Culture of Hoops

The Way Too Early NBA MVP Rankings

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

I can’t say this with complete certainty because really it’s just a matter of opinion anyway, but through a quarter of a season, an NBA MVP race has ever been so wide open. Granted, the “race” we’re talking about here is so long that we might as well consider each players body of work thus far similar to a warm-up jog before a race actually begins, but still, it’s hard to examine the credentials of any one player and give him a clear cut edge over the rest of the field.

Just consider last year: from Jump Street the chase for the NBA MVP Award was a two horse race between Kevin Durant and LeBron James. By mid-December it was clear that those two would be one and two in the voting in some order. Paul George’s candidacy was fun, but brief. Blake Griffin and Joakim Noah could both make compelling cases as a second runner up by seasons end. Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and others deserved to be mentioned as other potential top five candidates. But by the time Santa Claus had visited millions of homes around the world, Durant and LeBron were really the only two guys that mattered in the MVP convo.

That’s not the case this year, and that’s one of the many reasons why this NBA has been so darn interesting for the first quarter. The traditional powers aren’t atop the standings—at least not yet—and a ton of new faces make up the MVP picture at this point in the young season. Sure, there are some guys who are clearly ahead of others, and that’s why power rankings are in order… but in total, there are a whopping fourteen guys who could realistically make a case as the league’s MVP right now, and that isn’t normal.

NOTE: As you’ll soon notice, this list doesn’t include one San Antonio Spur, nor does it include Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant, both of whom will likely find themselves in the thick of the conversation at some point in the relatively near future. It also doesn’t include a few fringe guys like Monta Ellis, Klay Thompson, Paul Millsap, or Josh Smith. I hope you can tell which one of those guys I’m joking about.

T14: Chris Paul/Blake Griffin

Neither Paul or Griffin are having seasons that are the best of their careers, but it is only December so there is obviously time for this to change. If we’re using the eye test only, Griffin and Paul will always be in the conversation of best players in the league and that generally will grandfather you into MVP talks. The idea of teammates splitting MVP votes is one that occasionally prevails, but Griffin and Paul finished third and seventh respectively last season, so it’s not like if either makes a significant jump in the next few months their case will be too damaged. Either way, Paul and Griffin have been good enough this season to avoid finding themselves on the honorable mention.

T12: Jimmy Butler/Pau Gasol

Not the Bulls duo you would’ve expected to see here. Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, has been inconsistent, both in play and appearance, and Joakim Noah, 4th in last season’s MVP vote, isn’t making such a profound impact this season as he did last. Jimmy Butler’s bread has been buttered as a steady defensive minded wing who logs huge minutes on a nightly basis, but his strides as an offensive cog have him as an outside candidate as the MVP, as well as a favorite to win the league’s Most Improved Player Award.

Gasol, a new addition to Chicago’s bolstered roster, has been just as vital as Butler in transforming the typically sluggish Bulls offense into the highest scoring unit in Tom Thibodeau’s tenure as Chicago’s head coach. After watching Pau toil away in a lousy situation in Los Angeles over the last two seasons, it’s nice to see that he seemingly has so much left in the tank. It’s early and there is no guarantee that Gasol can keep up this double-double per night pace he’s been at—nor is there a guarantee Gasol can remain healthy all season long—but if he stays at this level of play there will be two Gasol’s getting MVP consideration in May.

T10: LaMarcus Aldridge/Damian Lillard

It’s hard to differentiate the MVP credentials of Lillard and Aldridge in my mind. Lillard still isn’t a quality defender, but he competes hard, has a knack for making big shots, and he’s improved slightly statistically from the last two seasons. Most importantly, in a league with a dozen or so great point guards, Lillard has a chance to be the best on the floor any given night.

Aldridge is a steadier defender than Lillard and his ability and willingness to knock down mid-range jumpers gives Portland’s offense a unique dynamic that few other teams have. It also makes any pick and roll look a whole lot easier for Lillard to navigate, given how defenses need to be so cautious of LMA’s mid-range game. Aldridge is good for 20 and 10 just about every night, but his shooting percentage has dipped below 45 percent, a number that is curiously low yet sort of understandable considering the vast majority of Aldridge’s field goal attempts come on low percentage looks. More so than either of the other aforementioned duos, Lillard and Aldridge’s candidacy goes hand in hand.

8: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins’ candidacy is hurt by the fact that the Kings, currently 11-13, are due to miss the playoffs even after a 9-6 start to the season that was as fun as it was unexpected. Seeing Boogie toss up a few huge double-doubles—his 34/17/5 stat line in a win against the Clippers was my personal favorite—and keep his head about him in the rare times when things weren’t going his way made fans like myself who always believed Cousins had the potential to be a top ten player in the league feel like proud parents.

Cousins’ fate, both short term and long term, will likely turn out to be similar to the one Kevin Love suffered for a handful of seasons. He’s going to put up huge numbers and clearly establish himself as one of the most singularly talented players in the world, but fall victim to an as-gruesome-as-ever Western Conference that won’t allow him to lead a team to a .500 record. It doesn’t matter how talented a player is or how good his numbers are … if his team doesn’t even make the playoffs he can’t be considered the Most Valuable Player in the league. And like Love, eventually Cousins is going to need to get out of that ass-backwards situation in Sacramento.

7: Kyle Lowry
6: John Wall

There’s plenty to like about these two guards who should be the co-favorites to get the start for the Eastern Conference in the February’s All-Star Game. Of course, those spots will go to Kyrie Irving or Derrick Rose, but these are the two names you’ll likely see on MVP ballots in the spring and that matters more. Wall and Lowry run the show for the two teams atop the Eastern Conference at the moment, and though neither possesses a statistical resume that jumps of the page, both have been good enough in that respect to get consideration for the award.

Lowry is a notoriously gritty competitor who is in the middle of the best statistical campaign of his career, and his case for MVP will strengthen if he can keep the Raptors near the top of the Eastern Conference while his backcourt companion DeMar DeRozan is sidelined. Wall is no stranger to dealing with a short-handed backcourt. For the first nine games Wall was without shooting guard Bradley Beal. DeRozan will be sidelined longer than Beal, and that gives Wall, the Wizards, and the rest of the Eastern Conference for that matter a chance to catch the Raptors. Wall and Lowry are admittedly dark horse candidates, but if either the Wizards or Raptors sit atop the Eastern Conference in April, they’ll warrant discussion.

At gun point I’d say that Wall has a better chance of remaining in the conversation throughout the season. He’s a touch better statistically and with the Raptors likely to lose some ground in the standings, Wall and the Wiz should climb. Wall was a breakout star last year and if he continues to show noticeable improvement as an all-around player, he could really be in the thick of it as the season goes on. I may be on the Wall bandwagon because of this postgame interview though.


5: LeBron James

So have you heard that LeBron James is having a down season? Would you believe me if I told you that wasn’t exactly true? Observe: Year A- 26.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 48% FG, 14-9 record

Year B- 26.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 steals, 49% FG, 20-3 record

Year C- 25.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 54% FG, 17-6 record

Year D- 24.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 47% FG, 15-8 record

Year E- 25.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 49% FG, 14-9 record

Can we agree that there isn’t a huge difference between any of these seasons? They are relatively similar, correct? Shake your head in an up and down fashion.

Year A represents LeBron James through the first 23 games of the 2006-07 season. He finished 5th in MVP voting and the Cavaliers lost in the NBA Finals.

Year B represents LeBron James through the first 23 games of the 2008-09 season. He won his 1st MVP Award and the Cavaliers lost in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Year C represents LeBron James through the first 23 games of the 2012-13 season. He won his 4th MVP Award and the Heat won the NBA Title.

Year D represents LeBron James through the first 23 games of the 2010-11 season. He finished 3rd in MVP voting and the Heat lost in the NBA Finals.

Year E represents LeBron James through the first 23 games of the 2014-15 season. His finish in both the MVP voting and NBA postseason is to be determined. Let’s not forget about the best basketball player in the world folks.

4: Anthony Davis

Davis is in the same boat as Cousins. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs—and in a loaded Western Conference that will prove to be an extremely difficult task—it’s hard to fathom giving Davis the award. Sure, it’s a little easier to fathom giving it to a legitimately terrifying talent who has been called, “some sort of ungodly Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon hybrid.” That quote came from yours truly. Either way, if Davis can’t lead the Pellies to the postseason, even a historically great individual year couldn’t save his MVP chances. Get ready for a Nikki Minaj-sized but…

BUT, if Davis and the rest of the Pelicans can survive that bloodbath and claim one of the Western Conference’s eight postseason spots, it doesn’t matter where the Pelicans are seeded, Davis becomes an immediate favorite. There isn’t a basketball player alive who impacts a game defensively like Davis does. Offensively, well, you saw the comparison I already made … he’s coming along quite quickly. His jumper is respectable and there might not be a more difficult task than figuring out a way to stop The Brow from scoring when he’s near the basket, as evidenced by the 57 percent he’s currently shooting from the field. The Pelicans supporting cast isn’t horrendous, but it certainly isn’t one that could win 30 games playing in the Western Conference if Davis were removed from the situation.

3: Marc Gasol

Big Spain has put up the best numbers of his career early on and that, along with a better suited supporting cast, has resulted in a vastly improved Grizzlies offense that is routinely cracking the 100 point mark. Gasol remains the linchpin of a stout Grizzlies defense and that should hold quite a bit of weight with voters, but his newfound aggressiveness is what will get him MVP consideration rather than just votes for Defensive Player of the Year.

2: James Harden

A pretty compelling MVP case can be made for Harden, especially given his recent half-assed commitment to actually trying defensively. As long as he’s not an abomination as a defender I can take his MVP candidacy seriously, because the offensive burden he carries is greater than that of any other player who will be in this conversation at season’s end. Harden’s played half the season without Dwight Howard and he’ll go the whole way without playing with a perimeter player who can effectively create their own shot.

Harden’s field goal percentage is lower than would be desired but it’s tough to fault him when so much attention is thrown his way by opposing defenses each night. The low shooting percentage can be ignored when you take into account how staggering the rest of his numbers are. He’s putting up numbers that are on par with any LeBron James season and his ability to get himself to the free throw line time after time every night sets him apart from many other perimeter scorers.

1: Stephen Curry

If the mindset of voters is to give the award to the best player on the best team, it belongs to Curry at this point in the season. At the quarter pole the Warriors are 21-2, they’ve won 16 straight games—believe it or not, their actually only the 22nd team to win at least 16 straight games in a season—and they’ve outscored their opponents by nearly 11 points per game so far this season. In conjunction with this hot start, Stephen Curry is having the best season of his young career. On a per 36 minute basis, Curry’s numbers are actually better than Derrick Rose’s during his 2011 MVP campaign.

Golden State’s offense hasn’t been as much of a dumpster fire without Curry on the floor as it has been in the past, but there is still a considerable drop off when Curry sits. And if you imagine an alternate universe where Curry is removed from the Warriors, they certainly aren’t off to a 21-2 start. Before the season began there was debate as to whether Curry was the best point guard in the NBA. It’s time to start including him in the best player in the NBA debate.

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