Now that we’ve crossed the threshold into the new year, the NBA season is about to get serious. The trade deadline is quickly approaching, the All-Star break is coming and players will be playing hard for new contracts. As quickly as this season is going by, it’s becoming more and more exciting by the minute. The injuries to superstar players have somewhat put a damper on things, but we’re seeing some of the best basketball played collectively throughout the league that we’ve seen in quite some time.
For the first time in what seems like years, the NBA has multiple candidates for the most valuable player award. The competition is fierce at this point in the season, so before anyone’s team has a 27 game winning streak, I figure we should look things while they’re ripe. So, without further ado, here are my top five MVP candidates so far into the season.
I. Chris Paul
Chris Paul, to me, has been the best player in the NBA. The Clipper’s roster is probably more talented than it was, overall, last season. Blake Griffin has improved and is now a legitimate post threat. Doc Rivers has somewhat tapped Deandre Jordan’s potential as a defensive center and the team is much better than it was last year defensively with an improved system.
But what sticks out about the Clippers most of all is how fluid their offense has become. And most of that is because of Chris Paul in Doc’s motion system. Paul’s expertise is supplemented by the roster he has around him. Rivers has various screening, getting shooters open and finding Paul easy passing lanes to them. Paul has exploited this system to the fullest, and most of all, has embraced his scoring role within it.
According to basketball reference, Paul’s usage is up from 22.6% last season to 25% this season. Meanwhile, Paul only averages 2.5 turnovers per game with a league leading 11.3 assists per game–a ratio that easily becomes the best assist to turnover ratio in the league. For historical comparison, the only players in NBA history to average at least 11 assist per game while averaging three turnovers or less are Chris Paul and John Stockton–Paul having accomplished this twice before.
Paul also leads the league in assist percentage by a wide margin. He assists on 54.2% of the Clippers field goals. The next best player in terms of assist percentage is Steph Curry at 43.2%—an 11% difference between the two. Coupled with the 2.5 steals Paul has per game, Paul remains the best Swiss army knife at his position in the league. He’s my MVP so far in the season, but only by a slim margin. The reason why is because LeBron James exists.
II. LeBron James
LeBron continues to defy human logic itself as he tramples upon the necks of every NBA team he plays against. James has had back issues, groin issues and ankle issues so far this year making it his most injury prone season as far as we know. But that hasn’t stopped James from being James. He’s only officially missed one game this season because of those issues and has been just as dominant as he was last season.
James is looking to create his own exclusive club as far as shooting the ball goes. If he improves his free throw shooting as the year goes along, he’ll have a chance to be the only player in NBA history to shoot 60% from the field, 40% from the three point line and 80% from the free throw line over the course of an NBA season. James, again, is in historical territory with his shooting and is finding more ways to impress as he matriculates into the Hall of Fame.
James is shooting 67% from the floor as far as true shooting percentage goes and has a career high eFG% of 63%. James has been the scoring staple on a Miami Heat team that had it’s other superstars playing below their normal levels of production at the start of the season. They’ve since picked it up, and now Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James all have PERs that eclipse the 20.0 mark. But James leads them all–and the entire league for that matter–with a PER of 29.6.
Maybe it’s finally time that we give James his credit as the best scorer in the league. We have the Kevin Durants and the Carmelo Anthonys who can score in a plethora of ways and make extremely difficult and fun shots, but it’s not about how you score the points it’s about how many points you score efficiently. And James, historically, is one of the most efficient players of all time. No one takes as many shots while scoring on the same percentage as James while also getting to the free throw line as much. It’s a unique combination that makes James one of the best players of all time.
III. Kevin Durant
KD is not nice, and that has become more and more evident this season. He’s showing the league no mercy as he continues to improve as an all around player–something no one really expected him to do early on in his career when he wasn’t interested in defense or rebounding. Now, Durant is one of the best rebounders in the league. According to NBA.com’s player tracking service provided by SportVU, Kevin Durant is the NBA’s best rebounder when it comes to grabbing rebounds when there’s a “rebound opportunity”. Durant grabs 74% of rebounds within 3.5 feet of him. Years ago, this would’ve been a shock to most of us. Now? Not so much.
Durant has become an all time great player and not just a scorer. Sure, his scoring is what really catches the eye but he does so much more. He’s averaging a league leading 28.8 points per game this season, but along with that he’s averaging a career high 8.5 rebounds per game and a career high 4.8 assists per game. And, once again, Durant is a candidate for the 40-50-90 club. He’s shooting 49% from the floor, 42% from deep, and 88% from the free throw line. If he joins that club, once again, and stays with the scoring pace he’s on right now, Durant would be the highest scorer to ever join the club–again.
It’ll be interesting to see if Durant can continue these outstanding numbers without Russell Westbrook on the floor. Earlier in the season when Westbrook was out, Durant had struggled find opportunities from deep and was shooting a low percentage from three. The open opportunity came once Russell Westbrook returned to the lineup a few games into the season.
For what it’s worth, Durant has had a monstrous month of December. He shot 53.5% from the field on 19.4 shots per game, made 48% of his threes while taking 4.6 threes per game, scored 29.4 points per game, averaged 1.1 blocks per game and 4.5 assists per game. If he keeps numbers like that up, he’ll easily move to the number one spot on this list. But, once again, the Westbrook caveat comes in. Can Durant be as effective with defenses stacking up against him? We’ll certainly find out soon.
IV. Kevin Love
Alright, I don’t hate Lamarcus Aldridge. It’s just really hard to deny Kevin Love at this point. I’m very aware of the season Aldridge and the Portland Trail Blazers are having, and he’s definitely a surefire MVP candidate. But at the same time, what Kevin Love is doing is beyond comprehension. Love has the second highest PER in the league at 28.8. Even though the Wolves have had difficulty winning and closing games, Love has still shined and made everyone around him better.
Love is shooting 47% from the floor and 38% from deep. He leads the league in rebounds at 13.7 per game–an outstanding mark in its own right. And Love is averaging a career high 26.5 points per game. If he wasn’t playing in Minnesota or the team was playing better than it is now–in a stacked Western Conference, I might add–then he’d be getting a lot more recognition as an MVP candidate.
There’s no denying the Timberwolves have been playing bad, but they’re playing way under their own capability. They have the eight best offense and 11th best defense in the league, but yet they’ve lost a lot of winnable games. They’ve got a point differential of 4.0, but they’ve lost to teams by an average of 7.5 points per loss. And, on top of that, they’ve had one of the hardest schedules in the NBA.
I know Love isn’t always consistent on the defensive end outside of rebounding, but he’s one of the most unique offensive players the NBA has to offer. He’s the only big who actually rebounds like on, but runs off of screens as if he were a shooting guard or a small forward. Love’s unique combination of skill, size and expertise make him one of the elite players in the league. Whether you feel he’s the best at his position or not, there’s no denying the way he’s played so far.
V. Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry is sort of like an antidote to cure all the Warriors woes. Poor offensive strategy? Your point guard can score like lightning without getting into the lane. Deplorable bench? Your point guard makes up for that when he comes back on to the floor. Tough schedule? Your point guard will keep you in many of those games–especially those that you shouldn’t win.
Steph Curry has been the glue holding the Dubs together this season and he’s probably done that better than most of the NBA. Curry continues to be the shooting phenom we saw last season, shooting the ball 41% from deep while taking a whopping 7.8 attempts from there. Curry is shooting 44% from the floor overall while averaging career highs in assists and free throw shooting.
As mentioned before, Curry is assisting on 43.2% of his teams field goals which is easily a career high for him. He’s averaging 4.1 turnovers per game, but when an offense depends on Curry as much as it does, that’s more than likely going to happen. Curry averages 22.9 points per game and has a 22.9 PER. He’s got a 58% TS percentage clip and a 53% eFG mark. The way Curry shoots continues to be lights out, even with this much of the offense running through him. His usage is a career high 28.1% and it isn’t going to go down anytime soon.
Curry continues to be one of the more fun and exciting players in the NBA. Since his All Star snub last season, Curry has stepped his game up and become one of the elite point guards in the NBA. There’s no way to keep him off of this list–even with the Warriors somewhat underachieving.
The rest of this NBA season will bring plenty of excitement and this list is definitely subject to change. As the year progresses, more players will step up elsewhere and make names for themselves just as these guys have. We will see some shifts, and possibly, some new additions in next month’s MVP list. But that’s the fun of the NBA, and we should enjoy it while we have it.