NBA MVP Watch: Who Are the Early Favorites?
For all of us basketball junkies, the wait is over. The NBA is finally back. From staying up too late watching League Pass to the beauty that is NBA Twitter, the next six to eight months is heaven.
Even though we are just eight days into the season, it is never too early to start thinking about the MVP candidates. Every two weeks, starting today, we will be ranking and examining the top-five players based on our in-house nERD 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.
Who are the early contenders to be the league's most valuable player? Let's dig in and find out.
5. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Make no doubt about, with Chris Paul playing for the Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers are now Blake Griffin's team. After taking a backseat in the offense while the ball ran through CP3, Griffin is the motor driving the Clips to a seventh-place standing in both points per game (113.3) and offensive rating (110.3). His 30.3% usage rate leads the team, as does his 17.7 shot attempts per game. His assists per game are currently a little lower than last season (4.9), but he still leads all the Clipper starters and ranks second behind just Lou Williams for the team high.
The addition of a three-point shot has boosted Griffin's scoring average by over five points per game from his career average of 21.5. In the first seven years of his NBA life, Blake made only 80 three-pointers, sinking them at a sub-30% clip. Through three games, he has gone 8-for-18 from deep, a 44.4% success rate.
4. C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
The guard has posted three straight games with at least 23 points and 3 three-pointers. His shooting touch has been impeccable, sinking 11-of-12 free throws (91.7%) and 10-of-15 threes (66.7%). The most impressive part of his offensive game, though, has been ball control. McCollum is one of only two players to post a usage rate of at least 23.0% and have a turnover percentage of 5.1% or below while playing at least 100 minutes. He has committed only three turnovers in three games.
McCollum's performance thus far has the Portland Trail Blazers humming as they sit at 3-1 and a surprising seventh-place standing in our power rankings. They own the fifth-most efficient offense in the Association (110.6 offensive rating) while scoring 112.8 points per game. The fifth-year guard is leading Portland in points, threes, and shots per game, which is not an easy feat with Damian Lillard on the floor.
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
When Kyrie Irving was shipped out to Boston, we all anticipated how LeBron James would respond when the two faced each other on opening night. On that particular day, he let his performance on the court do all the talking. King James was at his best, nearly posting a triple-double with 29 points, 16 rebounds, and 9 assists. He has yet to cool off, ranking fourth in the NBA in points and seventh in assists, all while being one of five players to average at least 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks through four games played.
LeBron has had the hot hand, posting marks in field goal (61.4%), three-point (44.4%), and free-throw (88.2%) percentage that would all be career highs. His versatility has also been on display -- he started at point guard against the Bulls on Tuesday and ended up he dishing out 13 assists while scoring 34 points in a win.
Even with a shaky start from offseason additions Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, James has kept the Cavs as a top-10 offense in terms of efficiency (108.8 offensive rating). They also remain near the top of the Eastern Conference standings and sit sixth in our power rankings.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The 2016-17 season was a down year for Stephen Curry, when we consider how high the bar is set. The two-time MVP saw his average scoring drop by nearly five points per game as he posted a career-worst 41.1% three-point percentage. Through four games this year, it appears he's regained his MVP form.
Steph has still struggled with his long-distance shot -- 36.6% on 10.3 attempts per game -- but has found his touch inside the arc, making a career-high 64.7% of his two-point shots. He has also gotten to the rim, drawing contact at a career-best rate. After averaging just 3.9 free-throw attempts per game in his career, Curry has taken 39 freebies, an average of 9.8 per game. Oh, and he hasn't missed one yet either. That has helped him to a third place standing on the scoring leaderboard.
Overall, the Warriors have gotten off to a disappointing 2-2 start. The offense is still as fast and furious -- and efficient -- as ever, though, with the Dubs leading the NBA in offensive rating (117.1) and sitting second with an average of 120.8 points per game. You can thank Curry for some of that efficiency -- his current 31.9% usage rate would be the highest of his career, while his 11.7% turnover rate would be the lowest of his nine NBA seasons.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The 2017-18 season is lining up to be the year of the Freak. The Greek Freak that is.
After four consecutive years of substantial improvement, Giannis Antetokounmpo has taken a leap from All-Star to superstar. The way-too-early-favorite for MVP, the 22-year-old forward is leading the NBA in scoring (36.8), is top-5 in steals (2.3), top-10 in rebounds (10.8), and is 25th in assists (5.3). His versatility and ability to stuff the stat sheet should come as no surprise as he was the first player in NBA history to finish in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks last year.
Giannis has taken his offensive game to new heights with his start, which has put him in elite company. He's scored 37-plus points twice in his four games played, matching the total number of times he reached that mark from 2013-17, a span of 318 games. In a win over the Blazers on Saturday, he set a new career high -- also the highest-scoring game so far this season -- with 44 points. He finished 17-of-23 from the floor (73.9%) while taking 13 trips to the charity stripe.
His Milwaukee Bucks are 3-1 and sit in first place in the Central Division. They have a top-10 offense in terms of efficiency and rank 14th in points per game. That is even with the club's projected number-two scorer, Khris Middleton, shooting only 39.0% from the field.