NBA MVP Watch: The Return of Steph Curry
It may have taken six weeks and over a quarter of the season, but the two-time reigning MVP has finally made his triumphant return to the MVP Watch.
While it seemed inevitable that Stephen Curry will find himself back in the conversation for best player in the league, it is a bit surprising it has took him this long.
Besides Curry's presence, the rest of the ranks stays pretty chalk from two weeks ago. The other four players in our top five have all taken up residency in our MVP watch, with the top two being in the conversation since day one.
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 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.
Enough talking, let gets into it and take a look at the players dominating the league so far.
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 5.7
Team Record: 22-4
Previous Rank: NR
Curry's insane 2015-16 season set the bar so high that anything less in subsequent seasons seems like a down year. However unfair that is, it is Curry's reality. In 2016-17, the Baby-Faced Assassin is averaging 25.6 points, 5.8 assists, 1.7 steals, and 3.8 three-pointers, a season matched only one other time in NBA history.
While all are significant drop-offs from last year, they are right in line with the averages he posted in 2014-15, his first MVP campaign.
On top of that, any player in the NBA would kill to shoot 48.1 percent from the floor, 40.1 percent from three, and 93.1 percent from the line. While the field goal and free-throw percentages are at or above Curry's career norms, the decline in three-point shooting is disappointing.
In December alone, he's shooting 34.8 percent from beyond the arc. On December 7, for the second time in 17 games, Curry went a whole game without making a three. Before that, he went 157 games, 196 if you count playoffs, with at least one made three-pointer, an NBA record.
Despite all of that, the two-time MVP still ranks in the top six in true shooting percentage and offensive win shares. He leads the Association with 99 made three-pointers and ranks in the top-10 for scoring, as well.
4. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 5.8
Team Record: 18-7
Previous Rank: 5
Over the past two weeks, all the Houston Rockets have done is win. Seven in a row to be exact. They are the only unbeaten NBA team in December and have crept all the way up to into a tie with Los Angeles Clippers for the third seed in the West.
Leading the charge, of course, has been James Harden. In the last seven games, he is nearly averaging a triple-double with 26.6 points, 10.7 assists, and 8.9 rebounds. Harden started the recent run with a massive triple-double -- 29 points, 15 rebounds, and 13 assists -- in a road win over Western Conference behemoths, Golden State. He dropped 37 points -- as well as 10 turnovers -- in a one-point victory over the Boston Celtics, four days later.
If there is one knock on Harden's game, besides his propensity for turnovers, it has to be his defensive shortcomings. While there is no denying he is a talented offensive player -- he leads the NBA with a 4.1 offensive win share -- Harden's 106.1 defensive rating ranks him 278th out of 443 NBA players, per NBA.com.
Furthermore, when Harden is off the court, the Rockets defense holds opponents to a 42.4 percent shooting percentage, compared to 46.5 percent when the Beard is roaming the floor, according to nbawowy.com.
While we try and figure out if we should be impressed by the Rockets this year, one thing is for sure, Harden has been performing at an elite level this year.
3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
nERD Score: 6.8
Team Record: 18-7
Previous Rank: 4
After a rough final week of November -- where he shot less than 35 percent from the field while the Clippers lost three straight -- Chris Paul is on fire in December. His shooting has been spot on, making over 50 percent of field goal attempts while posting a 63.8 true shooting percentage over the last six games.
Thanks to his steady hand, the Clippers also have the second-best offensive rating over the last two weeks (116.3).
The point guard has ramped up his facilitating prowess with double-digit assists in four of his last five games and leads the NBA with an average of 12.0 dimes per game this month. On December 10, Paul played one of the finest games in his career, pulling off a feat that had never been seen before in NBA history.
In the Clippers' 28-point demolishing of the New Orleans Pelicans, CP3 scored 20 points while dishing out a season-high 20 assists. That combination has been done 51 times before, but no one else had ever accomplished the act while also committing zero turnovers.
Clippers may not own the best-record in the NBA anymore, but they will never be far from the top with Paul running the show.
2. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
nERD Score: 7.0
Team Record: 13-11
Previous Rank: 2
It may seem like Jimmy Butler has a reasonable supporting cast, but he has been the sole reason the Chicago Bulls have stayed relevant in the Eastern Conference. When Butler is on the floor, the Bulls score 1.114 points per possession (ppp) and allow 1.033 ppp (basically an 8.1 net rating), according to nbawowy.com. However, when the sixth-year pro takes a break, Chicago's net rating plummets to -12.0.
Butler has been the one consistent driving force for Fred Hoiberg's offense, as he has scored 20 or more points in 21 of 24 games. In December, Chicago's superstar is eighth in the NBA in scoring with 25.9 points per game, while ranking third in free-throw attempts and first in free-throws made (65 for 72 in the last seven games).
However, as we get deeper into the season, we see the swingman's all-around game continue to blossom, making him more than just a scorer. In the past two weeks, Butler is averaging 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. Paul Millsap is the only other NBA player to reach those benchmarks during the same span.
If Chicago is 13-11 with Butler in the lineup, just imagine how deep in the lottery they'd be without him.
1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 7.5
Team Record: 22-4
Previous Rank: 1
Over the first five weeks of the season, there was no one hotter in the NBA than Kevin Durant. The small forward spent the first 18 games hitting on nearly 45 percent of three-point attempts while posting a ridiculous 68.1 true shooting percentage for a jump shooter. KD was also leading the Golden State Warriors in scoring with an average of 27.1 points per game.
Durant has cooled off since the calendar flipped to December, though.
In the last eight games, the 2013-14 MVP has averaged only 23.3 points, while making only 31.4 percent of his long-distance attempts. His true shooting percentage has also taken a dip to 58.1 percent, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but nowhere near top-3 status like before.
Part of the drop off could be attributed to fatigue; the Warriors have played eight games in the first 13 days of the month, including two sets of back-to-backs and a double-OT marathon versus the Rockets. It can also be chalked up to an unsustainable start with the recent poor run just a natural correction in averages.
Either way, Durant is still posting one of the best seasons of his career with 12.9 net rating, 65.1 true shooting percentage, and a top-five ranking in virtually every advanced offensive metric. Expect KD to remain in the middle of the MVP conversation for the foreseeable future.