With a quarter of the NBA season in the books, one of the most intriguing topics around the league is the MVP conversation. There are several players who are having truly special seasons, and there was a lot of internal debating about the last two choices in particular, but these are my top five (in order) MVP candidates right now.
Houston surprisingly holds the best record in the Western Conference through the first quarter of the season, and James Harden is the biggest reason for that. When Chris Paul went down, Harden kept Houston competitive with a 10-4 record, highlighted by a triple-double in a win over the Cavs and a 56-point, 13-assist (19-of-25 FG, 7-of-8 from 3) outing in a win over Utah. Since Paul has returned, Houston has gone 7-0, and it is putting up points by the three (league-leading 16.1 threes made per game), averaging just over 120 points per game in those seven contests. Harden leads the league in points (31.7), and is shooting better than last season (46 percent FG, 41 percent from 3) while still putting up 9.7 APG and 5.1 RPG. His turnovers are down about one from last season, and he is putting up 1.7 SPG. Perhaps Harden’s most impressive statistic is his defensive real plus-minus, which is up to 0.01, his best mark in the past five seasons (-1.57 last season). He currently has the highest offensive RPM in the NBA’s past five seasons at 8.97, and trails just Steph Curry (2014-2015 MVP season) for overall RPM in the past five seasons. If he keeps Houston ahead of Golden State for the rest of the way, he will undoubtedly be in the top three conversation.
If LeBron is able to keep Cleveland streaking and overtake Boston atop the East while performing like he is, he should win the MVP award. After starting the season 5-7, James has led the Cavs on their current 13-game win streak, putting them now just 3.5 games out of first place. During that streak, James has put up 27.2 PPG, 8.2 APG, 8.9 RPG and a block and steal per game, while shooting 57 percent from the field (47 percent from 3). He is shooting 59 percent from the field on the year and 43 percent from 3, both career highs, while putting up 28.2 points per game, the most he has averaged in the last eight seasons. The supporting cast for Cleveland has been just as important to this streak as James, but his efficiency (despite 4 turnovers a night), distributing and clutch performances (leads league in fourth quarter PPG (9.4)) have been critical to the Cavs’ success.
After a scorching hot October in which he averaged 33.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 5.3 APG, 1 BPG and 1.7 SPG, while shooting an unreal 63 percent (20.5 attempts per game) from the field (40 percent from 3), the MVP hype surrounding the Greek Freak has subsided a bit. Granted, his numbers still have him amongst the top five, but with Milwaukee currently in fifth place in a weak East, Antetokounmpo would have to either put up those averages from October the rest of the way, or make history like Russell Westbrook did last season in his MVP campaign, when OKC finished sixth in the West. The 6-foot-11 point forward has improved just about every statistic from last season, something he has done each of his five seasons in the league, while scoring at least 20 points in all but one contest. He also happens to lead the league in PER.
He is having yet another impressive season, putting up 26.3 PPG, 6.6 APG, 5.1 RPG and 1.7 SPG on 47 percent shooting (38 percent from 3). He is top five in PER, RPM, estimated wins added, and 3-pointers made, while running the most effective offense in the league (tops in FG percentage, 3PFG percentage, PPG). With Curry likely out the next couple of weeks with an ankle sprain, it wouldn’t surprise me if teammate Kevin Durant, who lands just outside the top five for me right now, leapfrogs Curry. However, since both these guys are so talented and play on the same team, their chances of winning MVP over guys on less crowded rosters like LeBron James and James Harden are slim to none.
Sure, there are a bunch of guys with much better stats like Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant (just to name a few), but Irving gets the nod for leading the top defensive team in the league to a 22-4 record to start the season. As for defense, the Irving haters that bashed his defensive metrics when the Boston Celtics traded for him have to like what they have seen, as Irving is fighting over screens, showing active hands on defense and playing extremely solid two-way basketball, while improving his defensive RPM from a -2.30 last year to a -0.66 this year. Despite struggling to find balance with his isolation style offense within Stevens’ system to start the season, Irving has found a great rhythm with his teammates and has overcome those early-season issues with five 30-point outings in his last 10 contests. His decision-making off the dribble has been phenomenal, and his finishing at the rim is amongst the greats for point guards. Oh, and he has the best handles in the league. The stat line is 23.5 PPG, 5 APG, 3.1 RPG and 1.5 SPG, while shooting 49 percent from the field (37 percent from 3) and maintaining a career low in turnovers per game.
Featured photo credit to: (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images, first two photos; Kyusung Gong/Associated Press; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images); (Washington Post)