NBA MVP Watch: A Change at the Top

As we begin this new year, we start to see some changes atop the NBA MVP race. How far did Jimmy Butler and James Harden climb?

It's now 2015. While some things have stayed the same throughout 2014, others have really changed for some of us. And the NBA's no different. While Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili still take up residence in San Antonio, again as reigning NBA champs, Charlotte's the Hornets again, Phil Jackson's in New York, and LeBron's (getting old) 30.

Just as the Association has seen its fair share of consistencies and changes over the last year, the same can be said for our 2014-15 MVP race as we ring in the new year.

Four of the five candidates you'll see below today were also in our last MVP update. However, the race is beginning to tighten, and we're starting to see some players on the rise while others remain steady. For some, steady isn't a bad thing. For others, it might be. I'll tell you why.

And I'm going to do that by breaking down the top MVP candidates from five to one based on our metrics. 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. The league average is 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 explanation, let's explore this week's top five.

5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Previous ranking: #3

Stephen Curry has fallen from the last time we saw him in our top five. But, none of that is really his fault. Curry's been putting up big numbers all year. He's averaging 23 points per game with an unworldly shooting line (in percentages) of 49.2/38.8/92.2. For a guy who takes close to 17 shots per game, he's incredibly efficient. So it's no surprise that he owns the third best nERD (18.4) and fifth-best nF efficiency rating in the entire league (6.1).

Ironically, the only thing hurting Steph is how freakin' good his team is. In fact, the Warriors boast the league's best nERD of 81.4, which is predictive of the team's winning percentage. The Splash Brother does account for 22.6% of Golden State's total nERD, but that's the fifth-highest among the top five players in nERD -- over two percentage points less than the next closest candidate. It's a flaw in Curry's candidacy. However, it's a good one to have. Golden State is rolling through teams, and with a 27-5 record, they're the best team in the league. Our numbers have them as a shoo-in for the playoffs at 100%.

Upcoming matchups: Pacers, Cavaliers

4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Previous ranking: Unranked

Here's one of the shakeups in our top five. It literally happened overnight. Lillard was on the outside of the top five looking in as of last night. But, a strong performance in a comeback win against the Lakers last night helped the Portland point guard jump fellow point guard Chris Paul. In last night's victory, Lillard exceeded his season averages in points, shooting, and three-point percentage as he tallied 39 points on 12-21 shooting while going 4-8 from three. He also went 11-of-13 from the free throw line with 6 rebounds and 5 assists to accompany his outstanding scoring night.

Lillard carried the Blazers to victory down the stretch as he scored 14 points and went 4-of-7 from the field in the fourth quarter. But that's nothing new for Lillard and the Blazers. Lillard's nERD of 16.5 accounts for 24.7% of Portland's total nERD (66.7). That's really impressive on a team with such a talent as LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard has been the driving force on a very good Blazers team. He has Portland second in the West with the second-best record and win percentage in the entire NBA.

Upcoming matchups: Heat, Magic, Lakers

3. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

Previous ranking: #4

Jimmy Butler is starting to be a frequenter of this piece. And rightfully so. He's been playing some great basketball, all around. That's why he has the league's fourth-best nERD of 17.3 and is near the top of the league in scoring with 21.9 points per contest. He's taken on the responsibility of being his team's leading scorer while playing 40 minutes per game. That leads the league.

Jimmy Butler is now the man in Chicago, along with the rejuvenated Pau Gasol. Unless Derrick Rose returns to his MVP form, which is highly in doubt, Butler will continue to be the main perimeter scorer and playmaker for the Bulls. That's why many now think Butler is due max money when it comes time for him to hit the open market. After all, Butler is the MVP of his team as he has accounted for 27.0% of his team's total nERD.

Upcoming matchups: Jazz, Wizards, Bucks

2. Anthony Davis

Previous ranking: #1

And here is the BIG shakeup in this week's rankings. Anthony Davis is no longer our leading candidate for MVP. But that has little to do with his play. The Brow has still been outstanding night in and night out. He's averaging 23.7 points on 56.6% shooting from the field. And he's also averaging 10.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. As he continues to post lines like this on a nightly basis, it's no wonder he continues to boast the league's highest nERD (21.1).

With the highest nERD in the entire NBA, Davis accounts for 41.1% of the Pelicans' total nERD. However, New Orleans' nERD of 51.3 is merely good enough for fourteenth in the league. Now that's nothing to be ashamed of in the back part of a brutal Western Conference. But as I've said before, if the Pelicans don't make the playoffs I can't see Davis winning the MVP. And as it stands right now, the Pelicans are 17-17 -- ninth in the West. That's why our projections give the Pelicans only a 22.8% chance of making the playoffs. So it's time -- 34 games into the season -- for the Pelicans to win more games or for Mr. Davis to step aside.

Upcoming matchups: Hornets, Grizzlies

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Previous ranking: #2

James Harden cracks the top two in our rankings once again. But this time he's number one. He's having a great year -- just as good as or better than Anthony Davis. He's proving how big of a superstar he really is. He is second in the league with a nERD of 19.3 and is tied for the league lead in points per game with 27 a night. The Beard is the best player in the league. Both ways.

He is the heart and soul of the Houston Rockets and their success so far this season. His nERD makes up 31.6% of Houston's team nERD (61.1). That's nearly 10% less than Davis, but the Rockets have a 95.3% chance to make the postseason. Plus, Harden has Dwight Howard on his team to help out. Or does he? Howard has missed 12 games so far this year and hasn't played too well as of late. In his last five, he's only managed to play 29 minutes per game, scoring at least 13 points only once. A lot has been on the Beard. He not only scores but dishes out 6.5 assists, grabs nearly 6 boards and tallies just under 2 steals per game as well. Houston, no problems here.

Upcoming matchups: Cavaliers, Knicks, Jazz