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MVP. Who has the best chance?

Much like in a given NBA game, there’s a reason there are four quarters to an NBA season. After the first quarter of 2015-16, it looked like this was the Golden State Warriors’ league and Steph Curry was the runaway MVP. It’s tough to make such distinctions after just a portion of the season, but the Warriors literally couldn’t lose and Curry was setting all kinds of crazy standards when it came to his play on the court. Because of that, we did something a bit different in judging the MVP race.

We gave it to Curry and made a ranking for the MVP runner-ups. It was a little audacious to frame it as Curry’s award with 60-ish games left for most teams, but that’s how the first quarter of the season shook out. At the halfway point of the season, we see a different landscape. The San Antonio Spurs have put their stamp on the season already, looking like a historic team just like the Warriors. The Oklahoma City Thunder have surged ahead during the second quarter of the season. The Cleveland Cavaliers are still dangerous and we’re seeing a roller coaster of teams trying to contend with them in the East.

To paraphrase Kevin Costner in Draft Day, we live in a different time than we did a quarter of the season ago. Curry may still be the MVP in many minds, but it’s not a foregone conclusion like we saw in early December. Because of that, the runner-up rankings is getting replaced with real rankings here.

Last time, it was broken down into six candidates (plus Curry as the presumed winner) who were having historic starts to the season. We’re sticking with seven candidates (including Curry) this time, but with the caveat that it was hard not to include two other players. First was Blake Griffin, who just missed the cut the first quarter as well. His missed games kept him out of the running this time. The other one is Jimmy Butler, who probably should be in the running for No. 7 on our list.

When the third quarter MVP Rankings come out, he’ll probably be there but he just missed the cut this time. The stats shown below are a mix between basic stats and advanced stats as we try to just show the range of measurement for each player. The net rating shown in the stats below is the difference between their on-court team net rating and their on-bench team net rating. Let’s take a look at the candidates:

MVP Dreamers

7. Paul George, Indiana Pacers

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PAUL GEORGE 2015-16 STATS
PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% PER WS/48 RAPM NET RTG
23.9 7.4 4.0 41.3% 38.2% 55.9% 20.7 .150 4.90 +7.1

 

The second quarter of the season has been brutal for Paul George. He was looking at some historic averages coupled with a 58.4 true shooting percentage in the first quarter, but things have dropped considerably since then. His numbers are still good on the season as you can see in the table above. He’s one of five players in the NBA averaging 23-7-4. However, the months of December and January have not been terribly kind to him, and that’s how he’s dropped from the runner-up to Curry in the first quarter to barely hanging on and keeping Jimmy Butler out at the midway point.

Since the start of December, George is making 38.2 percent of his shots and 33.8 percent from deep. He’s also averaging more turnovers than assists as the Pacers have gone 12-14 on the floor. He has considerably less help than the rest of the players on this list, but he’s simply not playing well. Defenses are forcing him into more contested 3-point attempts and he’s seen a huge dip in wide-open 3s. The NBA is defending him differently and the Pacers, including George himself, haven’t found a way to counteract this. That’s how you get from a potentially historic season to a good one but just not good enough to remain at the top of this list — or even within shouting distance of it.

We’ve seen a huge drop in all of his advanced stats along with the traditional stats. The defense is still good and he’s still a big reason the Pacers are competitive, but it’s not the same as it was a month and a half ago.

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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RUSSELL WESTBROOK 2015-16 STATS
PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% PER WS/48 RAPM NET RTG
24.0 7.1 9.8 45.3% 29.1% 55.3% 29.3 .266 10.48 +19.9

Russell Westbrook has been unbelievable this season and it feels like putting him sixth on this list may not be totally fair. But that’s how good the rest of the list has been to me. My one quibble with Westbrook is while he’s leading the league in steals, I’m not entirely convinced he’s playing good, consistent defense this season. It feels like he’s gambling a lot and that throws him more into a “Monta Ellis sure gets a lot of steals” type of defender than a much more average or above average defender typically looks like on the court.

I think there’s merit behind the way he plays though, even on defense. Conserve more energy to be the battering ram that he is on offense. It’s not like he’s James Harden level of apathetic on defense too. He’ll engage enough to not be a Vine of hilarity and then go destroy the opposition with unreal stat lines and impact. There’s a reason he has some of the highest metrics in the NBA, some of the most insane stat lines (say he’s not a real point guard and then go check those assist numbers and save me from whatever sad excuse you’ve got as a last resort retort), and the Thunder are nearly 20 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off.

The defense thing is keeping me from putting him higher here, but if you swap him and Durant, I don’t take exception to that. Spoiler alert: Kevin Durant is somewhere on this list.

5. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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DRAYMOND GREEN 2015-16 STATS
PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% PER WS/48 RAPM NET RTG
14.5 9.5 7.4 46.6% 41.4% 57.2% 20.2 .210 8.68 +26.4

During the Warriors’ pummeling of the Cleveland Cavaliers the other night, Chris Webber was on the broadcast and he was saying how Steph Curry is the MVP of the league but Draymond Green is the MVP of the Warriors. I understand what Webber is saying here and the point that is ultimately being made. Green is incredibly important to the Warriors’ success because of the way they’ve been able to engineer their defense around his versatility and his production on that end of the floor. Throw in the fact that he’s a very good 3-point shooter, playmaker, and scorer on top of that and Green is integral to the Warriors’ success.

I still think the MVP of the league is probably also the MVP of his team, so I just don’t agree that Green is the MVP of the Warriors. But he’s my pick for Defensive Player of the Year in a close race with Kawhi Leonard for the second straight season and I think that’s where the proper accolades show up for him. Not in a make believe MVP of the Warriors ideal, but in him being the DPOY and being an All-NBA player. Green has been spectacular. His season is currently on this list, which is absurd. We don’t need to twist realities to appreciate Draymond Green.

He’s awesome. He’s not Steph and that’s OK. He’s been one of the most important players in the NBA this season — just not the MVP of his team or the league.

MVP Sleepers

4. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

KEVIN DURANT 2015-16 STATS
PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% PER WS/48 RAPM NET RTG
26.5 7.8 4.4 50.8% 39.5% 63.5% 28.1 .281 6.33 +16.0

You look at Kevin Durant’s numbers and they’re as mind-boggling as ever. You look at the raw averages of 26-7-4 and put that in historical context. That makes his season the 50th time in NBA history to have those numbers. That’s pretty special in and of itself. Boil it down by putting another filter on there for guys who have done these averages while posting a 64 true shooting percentage or higher and this is where we end up with the list. Three people have done it! It’s LeBron once, Charles Barkley once, and Durant this year would be his third season doing it. That’s it. That shows just how historic KD has been this season and somehow he’s only fourth on the list. That shows how historic this season is shaping up to be.

He’s currently one 3-point make and three free throw makes shy of the 50/40/90 club. It would be the second time he’s done it and just the fourth time in NBA history it’s been done while averaging at least 26 points. Larry Bird did it twice and Curry is currently doing it as well. The biggest knock on Durant this season is he’s missed seven games. It gave us a bit of a scare but he’s turned out to be just fine so far. His defense has been pretty stellar and he’s still one of the most dominant forces in the NBA. Most years he’d be running away with this award with the type of production he’s tossing up there. This is not most years.

3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

LEBRON JAMES 2015-16 STATS
PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% PER WS/48 RAPM NET RTG
25.1 7.2 6.0 50.2% 29.9% 57.2% 26.4 .224 8.87 +19.4

There are some people who feel LeBron James absolutely should not be considered for MVP this season when Steph Curry and others are playing so well. There are other people who wonder how exhausting it must be to enact such a petty and overly critical attitude toward LeBron at all times because you’re worried about the historical player you like more. Regardless, LeBron may not be having his best season but it doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be considered the most valuable season of 2015-16. It’s odd how much he gets judged against his prior performances, but I guess when you reach a certain status in the history books of the NBA, that’s the territory to come with it.

Seven players in NBA history have averaged 25-7-6 over a season. Those seven players have accomplished this statistical feat 23 times. If LeBron’s averages hold up this season, it will be the 24th time a player has done it and the ninth time he’s done this in his career. Oscar Robertson is second with six of these seasons. The biggest knock on LeBron this season has been the 3-point shooting. Despite an Internet graphic motivating him to make some more 3s at one point, he’s still below 30 percent on the year. Other than that, LeBron has been so good in what he’s asked to do. Factor in Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert’s absences for the start of the season and it boosts how we should view this.

LeBron has been great, but he’s not in the contenders tier for me.

MVP Contenders

2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

KAWHI LEONARD 2015-16 STATS
PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% PER WS/48 RAPM NET RTG
20.1 7.0 2.6 50.6% 48.1% 61.5% 25.7 .295 8.68 +0.5

The individual numbers aren’t as impressive as some of these other guys, but the manner in which Kawhi Leonard exudes an almost stat-less dominance — or a less traditional stat-driven dominance if you will — has everybody in the league buzzing about him and fearing him on a nightly basis. Part of the boost in his MVP potential is the fact that the Spurs are on the heels of the Warriors after Golden State dominated the conversation with the best start in NBA history. After all of that, the Spurs are right there. They’re also more dominant to date (and most dominant in history thus far) and there’s a real chance they go perfect at home.

Where Kawhi’s case is hurt is the fact that the Spurs are destroyers whether he’s on the court or off the court. The defense is just one point worse without him than with him, and both look to be historic measurements of defensive efficiency. Overall, the Spurs with Kawhi on the court are a ridiculous 15.1 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent. But without Leonard out there, the Spurs are still 14.6 points per 100 better. It’s tough to judge the “value” of a player when the team just dominates no matter who is on the floor.

You can break that down into him being the new Tim Duncan, who sets the tone for the organization and roster by being willing to sacrifice, being willing to do whatever his team asks and being willing to be treated like the 15th man on the roster when he’s the best player they have. And there’s merit to that. It’s just really difficult to make the case of him being the most valuable in that assumption. He’s arguably the best defender in the NBA this season and he’s been one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in the league. I’m just not quite there to name him over …

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

STEPHEN CURRY 2015-16 STATS
PPG RPG APG FG% 3FG% TS% PER WS/48 RAPM NET RTG
29.9 5.3 6.5 50.9% 44.9% 67.7% 32.2 .338 9.69 +28.7

We got rid of the runner-up rankings, which is a much more respectful way of treating the MVP rankings. But Curry is still the leader in the clubhouse right now and if he keeps this up, he’s going to win back-to-back MVP awards. The numbers speak for themselves but let me try to translate a bit for them. He’s currently 90 3-point makes from tying the record he set last year and it’s January 21. That doesn’t make him the MVP by any means but it shows the surreal level of production he’s tossing out there at such a high volume and efficiency.

When Curry isn’t on the floor, the Warriors are actually vulnerable. They’re outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions. Throw him in the game and the Warriors are outscoring opponents by 23 points per 100 possessions. That’s an incredible level of dominance with him on the floor. Green is the only player on this list close to that and even he’s over two points off Curry’s difference on the floor.

Curry has a 67.7 true shooting percentage. Prior to this season, the highest scoring average for a player with at least a 67 percent true shooting was 19.1 points by Artis Gilmore in 1984-85. Curry’s scoring average is over 10 points higher. We’re seeing near records in advanced metrics. We’re seeing rarified air when it comes to traditional stats. And there’s still a chance the Warriors challenge the Bulls for the all-time season record. Give this man the hardware for now, but we still have a great second half to the season to see how it all shakes out.

 


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