NBA MVP Watch: Jimmy Butler Still Hanging Around

Despite Chicago's recent downturn, Jimmy Butler remains in our top five. Who else joins him?

If you take a look at our top five leading MVP candidates, you see the Western Conference powers well represented. The four best teams out west -- Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers -- all have someone in the race.

The lone outsider from the Eastern Conference doesn't come from where we'd expect (the Cleveland Cavaliers), but from the current 7 seed with a sub-.500 record, the Chicago Bulls.

While Jimmy Butler doesn't carry the name recognition of a LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry, what he does have is a better offensive rating -- ninth-best in the league, according to Basketball Reference. He also owns a lower turnover rate, a similar scoring average (24.0 points per game) on fewer shots per game, and is arguably the best defender of the group.

His inclusion further showcases that our MVP Watch is not a popularity contest.

Every two weeks, we look at the MVP race in the NBA and rank the top candidates by nERD, our in-house 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 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 some the players who are making some noise in the association this year.

T-4. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

nERD Score: 7.3
Team Record: 22-11
Previous Rank: 3

The biggest concern for Chris Paul's MVP hopes is not his play. The point guard is averaging 18.0 points and 11.0 assists per game while shooting 48.9% from the floor in December. He has seven double-doubles in his last 10 games played and has excelled on both ends of the floor, posting the second-best net rating (15.0) of any player with an average of 30 or minutes per game.

The real concern has been his health.

Currently, Paul is dealing with a strained hamstring. He suffered the ailment on December 22 against the Spurs, causing the point guard to miss the last three games and leaving him questionable to play the rest of this week. We all know hamstring injuries can linger and Paul hasn't been the picture of good health throughout his career. Only one time in his previous 11 seasons has CP3 played in all 82 games.

With the Clippers dropping three straight without their floor general -- to teams with a combined record of 34-64 -- Paul may be tempted to come back too soon and risk re-injuring his leg.

T-4. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

nERD Score: 7.3
Team Record: 15-16
Previous Rank: 2

At one point and time, Jimmy Butler had a 15-game streak of 20-plus point performances this season. For one month, from November 7 to December 6, the Bulls' leader averaged 27.9 points per game while shooting 46.9% from the floor. He was getting to the line over 10 times a night and sinking freebies at an almost 90% rate. He was flat out playing some of the most dominating basketball of his career, or in the NBA for that matter.

The tide has turned over the last two weeks, though.

In the last six games, Butler has only two 20-plus point games and even posted a seven-point stinker, which is when he shot 3-for-14 from the floor in a 26-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on December 16. His field goal accuracy has also dipped to just over 40% during the slide.

Even more concerning here is Butler's averaging only 5.2 free-throw attempts per game over the past two weeks, less than half of what he was posting earlier in the season.

Not coincidentally, during Butler's current offensive downturn, the Bulls have lost four of their last six. Go back even further and the Bulls have a 5-9 record in December, possibly signaling the end is near for Butler's MVP dreams.

3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

nERD Score: 7.7
Team Record: 25-6
Previous Rank: NR

We all know Kawhi Leonard has taken a step forward offensively, as he is the unquestioned leader of the Spurs. He is averaging career-highs in field goal (16.9) and free-throw attempts (7.1), points (24.4), minutes per game (33.5), and usage rate (30.0%). With the extra focus on Leonard by opposing defenses in addition to the added looks, it makes perfect sense as to why the small forward saw a decline in his shooting accuracy.

However, it appears the Claw has regained his stroke in December.

For the first 19 games, Leonard was shooting 45.0% from the floor, 38.1% from three, and 90.8% from the line. Not bad, right? Those numbers are right inline or even slightly better than the NBA league average. Over his last 12 games, though, he has been elite-level with his accuracy.

Since December 1, Leonard has dropped in 44.0% of his three-point attempts while posting a 64.2% true shooting percentage. He has missed only four free throws all month, making 95% of his attempts. He is scoring 24.3 points per game, right on par with his season average, but on nearly one less shot per game.

With the Spurs only 1.5 games out of the top record in the Association and Leonard shooting out of mind as of late, the small forward is making a convincing case to become the third San Antonio player -- and first in 14 seasons -- to take home the MVP hardware.

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

nERD Score: 8.2
Team Record: 24-9
Previous Rank: 4

As we rapidly approach the halfway point, one of the NBA's biggest surprises is how well the Rockets and James Harden have done with The Beard's transition to point guard. Through 33 games, the Houston superstar is demolishing his personal career highs as he posts an NBA-best 11.9 assists per game. In fact, Harden is posting the most assists per game the league has seen since John Stockton averaged 12.3 dimes in 1994-95.

Lost in the shuffle of Westbrook's ridiculous triple-double season is Harden matching him in double-doubles (26). Harden has posted double-digit assists in 26 of 33 games after pulling off the feat only 18 times all of last year, and he owns the second-best assist percentage (53.0) while posting only the fifth-highest usage rate (33.4).

In the month of December, the Rockets are 13-2 and have surged all the way to third in the Western Conference, just 3.5 games behind the Warriors for the best record in all of basketball. If not for Harden's Herculean performance, the Rockets would most definitely not be on pace for their best season in franchise history.

1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

nERD Score: 9.9
Team Record: 27-5
Previous Rank: 1

On Christmas Day, the Warriors and Cavaliers renewed their rivalry in a hotly contested battle. While Cleveland came out on top in controversial fashion, the matchup's newest participant showed why he has been consistently leading the MVP ranks this season.

With a game-high 36 points and 15 rebounds, Kevin Durant did all he could to exact a bit of revenge for the Dubs. In fact, he might have pulled off a last-second victory if not for a missed foul call on Richard Jefferson.

Over the past two weeks, Durant has ramped up his offensive output, averaging 30.0 points per game off the strength of three 30-plus point performances. It's not just a matter of taking more shots for Durant either; he has been as efficient as ever, averaging just over 18 attempts per game. KD is dropping shots at an absurd rate, 58.2%, and his 34-point night (11 of 13 from the field) against the Portland Trail Blazers, along with a 32-point performance (13 of 18) against the Detroit Pistons were the epitome of brilliant.

For the year, Durant ranks in the top-10 for points, the top-20 in rebounds, and is one of only two players in the NBA with 17 or more shot attempts per game that is hitting on over 50% of them. The further we get into the numbers, the more Durant stands above the rest and is our clear favorite for MVP.