As the MVP race starts to heat up, let’s make and break the case for every top candidate.
This week will mark the official halfway point of the regular season for most teams. It’s also the point where early season trends have pretty officially become the new realities. Stats we may have written off to early season noise or small sample sizes have now become real and need to be taken seriously.
In much the same way, the MVP race is becoming clearer as each candidate’s case is slowly cementing. Instead of simply going through the stats and laying out the current MVP pecking order, this article will lay out both the best argument for and against each of the top six MVP candidates.
6. Kyrie Irving – Boston Celtics
Strength: Best Player on East’s Best Team
A month into the season, Irving looked to be a real MVP threat. Boston was sitting atop the East and Irving’s clutch performances propelled the Celtics to a 16-game win streak. Both he and the Celtics have slightly fallen back to earth over these past few weeks, but Irving still deserves credit for how far he has already taken this team.
Through 41 games, Irving has put up a very strong 24.1 points per game and 24.3 PER. There is something to be said for being the best player on the best team in a conference, and without a clear answer to that question in Golden State, Irving is the only player who fits that billing right now. While it’s not the strongest argument on this list, Irving will get some justified votes for driving Boston’s success.
Weakness: The Strength of Boston’s System
While Irving’s clearly had a very strong season, it isn’t clear how much of that credit he deserves. His numbers are pretty similar if not slightly behind Isaiah Thomas’ from last season and much of Boston’s success has come from their league-leading defense. While the Celtics’ improvement does help his case, it is hard to link that improvement directly to him.
Brad Stevens is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league and that reputation will probably hurt Irving’s case. Boston has gotten the most out players for years, and the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is a testament to that system. Given that many would credit Boston’s rise to Stevens before they would to Irving, it is hard to say he belongs any higher on this list.
KNBR - Kerry Crowley
5. Stephen Curry – Golden State Warriors
Strength: The League’s Most Dangerous Weapon
Curry’s eruptions aren’t quite as common as they were a couple seasons ago, but they still happen frequently enough to remind us how explosive he can be. But since returning from injury, Curry has been pretty close to that 2015 version of himself and has put up 35.2 points a game on just 18.8 field goal attempts (79.2 TS%). When Curry’s feeling right, the Warriors are pretty close to unbeatable, and recently he has found that form more and more often.
Weakness: The Rest of the Warriors
While Curry’s heights earn him top-five recognition, there are a few holes in his case. First and foremost, the Warriors are so good that they don’t really need him to win. When Curry missed almost four weeks with an ankle sprain last month, Golden State didn’t miss a beat and won nine of 11 games, including a Christmas Day victory over the Cavaliers.
The other problem is that Curry hasn’t reached those heights quite consistently enough. His recent form has been fantastic, but before his injury Curry was more All-Star than MVP. He was posting 26 points a night, but on his worst efficiency in the Steve Kerr era. If he sustains his play from the past week over the rest of the season then he’ll be in real contention, but his overall case hasn’t quite been strong enough to earn him his third MVP.
4. Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
Durant’s offensive genius is so well understood that it’s almost taken for granted, but his improvement on the other end of the floor has brought his game to another level.
Durant is leading the league in both total blocks (75) and blocks per game (2.3) and has allowed Golden State’s other defensive weapons to thrive. For someone who was commonly considered too skinny and fragile to become a positive defender when he was younger, Durant’s evolution into one of the league’s best has been remarkable to watch.
Weakness: The Rest of the Warriors
Curry and Durant’s games certainly have their differences, but the holes in their MVP cases are quite similar. In the eight games without Durant this season, the Warriors are 7-1 and have outscored opponents by 127 points. Golden State needs Durant to become an All-Time great team, but they clearly don’t need him nor Curry to rack up regular season wins.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Strength: The Most “Unstoppable”
Trying to articulate Antetokounmpo’s fast break expertise is incredibly difficult because we’ve never seen anyone or anything move quite like he does. He glides up the court while taking a fraction of the steps and is utterly unstoppable in the open floor.
Antetokounmpo’s overall production has finally caught up to his potential and he’s averaging a nightly double-double of 28.7 points and 10.2 rebounds. We assumed his production would arrive once he developed a jump shot, but this level of dominance without a perimeter game is a testament to how devastating Antetokounmpo is when attacking the defense.
Weakness: Team Success
For as great as Antetokounmpo has been, Milwaukee has fallen short. The Bucks are 21-18, just sixth in the East, and for as much as Antetokounmpo has filled up the box score, those stats have failed to translate into consistent team success.
While some in Wisconsin will point to Russell Westbrook’s MVP as a reason to forgive the Bucks’ record, last year was far more the exception than the rule. OKC’s record was the primary argument against Westbrook winning MVP, but his statistics eventually became undeniable. Not many of Milwaukee’s shortcomings can be put on Antetokounmpo’s shoulders, but he will have to overcome them to compete for an MVP.
2. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
Strength: The Best Player in the League
If the MVP simply went to the best player in the league, then this would be a very short discussion. LeBron would be the MVP this year, next year, and forever until someone eventually surpasses him (someone eventually will surpass him right?).
We all get tired of hearing it, but the fact remains no one has ever done what LeBron is currently doing at his age. At 33, he’s putting up 27.2 points, 9.0 assists, and 8.2 rebounds a night on incredible efficiency (64.2 TS%). He’s even finally found a reliable perimeter shot and is making 38.9% of his threes. Just looking at LeBron’s resume, it is very hard to say he shouldn’t be the MVP favorite.
Weakness: James Harden
There really isn’t a hole in LeBron’s candidacy. Yes, his defensive effort waxes and wanes, and yes, Cleveland isn’t as consistently great as their talent would indicate, but LeBron is having a historic, MVP-caliber season. Period. LeBron would the clear favorite to win his fifth MVP award in almost any other season, but really that is a credit to the only man standing ahead of him.
1. James Harden – Houston Rockets
Strength: Having the Best Season
Put simply, Harden is having one of the greatest offensive seasons the NBA has ever seen. He’s currently on pace to become the first player in league history to average at least 32 points, nine assists, and five rebounds per game. He’s putting up those numbers with extraordinary efficiency, totaling the highest true shooting percentage (62.7%) of any player with at least 21 shot attempts per game.
Harden’s also the league leader in BPM, Win Shares, and PER. We have never seen a season quite like the one Harden is putting together. With Houston establishing itself as one of the top teams in the league, Harden has firmly grabbed MVP pole position at the halfway mark.
The biggest, and really only, non-LeBron obstacle standing between Harden and his first MVP is his injured left leg.
On Dec. 31 it was announced that Harden suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain and would be reevaluated in 2-3 weeks. If he comes back on the earlier side and misses around 10 games, then that isn’t a huge blow to his candidacy. An MVP missing double-digit games doesn’t happen often, but Allen Iverson did play just 71 games in his 2000-01 MVP season.
If Harden’s injury takes slightly longer to heal, then we start getting into dodgier territory. Missing close to a month would mean he would have to become the first MVP to miss 15+ games since Bill Walton all the way back in 1977-78. It’s a credit to how great Harden has been that he’s still the assumed front-runner given how much time he will miss, but the longer he’s out, the closer a race this becomes.
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