NBA MVP Watch: Kevin Durant's Turn at the Top
With the Golden State Warriors re-claiming their spot as the hottest team in the NBA, it is only natural that one of their numerous All-Stars gets a chance to lead the Most Valuable Player race. While the preseason favorite would have been two-time MVP Stephen Curry to be the Warriors' first representative at the top, it is Kevin Durant who leads the way this week.
The question now for KD will be how long can he remain the favorite. In our first two editions of the MVP Watch, there was a different NBA superstar at the top. Kawhi Leonard held this honor the first time, followed by Chris Paul in the second installment. Durant now gets a crack at becoming the first player to come in at number one more than once this season.
Every two weeks, we will be checking back in on the MVP race, ranking the top candidates by nERD, which is a numberFire metric. For those unfamiliar with nERD, it's a player ranking that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season based on 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.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 4.4
Team Record: 11-7
Previous Rank: 3
When we look at James Harden's impressive start to the NBA season, the first thing that pops out is his assist numbers, and rightfully so. After averaging 4.9 assists per game in his first seven seasons, "the Beard" has dished out double-digit dimes in 14 of 18 games in 2016-17. The added burden of being the primary ball handler -- career-high 33.1% usage rate -- has not diminished his scoring ability, either. With eight games of 30-plus points scored, Harden ranks in the top five of scoring with 28.7 points to go along with his league-leading 11.9 assists per game.
Even with the Houston Rockets sitting four games better than they were at this point last year, if Harden is going to reach the summit of the MVP mountain, he needs to find a way to snag some victories against the elite teams. The Rockets are 9-1 versus teams with a record below .500 and 2-6 against teams .500 or better.
4. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
nERD Score: 5.0
Team Record: 14-5
Previous Rank: 1
Just as his Los Angeles Clippers have been unable to sustain their ridiculous early season pace, CP3 has fallen back a bit individually. His offensive and defensive rating had the point guard leading the NBA in both categories, but a run of poor shooting and sloppy play have dropped Paul to fifth in both advanced metrics. His three-point success rate of 47.4% through the first 11 games proved to be unsustainable for the career 36.7% shooter. Over the past eight games, the point guard has made only 15-of-44 attempts from deep (34%).
In the Clippers' five losses this season, Paul has shot only 33% from the field with 4.0 turnovers per game. Compare that to his 1.8 turnovers and 49.1% accuracy in Los Angeles' 14 wins, and you get the sense that even with a talented roster, the Clips are only going as far as Paul can take them.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
nERD Score: 5.1
Team Record: 7-12
Previous Rank: NR
Over the last three seasons of his brief career, Anthony Davis has been known to put up some monster stat lines. In fact, since the start of the 2013-14 season, the big man is averaging 23.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 2.6 blocks per game. Only four other players in NBA history -- all Hall of Famers, by the way -- have achieved similar numbers so early in their career. However, Davis has taken his game to another level this year, particularly offensively. With a massive 13 games of 30-plus points, including four with 40 or more, the 23-year-old leads the NBA with an average of 32.1 points per game.
To put his huge season in historical perspective, only one other player in the 70-year history of the NBA has ever averaged at least 32.0 points per game while bringing down at least 11 boards like Davis has so far this year. All of his hard work is starting to pay off for the New Orleans Pelicans, too. After starting the year 0-8, the Pelicans are only two games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
2. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
nERD Score: 5.5
Team Record: 10-6
Previous Rank: 2
Even with the constant shakeup in our MVP Watch, Jimmy Butler has become a mainstay as he is playing some of the most efficient basketball out there. Besides posting a career-high 25.8 points per game, the Chicago Bulls' heart and soul is second in the NBA in both offensive rating and offensive win shares. His vastly improved shooting (49.2% from the floor and 42.4% from beyond the arc) has Chicago a surprising seventh in offensive rating. Combine that with his role as the Bulls' best defender and Butler is the number one reason Chicago has defied the preseason projections and holding onto the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a 10-6 record. He is also the only Eastern Conference representative of the top nine nERD leaders.
During the Bulls' daunting six-game "circus" road trip, Jimmy Buckets took his game to another level. As Chicago notched four impressive victories on a grueling west coast swing, Butler averaged 28.3 points 8.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists and only 1.5 turnovers while posting a 28.1% usage rate. He also dropped a season-high 40 points on the Los Angeles Lakers in the second game of a Staples Center back-to-back.
1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 6.2
Team Record: 16-2
Previous Rank: 4
It may have taken a month for the team to settle in, but the Warriors are on pace to become the greatest offense in NBA history with Durant. Their offensive rating of 117.1 would put them ahead of the 1986-87 Showtime Lakers and Michael Jordan's first championship run with the Bulls in 1991-92. While Curry has been his typical unbelievable self, the real offensive force has been Durant. He leads the team in scoring and is even outshooting perhaps the greatest shooter this generation -- or the game -- has ever seen. Durant's true shooting percentage of 68.1% leads the NBA and would be the highest rate posted in in the last 35 seasons. Even greater than Curry's 66.9% performance from his unanimous MVP season last year.
The reigning NBA Player of the Week, KD has turned his all-around game up a notch during the Warriors' 12-game winning streak. Since November 7, the former MVP is averaging 25.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, all while shooting nearly 45% from three and 55.8% from the field. KD is all about 'less is more' as he is posting the lowest usage percentage and shot attempts of his career, but his per-36 points, rebounds, steals and blocks are at a career high.