NBA MVP Watch: Rudy Gobert Makes His Case
Millions of NBA watchers are missing out on what has been one of the best under-the-radar seasons in recent memory. Buried away in Salt Lake City, Rudy Gobert gets unnoticed by the casual NBA fan. The Utah Jazz play in one of the NBA's smallest markets and rarely make it onto the primetime schedule of ESPN or TNT.
What everyone is missing is not only an All-Star worthy season, but one deserving mention in the MVP conversation. Gobert may be only averaging 12.9 points per game, but he leads the NBA with a 68.5% true shooting percentage. He also ranks second in offensive rating (128) and is fourth with 31 double-doubles, behind only the likes of Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
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 five of the most dominant players in the league so far.
5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
nERD Score: 9.6
Team Record: 29-18
Previous Rank: NR
At this point in the NBA season, Gobert looks like the runaway leader for Defensive Player of the Year. We presented the case two months ago, but it has only grown stronger since. He leads the league in blocks (2.5), defensive rating (98), defensive win shares (3.6), and defensive real plus/minus (4.9), along with ranking third in defensive box plus/minus (4.4) and fifth in defensive rebounds per game (8.9).
Gobert is also leading the revival in Utah as the anchor of their stifling defense. They own the second-best defensive rating (101.4) and allow the least amount of points in the league (95.5). All this has the Jazz fifth in the Western Conference and poised to return to the playoffs after a four-year absence.
In the past few weeks, Gobert has put up some monster games. On January 14, he become one of only seven players to post a 19-point, 19-rebound game this season, as he did against the Orlando Magic. Just six days later, he topped himself by not only tying the NBA's season-high with 25 rebounds, but he became the only player to record a 25-point, 25-rebound game this year.
He is averaging 17.6 points, 15.0 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks while shooting 69.0% from the floor.
4. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
nERD Score: 10.8
Team Record: 23-23
Previous Rank: 3
In the past two weeks, there were no flashy 40- or 50-point games for Jimmy Butler like there were at the beginning of the month. That doesn't mean the Chicago Bulls superstar wasn't hard at work doing all the little things his team needed to go 4-2 during the past six games, though.
In a one-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Butler did all he could to secure the victory, nearly recording a triple-double with 24 points, 9 rebounds, and a season-high 12 assists. He was also extremely efficient, taking only 12 field goal attempts but forcing his way to free throw line 16 times, making 14 of them.
In his first contest back from a two-plus game absence due to the flu, Butler had one of the best all-around games this season. He went off for 28 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks and 4 steals in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, becoming only the second player (Harden) to accumulate that stat line this season.
Overall, Butler averaged 21.7 points in his last six games, a dip from his overall season average, but he did it on only 13.0 shots per game. He went 50.0% from the field, including 38.9% from three while averaging 6.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 2.0 steals.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 11.2
Team Record: 34-14
Previous Rank: 2
After a 15-2 record in December, Harden and the Houston Rockets have been out of sync in the new year, losing five of their last eight games.
For his part, Harden has been doing all he can, averaging 29.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 10.6 assists while shooting 48.6% from the floor during that time. In one of the five losses against the Miami Heat on January 17, the Beard recorded his 13th triple-double of the season and fourth with at least 40 points by pouring in 40 points with 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
On the downside, he turned the ball over six times while going 4-for-15 from beyond the arc.
Harden's best game in the last two weeks may not have reached the same heights as the Heat game, but more importantly, the Rockets brought home the win. The superstar put up 38 points on 56.0% shooting while turning the ball over only twice in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks last Wednesday.
It should come as no surprise that the better Harden takes care of the ball, the better the Rockets play. In games with five or fewer turnovers, Houston is 16-3 (84.2% winning percentage). In games with six or more, their record drops to 18-11 (62.0% winning percentage).
2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
nERD Score: 11.8
Team Record: 36-9
Previous Rank: 3
As the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, we all know of Kawhi Leonard's prowess on the defensive end. However, the 25-year-old has ratcheted up his offensive output this season.
Through 41 games, Leonard is averaging a career-high 25.5 points while falling just short of becoming the eighth member of the elusive 50/40/90 club -- he is shooting 49.1% from the field, 41.5% from three, and 91.5% from the line. The increase in percentages is even more impressive when considering the San Antonio Spurs star is attempting 2.0 more field goals, 1.0 more threes, and 2.5 more free-throws per game than last season.
In his last game, a 118-115 overtime win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Leonard registered a career-high 41 points, cementing his place as Western Conference Player of the Week. He led the conference in scoring from January 16-22 with 36.3 points, adding 6.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists as the Spurs went 3-0.
If you go back another week, you will see the forward has scored at least 30 points in six consecutive games, becoming the first San Antonio player to accomplish the feat in over 30 years. He also owns a ridiculous 72.5% true shooting percentage in that span.
1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 13.8
Team Record: 38-7
Previous Rank: 1
The one skill that has put Kevin Durant over the top and distanced him from the other MVP candidates, in terms of nERD rating, is his shooting precision.
While ranking ninth in the NBA with a 54.3% field goal percentage doesn't seem that mind-blowing, consider that his average shot attempt is 13.7 feet away from the basket. Of the other nine players in the top 10 of field goal percentage, only Nikola Jokic averages a shot farther than 6 feet away from the basket. And his is only 9.3 feet.
Durant also owns a 65.6% true shooting percentage. Current teammate Stephen Curry in his unanimous MVP season last year is the only other player to shoot that well while averaging at least 17 field goal attempts per game.
Over the last two weeks, Durant has been even more deadly with his accuracy, if that is even possible. In his last six games, KD has sunk 61 of 101 shot attempts, giving him a 60.5% success rate. That includes going 15 of 37 from three, leaving him making his two-point shots at a 71.8% rate.
Against the Oklahoma City Thunder on January 18, Durant was 13 of 16 from the floor and 9 for 10 from the line, leading to a near-perfect 98.0% true shooting percentage.