 13
PPG36.3
APG8.1
SPG2.1
3P/G4.894

We all know the crazy numbers by this point. At least 30 points in his last 24 games. Over 40 in 14 of those contests, including four 50-plus-point games and a cool 61 at Madison Square Garden. But Harden's MVP case is all about what he's done for the Rockets in the absence of Chris Paul, who just got back, and most recently Clint Capela, who will be out until well after the All-Star break. Put simply: Houston was in trouble. Out of the Western playoff picture. Now the Rockets are No. 6 in the West and within two games of home court in the first round entering Friday. Harden gave a dying team CPR while everyone else, quite literally, stood around and watched. He kept them alive. Their vitals returned. Now reinforcements are starting to arrive. And it looks like they're going to pull through. If you lean in close you can actually hear the paramedics telling Harden: "Without you, this team never would've made it. You the real MVP."

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Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL • PF • 34
PPG26.4
RPG12.6
BPG1.4

Giannis, once the clear-cut MVP favorite, has gotten lost in the Harden glare, but he's been no less spectacular. He does it in so many ways: 11 assists on Tuesday, 18 rebounds last Sunday, 34 points the game before that. Most importantly, Milwaukee has the best record in the league -- two games up in the loss column over the Warriors -- after a hugely impressive win over Toronto on the road on Thursday. If the Rockets fall off and Harden's numbers humanize with the return of Paul, and the Bucks stay where they are, Giannis is still in prime position to take home MVP. 

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Stephen Curry GS • PG • 30
PPG29.6
APG5.4
SPG1.2
3P/G5.325

This is interesting. In the ongoing Curry vs. Durant "Who's better?" debate, one place Curry supporters always pointed was the impact metrics, with the Warriors historically having posted more impressive per-100 stats with Curry on the floor by himself as opposed to when Durant is without Curry. This year, it's actually flipped, if slightly. 

With Curry on the floor, the Warriors have a 119.8 offensive rating, which is through the roof and the highest on the team associated with any one player. But when Curry goes off the court, the rating only falls to 107.1. When Durant goes off, it falls to 103.6. All told, the Warriors are almost four points worse per 100 when Durant is off the floor as opposed to when Curry is off the floor. Final per-100 tally: Curry is a plus-16, Durant is a plus-18.3. Advantage, slightly, Durant. 

Either way, we're splitting hairs between two all-time greats at the peak of their powers, and Curry's shooting numbers are nothing short of spectacular -- 49.6 percent from the field, 45.5 percent from 3 and 92.7 percent from the line. Nobody in NBA history has ever put up a 50-45-92 line while playing in more than 30 games. Curry, who is second in the league in scoring and is adding five-plus assists and five-plus rebounds a night, is less than half a percentage point away on his shooting percentage from pulling that off. He had 41 points on 10-of-18 from 3-point range on Thursday. 

But the biggest reason you're hearing Curry's name over Durant is this once again feels like Curry's team. He's back to being completely aggressive with hunting his shot, and everything the Warriors do trickles down from the attention that draws. Golden State has won 11 of its last 12 after falling to Philly at home Thursday night. If they run away in the West and secure the No. 1 overall seed, and Curry keeps up these numbers, he'll be right there for his third MVP award in five years. 

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Joel Embiid PHI • C • 21
PPG27.2
RPG13.4
BPG1.9

The Sixers are arguably more reliant on Embiid than any any team in the league is on any one player. His 13.3 net rating entering Thursday was by far the highest on the Sixers -- then Embiid went out and dropped 26 points and 20 rebounds on the Warriors in a monster win for the Sixers on Thursday night. For perspective, entering Thursday, the Sixers were only 3.4 points better with Jimmy Butler on the floor, and they were actually 1.9 points WORSE with Ben Simmons on the floor. Some of this is rotations, who's playing with who, et cetera. 

But the point is clear: As Embiid goes, so go the Sixers, who are the No. 3 seed in the East entering Friday, just two games back in the loss column of No. 2 Toronto. I think Philly has to get to at least the No. 2 seed for Embiid to have a chance, and he would have to put up some crazy numbers down the stretch. If they get to the No. 1 seed, which is a definite possibility, then we're talking for real. 

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Paul George OKC • SF • 13
PPG27.3
APG4.0
SPG2.3
3P/G3.551

Oklahoma City is No. 3 in the West and is a more consistent team than it has been at any point in the post-Durant era, and it's all about George. He's the best defensive player on the second-best defense in the league (and that's just statistically; realistically I think OKC has the best defense in the NBA, or at least the one best equipped to match up with the Warriors). Offensively, OKC would be in a world of hurt without George, who has scored 30-plus points in five of his last six games entering Thursday and is propping up an otherwise average, and perhaps fatally flawed, offense as the sixth-leading scorer in the league. 

George is also the only player on the Thunder shooting better than 40 percent from 3. That's the fatal flaw on this team: shooting. George is the only real hope in that area. Add it all up, and his value this season has been obvious. It will take a lot of things breaking his way over the stretch run for George to win the award, but he should finish in the top five, which is no small feat in today's star-laden league. 

WILD CARD

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LeBron James LAL • SF • 23
PPG27.2
APG7.2
SPG1.3
RPG8.5
3P/G1.971

James' candidacy leans as much on what happened to the Lakers in his absence as what he was doing for them before he got hurt, when he had a team that won 35 games last season threatening as a top-four seed in the West. In the 17 games LeBron missed, the Lakers went 6-11 and fell out of a playoff spot. In LeBron's return to action Thursday night, the Lakers beat the Clippers 123-120 in overtime, and the King had 24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in 40 minutes. 

So here's the deal: If LeBron comes back and leads a late-season charge for a team that was dying without him, let's say shooting the Lakers into a top-four seed, he'll get a lot of MVP buzz. But it will have to be a dramatic run like that. Otherwise, he just won't have played enough games to be considered for the award, his typically terrific numbers notwithstanding. 

When LeBron won the award in 2011-12, he only played 62 games. He is still in range to do that if he doesn't miss any more time, which will probably be necessary for a Lakers team that could well be fighting for its playoff life. In a weird way, this is actually kind of set up for a LeBron MVP push in that we have gotten such an extended look at what the Lakers look like without him. If he single-handedly turns this thing around and the Lakers start flying up the standings, it will be very hard to ignore the buzz that will create. 

Interesting question: If the Lakers were to somehow land Anthony Davis by the deadline, and subsequently take off up the standings, would that help or hurt LeBron's MVP chances? Would the voters say, well, it's not just LeBron anymore, or would the sheer transformation of a team from pretender to contender win him enough points?

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

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Kawhi Leonard TOR • SF • 2
PPG27.6
APG3.2
SPG1.9
3P/G1.795
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Nikola Jokic DEN • C • 15
PPG20.1
RPG10.4
BPG.7
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Kyrie Irving BOS • PG • 11
PPG23.7
APG6.9
SPG1.7
3P/G2.628
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Kevin Durant GS • SF • 35
PPG27.6
APG5.9
SPG.8
3P/G1.882
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