NBA Awards Watch: January Shuffles The Decks

January 18, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dribbles the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Thunder 121-100. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

January 18, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dribbles the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Thunder 121-100. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA awards races heated up in January, even as the playoff races got seriously shuffled as some teams rose up and others hit cold spells.

January was a wild month in the NBA, both in terms of the races for the NBA awards and the playoff chase.

A month ago, the Atlanta Hawks were putting out the “For Sale” sign on All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, entering the New Year at 17-16 and prepared to try and get something before the veteran would likely opt for free agency this summer.

After an 11-4 January propelled the Hawks into fourth in the Eastern Conference, Millsap is off the market, per ESPN.com and Atlanta is ramping up to try and secure a top-tier seeding as they trail the second-place Boston Celtics by just two games heading into February and are only 4½ games off the pace set by the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland and the Toronto Raptors roared back to the pack last month, going 7-8 and 8-9 respectively.

The Celtics’ 10-4 January moved them past the reeling Raptors into second place and the Washington Wizards–left for dead after opening 6-11–enter All-Star month tied with Atlanta after going 12-4 and January and 22-9 since Dec. 1.

What the Western Conference lacks for dramatics at the top it makes up for with an absolute Mortal Kombat of mediocrity chasing the eighth spot.

Entering February there were six teams–the Denver Nuggets (21-26), Portland Trail Blazers (22-28), Minnesota Timberwolves (19-29), Sacramento Kings (19-30), New Orleans Pelicans (19-30) and Dallas Mavericks (18-30)–within 4½ games of each other in the chase to be sacrificed to the Golden State Warriors in Round 1.

NBA action–it’s hazmat-tastic!

As for the race for the individual awards, we can scratch Dwight Powell of the Mavericks from the Sixth Man of the Year chase. Reduced playing time in January left his campaign stranded alongside one of those long stretches of open highways Texas is known for.

The Milwaukee Bucks are just a game behind the Charlotte Hornets for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, but that was enough to wipe Giannis Antetokounmpo from the Most Valuable Player talk–no player from a non-postseason team has won the award in 41 years, so … yeah.

Otherwise, there’s been some shuffling and some shifting. Let’s get on with the show!

Jan 29, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Referee James Capers talks to Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and coach Mike D'Antoni during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Houston 120-101. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 29, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Referee James Capers talks to Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and coach Mike D’Antoni during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Houston 120-101. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Coach of the Year

A legendary coach drops out of the top three contenders as a former winner of the award drops in, likely much to the chagrin of his former constituency in the Great Plains.

But the top two contenders at the first of the year remain 1-2 in the race.

In the conversation: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs (No. 3 last month); Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks; Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz.

3. Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards

Scott Brooks tried things the new way in his first month as the new coach of the Washington Wizards.

After all, general manager Ernie Grunfeld spent money like crazy over the summer trying to improve the bench, bringing in free agents Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith and Marcus Thornton; trading for Trey Burke; and signing 2012 draft pick Tomas Satoransky.

After starting the season 6-11 and discovering his reserves had the virtual effect of throwing gasoline on a house fire, Brooks decided it was time to kick it old school — like 1986-87 Boston Celtics style.

No team has played its starters more than Brooks’ Wizards this season. The starting five of forwards Markieff Morris and Otto Porter, center Marcin Gortat and guards Bradley Beal and John Wall have been on the floor together 834 minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com. Morris, at 31.9 minutes per game, averages the least playing time of the unit.

The starting five has remained remarkably healthy–Wall has missed two games and Beal just four, but it’s a risky gambit. Wall does have a checkered injury history and Beal showed the fragility of a wine glass at a demolition site in his first four seasons.

But it’s working and Brooks, the 2009-10 Coach of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder, has been pushing the right buttons for two months now as Washington is 22-9 since that slow start.

2. David Fizdale, Memphis Grizzlies

The Grit ‘N’ Grind got a bit of a facelift, but rookie head coach David Fizdale has the Memphis Grizzlies getting results with the altered formula.

Memphis is still in the top five in the NBA in defensive efficiency (fourth at 105.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), still near the bottom of the pack in offensive efficiency (a 106.3 per 100 rate has them 20th in the NBA) and they aren’t quick (28th in pace).

But they’ve embraced the 3-pointer, hitting 35.4 percent (19th in the league) while ranking 13th in makes and 14th in attempts after ranking 29th, 27th and 25th, respectively, in those categories a season ago.

And, oh by the way, the Grizzlies are 29-21, sixth in the Western Conference, and appear solidly on their way to a seventh consecutive postseason appearance.

So why did it take 13 years as an assistant before this guy got a shot at the lead chair again?

1. Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets

The reclamation project of the year has to be the coaching career of Mike D’Antoni.

The Houston Rockets are a solid third in the Western Conference at 36-16 through January, three games behind second-place San Antonio and four games up on the Los Angeles Clippers and D’Antoni has done it his way.

The Rockets are taking nearly 40 3-pointers a night (39.6), the most in the league and on pace to be the most in the history of the league.

He unleashed James Harden, point guard, and The Beard responded by leading the NBA in assists while still dropping 28.4 points a game and upping his rebounding by more than two a night.

D’Antoni also created Eric Gordon, sixth man extraordinaire, who is taking and making more long balls than almost everyone in the league. Gordon is second behind Stephen Curry in makes through January with 170 and trails only Curry and Harden in attempts with 440.

Houston has weathered injuries to defensive pest Patrick Beverley and new starting center Clint Capela, embraced a faster new style and quickly moved on from the lengthy shadow of former All-Star big man Dwight Howard.

It’s more than enough to remind us that that once upon a time–he was the 2004-05 Coach of the Year, remember–and once again, Mike D’Antoni can be a very effective coach with the right personnel.

Jan 28, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) passes the ball away from Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) in the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 28, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) passes the ball away from Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder (99) in the first quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Most Improved Player

There’s no shortage of solid contenders for the Most Improved Player honor this season and in very few cases is it the typical get-more-minutes, get-more-stats story.

Instead, we’ve seen many players making some serious leaps this season in their per-36 minute numbers even as their roles have remained basically the same–starters who have found a new gear and young players who are getting comfortable.

In the conversation: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks; Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (No. 2 last month).

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

The fourth-year center from France is solidly averaging a double-double for the Utah Jazz, solidly playoff bound. Yes, it’s safe to say Rudy Gobert has seriously arrived.

He had a career night on Jan. 20 at Dallas, putting up career highs with 27 points and 25 rebounds to lead Utah to a 112-107 win and in 15 games in January averaged 13.5 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on .582/—/.667 shooting.

For the season, he is second in the NBA with a 65.8 percent mark from the floor, is fifth with 12.5 boards a game and is the league’s leader with 2.6 blocks a night.

His 12.8 points per game is on pace to become a new career high, as are his rebounding, blocks, field-goal shooting and his 65.6 percent mark from the foul line.

Gobert has come a long way from the player who averaged 9.6 minutes and 2.3 points per game as a rookie in 2013-14, but he’s also markedly better per-36 minutes from a season ago.

Per 36 Minutes Table
Season FG% 3P% FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 .559 .569 3.9 8.6 12.4 1.7 0.8 2.5 2.1 3.0 10.4
2016-17 .658 .000 .656 4.0 9.4 13.4 1.0 0.7 2.7 1.9 3.1 13.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/1/2017.

His advanced numbers also show the leap–his Player Efficiency Rating is up to 22.0 from 17.5, he leads the NBA with 3.7 defensive win shares after notching 3.8 all of last season and his win shares per 48 minutes is .243, up from .160 in 2015-16.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

The second-year center for the Denver Nuggets has made a huge leap and may be the guy who the franchise is looking at as the centerpiece of its rebuild now.

Not bad for a second-round pick from Serbia.

Nikola Jokic is averaging only 26.1 minutes per game, but is putting up 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists on .593/.323/.817 shooting and is a big reason the Nuggets are in contention for their first playoff berth since 2013.

Jokic played in 11 games in January, all as a starter, and was phenomenal, putting up 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks in 30.7 minutes per game on .602/.333/.872 shooting before having to be shut down for the final two games with a strained left hip flexor.

Per-36 minutes, the spike from his rookie season is fairly astounding:

Per 36 Minutes Table
Season FG% 3P% FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 .512 .333 .811 3.8 7.9 11.6 3.9 1.6 1.0 2.2 4.3 16.5
2016-17 .593 .323 .817 3.9 7.8 11.7 5.5 1.0 1.1 2.7 4.2 21.4
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/1/2017.

By the way, the kid will be 22 years old on Feb. 19, so he’s nowhere near a peak yet.

On Jan. 19, Jokic went off for a career-high 35 points against a team not noted for its defense–the San Antonio Spurs–one of two 30-point games he had in January, a month in which he notched eight double-doubles in 11 games.

That .593/.323/.817 shooting slash is up from .512/.333/.811 a season ago and his advanced metrics have taken a giant leap. His PER is up from 21.5 to 26.3, his box score plus/minus is 8.0, up from 4.8, and his win shares per 48 minutes has gone from .185 to .235.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

In a season of players making “the leap,” no one has leaped as high or as far as Milwaukee Bucks’ point guard-slash-shooting guard-slash-power forward-slash-small forward-slash-yeah Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Even after a January that would be considered weak by the standards he’s set this season, he is still light years ahead of the field for the MIP honor.

All he managed in January was to average 22.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.1 blocks in 35.5 minutes per game on .506/.286/.775 shooting in 14 games.

That actually dropped his season numbers to 23.4 points, 8.7 boards, 5.5 dimes, 1.8 steals and 2.0 blocks in 35.2 minutes on .527/.291/.785 marksmanship.

He was voted in by the fans, players and media in this year’s awkwardly funky but still horribly flawed voting process as a starter in the All-Star Game, his first career selection, adding another layer to his resume.

Per 36 Minutes Table
Season FG% 3P% FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 .506 .257 .724 1.4 6.4 7.8 4.4 1.2 1.4 2.7 3.3 17.2
2016-17 .527 .291 .785 2.0 6.9 8.9 5.6 1.8 2.0 3.1 3.4 23.9
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/1/2017.

The advanced numbers may be more telling. Antetokounmpo’s PER has shot up from 18.8 to 27.1, his win shares per 48 have gone up from .121 to .223 and his BPM has nearly quadrupled from 2.4 to 8.9.

Talk about a guy making the leap.

Dec 9, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Lou Williams (23) defended by Phoenix Suns forward Alan Williams (15) during a basketball game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 9, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Lou Williams (23) defended by Phoenix Suns forward Alan Williams (15) during a basketball game at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sixth Man of the Year

The Sixth Man of the Year race lost one potential contender in Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets when he regained a starting role and another in Enes Kanter of the Oklahoma City Thunder when he lost a one-round TKO to a folding chair on Jan. 26.

But that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of candidates, even if three-time winner Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers–recipient each of the last two seasons–is unlikely to make it a three-peat.

Instead, there is a field that provides an interesting blend of young, old, known and unknown.

In the conversation: Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors; Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs (No. 2 last month); Jon Leuer, Detroit Pistons.

3. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies

Zach Randolph has found new life at age 35 as a reserve for the Memphis Grizzlies. His numbers had been slowly, but steadily, declining the previous three seasons as a starter at power forward and a move to the bench has reduced his minutes while increasing his impact.

Through January, Randolph is averaging 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in 24.2 minuites per game on .463/.281/.731 shooting.

It’s in the per-36 numbers where you can see the marked difference the move to the bench has had. Last season, Randolph averaged 29.6 minutes per game and put up 15.3 points and 7.8 boards a night.

Per-36, he’s gone from 18.6 points and 9.4 rebounds a season ago to 21.2 and 12.3 respectively. His PER is up to 19.6–the highest it’s been since 2010-11–on a usage rate of 29.1 percent, which is the second-highest of his career and unmatched during his time in Memphis.

It might not be the start of a second career for Z-Bo, but fewer minutes and working in short bursts could extend the one he’s had–not a bad one at all, by the way–by another year or two.

2. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks

The conundrum that is Greg Monroe took another turn in January. He got the most run he’s received all season and responded with 13.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 24.8 minutes per game in 15 January contests, hurtling himself into the Sixth Man discussion.

As Monroe was doing this, however, the Milwaukee Bucks lost 10 of 15 in the month and fell to ninth place in the Eastern Conference entering February.

Thus is the career of Monroe, a player with solid numbers and zero career playoff appearances to date.

For the season, Monroe is averaging 11.1 points, 6.8 boards, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals in 21.5 minutes per game on .514/—/.721 shooting, with a solid 21.4 PER and .146 win shares per 48 minutes.

But Monroe is just a piece that doesn’t seem to fit the puzzle of the pace-and-space era, a player with a 1980s-2000s skill set stuck out of time in an era that doesn’t value the plodding low-post center the way it once did.

As his numbers show, he can still be effective in spots and in situations. But as the Bucks’ efforts to trade him also show, he’s not exactly a hot commodity either.

1. Lou Williams, Los Angeles Lakers

Even as the Los Angeles Lakers crashed to the bottom of the Western Conference, Lou Williams remained a constant with his productivity off the bench.

The 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year while with the Toronto Raptors, Williams has combined consistency–a rare trait among reserves–and productivity, averaging 18.3 points per game this season for the Lakers, on pace for a career best and the top mark on the club.

Williams has scored in double-figures in 48 of his 51 appearances this season–all but one of which have been as a reserve, and has topped the 20-point mark 20 times.

He’s done that scoring in an average of 24.4 minutes per game on .440/.387/.878 shooting, putting up a career-best 23.4 PER along the way.

Of the 10 top scoring games of the season by players off the bench, per Basketball-Reference.com, four of them belong to Williams, including the top three. No other player appears in the top 10 more than once.

If that isn’t the definition of Sixth Man of the Year, I’m hard pressed to figure out what it is.

Jan 20, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA;Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) grabs a rebound from Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 112-96. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 20, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA;Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) grabs a rebound from Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo (11) during the second half at Amway Center. Orlando Magic defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 112-96. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie of the Year

Having resigned myself to the fact that this year’s Rookie of the Year barely plays, I recall there is precedent for this–1985-86 winner Patrick Ewing appeared in only 50 games. Up until the point he injured his knee, he played every game and averaged 35 minutes a game, but victories are victories, however pyhrric they may be.

There are a few bright spots in this year’s rookie class. OK, there is a bright spot in this year’s rookie class outside of the guy who will be handed the trophy on June 26.

In the conversation (because obscure topics are fun): Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers; Dorian Finney-Smith, Dallas Mavericks; Andrew Harrison, Memphis Grizzlies.

3. Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat

Rodney McGruder, the 25-year-old veteran of Hungary (and every coach loves a player who’s Hungary … wait, never mind) and two D-League campaigns, hangs in there at No. 3 for his work with the Miami Heat this season.

He’s started 33 of his 46 appearances this season, averaging 5.9 points and 3.4 rebounds in 25.9 minutes per game on .387/.328/.680 shooting.

In January, he started all 15 games as Miami came to life with a 9-6 record after entering the New Year at 10-24 and put up 6.4 points and 3.2 rebounds in 26.1 minutesa per game on .386/.357/.619 shooting.

McGruder is what he is, a replacement-level player being asked to start and he’s handling it pretty well. In the season rookies forgot to show up and play, that’s good enough to make the top three.

2. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Malcolm Brogdon is hands-down the best rookie of the 2016 NBA Draft class, vaulting from the 36th overall selection to provide quality minutes for the Milwaukee Bucks as his role continues to expand.

He started 10 of 15 games in January and averaged 11.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals in 30.7 minutes per game on .392/.372/.886 shooting, showing that college seniors still have their place and can provide value, even if they don’t have the much-sought-after UPSIDE their teenage compatriots who come out after a single college campaign can claim.

For the season, Brogdon has appeared in 48 games with 12 starts and is averaging 9.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals in 25.5 minutes a night on a shooting slash line of .435/.425/.871.

That’s certainly more than a team hopes to find at No. 36.

1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Let me start by saying that I love the way Joel Embiid plays.

When he plays. If he plays. When the Philadelphia 76ers take the bubble wrap off the package and take him out of the box once in awhile.

I get it, he’s got an injury history–a lengthy one. And he’s now sitting out with a left knee contusion (it sounds worse when they put it like that, it’s a bruise for crying out loud).

For the season, he’s appeared in 31 of Philadelphia’s 47 games and is averging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.5 blocks in 25.4 minutes per game on .466/.367/.783 shooting, making him the darling of the per-36 minutes crowd (and those numbers … off … the … charts).

The 76ers will offer him a max extension this summer, a decision made easier by the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement that will have the unintended consequence of having 25 of 30 teams tanking for draft position since the new deal creates so many incentives to allow teams to keep the players they draft for 25 years.

But, and I hate to be the guy throwing the ice water on the tropical party, we’re still talking about a player who has logged 786 real minutes in 2½ seasons and has played as many back-to-backs as I have in his career.

Great player? Unquestionably. Rookie of the Year? Without a doubt. Guy for whom you go all-in with your franchise’s future? Not entirely sure I make that bet yet.

Jan 20, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) is defended by New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Nets defeated the Pelicans 143-114. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 20, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) is defended by New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Nets defeated the Pelicans 143-114. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Player of the Year

This race has shuffled a bit over the last month, with the top three consisting of the same players in a slightly different order as a certain player in the Big Easy has asserted himself with his versatility at the defensive end.

In the conversation: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks; Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks.

3. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

Draymond Green ended January averaging 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks per game and ranked second in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic.

He’s doing that for a Golden State Warriors club that leads the NBA in defensive efficiency while playing the second-fastest pace in the league, so the challenges are many for an undersized big who gets asked to guard everything from centers to wing shooters.

Green is still doing a terrific job on post-up plays, allowing 0.72 points per possession on 36.4 percent shooting per NBA.com/stats, despite often giving up a lot of size in the post, which has him in the 81st percentile in the NBA.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Rudy Gobert was the leader for the award at the end of December, but has slipped a bit, even though he leads the NBA in both blocks per game and Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

The reason for that is two-fold–both the solid play of the new leader in January and Gobert’s foul numbers when compared to that player.

Gobert is still committing 4.6 fouls per 100 possessions, the most among the top contenders for the award, and that detracts from the good things he does.

And those good things are very, very good.

In the resticted area, Gobert allows opponents to shoot just 55.8 percent on 18.5 attempts per game, a solid numbers but one that has risen significantly from 53.2 percent at the end of December.

He is the anchor of the Utah defense, the last line protecting the rim and he does a tremendous job of it. But Gobert still shows he’s a young player new to the American style of play–he won’t be 25 until June 26–and that bears out in his tendency to commit fouls that he probably shouldn’t be overcommitting.

1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

The New Orleans Pelicans slid back into the Western Conference’s “Who Wants It Least?” battle for eighth place with a 5-9 January even as Anthony Davis asserted himself with a strong month at both ends of the floor.

He distinguished himself defensively by averaging 1.8 blocks in 12 January games and ended the month averaging 1.3 steals and 2.4 blocks per game.

Davis is eighth in Defensive Real Plus-Minus and second to Gobert in blocks per game and it’s the combination of everything–quick hands, shot-blocking and averaging just 3.1 fouls per 100 possessions–that gives him an ever-so-slight edge at the turn of the calendar into February.

Opponents shoot 61.4 percent against Davis in the restricted area, significantly better than against Gobert, but when facing post-ups, Davis allows a 43.5 percent success rate and 0.84 points per possession.

In any event, there’s still a lot of basketball to figure out who gets this hardware.

Jan 31, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket while guarded by San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 31, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket while guarded by San Antonio Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Most Valuable Player

The Most Valuable Player race has to be bittersweet for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, given that the top three contenders were once all in their uniform.

Again, for the record, to be considered for this, players have to be on a team that was in a playoff position at the end of January–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76 was the last player from a non-playoff team to win the honor and given the voters’ recent trend of going best player-best team, the odds of that ever happening again are beyond slim.

However, it could be the year a player from a team outside the top five best records is named MVP, which would be the first time since Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls in 1987-88.

The playoff position caveat knocked out Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, who was No. 3 last month (although he likely would have dropped out anyway).

In the larger conversation: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs; Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers.

3. James Harden, Houston Rockets

James Harden drops a spot from the end of December not so much for anything he did or didn’t do so much as the play of another guy.

Make no mistake, The Beard is having the best season of his career, earning his fifth All-Star appearance and leading the NBA in assists while averaging 28.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 11.5 assists and 1.4 steals in 36.4 minutes per game on .444/.343/.860 shooting through January.

He’s third in the NBA in scoring behind Russell Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas. In the advanced numbers, his 27.3 PER is on pace to set a career high, he leads the league with 7.5 offensive win shares and his 9.8 box score plus/minus is the highest of his career.

Being turned loose as the point guard by new Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni has been freeing for Harden, who hasn’t responded by taking every shot but instead has gotten teammates involved (remember, did I mention he’s leading the NBA in assists?) and leading Houston into the top three in the Western Conference.

2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

As one of perhaps six people on the planet who didn’t completely freak out when Kevin Durant exercised his collectively bargained right to choose where he wanted to work this season at the expiration of his contract, I’ve still been surprised at how quickly he’s adapted to his new surroundings with the Golden State Warriors.

Durant ended January averaging 26.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.7 blocks in 34.3 minutes per game on a slash line of .546/.387/.871.

Heady stuff.

He stepped things up in January to the tune of 27.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.1 blocks in 34.4 minutes on .565/.367/.894 shooting in 14 games as the Warriors were 12-2 and opened up a four-game lead on the rest of the Western Conference.

The field-goal percentage is on pace for a career-high, well above the 51 percent he shot in 2012-13 with Oklahoma City. Per-36 minutes, Durant’s numbers are awfully close to what he had last season for the Thunder, only more efficient.

He’s down less than a point per 36, up about a half rebound, identical in assists, up slightly in steals and averaging about a half block more.

And about this “loyalty” thing. Players from the early 1980s and earlier didn’t have the ability to change teams at will, because “free” agency in those days wasn’t free.

A team signed a free agent and then had their rosters or future draft picks pillaged by the commissioner as “compensation” for the signing.

Besides the fact that loyalty in pro sports has always seemed to last just as long as a player could get it done on the particular playing surface of the game (field, court, ice, what have you). Once that ended, so did the “loyalty.” (San Antonio Spurs notably the exception.)

So it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. As usual. And players in this era grow up combining with the best players at the AAU and collegiate levels, so why is it a stunner that they want to play with each other in the NBA? I’m an old man and I get it. Times changes. Figure it out.

1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Averaging a triple-double, leading the NBA in scoring and can’t get voted in to start the All-Star Game. Zaza Pachulia came closer to starting the All-Star Game than Russell Westbrook did.

Lovin’ the new system. Oh, yeah.

If Westbrook does win the MVP award, he would be the first to do so without being voted an All-Star starter since Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks in 2006-07. So it does happen, just not often.

Westbrook ended January averaging 30.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 10.3 assists (pause to stare in incredulity for a moment … OK) and 1.6 steals in 34.7 minutes per game on .419/.333/.822 shooting.

January was not a great month for Westbrook–his raw numbers (30.3 points, 10.7 boards, 9.5 dimes) were phenomenal, but his shooting (.392/.336/.832) was, well, phenomenally bad.

The frightening part is that it was his best full month from 3-point range this season, even as he chucked an alarming 8.5 bombs a game skyward.

Suffice it to say the lead he had in this race at the end of December is much, much smaller now.

It could be that the sheer weight of carrying the Thunder on his back is beginning to wear Westbrook down after 49 games. The loss of Enes Kanter for up to two months with a fractured forearm won’t help that, as the second unit loses its most effective offensive weapon.

I’m still pulling for the triple-double average, because to do it in this era, averaging the minutes he does at the pace the game is played at today would be the single greatest individual feat perhaps, I don’t know, ever.

Whether it would still be MVP-worthy has yet to be decided, but he’s the leader at the turn.

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