NBA MVP Rankings: James Harden, LeBron James haven't caught Giannis Antetokounmpo; Paul George leads second tier
Meanwhile, Steph Curry has fallen from perhaps the favorite to a long shot with the Warriors' recent play
This season's NBA MVP race is shaping up as one of the deepest fields in recent memory. In my mind, at least 10 players still have a chance of winning the award. The playing field is more even than perhaps at any point in NBA history -- the Warriors' still-presumed superiority notwithstanding -- because, pretty simply, there are more legitimate superstar players than at any point in history. I truly believe that. The collective talent level across the NBA right now is amazing, and the MVP race reflects that. Below I have ranked what are, to me, the current top 10 candidates, broken into three tiers.
The Bucks have, by far, the best net rating in the league and the second-best overall record, just one game back of the Raptors entering Tuesday. That's why Giannis remains the favorite, though his margin has shrunk to almost nothing with what James Harden is doing. The Freak's numbers speak for themselves: 26.6 points per game on better than 58-percent shooting, 12.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks.
Pretty much everything the Bucks are doing is a result of the dilemma Giannis creates: Guard him one on one, and there isn't a single defender in the league who can keep him from getting to the rim. On the flip side, if you help down on him, he's a capable and ever-improving playmaker (six assists a game this season), and with all those shooters Mike Budenholzer has spaced the floor with, well, that's why the Bucks are second in the league in both 3-point attempts and makes.
What's really helping Giannis right now is the cushion he built up early in the season. For a minute, it looked like he was going to start running away with the award. Again, Harden has closed the gap, but I believe Giannis' lead was big enough that given how incredible he continues to pay in his own right, the award would still be his -- barely -- if it were handed out today.
Harden's historic run over the past 13 games, dating back to his 50-point effort against the Lakers, has been well chronicled. He scored 40 or more in five straight games during that stretch. He hasn't scored fewer than 30 in almost a month. Most importantly, he has single-handedly rescued the Rockets from the depths of the Western Conference lottery race, where they were languishing for much of the season, and catapulted them into a tie for the No. 4 spot with the Clippers entering Tuesday.
And he's done much of it with Chris Paul on the shelf.
For the season, Harden is averaging a league-leading 33.7 points per game -- more than four points a night more than Stephen Curry, who is the league's second-leading scorer. That is a gigantic gap between one and two, and this is to say nothing of Harden's 8.5 assists and almost six rebounds a night.
I have to say, you have to lend at least some weight to the opportunity Harden gets every night to put up these numbers. He put up 23 3-pointers in his recent 44-point performance against Golden State. He's put up over 30 shots in four of his last eight games. He's only shooting 43.6 percent from the field and less than 39 percent from three. Those numbers are fine, but nowhere near elite.
That is not to diminish what he is doing. Again, he's single-handedly carrying this Rockets team, and shooting as much as he does is what's required right now. It's just something to consider in a race as close as this one. At the end of the day, while the Rockets are once again looking like an elite team, to date they are still an overall disappointment. If things keep trending this way, however, Harden is going to end up winning his second straight MVP, and deservedly so.
This is pretty simple: LeBron has taken a team that won 35 games last season and turned it into, arguably, one of the two biggest Western-Conference threats to the Warriors (along with Houston) when James is healthy. Speaking of health, the Lakers have predictably fallen apart over the past seven games that James has missed with a strained groin, going 2-5 after a much-needed win over Dallas on Monday.
So, to summarize: The Lakers are a probable 50-win team and likely top-5 seed in the hellish West with LeBron, and a lottery team without him. The numbers are what they always are; it's the reminder how much this guy changes a team that is making LeBron's most compelling case for a fifth MVP award.
IN THE HUNT
Oklahoma City is a flat-out different team this season, and it's largely because of George, who has surpassed Russell Westbrook as OKC's No. 1 offensive option while also being in the running for Defensive Player of the Year as the best defender on the league's best defense. George, second in the league in steals (behind only Westbrook), has carried the Thunder during so many stretches of games they would've absolutely lost the last two seasons.
Remember how the Thunder used to always play down to their competition? Not anymore. They're 19-8 against teams under .500 and only have a couple truly bad losses all season. That said, OKC doesn't have a lot of signature wins. They've had a super easy schedule to date, meaning George will have his work cut out to keep playing at this level, and to keep the Thunder winning at this rate, for the remainder of the season.
Still, there's no doubt as to George's value right now. The Thunder are a solid, dependable team night in and night out because they can rely on George in a way they've never been able to rely on Westbrook. Side note: The Lakers had better hope they get Anthony Davis, otherwise hoarding all those assets -- which are depreciating every game it seems like -- instead of trading for George when they had the chance is going to look absolutely awful in hindsight.
The Sixers would have to go on a big run and wind up, probably, as at least the No. 2 seed in the East for Embiid to have a shot at the hardware, and to do that, they're going to have to figure out this delicate balance of prioritizing Jimmy Butler's role without compromising Ben Simmons' playmaking -- while also hiding Simmons' one glaring weakness off the ball.
That sounds complicated, and it is. What isn't complicated is Embiid's unquestioned status as the go-to player for the Sixers, who are a plus-seven per 100 possessions when Embiid is on the floor and a minus-6.4 when he's off. That's more than a 13-point swing. Embiid does it on both ends and has the cachet around the league to "feel" like an MVP, which doesn't necessarily apply to the next guy on the list.
There are only two players in the league this season who are averaging at least 18 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and one steal per game: Russell Westbrook and Jokic, who is shooting 50 percent from the field to Westbrook's 41 percent. More importantly, the Nuggets -- the Nuggets!! -- have the best record in the Western Conference entering Tuesday.
Top to bottom, you could argue Denver has the best roster in the league, but Jokic is the center of it all -- the best passing big in recent memory and a legit low-post scorer with 3-point range. Even his defense -- at least in terms of his being in the right place, making the right reads and rotations, etc. -- is coming around. If Denver manages to finish with the best record in the West, Jokic should get real consideration. Whether he actually will is another question. My gut says he realistically falls in the long-shot section, buy we'll put the man where he deserves to be for the time being.
Curry was perhaps the leading MVP candidate before he missed 11 games with a strained groin. It's true, the fact that the Warriors only went 5-6 in those 11 games spoke highly of Curry's value, but since his return, they've continued to underperform and at this point are playing way too far below expectations for either Curry or Kevin Durant to be among the MVP favorites.
What keeps Curry in the hunt for the award is the ever-lingering potential for the Warriors to take off and lay waste to the league the rest of the way. That doesn't feel realistic right now, but they are the Warriors, and if they go on a run and get to 60 wins, at least, then Curry's numbers are going to be hard to ignore. The guy is the second-leading scorer in the league and is well within range of shooting 50 percent from the field, 45 percent from three and 90 percent from the free-throw line for the second time in his career, with the other time being the 2015-16 season when he was named the first unanimous MVP in history.
Boston has been an overall disappointment, and that would hurt Irving's candidacy if the season were to end right now. That said, Irving is having another tremendous season -- over 40 percent from three, and career-best marks in steals and assists. The latter is an important point, as Irving was making perhaps too concerted an effort in the early going to incorporate all of Boston's weapons rather than prioritizing his own offense. He's found a great balance since then.
Also helping Irving's case: the Celtics are 9.4 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor than they are when he's off. That stat merely validates what is clear to anyone who watches this team even halfway regularly: For all of Boston's weapons, Kyrie doing his thing is still the thing that makes them go. For Irving to realistically get into the MVP race, Boston would have to shoot up the standings and he'd have to start scoring at an even higher clip to keep pace, and ultimately pass, guys like Harden, Giannis and LeBron. Don't bet on it.
Everything I just said about Curry pretty much applies to Durant, too. His numbers are off the charts, as usual. He's very clearly one of the five best players in the league (almost everyone would say he's No. 2 behind LeBron, though I think that's up for reasonable debate). He is simply fighting the perception, same as Curry, that the Warriors are so good collectively that no one player can be deemed the most valuable in the league. That 5-6 mark when Curry went down is also hurting Durant.
Davis is top-five in points, rebounds and blocks, which is the only reason he's even at the bottom of this list. The Pelicans have been pretty bad so far -- 19-22 and currently on the outside of the playoff picture. An interesting question: If just about everyone would say that Davis is a better player than Harden (I'd guess it would be nearly 100 percent), why is it that Harden can pretty much single-handedly make his team one of the best in the league, while Davis has never been able to do that for the Pelicans?
I know there are other factors. A lot of peripheral injuries, coaching and so forth. But still, Davis has Jrue Holiday and a really good Julius Randle, while Harden has been without Paul, and for a minute the Pels were the second-worst team in the Western Conference, only better than the Phoenix Suns. None of this is meant to diminish Davis' greatness, obviously. He is irrefutably on his way to the Hall of Fame. It's just interesting. You would think a player as indisputably great as Davis would make his team better than the Pelicans have been.
That can still happen. The West is super crowded and one hot three-week stretch could have the Pelicans back in the battle for a top-four seed. That happens, and Davis will skyrocket up this list, perhaps all the way to the top. I just don't see it happening. The Pelicans do not feel like a team capable of playing that well for a sustained stretch, and there are too many good teams in front of them.
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