NBA MVP Watch: The Fall of Kevin Durant
However, as anyone not living under a rock knows, Durant suffered a MCL sprain last week that will leave him sidelined for a minimum of four weeks. The injury is not only devastating to the Golden State Warriors, but also to KD's MVP pursuit.
With just a little a over month left in the NBA regular season, and after a three-month reign, we get our first new face at the top of our ranks, albeit a familiar one. So, let's not waste any more time and dive right into our top five MVP candidates this week.
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.
5. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
nERD Score: 13.1
Team Record: 40-24
Previous Rank: 5
Since being an All-Star game snub, all Rudy Gobert has done is take his anger out on opponents. In his first three games out of the break, the big man averaged 13.3 points, 15.0 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per game while posting a .748 true shooting percentage and a 90.0 defensive rating. That includes a 15-point, 19-rebound, 4-block performance against the Washington Wizards. Gobert joined Anthony Davis as the only players to achieve that stat line in a game this season.
This past week, Gobert continued his dominating play, especially on the glass. Versus the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, he recorded 24 rebounds, the second-highest total by any player all season. In that game, he posted a 36.5% total rebound percentage, a new season-high.
The following night, he got to prove his case as the best defensive player in the league as he faced the New Orleans Pelicans and their two dynamic scoring big men of Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The Stifle Tower limited the duo to just 35 total points -- they're averaging 49.7 combined points in New Orleans. Gobert ended the night with an 82.0 defensive rating and a massive 36.54 nERD score, according to numberFire live.
4. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
nERD Score: 13.4
Team Record: 40-24
Previous Rank: 4
For 43 consecutive games, Isaiah Thomas had scored at least 20 points, a Boston Celtics record. The streak came crashing to an end on February 27 as the Celtics were blown out by the Atlanta Hawks and Thomas couldn't buy a shot as he went 4-for-21 (19.0%) from the floor. He managed to get to the line 10 times to salvage his stat line with 19 total points, but it marked just the second time IT4 failed to reach 20 points.
The All-Star scored 31 points the next game out, as Boston pulled off a huge win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thomas wouldn't be able to get another streak going, though, as he scored just 18 points in a 20-point victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. Head coach Brad Stevens got his superstar some much needed rest, playing him just 25 minutes.
Since the break, Thomas' numbers have taken a slight hit from the ridiculous pace of the previous two months. He has averaged "just" 26.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists in the last seven games. Worse, the Celtics went 3-4 and failed to gain ground on Cleveland, who have lost four of their last six.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
nERD Score: 15.1
Team Record: 44-20
Previous Rank: 3
To fully appreciate how fantastic James Harden's season has been, you need to take a step back and look at the ridiculous offensive numbers he is posting. Not only is he leading the league in assists per game (11.3), he is also third in scoring average (29.0). In the history of the NBA, only two other players have averaged that many points and assists in one season; Tiny Archibald and Oscar Robertson. In fact, the last time anyone accomplished the feat was 44 years ago by Archibald.
Harden is averaging 3.3 made three-pointers per game, one of only six players this season to average at least 3.0 per game. Of those six players, Harden is the only one with at least 7.0 assists. He also leads the league in offensive (9.6) and total win shares (12.6), plus is on top of the leaderboard in offensive real plus/minus (6.93).
Since the All-Star break, the Beard hasn't slowed down, either. In his last six games, he is averaging 29.4 points, 10.8 assists, and 4.4 three-pointers.
T-1. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
nERD Score: 16.6
Team Record: 52-11
Previous Rank: 1
With Durant out for a minimum of four weeks, his reign at the top of the MVP Watch is coming to an end soon. The fact that he remains even tied for first is a testament to his remarkable play over the first two-thirds of the season.
With just five weeks remaining in the regular season and a minimum of three weeks left in KD's recovery timetable, his regular season is all but finished. If that's the case, he finishes with 25.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game. Numbers like that put him in elite company -- only David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have had a stat line so thorough.
That doesn't even showcase Durant's shooting prowess this season.
With a field goal percentage of 53.7%, the 28-year-old set a new career best. His .651 true shooting percentage was the highest for any player -- not named Stephen Curry -- who took over 16 shots per game in the last 30 years.
T-1. Kawhi Leonard
nERD Score: 16.6
Team Record: 49-13
Previous Rank: 2
Just yesterday, my colleague Brett Oswalt did an excellent job breaking down Kawhi Leonard's MVP case, and we here at the MVP Watch could not agree more. For the last few weeks, Leonard has been climbing the ranks behind his improved offensive game. With Durant sidelined, the San Antonio Spurs' star now has a chance to take the top spot in our race and run away with it.
Over his last four games, Leonard has been by far the best player in the NBA. The 25-year-old has scored at least 31 points in four straight, but somehow his scoring is being overshadowed by his all-around game.
Versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, he set a season-high with six steals and recorded his first two double-doubles of 2017 in just the last week, grabbing 10 boards twice. His overall stat line is eye-popping, which includes 33.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 3.3 steals, and 2.3 three-pointers per game while posting a .624 true shooting percentage.