NBA MVP Watch: Chris Paul Takes the Lead
Coming into the 2016-17 NBA season, Stephen Curry, and LeBron James were the overwhelming favorites to be named NBA Most Valuable Player. However, after three weeks the duo ranks 10th and 14th, respectively, in our player power rankings.
Since our first edition of the MVP watch two weeks ago, there has been a bit of shakeup in the MVP race with our top spot being claimed by a newcomer.
The rise of the Los Angeles Clippers to the top spot in our Power Rankings has helped Chris Paul take over as our current favorite for MVP. Seeing as we haven't even seen Thanksgiving yet, don't be surprised if our top spot becomes a revolving door these first few months.
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 players dominating the league so far.
T-5. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
nERD Score: 2.7
Team Record: 7-3
Previous Rank: NR
Last season seemed to be the breakout year for Kemba Walker. He found his shooting touch, particularly from deep, and averaged over 20 points per game as he led the Charlotte Hornets to the playoffs. Through 10 games so far, he is on pace to shatter all his career-highs set just one year ago. He is averaging 25.8 points per game while shooting 49.1% from the field.
Walker has taken his three-point shooting to another level, too, as he has made 33-of-69 attempts for a 47.8% success rate. In a narrow, two-point loss to the Toronto Raptors last Friday, the Hornets' point guard did all he could to will his team to victory. He dropped 40 points, including 7 three-pointers, while grabbing 10 rebounds, and dishing out 6 assists.
In his last five games, Walker has been nearly flawless running the floor as he has committed only 6 turnovers compared to 32 assists. His clean play has Charlotte near the top of the Eastern Conference, looking to improve on their sixth-place finish last season.
T-5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
nERD Score: 2.7
Team Record: 8-3
Previous Rank: 1
Kawhi Leonard started the 2016-17 campaign off strong, but over the last two weeks, he has regressed -- specifically with his shooting touch. In a blowout loss to the Clippers, the Claw struggled to score, going 3-for-13 from the field for 14 points. While we can chalk it up to a poor matchup against the NBA's top defense, Leonard has shot only 40.5% in the four games since. That includes another dismal sub-28% shooting night -- this time against the Detroit Pistons.
Overall through 11 games, the 25-year-old is posting a career-worst 44.9% shooting percentage. Even with the added offensive burden -- a career-high 32.1% usage rate and 18.1 shots per game -- affecting his shooting, Leonard has improved in other areas. His turnover percentage is below his career average, a good thing, and his assist percentage has risen to a career-high mark.
As the team's dominant force, Leonard and his MVP hopes will only go as well as the San Antonio Spurs play. So far, that has not been too bad. While they have lost three times at home already -- they lost only one game at the AT&T Center in 2015-16 -- San Antonio owns virtually the same record as the team did at this point last year when they were 9-2 through 11 games.
4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 2.8
Team Record: 8-2
Previous Rank: 2
Kevin Durant's place in the MVP talk starts and ends with the relative ease with which he scores. Ranking sixth in the NBA with 27.7 points per game, KD has displayed extreme efficiency as he has only taken 20 or more shots in a game twice this season. Only two other players are averaging 16 or more shot attempts per game and still shoot over 50%, DeMar DeRozan and Durant's teammate Stephen Curry.
His 56.2% field goal percentage ranks sixth overall, the highest for a non-power forward or center. The former MVP has been the model of consistency through 10 games too. When he scored only 18 points in the Golden State Warriors' 24-point victory over the Denver Nuggets last week, Durant snapped a 72-game streak of scoring at least 20 points. His run left him tied with Michael Jordan for the fourth-longest such streak in NBA history.
After an opening-day hiccup against the Spurs and their apparently annual loss to the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center, the Warriors are seemingly on track to be the team we all thought they would be. Riding a four-game winning streak, by scoring an average of 122.5 points per game, Golden State is only 1.5 games behind the Clippers, despite Los Angeles' incredible start.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 3.3
Team Record: 6-4
Previous Rank: NR
When the Houston Rockets brought in Mike D'Antoni to coach the team, many wondered how the offense would work without a pure point guard on the roster. When he announced that James Harden would be running the point, it seemed to make too much sense. Over the last few seasons, Harden spent most of his time with the ball in his hands as it was, so why not just have him run the floor?
Just like D'Antoni did with Steve Nash back in 2005, the coach has turned "the Beard" into the best assist man in the league. While he is still in the top five in scoring average with 30.3 points per game, Harden is leads the Association with 12.6 assists per game. He has had 15 or more assists in half of his games and is posting a ridiculous 60.8% assist percentage. The all-time mark belongs to John Stockton and his 57.5% from 1990-91.
While racking up numbers is all nice and good, winning the MVP race takes wins as well. The Rockets' 6-4 record may look good, but five of those six wins came against some of the worst teams the NBA has to offer in the Dallas Mavericks, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, and Washington Wizards. Those four teams have a combined 9-29 record.
2. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
nERD Score: 3.5
Team Record: 7-4
Previous Rank: 4
It has only been 11 games, but the Chicago Bulls' hot start appears to be no fluke. The key to the resurgence has been none other than Jimmy Butler. Posting a career-high 24.5 points per game, Butler has gotten more aggressive in his sixth season. He is taking and making more three-pointers, 17-for-38, and getting to the line a career-high 9.2 times per game. He is making both shots at a career-best rate too, shooting 44.7% from three and 90.1% from the line. Both marks are helping his overall line as Jimmy Buckets ranks in the top 10 of true shooting percentage with a 64.2% mark. The vastly improved shooting has Butler in the top four of both offensive rating and offensive win shares, too.
In the Bulls' last two games, both wins, the small forward has had two of his finest games of the season. He dropped a near triple-double with 37 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists against the Washington Wizards. Butler then posted his first double-double of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers with 27 points and 12 rebounds as the Bulls moved up to fifth place in the East. If Chicago can survive their annual "Circus trip," they may be for real, making Butler a legit MVP candidate.
1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
nERD Score: 4.5
Team Record: 10-1
Previous Rank: NR
On the surface, Paul's numbers this season don't look too different from the rest of his career. His 19.2 points and 48.5% shooting are just a tick above his career averages. In fact, his assists are actually down this season, but he has performed substantially better. In 11 games, he has committed only 19 turnovers -- an average of 1.7 per game -- giving CP3 a ludicrous 4.95 assist to turnover ratio.
Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment Paul has pulled off so far this season is that Clips' captain leads the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating -- not an easy feat. The impressive stats do not stop there either, as the 12-year veteran is swiping nearly three steals per game, a career-high. He is also grabbing 5.5 rebounds and making 2.4 threes per game, both career-bests as well.
Is it possible to say a nine-time All-Star is having a breakout season? Because if it is, this 31-year-old is having it.
With the Clippers leading the NBA with a 10-1 record, Paul naturally jumps to the top of any MVP talk. The closest Paul ever came to MVP award was a second-place finish nine seasons ago. If he keeps up his current level of play, it is safe to say this could finally be his year.