NBA MVP Watch: Unleashing the Greek Freak
When the NBA released the first round of results in the All-Star voting, many casual basketball fans were likely surprised to see Giannis Antetokounmpo with the third-most votes of any player in the Eastern Conference. Being a member of the small-market Milwaukee Bucks, who are typically devoid of any national media attention, a player must be performing some remarkable feats to get recognized beyond Wisconsin.
Over the past month, Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 55.5% from the floor; pretty noteworthy if you ask me. With games like his 35-point, 9-rebound, 7-assist, 7-block, 2-steal performance against the Chicago Bulls on New Year's Eve, the Greek Freak is becoming known for much more than just his complicated name, and he is likely to become the Bucks' first All-Star in 13 years.
Every two weeks, we look at the MVP race in the NBA by 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 some the players who are making some noise in the Association this year.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
nERD Score: 8.1
Team Record: 19-18
Previous Rank: NR
In his fourth year in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is having the quintessential breakout season as he is posting career-bests in virtually every category possible. In the age of position-less basketball, the 22-year-old is also becoming the poster boy for the movement. Typically, no 6'11" NBA player has the athleticism and versatility to be the primary ball-handler, but the Greek Freak does. He leads the Bucks in both assist percentage (28.0%) and usage rate (28.7%) while ranking in the top 25 of the Association with an average of 5.6 assists per game.
Besides becoming the best distributor on his team, the Antetokounmpo has used his unique athleticism to become an exceptional defender. Three times he has recorded five or more blocks, including twice in the past two weeks, and he ranks sixth in the NBA with 2.1 blocks per game. Combine that with the fact he is the only NBA player to average at least 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks this season, and you start to get a glimpse of why he deserves mention in the MVP race.
5. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
nERD Score: 8.2
Team Record: 26-14
Previous Rank: 4
In the past two weeks, Chris Paul has played only three games due to a lingering hamstring injury. Overall, the point guard has missed seven of the Los Angeles Clippers' last 10 games. After being sidelined for three games around Christmas, Paul played 31 minutes versus the New Orleans Pelicans on December 28th, but he re-aggravated the injury, causing him to miss 10 days. In his brief return since, CP3 has shown why he has been a constant member of the MVP race.
Versus the Miami Heat and Sacramento Kings -- both Clippers wins -- Paul averaged 16.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 15.0 assists and 2.5 steals per game while shooting 62.5% from the field. In his 18-dime performance against the Heat, he owned a 100% assist percentage as he was involved -- either by making or assisting -- on 25 of the team's 36 made buckets, despite playing only 28 minutes.
The big night also helped Paul move into 10th place on the all-time assist leaderboard as he reached the 8,000-assist milestone for his career.
T-3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
nERD Score: 9.3
Team Record: 30-8
Previous Rank: 3
After suffering an unspecified illness that cost him the final two games of December and hampered his first game of 2017, Kawhi Leonard has found his groove the past four games. Buoyed by a plus-38 rating in a 28-point blowout of the East's second best team, the Toronto Raptors, Leonard is leading the NBA over the past week with an average plus/minus of plus-17.8. Even in the San Antonio Spurs' 109-107 loss to the Bucks on Tuesday, the Claw was plus five.
In that game, he scored 30 points with a true shooting percentage of 73.5%, adding 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks and only 1 turnover. The game also marked Leonard's 70th consecutive game in which he has scored in double figures, the Spurs' longest streak since Tim Duncan had 75 straight 12 seasons ago.
Even after losing Duncan to retirement, the Spurs are still on pace for 65 wins and are only 2.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the best record in all of the NBA. Leonard is a big reason why.
T-3. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
nERD Score: 9.3
Team Record: 19-20
Previous Rank: 4
With the way the Bulls have been performing lately -- 6-10 over the last month -- it is no surprise rumors are circling the league of a possible Jimmy Butler trade. The Bulls have an MVP caliber player performing at the peak of his career, but the team as a whole is struggling to reach .500. The Bulls may be toying with the idea of trading their superstar for multiple pieces for the future. However, with the level that Butler has been playing at over the past two weeks, it would seem that he is the type of player you build around, not trade away.
Not counting his one-point, ill-stricken performance on Monday, Butler has been on fire lately. He dropped 40 points on the Brooklyn Nets, 42 on the Raptors and 52 against the Charlotte Hornets. He got to the line 53 times in those three games, missing only three attempts (94.3%).
While it is the scoring that makes your jaw drop, Butler also holds the burden of being the Bulls best defender, giving his offensive outbursts that much more weight.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 9.8
Team Record: 31-9
Previous Rank: 2
As of right now, the Houston Rockets are on pace for 63.5 wins in what would be an more than a 22-win improvement over last season's 41-41 record. A change in offensive scheme plus the addition of a few key free agents has played a big part. But to deny the out-of-this-world performance of James Harden as anything but the overriding factor would be doing the Beard a disservice.
In just the past two weeks, he has five triple-doubles, three more than even Russell Westbrook has in that span. Harden is averaging 32.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game since December 30th. Just this week, he has posted consecutive 40-point triple-doubles.
On New Year's Eve, though, he had a game that will go down in history. Harden scored 53 points with 16 rebounds and 17 assists to become only the third player ever to score 50 points with a triple-double -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Westbrook being the others. Harden, however, is the one and only NBA player ever to register a 50-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist game.
1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 11.0
Team Record: 33-6
Previous Rank: 1
Despite the extraordinary accomplishments of triple-double machines Harden and Westbrook, the 50-plus scoring outbursts from Butler, Isaiah Thomas, and others, and the dynamic two-way play of Leonard, Antetokounmpo, and Paul; only one player has remained at the top of our MVP watch for the majority of the season -- Kevin Durant.
With averages of 25.9 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, Durant is having a season that only two other players -- both NBA legends -- could ever claim. The difference is KD is also pulling off the feat with 64.9% true shooting percentage, the highest mark of any non-center in the NBA this season.
Over his last four games, Durant has remained as consistent as ever, averaging 28.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 3.0 blocks and 2.0 three-pointers per game with a 64.9% true shooting percentage. His dynamic all-around performance -- only player with a top-12 offensive and defensive rating -- has helped the Warriors remain the cream of the crop in the NBA and on pace for 69 wins, only the third-best record in NBA history.