NBA MVP Watch: Isaiah Thomas Joins the Race
After dominating the talk in NBA circles lately and winning Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January and then Player of the Week honors, it is only fitting Isaiah Thomas joins the discussion this week for some year-long hardware.
Thomas has been the driving force behind the Boston Celtics' surge up the standings in the East. Currently riding a seven-game winning streak, they sit in second place, a full two games ahead of the Toronto Raptors. The diminutive point guard is also on the verge of making history within the storied franchise as his current average of 29.9 points per game would be the best mark in Boston history.
Every two weeks, we look at the MVP race in the NBA by going over the top candidates, according to 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.
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
nERD Score: 11.3
Team Record: 33-18
Previous Rank: NR
Since returning from a four-game absence in mid-December, Thomas has been the NBA's leading scorer with an average of 33.0 points per game. Over his last 26 games, he has racked up 14 games with 30 or more points, four of 40 or more, and even one 52-point performance. In fact, since November 19th, Thomas has scored at least 20 points in a game 35 straight times, the longest run in the NBA this season.
In the past two weeks, Thomas has ratcheted up his game even more, if that's possible, scoring 35.3 points with 7.6 assists and 4.3 three-pointers per game. He has hit 52% of his shots, including 40.5% of his three-pointers, and 96.8% of his free throws.
Thomas is making his case for MVP with the help of advanced metrics, too. He ranks second in offensive win shares (7.7) and offensive box plus/minus (9.6). IT2 is third in player efficiency rating (27.7) and is fourth in offensive real plus/minus (6.04). Most impressively, he is one of only nine players ever to post a usage rate over 34% while simultaneously owning a turnover rate of 10.0% or less. In fact, he is the only one of those nine players to do it while averaging at least 6.0 assists per game.
4. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
nERD Score: 11.4
Team Record: 26-26
Previous Rank: 4
In the three games Butler has started in the last two weeks, he has knocked down shots with profound success. Versus the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, and Oklahoma City Thunder, Butler buried 56.1% of his shots while averaging 32.0 points per game. Butler's true shooting percentage over those three games was 67.1%.
After posting his fifth game with at least 40 points in a heartbreaking loss to the Hawks, Butler and teammate Dwyane Wade lashed out at their teammates to the media. Their tirade earned a benching to start the following game versus the Miami Heat.
Having not come off the bench to start a game since March of 2013, maybe Butler was thrown off because he posted the worst shooting performance of his career. He went 1 for 13 from the floor for a total of 3 points, the lowest point total he has posted in four seasons. To top it all off, the 27-year-old has been dealing with a heel injury that has sidelined him the last two games. If the injury continues to linger, don't expect to see Butler in these ranks much longer.
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
nERD Score: 12.3
Team Record: 39-12
Previous Rank: 2
In the five games he did play, Leonard has stuffed the stat sheet with averages of 24.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. Versus the Thunder, the Spurs superstar outdueled Russell Westbrook with 36 points to Westbrook's 26. That includes 12 points in the final stanza to help turn a third-quarter deficit into a 14-point win.
Against the 76ers and Denver Nuggets, Leonard led the Spurs in scoring as they extended their franchise-record run of games with at least 100 points to 27 straight. In Monday's game versus the Memphis Grizzlies, a game Leonard was forced to miss with a thigh injury, the Spurs not only snapped their 100-point streak, they posted season lows in points (74), shooting percentage (37.1%), and three-point percentage (21.0%).
For the season, when Leonard is on the floor, the Spurs own a 116.3 offensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference. When he needs a breather or is unable to play, San Antonio's offensive rating drops 9.2 points.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 12.4
Team Record: 38-17
Previous Rank: 3
In his last seven games, James Harden has posted only one triple-double. That can be classified as a sort of dry spell for the Houston Rockets' superstar, who has been averaging one triple-double every 3.8 games. However, the one triple-double he did have in that stretch was a historic one.
Against the 76ers, Harden scored 51 points with 13 rebounds and 13 assists for his second 50-point triple-double of the season. His performance made the Beard the first player in NBA history to have more than one such outing in a season. He achieved a 50-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist trip-dub back on New Years' Eve. Before this season, no one had scored 50 points while pulling off a triple-double in over 40 years -- when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar accomplished it in 1973.
In his other six games, Harden has been all over the map. He scored 41 points against the Hawks and had 42 in an overtime win over the Bulls. He also went 3 for 17 in a 19-point loss to the Indiana Pacers. Overall, Harden ranks fifth in points scored (30.6) and third in assists per game (10.1) over the past two weeks, while the Rockets have fallen back to Earth a bit with a 4-3 record in that span.
1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 14.8
Team Record: 43-8
Previous Rank: 1
One game doesn't make the man or the MVP. Because if it did, Kevin Durant would be eliminated from the MVP race after his miserable offensive performance on Saturday versus the Sacramento Kings. It was easily the worst game he has played in a Golden State Warriors uniform.
The usually reliable Durant, who owns a 53.7% shooting percentage and 65.0% true shooting percentage, went 2 for 10 from the field including 0 for 6 from beyond the arc for a season-low 10 points. If not for his 6-for-7 performance from the line, he could have snapped his 554-game streak of scoring at least 10 points in a game. Durant looked out of sorts all night, committing three turnovers while posting his second-lowest usage rate (17.6%) of the year.
The awful performance came on the heels of a solid run of games in January in which he posted a 126.0 offensive rating and .670 true shooting percentage. He averaged 27.4 points, 4.6 assists, and 2.4 three-pointers a game in January, earning him co-Western Conference Player of the Month Honors with teammate Stephen Curry.