Early in the 2016-17 NBA regular season, a number of players are making early cases for awards and accolades. Who have been the Top 20 players thus far?
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Nov 16, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) react after a play against the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The 2016-17 NBA regular season is shaping up to be one of the most historic campaigns in league history. Multiple players are rewriting the expectations of their position and a select few are producing at a historic rate.
There’s no telling how the rest of the season will play out, but in order to accurately name an MVP, it’s important to monitor the progress of the league’s elite on a weekly basis.
A week ago, James Harden edged out Chris Paul for the No. 1 spot on the first edition of the 2016-17 NBA Player Power rankings. It was a battle between the most statistically prolific player in the NBA—at that time—and the player who had the best net rating in the Association.
When former teammates dueled this past week, however, the war for the No. 1 spot introduced a new foe to the frenzy.
The race for MVP is more of a marathon; it’s an evaluation of a full season’s work and impact. The opening month can set the tone for teams and players alike, however, and there are quite a few athletes who are making early cases for consideration.
Whether they’re at the top of the list or at the back end of the Top 20, the following players are off to extraordinary starts to the season.
Nov 17, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) reacts to hitting a three-point shot at the first-half buzzer against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Jimmy Butler is being mentored by three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade and one-time NBA champion Rajon Rondo. He appears to be benefiting from the presence of two of the most decorated guards of the past 15 years, if not all-time.
12 games in, Butler is playing at what may be the highest level of his already impressive NBA career.
Butler had one of the best games of his 335-game career when he destroyed the Washington Wizards in a 106-95 victory. He finished with 37 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, and three steals on 11-of-23 shooting from the field.
Butler was a perfect 14-of-14 from the free throw line in a spectacular game that came just three days after he dropped 39 points on the Atlanta Hawks.
Butler followed his eruption with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists on 9-of-16 shooting in a 113-88 blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers. He recorded another double-double the next time out with 20 points and 12 rebounds during an 85-77 win over the Utah Jazz.
Chicago has won four consecutive games and five of its past six outings. Butler has been the catalyst to team success.
Nov 17, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) dribbles past New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) during the second half at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
19. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Position: Point Guard Age: 26 (9/6/1990) Experience: 7th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .459/.346/.836 2016-17 Season Averages: 32.6 MPG, 22.9 PPG, 8.3 APG, 4.1 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 1.0 3PM
John Wall underwent surgery on both of his knees during May of 2016. You wouldn’t be able to tell if you watched him in 2016-17, as Wall is back to being one of the fastest and most explosive point guards of all-time.
Already a three-time All-Star and All-Defensive Second Team honoree, Wall is making early progress towards adding more accolades to his resume.
Wall began the week by going off for 28 points on 12-of-24 shooting against Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He missed the next game for precautionary purposes, but responded with 27 points and six assists in just 24 minutes the next time out.
For the fans who were hoping to see Wall play more like the player he’s expected to be, he annihilated the New York Knicks with 23 points and 11 assists in 31 minutes during a dominant win.
Wall is moving like himself, and against New York, he began to show the progress he’s made in his game. He sank three 3-point field goals, committed just two turnovers, and shot an efficient 7-of-14 from the field.
If this is how well Wall is playing when he’s not at 100 percent, imagine how phenomenal he’s going to look when healthy.
Nov 11, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) gestures on the court against the Washington Wizards in the third quarter at Verizon Center. The Cavaliers won 105-94. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
18. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Position: Point Guard Age: 24 (3/23/1992) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .451/.380/.829 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.3 MPG, 23.9 PPG, 4.5 APG, 3.5 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 2.5 3PM
At some point in the relatively near future, Kyrie Irving will be handed the keys to the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James is helping to groom Irving for the role of a true NBA superstar and future league MVP.
Fresh off of becoming a Cleveland sports legend in the 2016 NBA Finals, Irving is back and embracing his role as the Cavaliers’ No. 1 scoring option.
Irving’s prowess as a scorer is based in his ability to take over a game in any number of ways. He’s an elite dribble penetrator with all-time handles, as well as an outstanding 3-point shooter with an equally as dangerous midrange game.
Though he’s a point guard, Irving has even translated his Mamba Mentality into developing a competent turnaround out of the post.
Irving opened this past week with 29 points and six assists during a road win over John Wall and the Washington Wizards. He tallied 19 points against Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets, and had 24 points against Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors.
Irving completed the Eastern Conference point guard gauntlet by posting 24 points and seven assists against Jeff Teague and the Indiana Pacers.
Nov 17, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) looks on during the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Target Center. The Timberwolves defeated the 76ers 110-86. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
17. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Position: Small Forward Age: 21 (2/23/1995) Experience: 3rd Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .491/.523/.745 2016-17 Season Averages: 36.4 MPG, 27.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.1 3PM
Andrew Wiggins scored at least 25 points in three of his first four games, but lost momentum by recording seven points against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s done enough over the past six games to justify outrage for even mentioning the OKC outing.
Over his past six appearances, Wiggins is averaging 33.0 points on a ridiculous slash line of .507/.531/.754—enough to easily warrant this Top 20 ranking.
Wiggins went off for a career-high 47 points on 14-of-21 shooting from the field against the red-hot Los Angeles Lakers. He bookended that eruption with 22 and 29 points, and finished the week with 34 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists on 14-of-20 shooting against the Philadelphia 76ers.
At 21 years of age, Wiggins is showing signs that he could validate the incessant comparisons to Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.
Wiggins still needs to improve as a facilitator and rebounder, but his jumper is falling and his handles have improved. He’s going to the post on a consistent basis, as well, and few defenses have been able to even contain him.
Wiggins is a freak athlete with a prototypical build, positional versatility, and elite instincts as a scorer. Even with room to grow, he’s been dominant.
Nov 10, 2016; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) reacts after a play against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
The #FreeBoogie campaign addresses one of the most unfortunate issues in the NBA. DeMarcus Cousins is a generational talent recording numbers that most could only dream of, but he plays for one of the most unreliable organizations in the history of American sports.
Both of those truths were further established over the past week, as Cousins continued to shine and the Kings continued to lose.
Cousins went off for 33 points, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and a steal on 12-of-22 shooting from the field against the Portland Trail Blazers. He made three 3-point field goals and had the best +/- of any starter.
Against LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and the San Antonio Spurs, Cousins tallied 26 points, 17 rebounds, and six assists in a five-point loss.
Sacramento’s shortcomings as a team have been a blemish on what’s shaping up to be a Hall of Fame resume. He has two All-NBA selections, a pair of All-Star Game bids, an Olympic gold medal, and three seasons averaging upwards of 22.7 points and 11.5 rebounds.
One simply can’t overlook the fact that Cousins is in his seventh season and his team still hasn’t made the playoffs.
Nov 15, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) shoots over Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard (8) during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
15. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
Position: Center Age: 27 (6/13/1989) Experience: 5th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .527/.000/.590 2016-17 Season Averages: 32.6 MPG, 17.6 PPG, 16.0 RPG, 4.6 ORPG, 2.7 BPG, 1.2 SPG
Losing Dwyane Wade hurt, but keeping Hassan Whiteside was absolutely vital to the future of the Miami Heat. Whiteside has been nothing short of dominant since breaking out in 2014-15 and 2016-17 has been his best season yet.
Whiteside started hot, and he’s only improved as the weeks have progressed throughout the regular season.
Whiteside provided a pedestrian—for him—15 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks against Rudy Gobert and the Utah Jazz. Two days later, he manhandled the San Antonio Spurs for 23 points, 17 rebounds, six offensive boards, two blocks, and a pair of steals.
If that weren’t enough, Whiteside’s encore featured him recording 19 points, 25 rebounds, 10 offensive boards, two steals, and a block against Dwight Howard and the Atlanta Hawks.
Whiteside is a throwback to the big men of the 1990s in the sense that he’s a dominant interior presence with an underrated midrange game. He’s unstoppable when he stays out of foul trouble and has kept an injury-prone Heat team remain somewhat relevant.
For what it’s worth, Whiteside finished the week by registering 12 points, 17 rebounds, seven offensive boards, and seven blocks in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Nov 5, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives for the basket in the third quarter during the game against the Sacramento Kings at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
14. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Position: Point Forward Age: 21 (12/6/1994) Experience: 4th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .503/.160/.750 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.2 MPG, 21.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.9 ORPG, 5.4 APG, 2.2 BPG, 1.7 SPG
At just 21 years of age, Giannis Antetokounmpo is already one of the most well-rounded players in NBA history. That may seem hyperbolic, but it’s a legitimate truth that basketball fans will soon be forced to embrace.
That’s true both statistically and in the fact that he’s a five-position player with court vision, a mean streak, and elite or prototypical size and length for all five positions.
Antetokounmpo began this past week by posting 27 points, six rebounds, five assists, four blocks, and four steals against the Memphis Grizzlies on 9-of-13 shooting from the field. He then recorded 26 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks, and a steal.
In his final game of the week, Antetokounmpo tallied 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and three blocks for a rather pedestrian showing—for him.
Antetokounmpo is on pace to be the first player to average at least 20.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 2.0 blocks per game since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1978-79. He’d be the first player in NBA history to average at least 20.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 1.5 steals.
Though upside talk may consume most conversations about Antetokounmpo, he’s already one of the best players in the NBA.
Nov 16, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives to the basket while Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews (23) defends during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
13. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Position: Point Guard Age: 27 (2/7/1989) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .455/.348/.865 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.4 MPG, 27.2 PPG, 6.5 APG, 2.9 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 2.1 3PM
If you have any remaining doubts pertaining to whether or not Isaiah Thomas’ 2015-16 success was legitimate, you can walk away now. Thomas isn’t just following up his All-Star campaign with another solid season.
Through his first 11 appearances, Thomas is averaging numbers that put him in genuinely elite territory—and he’s doing so on a postseason-caliber team.
Despite playing the past eight games without Al Horford and the past seven without Jae Crowder, Thomas has Boston in winning form. This past week, he led Boston to three wins in four outings by putting the team on his back.
Thomas even posted 37 points and seven assists during Boston’s lone loss this week—a 106-105 defeat to Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Thomas had 29 points on 9-of-17 shooting against the New York Knicks and tallied 23 points during a 105-99 victory over the Indiana Pacers. He went for 30 points and six assists during a defensive-minded 90-83 win over the Dallas Mavericks.
For perspective, there are four players who are currently averaging at least 25.0 points and 6.0 assists: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Thomas.
Nov 11, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker (15) gets fouled by Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) in the second half at Spectrum Center. The Raptors defeated the Hornets 113-111. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
12. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Position: Point Guard Age: 26 (5/8/1990) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .491/.478/.841 2016-17 Season Averages: 32.7 MPG, 25.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 3.3 3PM
Kemba Walker was a borderline All-Star in 2013-14 and again earned that reputation during the 2015-16 season. Having already played in 11 postseason games, Walker is now looking to prove he can win once he gets there.
Thus far in 2016-17, Walker has done more than just play at an All-Star level; he’s looked like a genuinely elite player.
Walker began this past week by dropping 40 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists against the Toronto Raptors. He shot 12-of-19 from the field and 7-of-12 from beyond the arc, which led to his making four 3-point field goals against the Cleveland Cavaliers the next time out.
In his final performance of this past week, Walker went off for 30 points, six assists, five rebounds, and five steals against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Thus far in 2016-17, only three players are averaging at least 25.0 points per game with a True Shooting Percentage of .635 or better. Those players are two-time MVP Stephen Curry, 2014 MVP Kevin Durant, and Walker.
Walker has been scoring at an elite level and leading the Charlotte Hornets to intriguing success with a 7-3 record after 10 games.
Nov 15, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots over Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson (22) and guard Jerian Grant (2) during the third quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
11. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Position: Point Guard Age: 26 (7/15/1990) Experience: 5th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .466/.359/.900 2016-17 Season Averages: 35.9 MPG, 28.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 4.6 APG, 0.8 SPG, 2.5 3PM
There’s no rational way around the fact that Damian Lillard is one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. Snubbed from the All-Star Game in 2015-16, Lillard has solidified his place as a legitimate MVP candidate.
After no-showing the Portland Trail Blazers’ loss to the Los Angeles Clippers last week, he went off to help his team split four games against postseason-caliber opponents.
Lillard torched the Sacramento Kings for 36 points and seven assists on 12-of-19 shooting. He then tallied 32 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and four steals in a 112-105 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Lillard’s an elite offensive player and an outstanding leader who’s close to receiving the respect he deserves.
Lillard must maintain a higher level of defensive intensity, but he’s the best player on a potential contender. He steps up in the clutch and, regardless of the score, makes a consistent impact during the fourth quarter.
Lillard is one of the best point guards and players in the NBA. Here’s hoping he’s honored with a deserved All-Star Game appearance.
Nov 16, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32)reaches for a pass in the first half of the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
10. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Position: Power Forward Age: 27 (3/16/1989) Experience: 7th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .484/.143/.741 2016-17 Season Averages: 32.3 MPG, 20.6 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.0 ORPG, 4.0 APG, 1.3 SPG
The Los Angeles Clippers have the best record in the NBA at 10-2 through 12 games played. The Clippers’ defense has been one of their defining strengths, but the offense has been just as dominant in 2016-17.
The offensive unit is led by Chris Paul, but it’s power forward Blake Griffin who’s making the leap during the 2016-17 season.
Griffin has scored at least 20 points in five consecutive games, four of which were wins for the Clippers. He already has seven double-doubles in 12 games after recording 13 in 35 games in 2015-16 and 18 in 67 games in 2014-15.
Griffin’s powerful effort on the boards has been a key component of the Clippers’ brilliant play during the 2016-17 season.
Griffin poured in 25 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and tallied 20 points and 11 rebounds against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He posted 20 points, six rebounds, six assists, and two steals in a win over the Brooklyn Nets, and had 25 points against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Griffin has been one of the best players in the NBA since he entered the league, but his fundamental development has been vital.
Nov 12, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) dribbles the ball as New York Knicks guard Courtney Lee (5) defends during the third quarter in a game at Air Canada Centre. The Toronto Raptors won 118-107. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
DeMar DeRozan is off to one of the most productive starts to any season in NBA history. He’s scored at least 30 points in nine of his first 11 appearances, including a pair of 40-point outings and a 37-point eruption.
After the first 10 games of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, DeRozan put himself on pace with some of the greatest scoring seasons of all-time.
Toronto is 7-4 overall, 7-1 when DeRozan scores at least 33 points, and 0-3 when he scores 32 points or fewer. His value is nothing short of MVP-caliber and his production is of the same cut and breed.
Toronto has the talent and depth to win 50 games again in 2016-17 and DeRozan is one of the primary reasons why.
DeRozan scored 34 points during a win over the Charlotte Hornets and 33 during a victory against the New York Knicks. He tallied 26 points at the Cleveland Cavaliers and followed with 34 points on 17-of-17 shooting from the free throw line against the Golden State Warriors.
DeRozan is already a two-time All-Star who’s just now entering his prime and beginning to look like one of the greatest scorers of his generation.
November 13, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Suns 133-120. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Position: Point Guard Age: 28 (3/14/1988) Experience: 8th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .508/.464/.903 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.1 MPG, 27.9 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 4.6 3PM
Stephen Curry has won back-to-back MVP awards and an NBA championship. He won the scoring title in 2015-16 by recording 30.1 points per game on a slash line of .504/.454/.908 in 34.2 minutes per game.
Through 11 games, Curry has been just as efficient and maintained an elite level of production alongside new arrival Kevin Durant.
Curry recorded 30 points, six rebounds, six assists, and two steals on 9-of-17 shooting against the Phoenix Suns. He followed with an explosive 35 points and seven assists against Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors.
At multiple stages of the 2016-17 regular season, Curry has looked like a legitimate MVP candidate all over again.
The Warriors are 9-2 and back on the path towards championship glory. They’re 0.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers and have the personnel to finish with the best record in the NBA—if not of all-time.
Curry’s production and efficiency remain of an elite caliber and the Warriors’ success can be qualified as the same. It’d be asinine to overlook his candidacy for MVP.
Nov 12, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) shoots over Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. (7) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Lakers defeated the Pelicans 126-99. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
7. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Position: Power Forward Age: 23 (3/11/1993) Experience: 5th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .485/.158/.817 2016-17 Season Averages: 37.6 MPG, 30.5 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 1.8 ORPG, 1.7 APG, 2.9 BPG, 1.9 SPG
Anthony Davis is putting forth one of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. The New Orleans Pelicans may be 2-10, but the last person to blame for their struggles is—being frank—the only established and active player on the roster.
Getting All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday back will help the Pelicans, but with or without him, Davis is playing at an all-time level.
Davis has a 50-point game, a 45-point game, and seven outings with at least 30 points. Through 11 appearances, he’s currently No. 3 in scoring, No. 6 in rebounding, No. 1 in blocks per game, and No. 8 in steals per game.
That’s a Hakeem Olajuwon level of versatility from a player who’s still just 23 years of age and in his fifth NBA season.
This past week, Davis recorded 34 points on 13-of-26 shooting from the field against the Los Angeles Lakers. He then tallied 25 points, 16 rebounds, four steals, and two blocks during a one-point win over the Boston Celtics.
Davis has been one of the most dominant players in the NBA, even if his team’s record doesn’t reflect that truth.
November 13, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) celebrates against the Phoenix Suns during the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Suns 133-120. 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: .558/.400/.863 2016-17 Season Averages: 35.1 MPG, 27.9 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.6 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 2.0 3PM
The Golden State Warriors have opened up a door to superior efficiency from one of the most efficient scorers in NBA history. 11 games into his Warriors career, Kevin Durant is shooting 55.8 percent from the field.
The scary aspect of Durant’s hot start is that it’s entirely believable that he could shot at a clip of nearly 56 percent from the field throughout 2016-17.
Durant has shot upwards of 50 percent from the field in each of the past four seasons. That’s especially impressive when one considers the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder depended heavily on isolation sets offensively.
The Warriors, meanwhile, have three other All-NBA players in their prime and of the most fluid and efficient offensive systems in league history.
Durant posted 30 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and a steal on 11-of-21 shooting against the Toronto Raptors. He tallied 29 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and a steal on 10-of-21 shooting against the Phoenix Suns.
Already a league MVP, four-time scoring champion, and five-time All-NBA First Team honoree, Durant is well on his way to another all-time season.
Nov 14, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dribbles the ball as Miami Heat small forward Justise Winslow (20, right) defends during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Position: Small Forward Age: 25 (6/29/1991) Experience: 6th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .453/.417/.954 2016-17 Season Averages: 33.3 MPG, 25.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.6 APG, 2.4 SPG, 2.1 3PM
The San Antonio Spurs are championship contenders again and small forward Kawhi Leonard is the primary reason why. Already an NBA champion, Finals MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and All-NBA First Team honoree, Leonard could add the NBA MVP award to his resume.
Leonard remains elite as a defensive player, but it’s his progress as a scorer and overall playmaker that’s so intriguing.
Leonard’s fundamental polish as an offensive player is significantly more impressive in 2016-17 than it was a season ago. He’s taking his man off the bounce, finishing in traffic, and devastating opponents with a gorgeous step-back jump shot.
Though he flashed that potential a season ago, his scoring ability is far more well-rounded and reliable than it was a season ago.
Leonard is no longer in need of a high screen or brilliant ball movement to get his offense going. He’s gone at elite defenders and hasn’t shied away from the moment when his shot isn’t falling like he’d hope it would.
By season’s end, the 25-year-old Leonard could be mentioned in the conversation for the best player in the NBA today.
Nov 15, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) slam dunks during the second half against the Toronto Raptors at Quicken Loans Arena. The Cavs won 121-117. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Position: Small Forward Age: 31 (12/30/1984) Experience: 14th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .489/.348/.706 2016-17 Season Averages: 37.0 MPG, 23.4 PPG, 9.6 APG, 8.9 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.6 3PM
The Cleveland Cavaliers are off to an extraordinarily hot start to the 2016-17 regular season. Much of that can be accredited to the phenomenal start by LeBron James, who’s flirting with averages of a triple-double.
With an improved 3-point shot and a willingness to let Kyrie Irving shoulder the scoring load, James has played a beautiful game.
James continues to play at an extraordinary level. He started with 27 points and five rebounds against the the Washington Wizards and followed with 19 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists against the Charlotte Hornets.
James stepped up with one of his best games this season by posting 28 points, 14 assists, and nine rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting from the field against the Toronto Raptors.
James may not be the leader in the hunt for MVP, but he’s firmly in the conversation after his first 10 appearances. He’s producing nearly a triple-double per game and has Cleveland off to a brilliant start to the season.
James’ scoring numbers may be declining a bit, but his jump shot is falling and his facilitating touch is close to unparalleled.
Nov 12, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles in the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine (8) at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Position: Point Guard Age: 31 (5/6/1985) Experience: 12th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .469/.458/.887 2016-17 Season Averages: 30.1 MPG, 18.3 PPG, 8.3 APG, 5.2 RPG, 3.1 SPG, 2.3 3PM
The Los Angeles Clippers have looked like the best team in the NBA during the early weeks of the 2016-17 regular season. The Golden State Warriors will likely overtake them, but Paul and the Clippers have been dominant.
It appears as though Paul is on the right path to the MVP award that he should’ve won in 2007-08—and yes, Kobe Bryant fans, The Black Mamba should’ve gotten his in 2005-06.
Paul posted 17 points and 10 assists against the Oklahoma City Thunder and tallied 19 points, eight dimes, and two steals in a rather brief showing against the Minnesota Timberwolves. That set Paul up for one of the best performances of the season.
In just three quarters of play, Paul recorded 21 points, nine assists, four rebounds, and five steals on 8-of-11 shooting during the Clippers’ 10th win of the season.
Paul’s efficiency in dominating games without playing a full four quarters is comparable to what won Stephen Curry his first MVP award in 2014-15. Though he’s not scoring with the same volume, Paul is dominating on both ends of the floor and facilitating the offense.
Paul struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies, but he’s been nothing short of exceptional throughout the 2016-17 season.
Nov 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball past Philadelphia 76ers guard Gerald Henderson (12) during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The Houston Rockets have officially abandoned team basketball and entrusted the burden of their postseason aspirations to James Harden. He’s handling the ball and finishing possessions at a genuinely ridiculous rate of 35.2 percent.
Coming off of three triple-doubles in five games, Harden is well on his way to an all-time season.
After tallying 24 points, 15 assists, and 12 rebounds the first time around, Harden posted 25 points, 13 assists, and 11 boards in the second meeting. He then recorded 33 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds in 33 minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Harden finished the week on a low note, but he’s off to one of the hottest starts in league history—bar none.
Harden’s value to the Rockets is that he’s the beginning and end of a vast majority of possessions. If he leads Houston to the playoffs, that alone should give him legitimate consideration for the 2017 NBA MVP award.
Coupled with statistics that are on pace to exceed the numerical brilliance of virtually every player since Oscar Robertson, Harden is playing at an MVP-caliber level.
Nov 14, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) dribbles by Detroit Pistons guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (5) during the first quarter at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Position: Point Guard Age: 28 (11/12/1988) Experience: 9th Season 2016-17 Slash Line: .442/.348/.813 2016-17 Season Averages: 34.4 MPG, 31.8 PPG, 9.8 APG, 9.5 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.9 3PM
There aren’t enough adjectives to describe how well Russell Westbrook has played during the 2016-17 season. He’s dangerously close to averaging a triple-double and has been the source of virtually everything positive for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Whether you love him, hate him, or feel indifferent, anything other than respect for what he’s doing simply wouldn’t fit.
Westbrook is scoring, facilitating, and rebounding at elite levels—regardless of his position. He proved as much when he recorded 41 points, 16 assists, and 12 rebounds on 14-of-21 shooting against the Orlando Magic.
One game later, Westbrook tallied 33 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists on 11-of-21 shooting against the Detroit Pistons.
Westbrook’s ability to contribute in legitimately every phase of the game makes him an obvious MVP candidate. He’s posting numbers that haven’t been recorded since Oscar Robertson’s prime years and his team is relying on him for a consistently powerful impact.
For perspective: the Thunder have a net rating of +6.8 with Westbrook on the court and a net rating of -21.3 without him—a difference of 28.1 points per 100 possessions.