Jan 31, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts after a shot during the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
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The race for NBA MVP is as close as ever before. Which dark horse candidates are making a surge towards the top of the rankings in early February?
A new month has arrived and the race for MVP has reached its most unpredictable stage. If you polled five people about who should win the MVP award for the 2016-17 NBA regular season thus far, you might get five different answers.
One could even argue that the race goes eight players deep with the sustained emergence of unexpected candidates and the resurgent play of multi-time MVPs.
The race for MVP has included all-time statistical displays and the emergence of the most dominant fourth quarter player in the NBA. It also includes players who are more subtle statistically, but remain equally as viable in the race for the award.
Even beyond the race for MVP, this week’s edition of the Player Power Rankings is flush with high-level players who are earning or further solidifying their star status.
A testament to the depth of the Top 20 is that Nikola Jokic is this week’s honorable mention. Jokic finished the month of January with averages of 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.3 offensive boards, 4.9 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game on 60.6 percent shooting from the field.
With a hip injury preventing Jokic from cracking the Top 20, however, the question beckons: who are the Top 20 players in the NBA and who is the current favorite for MVP?
Jan 29, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) is guarded by Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley (2) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
20. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Position: Small Forward Age: 26 (5/2/1990) Experience: 7th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .451/.385/.926 2016-17 Season Average: 35.7 MPG, 22.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 2.3 3PM
Paul George has been on the outside looking in of the Top 20 for the entirety of 2016-17. Clearly a Top 20 player on talent and resume alone, George’s inconsistency has been the story of the regular season for George and the Indiana Pacers.
As George has stabilized his efforts, so too have the Pacers, which are now 26-22 and riding a four-game winning streak.
George scored at least 30 points in three of the Pacers’ four wins, as well as four straight games in general. He put up 32 point and five assists in a 109-103 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves that snapped Indiana’s three-game losing streak.
George then poured in 33 points in a 115-111 victory over the Sacramento Kings, and posted 33 points and nine rebounds in a signature win over the Houston Rockets.
George struggled in Indiana’s final outing of the week, but stepped up defensively to help his team win. Indiana is now back in the hunt for a Top 4 seed and sits just 4.5 games back of the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Myles Turner grades better in the advanced metrics, but it’s George who commands double teams and closes out games for the 26-22 Pacers.
Feb 1, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) gives instructions to the team during the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 125-97. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
19. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Position: Point Guard Age: 24 (3/23/1992) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .466/.395/.892 2016-17 Season Averages: 35.0 MPG, 24.2 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 2.4 3PM
The Cleveland Cavaliers have found the perfect player for LeBron James to run the offense with. James does a better job than any player in the NBA of pacing his team through games, but has often shown signs of fatigue in clutch moments.
Kyrie Irving has become the closer for the Cavaliers and is flourishing in his role as the perfect sidekick to James in Cleveland.
Irving began this past week by recording 28 points and six assists on 10-of-17 shooting during a 124-116 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. He followed with 29 points and 10 assists on 12-of-22 shooting during a 107-91 win over Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Irving struggled against the Dallas Mavericks, but bounced back with 14 points and 14 assists during a 125-97 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Irving’s ability to create penetration and space the floor from 3-point range are proven strengths. His recent emergence as a facilitator has helped solidify his place as one of the Top 20 players in the NBA at just 24 years of age.
Irving is averaging 24.5 points and 7.2 assists over the past 21 games, which are numbers that properly reflect what he could be averaging as soon as next season.
January 18, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Thunder 121-100. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The Golden State Warriors are the best defensive team in the NBA and Draymond Green is their best defensive player. That’s reason enough to believe he should be ranked amongst the Top 20 players in the Association.
Coupled with Green’s offensive versatility and leadership, his place in the Top 20 is solidified and his All-Star status is entirely justified.
Green is the best defensive player and primary facilitator for the team that ranks No. 1 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Individually, he’s No. 5 in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus and No. 2 in Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
Green’s statistics aren’t especially awe-inspiring, but he’s of tremendous value to the best team in the NBA—and that has to count for something.
Green is the only player in the NBA who’s currently averaging at least 10.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.0 block, and 1.0 steal per game. He’s also averaging 1.0 3-point field goal, thus further establishing his almost unmatched versatility.
Green’s efficiency may be down from 2016-17, but he has taken the swooping changes in stride in 2016-17.
Jan 29, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) controls a ball as Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) defends during the third quarter at Air Canada Centre. The Orlando Magic won 114-113. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
DeMar DeRozan has missed five of the Toronto Raptors’ past six games with a sore right ankle that’s hindering his ability to drive—the fundamental aspect of his game. Toronto is 2-4 during those six outings.
Toronto has been sliding down the standings in recent games, but with a 30-20 record through 50 games, it’s hard to drop DeRozan any further.
DeRozan currently ranks No. 6 in the NBA in both points and free throw attempts per game. He’s shooting 85.1 percent from the free throw line and 47.0 percent from the field, which is a sign of how efficient a scorer he’s been.
DeRozan doesn’t test as well as others in the advanced metrics, but he’s one of the best slashers in the NBA and the primary scoring threat on a contender in the East.
The fact that Toronto is 28-17 with DeRozan and 2-3 without him is a sign of his value. It’s also a testament to how Dwane Casey has essentially built the offensive system around DeRozan’s style of play.
DeRozan doesn’t check the boxes of what the conventional star is supposed to be, but he’s the leading scorer on a team that’s on pace for 49 wins.
Jan 28, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) dunks the ball against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) in the fourth quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Utah Jazz 102-95. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
16. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Position: Center Age: 24 (6/26/1992) Experience: 4th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .659/.000/.661 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.6 MPG, 13.1 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 3.8 ORPG, 2.5 BPG
The Utah Jazz are sending a deserving player to the 2017 NBA All-Star Game: Gordon Hayward. For as deserving as Hayward may have been, the biggest snub from All-Star Weekend was Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
Gobert is a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year and one of the most consistent players in the Association.
Gobert is the only player without whom the Jazz have a negative net rating. That’s a testament to just how valuable Gobert is to the Jazz, as the defense is generally lost without the presence of their rim protector.
Gobert has even become an acceptable free throw shooter, thus preventing teams from exploring the possibility of stopping him via the hack-a-Shaq.
Overall this season, Gobert ranks No. 15 in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus at 4.59 and No. 1 in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 4.71. This past week, he flashed his offensive potential with 26 points and 15 rebounds in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Gobert may not receive the respect he deserves, but he’s been one of the Top 20 players in the NBA during the 2016-17 regular season.
Jan 29, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) is fouled by New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) as he tries to dunk the ball over Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn (9) during the second half at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlanta Hawks continue to be a consistent force in the Eastern Conference standings. The driving force behind the Hawks’ success on both ends of the floor is All-Star power forward Paul Millsap.
Millsap isn’t always the most efficient player at his position, but he carries a much larger burden than what he’s given credit for.
Millsap’s signature performance of the season came against the New York Knicks on Sunday, Jan. 29. He led the Hawks to a quadruple-overtime victory over the Knicks with 37 points, 19 rebounds, and seven assists in 60 tremendous minutes.
Any player who goes out and plays 60 minutes for their team deserves praise, especially when it’s a star who shoulders such a heavy workload.
Millsap currently ranks No. 12 in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus and No. 5 in the Association in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. He’s solidified his place as one of the most versatile players in the NBA, and that applies to both ends of the floor.
There’s nothing Millsap can’t do on the offensive end of the floor, nor a position he can’t hold his own against on defense.
Jan 31, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins (15) controls the ball as Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) defends during the first quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The Sacramento Kings are attempting to overcome the injury absence of starting small forward Rudy Gay. Gay will miss the rest of the season with an achilles injury that will place quite the burden on DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins is attempting to take it all in stride and otherworldly performances that give the Kings their best shot at achieving victory.
Cousins began this past week with 26 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, and one block in a 115-111 loss to the Indiana Pacers. He followed with 35 points and 18 rebounds on 13-of-22 shooting in a 109-106 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
Cousins struggled against the Houston Rockets, but followed with 46 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists on 11-of-16 shooting against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Kings are losing games, but Cousins is producing at an all-time level. He and Russell Westbrook are on pace to become the first players to average at least 28.0 points and 10.0 rebounds since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000-01.
Cousins may be on the outside looking in of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, but he was dealt quite the poor hand with Gay’s injury.
Feb 1, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) dribbles the ball during the first half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
13. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Position: Point Forward Age: 22 (12/6/1994) Experience: 4th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .522/.286/.786 2016-17 Season Averages: 35.2 MPG, 23.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.0 BPG, 1.8 SPG
Statistically speaking, no player is doing more to help their team than Milwaukee Bucks phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s piecing together an All-NBA season with numbers that are defying belief and earning him legitimate star status.
The Milwaukee Bucks are struggling to string together victories, but Antetokounmpo is the last player to point the finger at.
48 games into the 2016-17 NBA regular season, Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks in just about everything. He’s the only player in the NBA who leads his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals per game.
Milwaukee currently has net ratings of +1.9 with Antetokounmpo on the floor and a team-worst -4.1 when he isn’t—a telling sign of how valuable he is to team success.
At 22 years of age, Antetokounmpo is already one of the most statistically prolific players in the NBA. He’s also, with no hyperbole whatsoever, unlike any player the NBA has seen before from a physical perspective.
Thankfully, Milwaukee recently dealt Miles Plumlee for Spencer Hawes and Roy Hibbert, who should help Antetokounmpo protect the rim and space the floor.
Feb 1, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) drives to the basket in front of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Andre Roberson (21) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
12. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Position: Small Forward Age: 27 (9/14/1989) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .457/.348/.868 2016-17 Season Averages: 36.6 MPG, 24.6 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.2 3PM
The Chicago Bulls have been one of the most erratic organizations in the world of professional sports in 2016-17. The front office and players are at proverbial war, as are the players and coaches, and the players themselves.
The fact that the Bulls are still at .500 with a 25-25 record is a testament to just how brilliant Jimmy Butler has been when on his game.
Butler began this past week with a three-point performance on 1-of-13 shooting, but he turned things around in the subsequent outings. That began with the 28 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and four steals he recorded in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Butler then tallied 28 points, five assists, four rebounds, and three steals on 11-of-17 shooting in a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Butler has ignored the outside noise by putting forth what’s been his best season to date. He’s becoming one of the top offensive players in the NBA and has maintained a high level of defensive intensity throughout the 2016-17 season.
Butler remains one of the premier players in the NBA and deserves credit for overcoming the tumultuous nature of the 2016-17 season.
Jan 31, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) celebrates after scoring a basket against the New Orleans Pelicans during overtime at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 108-106 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
11. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Position: Point Guard Age: 30 (3/25/1985) Experience: 11th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .476/.427/.819 2016-17 Season Averages: 37.6 MPG, 23.3 PPG, 6.9 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 3.3 3PM
The Toronto Raptors have hit a wall, but there’s not yet reason to panic. All-Star Weekend is rapidly approaching and starting point guard Kyle Lowry should be able to reverse their misfortune once there’s time to reflect and address flaws.
In the meantime, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan need to step up as team leaders and help stabilize what’s becoming a disastrous campaign.
Lowry is doing everything in his power to help the Raptors overcome the cold stretch. He’s scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games, two of which were victories and one of which included a double-double and clutch heroics.
For those who missed it, Lowry put up 33 points, 10 assists, and a game-winning jump shot in a 108-106 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Lowry posted 32 points and six assists in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks, and had 33 points and eight assists in a loss to the Orlando Magic. He finished the week with 32 points and five assists on 12-of-20 shooting against the Boston Celtics.
Though Toronto is struggling, Lowry is No. 1 amongst active players in Real Plus-Minus and trails just James Harden in RPM Wins.
Feb 1, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) guards Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
10. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Position: Center Age: 32 (1/29/1985) Experience: 9th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .472/.417/.835 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.1 MPG, 20.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.5 3PM
Marc Gasol is a three-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA honoree, and former Defensive Player of the Year. In his ninth NBA season, he’s putting forth the best effort of what’s becoming a decorated career.
Gasol has been a consistent force for the 30-21 Memphis Grizzlies, which have wins over some of the best teams in the NBA.
Memphis has won four of its past five games and Gasol has been the driving force behind that success. During that five-game stretch, he went off for averages of 26.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 3.2 3-point field goals made per game.
That includes a 42-point performance against the Toronto Raptors that helped the Grizzlies secure a 101-99 victory.
As the Grizzlies continue to climb the Western Conference standings, Gasol’s MVP case is gaining steam. He’s the most deserving center of an All-NBA First Team selection and has been an invaluable leader on both ends of the floor.
Gasol’s numbers may not always jump off the page, but few players cover as much ground defensively as the 32-year-old big man from Spain.
Jan 31, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) reacts to a call during the second half at an NBA game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 108-106 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
The New Orleans Pelicans have squandered a great deal of Anthony Davis’ immediate potential over the past two seasons. Davis and the Pelicans are just 3.0 games back of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, but New Orleans is just 19-31.
Though New Orleans is struggling to win on a consistent basis, Davis’ individual greatness is too extreme to overlook or ignore.
Davis began this past week with 16 points and 22 rebounds in a 119-103 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. He followed with 36 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks on 15-of-25 shooting from the field.
David also had 18 points, 17 rebounds, and three blocks against the Toronto Raptors, and tallied 31 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks, and two steals against the Detroit Pistons.
Davis is on pace to become the first player to average at least 27.0 points and 12.0 rebounds per game since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000-01. That alone is reason to rank Davis as one of the Top 10 players in the NBA.
New Orleans is still within reach of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, but Davis and Co. will need to turn this season around sooner than later.
Jan 31, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) reacts after making a basket during the second quarter against the New York Knicks at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
8. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Position: Point Guard Age: 26 (9/6/1990) Experience: 7th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .460/.321/.814 2016-17 Season Averages: 36.3 MPG, 23.0 PPG, 10.3 APG, 4.5 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 1.1 3PM
Since Dec. 1, John Wall and the Washington Wizards have been one of the best teams in the NBA. Washington is 22-9 since Dec. 1 and 12-4 since Jan. 1, the latter of which is the second-best record in the Association behind the Golden State Warriors.
The Wizards have a crop of quality role players, but it’s Wall who’s the catalyst to what Washington does on both ends of the floor.
Wall began this past week by posting 19 points and nine assists in a 112-86 blowout of the Atlanta Hawks. He then posted 18 points and 19 assists in a brilliant 109-94 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Wall finished the week with 15 points and 13 assists to just two turnovers in a 117-101 win over the New York Knicks, and 33 points and 11 assists in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Washington is climbing the rankings and Wall continues to solidify his place as a legitimately elite point guard. He’s accounting for 47.1 points per game between his scoring and facilitating, and is one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA, as well.
Wall may not be garnering hype in the national media, but he’s become a statistically prolific player and an outstanding leader.
February 1, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) shoots the basketball against Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Hornets 126-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Position: Point Guard Age: 28 (3/14/1988) Experience: 8th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .475/.418/.920 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.5 MPG, 25.4 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 4.1 3PM
When Stephen Curry is feeling confident, there’s no one in the NBA who can stop him from getting his shot off. That’s even more true now that he’s surrounded by threeAll-NBA players who all command attention from the defense.
This past week, Curry dominated in the way that the NBA expected him to when Kevin Durant arrived to draw double teams and alleviate pressure.
Curry began this past week by torching the Los Angeles Clippers for 43 points, nine rebounds, and six assists on 15-of-23 shooting from the field. Chris Paul didn’t play, but any time a player posts 43 points in 29 minutes, it’s noteworthy.
Mere days later, Curry needed just 30 minutes to decimate the Charlotte Hornets with one of his best performances to date.
Curry went off for 39 points, eight assists, five rebounds, and three steals in 30 minutes of action. He shot 14-of-20 from the field and 11-of-15 from beyond the arc while committing just one turnover against an All-Star in Kemba Walker.
Curry may not win a third consecutive MVP award, but he’s well on his way to an All-NBA Second Team nod in 2016-17.
February 1, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) shoots the basketball against Charlotte Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (14) during the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Hornets 126-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
6. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Position: Small Forward Age: 28 (9/29/1988) Experience: 10th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .541/.377/.875 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.2 MPG, 26.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.6 BPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.9 3PM
The Golden State Warriors have four players who were named All-NBA in 2016. All four will be All-Stars in 2017, as well, which makes it tough to claim any one individual is the Most Valuable Player in the NBA.
If any player has a case to be made, however, it’s the superstar who has become elite on both ends of the floor: Kevin Durant.
Durant is still scoring at a ridiculous level—both in volume at 26.1 points per game and in efficiency at .543/.380/.872. He’s also become one of the best defensive players in the NBA, however, and that’s why he’s the No. 1 Warrior.
Draymond Green may be the best defensive player on the Warriors, but Durant provides the most important balance between the two ends of the court.
This past week, Durant balanced his attack between scoring, facilitating, and defending. He tallied 23 points and seven assists on 11 shots in a blowout of the Los Angeles Clippers, and had 33 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists in a 113-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
With 26 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds in a second clash with the Clippers, Durant further solidified his Top 10 ranking.
Feb 1, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Position: Point Guard Age: 27 (2/7/1989) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .468/.386/.915 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.4 MPG, 29.7 PPG, 6.4 APG, 2.7 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 3.2 3PM
Some may frown upon this ranking, but Isaiah Thomas has the Boston Celtics sitting at No. 2 in the Eastern Conference and No. 5 in the NBA in terms of team record. The Celtics may play as a team, but they win by giving Thomas the ball and clearing out of the way in the fourth quarter.
No player is scoring more fourth quarter points per game than Thomas, and on a team as successful as Boston has been, that deserves MVP hype.
Thomas is averaging a league-leading 10.5 points per fourth quarter on a slash line of .487/.426/.910. For a Celtics team with a point differential of +2.6, it’s clear as day that Thomas is the determining factor as it pertains to winning or losing games.
Thomas’ defense may be a powerful detracting force, but Boston is winning at a borderline elite rate and he’s the determining factor—and that’s what truly matters.
Boston is 18-6 since Thomas returned from a four-game absence in mid-December. During that 24-game span, Thomas is averaging 33.0 points, 6.6 assists, and 3.0 3-point field goals made on a slash line of .503/.419/.941.
Thomas solidified his ranking with back-to-back 40-point games, including the 44 total points and the 19 fourth quarter points he scored in a 109-104 comeback win over the Toronto Raptors.
Feb 1, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) accepts the NAACP Jackie Robinson sports award before the game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Minnesota Timberwolves at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Position: Small Forward Age: 32 (12/30/1984) Experience: 14th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .527/.355/.692 2016-17 Season Averages: 37.5 MPG, 25.7 PPG, 8.6 APG, 8.0 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1.6 3PM
The Cleveland Cavaliers finished the month of January with a losing record of 7-8. That inevitably hurt James’ ranking on the MVP front, but he recovered this past week with a number of statistically appealing performances during victorious efforts.
With the Cavaliers struggling and all eyes on James for publicly criticizing his general manager, the 32-year-old turned the attention back to his play on the court.
James began the new month in dominant fashion. He dominated the Minnesota Timberwolves en route to 27 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds, two steals, and a block on 11-of-14 shooting from the field in a 125-97 victory.
Cleveland went 3-1 overall this past week, with James dominating the Brooklyn Nets and pairing with Kyrie Irving to help Cleveland defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder.
James and the Cavaliers are the defending NBA champions, which creates high expectations. James has justified the hype from an individual perspective with averages of 24.2 points and 10.2 assist on 56.4 percent shooting form the field over the past 10 games.
Other players are deservedly ahead of him in the race for MVP, but James remains a viable candidate with a chance to win the award.
Jan 31, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) brings the ball up the court during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Position: Point Guard Age: 27 (8/26/1989) Experience: 8th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .444/.343/.860 2016-17 Season Averages: 36.4 MPG, 28.4 PPG, 11.5 APG, 8.2 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 3.0 3PM
Daryl Morey has built a team that provides natural spacing to Houston Rockets superstar James Harden. There are a surplus of shooters, as well as seven players after Harden who are averaging at least 8.0 points per game.
Houston still needs a player who can make the most of those surroundings, however, and Harden has led the Rockets to severe overachievement.
Aside from Harden, there’s no other player on the Rockets who should even be considered for the All-Star Game. Despite that reality, Harden has led Houston to the third-best record in the NBA, as well as the No. 3 point differential at +6.1.
Houston doesn’t play much defense, but Harden has turned it into one of the most explosive offensive teams in the NBA.
This past week, Harden posted 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 13 assists against the Philadelphia 76ers, thus becoming the first player in NBA history with multiple 50-point triple-doubles in a single season. He also shot a combined 6-of-26 with 13 turnovers against the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings, but the good outweighs the bad.
When it comes to being the Most Valuable Player, there isn’t much more valuable than a player who can elevate those around him and win at a higher level than they’re expected to.
Feb 1, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play against the Chicago Bulls during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Position: Point Guard Age: 28 (11/12/1988) Experience: 9th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .420/.332/.821 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.6 MPG, 30.7 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 10.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, 2.1 3PM
The Oklahoma City Thunder suffered a net loss when Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors. Sam Presti failed to sign a replacement due to how late in free agency Durant left, thus leaving the Thunder without even an average player to fill in at small forward.
As Oklahoma City attempts to replace a four-time scoring champion with three players who combine to average 14.4 points per game, Russell Westbrook is still carrying his team to success.
Westbrook is still on pace to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double. The Thunder have win percentages of .750 when Westbrook records a triple-double and .384 when he fails to.
Oklahoma City also has net ratings of +3.5 with Westbrook on the court and -12.2 when he isn’t—a difference of 15.7 points per 100 possessions.
Other players have elevated their respective teams, but no one means more to their team’s success than Westbrook. Everyone has their own theory on what it means to be an MVP, but Oklahoma City would be one of the worst teams in the league without Westbrook.
In the face of a devastating loss that has been severely understated, Westbrook has been more responsible for his team’s success than any other player in the NBA.
Jan 31, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) moves the ball against the defense of Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Victor Oladipo (5) and Steven Adams (behind) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Position: Small Forward Age: 25 (6/29/1991) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .486/.408/.910 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.7 MPG, 25.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 2.0 3PM
The San Antonio Spurs have one 2017 All-Star and own the second-best record in the NBA. LaMarcus Aldridge still shows flashes of stardom and the likes of Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are big names, but this has been the Kawhi Leonard show.
Leonard has more offensive help than some of the other players in the Top 5, but he’s more than legitimized his superstar status.
Leonard has become the Darrelle Revis of the NBA in the sense that teams don’t even look his way when he’s on defense. Opponents would rather their star not be involved in the offense than have to travel to Leonard Island.
On the offensive end of the floor, Leonard has diversified his offensive game and become one of the best scorers in the NBA.
San Antonio admittedly runs more designed plays for Leonard than the average team runs for their stars. True as that may be, Leonard is the isolation scoring threat whom the Spurs turn to when games are on the line.
No matter who you feel should win MVP, it’d be tough to value a list that doesn’t at least include Leonard as a viable candidate.