NBA MVP Watch: James Harden Takes Control
In the last month, the NBA MVP race has seen quite a bit of shuffling, even as the candidates have stayed the same.
While previous front-runners Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis remain in the top-five, they have fallen behind the 2016-17 MVP runner-up James Harden, who has been playing like a man on a mission. Leading the league in points and assists, the Beard has started to separate himself from the pack as his Houston Rockets sit atop the Western Conference standings.
In this and all editions of our NBA MVP watch, we rank and examine the top five players based on our in-house nERD metric. For those of you unfamiliar with nERD, it's a player ranking that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season based on their efficiency. An average NBA player would earn a 0. Comparable to win shares, this ranking gives an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with that player as one of their starters.
We already know who's at number one, but let's find out where the other contenders for NBA Most Valuable Player fall this week.
5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Previous rank: 1
It seems to happen every year. Just as we get excited about Davis' play and start throwing his name around as a top challenger for MVP -- as we did here -- he gets hurt. In his previous five seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, the big man as missed an average of 15 games per year with a variety of injuries. The 2017-18 campaign is shaping up to be no different, as through 24 games he has already sat out three times and is considered doubtful to suit up on Wednesday with an abductor strain. It's a shame too, as he was in the midst of perhaps his most efficient season.
Through 21 games, Davis is posting career-best shooting percentages -- 57.3% field goal, 35.9% three-point, and 64.6% true shooting. Per Basketball-Reference.com, his offensive rating of 123.6 is the highest of his career, putting him in the top-eight of the NBA this season. The Brow's defense has been superb too, as he is one of only three players to average at least 1.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game this season.
4. Giannis Antetokuonmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Previous rank: 5
While Antetokounmpo's development as a top-flight scorer has deservedly made headlines this season -- four 40-plus point nights in 21 games after posting just one in the first 318 games of his career -- the Milwaukee Bucks superstar has not stopped improving all facets of his game this season. The 23-year-old is posting career-highs in rebounds and steals while leading the NBA in player efficiency rating (PER) at 31.5.
A one-man show to start the season, Antetokounmpo has had to adjust to the addition of top-notch point guard Eric Bledsoe the last 11 games. While some of his numbers have taken a hit -- most notably scoring (-3.9), assists (-0.6), and shots (-1.3) per game -- the Greek Freak has seen his rebounds (0.7) and steals (0.4) rise while his turnover percentage has been cut nearly in half, from 12.9 to 7.9%.
In his last two games, the forward has returned to his early-season dominant scoring ways, averaging 36.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.5 steals per game while hitting his free-throws at an 80.6% clip.
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Previous rank: 2
After a down year by his standards, Stephen Curry has regained his MVP form, posting the second-best scoring average and true shooting percentage of his career. On Monday, though, the two-time MVP severely rolled his right ankle, costing him at least the next two weeks of games, a terrible blow for Curry who has dealt with ankle injuries throughout his NBA life. In what is shaping up to be a season marred by injuries, the Golden State Warriors point guard had been fighting through a bruised shooting hand too, thus his performance over the past week looks that much more remarkable.
Even while not 100%, Curry averaged 28.0 points -- including two games with at least 30 points -- on 50.7% shooting from the floor and 43.2% from three. He posted a pair of double-doubles as he dished out 10-plus assists two times -- including tying a season-high with 11 versus the Pelicans on Monday night -- guiding the Warriors to four straight wins.
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Previous rank: 3
LeBron James is no stranger to MVP talk -- he is a four-time winner, after all -- but for the first time since returning to Cleveland in 2014 does the King have a legit shot at number five.
After a dismal 5-7 start during which many questioned the Cleveland Cavaliers' place as Eastern Conference favorites, James has led the Cavs on a 12-game winning streak where they have been pummeling foes to the tune of a 10.8 point per game-winning margin. They have moved to within 3.5 games of the NBA's best record and former teammate Kyrie Irving's first-place Boston Celtics -- all with James posting his best numbers in nearly a decade. During the streak, Bron is almost averaging a trip-dub with 26.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game. His 66.4% shooting percentage for the season would be a career-best as he is draining threes at a better rate (41.6%) than he ever has.
James is having a special season all while having to bounce around the Cavs lineup, playing everywhere from point guard to center to cover for the numerous injuries.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Previous rank: 4
The Western Conference's best team at the moment is not the Warriors. It is the 18-4 Rockets led by the early-season runaway choice for MVP.
The Beard is at the top of the leaderboard in not just the flashy traditional stats, but also such meaningful advanced metrics as assist percentage (49.6), win shares (5.5), box plus/minus (11.8), and, of course, nERD.
In the last month, Harden has been setting the nets on fire, scoring 30 or more points eight times in 12 games, including 56- and 48-point explosions. Chris Paul being back up to full speed in the last four games hasn't slowed down Harden as many had feared -- he is averaging 24.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 9.3 assists in the previous 10 days.
For all his individual accomplishments, the most impressive feat for Harden has been the Rockets' performance since the calendar flipped to November. Houston has won 13-of-14 games with all but one win -- a 4-point victory over Cleveland -- coming by double-digits. The Rockets are outscoring opponents by an average of 17.2 points since November 1.