NBA MVP Watch: Steph Curry Returns on Fire
Injuries play a big factor in sports. This year's NBA MVP race is no different.
All but one of our top five MVP candidates (LeBron James) has missed time this year, with Anthony Davis and James Harden currently out of commission. Even with the bumps and bruises, these five continue to separate themselves from the pack, fighting through the pain to put up some elite performances this season.
In this and all editions of our NBA MVP watch, we rank and examine 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.
We already know the players, but let's find out what the contenders for NBA Most Valuable Player have been up to the last three weeks.
5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Previous rank: T-4
There has been one frustrating constant in the six-year career of Anthony Davis, and it's been an inability to stay healthy. After missing an average of 17.0 games per season the first four years of his NBA life, the New Orleans Pelicans' big man seemed to be making progress, sitting out just 7 games in 2016-17. However, through 39 games this season, Davis has missed the majority of six games and is looking at another lost game on Wednesday after suffering an ankle injury Monday night. Against the Detroit Pistons, Davis was on pace for his best performance of the year, scoring 30 points on 12-for-14 shooting in just 25 minutes before a sprained ankle forced him from the game early. It's a shame because the Brow had just started to pick up his offensive game (26.6 points per game over the last month) and had the Pelicans thinking about the playoffs again.
Over the past three weeks, Davis had averaged 26.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game while posting a 62.9% true shooting percentage and a minuscule 5.1% turnover percentage in 8 games. The Pels have gone 5-3 during the stretch, moving up into the 8 seed in the Western Conference. Currently, they have a .500 or better record for the first time since last reaching the postseason in 2014-15.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Previous rank: T-4
After missing 11 games with an ankle injury, Stephen Curry has come back with a vengeance. The Golden State Warriors' point guard not only has led the Dubs to five straight wins by an average margin of 10.4 points (even with Kevin Durant out for three games) but he has recaptured the historic shooting form that led to consecutive MVP awards.
In the last five games, Curry has scored at least 30 points four times while shooting 57.4% from the floor and 53.2% from three, while shooting at least 50% from the field while taking no fewer than 10 three-pointers. To close out 2017, Curry put on a show from beyond the arc hitting 10-of-13 threes on his way to 38 points in just over 25 minutes of action against the Memphis Grizzlies. Overall, the Chef has cooked up 35.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 56 assists, and 6.6 three-pointers per game while dropping a 79.2% true shooting percentage since December 30th.
With Durant out of commission, he is dominating the offense, as expected. Curry took an average of 19.3 shots per game while posting a 34.2% usage rate. He dropped 45 points against the Los Angeles Clippers in a vintage performance, nailing 8 three-pointers and 15 free-throws as the Warriors throttled L.A. by 16 points. Even with KD likely back on Wednesday, Curry has done enough to reinvigorate his stake to the MVP hardware in 2018.
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Previous rank: 2
It seemed inevitable that James would cool off. Through the first 32 games of the season, the four-time MVP was shooting a career-best 57.2% from the field, and 41.1% from the floor while averaging 28.2 points in 37.3 minutes. Expending all that energy has caught up to the 33-year-old King, as he is shooting just 28.6% from three and 49.7% overall in his last eight games. James has seen his scoring average drop to 23.1 points per night while registering three sub-20 point nights during the stretch. His true shooting percentage dipped to 57.3% and turnover percentage rose to 17.4% during the last three weeks.
As anyone could have predicted, the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled with Bron not at his best, going 3-5 while suffering three double-digit losses -- including a 28-point defeat to the Minnesota Timberwolves -- since December 21st. In that blowout loss to the T-Wolves, where the Cavs entered the fourth quarter down 35, James logged just 10 points in 26 minutes, his lowest scoring output all year.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Previous rank: 3
Giannis Antetokounmpo is coming off a miserable performance on Monday where the Indiana Pacers slowed him down to his second-lowest scoring game of the year (17) thanks to 37.5% shooting from the floor in a 13-point loss. The beauty of Giannis' game is he can contribute a hefty stat line even when he's not scoring, as he grabbed 13 rebounds with 5 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks.
Even as he is averaging 25.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game since Christmas, the Milwaukee Bucks have gone 4-4, unable to string together more than two wins in a row. They sit on the edge of the playoff race in the sixth spot in the East, but only 2.5 games away from 10th place.
Despite the team's inability to break out of mediocrity, Antetokounmpo rises in the MVP race as he re-writes his own record book. He is on pace for new career highs in points, rebounds, steals, shooting percentage (55.2% from the field, 78.0% from the line), usage rate (31.5%), and minutes played (37.7). The emerging superstar is also among the top five in some valuable advanced metrics, like offensive win shares (5.6), win shares (7.2), box plus/minus (7.1), VORP (3.2), and of course nERD. Antetokounmpo is getting recognition from the fans, too -- he currently leads all players in the initial release of All-Star voting results.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Previous rank: 1
Despite not playing a single minute in 2018 because of a hamstring strain, James Harden has increased his lead in the MVP race thanks to an explosive finish to 2017.
In his last six games of the year, the Houston Rockets star scored 40 or more points three times while dropping consecutive 51-point peformances against both L.A. teams on December 20th and 22nd. When he injured his hamstring on New Year's Eve, Harden got to the line 21 times while dropping 40 points, dishing out 11 assists, and turning the ball over just twice in 41 minutes. The performance helped the Rockets stop a five-game skid that saw them fall from the top of the Western Conference. They are still on pace for nearly 58 wins this season, which would tie a franchise record set over 23 years ago when Hakeem Olajuwon patrolled the middle and led the team to their first championship.
Harden will miss at least the next two games and is scheduled to be re-evaluated early next week for a possible return to the court. Hopefully, the injury won't slow the Beard down since he's positioned as the frontrunner to bring home the MVP hardware.