NBA MVP Watch: Who Are the Early Favorites?
Just one week into the NBA season the MVP race is already starting to take shape with some familiar faces leading the way. Left all on his own in Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook has been otherworldly. The Thunder superstar and former teammate Kevin Durant find themselves among our top five MVP candidates after only eight days of NBA basketball. Joining them are a Windy City surprise, a Bayou big man, and Tim Duncan's successor.
While the sample size may be small, there has been nothing little about some of the performances we have seen since October 25th. To think, we've had multiple 50-point performances with a handful of triple-doubles, and the season has just begun!
Every two weeks, we will be checking back in on the MVP race, ranking the top candidates by nERD, our in-house metric. For those of you unfamiliar with nERD, it's a player ranking that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season based on their efficiency. An average NBA player would earn a 0. Comparable to win shares, this ranking gives an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win with that player as one of their starters.
Without further ado, let's take a look at the candidates.
T-4. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
nERD Score: 1.2
Team Record: 3-0
Many wondered, with the additions of Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, who would be the leader of the Chicago Bulls. We now have our answer. It is undeniably Jimmy Butler. The small forward has not only accepted playing off the ball more -- his usage and assist rates are both down -- he has been thriving. His shooting efficiency is up -- 66.0% true shooting percentage -- and he has amazingly committed only one turnover through three games. Butler is averaging over 20 points per game despite sitting out all of the fourth quarter in Chicago's blowout wins over the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets.
For all of Butler's efforts, the Bulls own the second-best scoring offense in the Association at 113.7 points per game, and they have been the most efficient with a 114.7 offensive rating. Chicago is also off to a 3-0 start, their best start in 20 years, and the Bulls have already made many analysts second-guess their predictions on the Bulls' playoff chances this season.
T-4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
nERD Score: 1.2
Team Record: 3-0
We all knew that with KD leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook would be a man on a mission this year. What we didn't know was that a player was capable of dominating the way Russ is at the moment. He has posted two triple-doubles, marking the first time since Magic Johnson in 1982-83 that player had a pair of trip-dubs in his first three games. Westbrook also posted the best stat line of the season so far,with his 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists versus the Phoenix Suns on Friday. That was the first triple-double with 50 points in over 40 seasons.
The early leader in both points and assists per game, the point guard was the no-doubt choice for the Western Conference Player of the Week award. Westbrook has his Thunder sitting at 3-0, albeit with all the wins coming over the bottom three teams in our power rankings, the Philadelphia 76ers, Suns, and Los Angeles Lakers.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
nERD Score: 1.4
Team Record: 0-4
What does Anthony Davis have to do to get the New Orleans Pelicans a victory? On opening night, he had the greatest season-opening game ever, but New Orleans lost by five. He followed up his 50-point performance with a 45-point, 17-rebound night in a loss to the Warriors.
Through four games, the Brow is averaging 37.0 points, 13.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game, ranking him in the top three in each category. Shooting just a tick under 50% from the field, Davis has some newfound aggressiveness as he has found his way to the free-throw line a league-high 14.3 times per game, dropping them in at a career-high 86% clip.
Despite his massive stats, and his third-place ranking, Davis should be considered a long shot in the MVP race due to New Orleans' struggles. If they don't get in the win column in the next two games, especially with fellow 0-4 club Phoenix coming to town on Friday, the Pelicans and Davis are in for a long season.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 1.5
Team Record: 3-1
The entire sports world had their eyes trained on Durant as he made his debut with the Warriors last Tuesday. While Golden State looked out of sync and lost to the San Antonio Spurs by 29, KD was still as sharp as ever. Making 11-of-18 shots from the floor, the recently relocated superstar opened up the season with a double-double, dropping 27 points and grabbing 10 boards. With an average of 28.5 points per game, Durant is getting it done with some career-best efficiency. While his shots per game and usage rate, expectedly, have dropped near career-low levels, his 57.4% shooting from the field and 68% true shooting percentage are the best he has ever posted in his 10-year career.
Rebounding from the opening night loss, the Warriors have reeled off three straight wins, and Durant has led the team in scoring three of the four nights. With a 23-point demolishing of the Trail Blazers in Portland, Golden State looks poised to dominate -- just as we all expected.
1. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
nERD Score: 2.3
Team Record: 4-1
The two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard has been on fire offensively this year. Averaging 28.4 points per game through five outings with three 30-point games, the Spurs' superstar has already matched the number of 30-point scoring games he had last season. Leonard has been extremely efficient shooting, too, as he is well on his way to a 50-40-90 shooting season. He also has started off hot from the line, making his first 33 free throw attempts of the year and going 43 for 45 overall.
It's not like Leonard has forgotten his defensive ways, either, as he ranks second in the NBA with 3.0 steals. Starting on Opening Night, when his 35-point, 5-steal performance led San Antonio to a 29-point dismantling of the Warriors, the 25-year-old has taken the lead on the Spurs. With San Antonio hanging around the top of the Western Conference standings, expect Leonard to be close to the top of the MVP race all season.