As it happens during every All-Star break, the NBA went well overboard with its parties and celebrations for the season's midway point. Zach Levine dazzled with his Vinsanity-like dunks, Steph Curry won in a murderers' row of three-point shooters, and the All-Star game itself again proved to be fun, high-scoring, and ultimately harmless.
With teams getting a deserved and necessary week of rest before resuming the quest for the playoffs, it seems as good a time as any to take a deep breath and analyze what we have seen so far in this NBA season. With each team having played 51 games (or around 62% of the season), we have more than enough information to make educated guesses in some of the most pressing issues around the Association.
One of the most interesting storylines this year has been the proverbial race for league MVP, a distinction so high that is only reserved for a few of the elite players in the NBA. In fact, since the award was first given out in 1956, the MVP has only been awarded to players that eventually made the Hall of Fame, and with all the players of this generation who also won it (post 1999) looking like a good bet to be inducted as well, it is clear that it takes a special kind of talent to achieve this kind of immortality.
Whereas other leagues like the NFL and MLB have seen fluke MVP's (hello, Ken Caminiti), winning the distinction in the NBA tends to put players in another stratosphere. Around December, it seemed as if the league had almost a dozen worthy players who could be considered candidates, but the turn of the calendar has given us more clarity and reduced the field to what amount to five top contenders.
Today we take a look at each player's case and rank them in order of likelihood to take home the award.
#5 – LeBron James
From 2009 to 2013, LeBron took home four of the five available MVP's, thus becoming only the fifth player in history with that many. Entering this season, his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers and ensuing additions to become a super team appeared to give him a career renaissance as well as the chance to be part of a truly historic offensive juggernaut alongside Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. However, the ride hasn't been so smooth for the King.
LeBron is still awesome, of course, and his case for MVP is almost a yearly tradition now, but this year is turning out to be his weakest both statistically and through the eye test.
After his prolonged peak, James has taken a small step back at age 30, posting numbers below his career norms in points per game, field-goal percentage, rebounds, and minutes, while also having his worst year in terms of turnovers and his lowest PER since 2006-07. Of course, a LeBron off year is still much better than 99% of the league, so an unlikely second-half surge could leapfrog him to new heights in this conversation.
#4 – Russell Westbrook
The long absence of reigning MVP Kevin Durant put the Oklahoma City Thunder in a big hole that they are now finally starting to climb out of en route to the postseason, but it would have been an impossible task without Durant's trusty sidekick, Russell Westbrook. Forced to become the team's alpha dog out of necessity, Westbrook has stepped up to play the best basketball of his life.
On a per game basis, Westbrook is putting up numbers that are well above his career marks, especially in scoring terms. He is shooting more than ever before, but also with more efficiency, leading the league in Usage while also posting the second-best PER in the NBA and being the third-best scorer behind LeBron and James Harden.
With Durant back at full force, the Thunder now stand a half-game behind Phoenix to grab the West's 8th spot, where they would become the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs. If the team fulfills its destiny and challenges for a title, many will look back at how Westbrook held the fort and became a serious MVP candidate.
#3 – Anthony Davis
In terms of PER (which encompasses all contributions from a player on a play-to-play basis), the best season in NBA history came in 1962-63, when legendary Wilt Chamberlain posted a 31.8 mark. Michael Jordan's best season gave him a 31.7 in 1987-88, and LeBron's highest total was 31.6 in 2008-09. Right now, Anthony Davis stands at 31.8 – tying him for the best PER season ever.
In only his third season in the NBA, the Brow has become a dominant force that can do everything, doubling as one of the league's toughest defenders while also being an offensive plus. To illustrate this point, he leads the league in blocks while also being fourth in offensive rating, and second in offensive win shares. And yet, at this point, Davis looks like a distant third in the MVP pecking order.
With the Pelicans struggling to stay in the playoff race, coupled with Davis' lingering injury concerns, it would take a really monstrous effort to see New Orleans make the postseason and turn Davis into a favorite. Still very young at age 21, Anthony Davis appears to be the heir apparent to LeBron and Durant to become a perennial MVP candidate. Imagine what he could do with a better coach and marginally better teammates.
#2 – James Harden
Thunder GM Sam Presti must curse himself every day just by seeing what James Harden has become. In year 3 after his controversial trade to the Houston Rockets, The Beard has become the league's best volume scorer, and the undisputed best player on a team that has Dwight Howard on its roster.
Harden leads the league in points per game by a comfortable margin, accompanied by him being the player with most field goal attempts and trips to the free-throw line. His slash line of .455/.383/.870 stands well above his career norms in all three shooting categories, while also posting the best PER of his career by almost 4 points. Even his much maligned defense has taken a big step forward, with Harden being eighth in defensive win shares.
The Rockets now look as a very safe bet to finish in the top 4 of the loaded West, with Harden leading the way. If not for the next man on this list, he would be a very good bet to earn his first career MVP.
#1 – Stephen Curry
While one could argue whether Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, or Golden State Warriors is the best team in the NBA, the reality is that only one of these teams can boast of having a true star that shines above all – and that is the Warriors' Steph Curry. In his sixth year in the league, the product of Davidson has evolved from a pure shooter to an all-around offensive machine, being the best player in the league's most entertaining machine.
Curry now stands to become the league leader in three-point field goals for the third straight year, only now he has become even more efficient while doing it. At .481/.399/.900 shooting splits, he is at striking distance of the magical 50/40/90 line, while also leading the league in steals, being third in PER and ninth in defensive rating. In fact, Curry appears on so many top 10's in both traditional and advanced stats that it overshadows the transformation of the Warriors from a high-scoring entertainer to a full-forced contender.
At -120 odds, Curry has become the prohibitive favorite to take home his first MVP, but he will still need a strong finish to secure Golden State's #1 seed in the West. It seems that it is Curry's award to lose.