Ranking the top 10 NBA MVP candidates

NBA Playoffs
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

The 2016-17 NBA season is reaching its unofficial midway point with the All-Star Game set to take place here soon. A whole lot of basketball has been played. Some really good. Some pretty darn bad.

But as we see every year around the Association, players and teams stand out more than others. This is where the NBA’s MVP list is built. It’s created at about this point each season. It’s then shortened to include the best of the best as the season itself progresses.

As players prepare for the All-Star break, some have surely separated themselves from others. A certain guard in Oklahoma City is putting up an astonishing season — his first without a former MVP in the mix. Meanwhile, said former MVP has fit in perfectly fine with his new team in sunny California.

Back east, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers continue to top the rankings. Though, led by the likes of John Wall and Isaiah Thomas respectively, the Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics seem prepared to challenge for the conference title.

These are among the top-10 NBA MVP candidates as the season draws on to its unofficial second half.

1. Russell Westbrook, guard, Oklahoma City Thunder 

The basic question we have to ask here is whether Westbrook has been the most valuable to his team through the supposed first half of the NBA season. With the Thunder boasting a 30-23 record and in the seventh spot in the Western Conference Playoff race, the answer has to be an undeniable yes.

Sure Oklahoma City likely won’t be competing for an NBA title when the playoffs come calling. That’s not the point. Westbrook has his team playing competitive basketball mere months after it lost former MVP Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors in free agency.

He’s doing so with an Orlando Magic castoff in Victor Oladipo helping lead the way in the backcourt. He’s also doing so with a rookie in Domantas Sabonis playing a substantial role after he was acquired with Oladipo in the Serge Ibaka trade. This is all taking place within the parameters of a Western Conference that remains top heavy.

From a statistical perspective, Westbrook is doing something we haven’t seen in the NBA since the Oscar Robertson days. He’s legitimately averaging a triple-double at 30.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.2 assists per game. In fact, Russ has put up 24 triple-doubles on the season. To put this into perspective, LeBron James has 36 in his entire career. That alone should place Westbrook No. 1 on this list.

2. James Harden, guard, Houston Rockets 

Statistically speaking, Harden is having one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Here’s a dude that’s averaging 28.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, 11.4 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 44 percent from the field, including a 35 percent mark from three-point distance. Those are some amazing stats right there. Though, stats themselves really shouldn’t be the primary determining factor when it comes to the MVP race. This is where Harden has surely picked his game up from season’s past.

Houston currently boasts a 38-17 record and is the third seed in the Western Conference. This comes on the heels of the team sending Dwight Howard packing and replacing him with a variety of players, including Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to fit into a new system under first-year head coach Mike D’Antoni.

Most figured there would be a learning curve from Harden here. How would he fit into the new scheme? How would he work with the new supporting cast? Those questions have firmly been answered in the affirmative, making Harden one of the top MVP candidates heading into the unofficial second half of the season.

3. Kevin Durant, forward, Golden State Warriors

Durant’s transition to the Warriors has been about as seamless as it comes. Sure there were initial issues, just look at the season-opening blowout loss to San Antonio. But more often than not, Durant has fit in extremely well on a team that won 73 games last year.

What is so amazing about Durant’s performance thus far this season is the level of efficiency in which he is playing. The former MVP has seen his points per game average drop about 2.5 from a season ago. Though, he’s shooting at a remarkable 54 percent from the field and boasts an absurd 59 percent effective field goal mark.

In addition to this, Durant is averaging a career-best 8.4 rebounds to go with 4.8 assists and 1.7 blocks per outing. To magnify Durant’s efficiency, he’s averaging an otherworldly 1.5 points per shot.

Able to focus more on the defensive end of the court, Durant has also proven himself to be an elite defender. He can guard anyone from the wing to the center position, and has done so remarkably well this season.

This has led to the Warriors boasting the Association’s top defensive rating despite losing the likes of Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut this past summer.

With a team as talented as Golden State, we fully expect Durant and two-time reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry to split votes in that category this season. Add in the fact that Durant joined a 73-win team, and it’s unlikely he will win the game’s top individual honor. Still, he should be mentioned among the most valuable heading into the season’s second half.

4. John Wall, guard, Washington Wizards

It’s simply stunning how the Wizards have turned around what appeared to be a lost season. Earlier in the year, it looked like general manager Ernie Grunfeld was on the hot seat. Bradley Beal continued to deal with injuries. And in reality, the Wizards’ supporting cast outside of Otto Porter simply didn’t seem to be up to snuff.

Now, with wins in 20 of their past 27 games, including 11 of their past 13, the Wizards are currently a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Heck, they played a heck of a game in an overtime loss to the defending conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday. True contenders to go deep into the playoffs, Washington has one person to thank for this turnaround.

Wall’s level of play this season has simply been off the charts. The former No. 1 pick from Kentucky is averaging 23.0 points and 10.4 assists per game while shooting at a 49 percent clip from inside the three-point line. That’s a level of shooting we have not seen from Wall in what has already been a stellar career.

What we really like about Wall’s performance as it pertains to MVP consideration is just how much he has helped other Wizards players improve. The aforementioned Porter is shooting at an absurd 47 percent clip from distance. Most of his shots have come on open looks, which can be directly attributed to Wall’s passing prowess.

Depending on how the second half of the season plays out, it surely wouldn’t be a surprise to hear Wall’s name mentioned among the NBA’s most-realistic MVP candidates. His Wizards team will just have to keep up this high level of play for a longer stretch of time.

5. Kawhi Leonard, forward, San Antonio Spurs

Courtesy of USA Today Images

There hasn’t been a player improve throughout his first few NBA seasons at the clip we’ve seen from Leonard since LeBron James went straight from high school to the Association almost 15 years ago. That’s how much improvement we have seen from the face of the Spurs’ franchise, especially on the offensive end of the court.

Leonard heads into the season’s second half averaging 25.3 points and shooting at a 49 percent clip from the field as well as boasting an absurd 54 percent effective field goal mark. He’s also leading all small forwards in defensive rating while racking up 1.8 steals per game.

This has all led to a Spurs team that has not missed a beat in their first season without future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. We already knew that Leonard would be the face of the franchise in San Antonio moving forward. We simply didn’t know it would be this quick.

Now with his Spurs boasting the second-best record in the NBA heading into the season’s second half, Leonard has morphed from elite defender to one of the most valuable players in the Association. That’s not even in question right now.

6. DeMar DeRozan, guard, Toronto Raptors

Underrated. Unheralded. Playing in Canada. Surely, DeRozan won’t win the MVP award this season. He’s going up against bigger names in larger markets. He’s doing so within the confines of an NBA where star power and market size is apparently everything. Even then, there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t mention him among the game’s best.

This All-Star started out the season in dominating fashion, averaging 30-plus points for the first month of the regular slate. While that number has fallen off as the season has progressed, DeRozan is still one of the most-proficient scorers in the game.

He’s averaging 27.8 points and a solid 1.3 points per shot. For someone shooting at such a high volume, that’s a solid number. In fact, comparing that to other top scorers, it’s better than the aforementioned Russell Westbrook.

More than anything here, the most-important reason for DeRozan’s inclusion is the fact that he has Toronto firmly in the race for a top-two seed back east. As the star power on one of the best teams in the conference, he surely deserves a nod in this list.

7. LeBron James, forward, Cleveland Cavaliers

Seventh? Yeah, this is surely going to draw a bit of a debate. But let’s be clear here for a second. Despite James’ comments to the contrary, he has a stacked supporting cast. Both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are playing at the highest clips of their careers. That’s important to note when looking at the dynamic in Cleveland. No longer is James being asked to do everything and more.

Despite this, the game’s best basketball player is surely performing like it this season. He has the defending champion Cavaliers in position to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference. He’s also been about as prolific as the aforementioned Kevin Durant on the season.

James is averaging 25.9 points on 18.1 shots per game. He’s shooting at a 53 percent clip form the field, including a 59 percent mark from inside the three-point line. Let’s not forget that the reigning NBA Finals MVP is also averaging 7.9 rebounds and 8.8 assists while playing at an elite level on the defensive end of the court.

As long as James continues to play for a championship contender and doesn’t show any real regression, he will always be considered a top MVP choice. Unfortunately for the King, his supporting cast this season makes it hard for him to crack the top five here.

8. Stephen Curry, guard, Golden State Warriors

We can go on record now indicating Curry will not join Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in Association history to win three consecutive MVP awards. It’s not that Curry has seen a major regression in production this season. Here’s a guy that’s still averaging 25.6 points per game while shooting at a 48 percent clip from the field. Heck, Curry boasts a .594 effective field goal percentage and is averaging 1.4 points per shot. He’s been tremendous.

The issue here is that Golden State — coming off a 73-win season — added the aforementioned Kevin Durant to the mix in free agency. Short of the Warriors putting up a better record than last year, it’s hard to imagine Curry being the Association’s MVP. At 43-8, that would require the team going undefeated from here on out. Golden State is great, but not that great.

We have, however, seen Curry up his game a great deal over the past couple weeks. He’s averaging 30.0 points while shooting at an absurd 51 percent from distance over the past 10 games. We’ve seen Curry go bananas over a long stretch of action in the past. Should this somehow happen post All-Star break, he will definitely shoot up the rankings here.

9. Isaiah Thomas, guard, Boston Celtics

Closer. Simply put, Thomas has been the nearest thing to a closer on the hardwood this season. Here’s a dude that’s averaging 10.7 points while shooting at a near 50 percent clip in the fourth quarter on the season. His plus-minus in that final stanza of action also stands at nearly a point. If that’s not worthy of MVP consideration, we’re not entirely too sure what is.

We should also mention that Boston currently boasts the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and is just 2.5 games behind Cleveland for the No. 1 seed.

In terms of his all-around performance this season, Thomas  is averaging 29.9 points and 6.4 assists while shooting at a 47 percent clip from the field . Those are elite-level numbers right there. And they should put Thomas in the MVP conversation as the second half of the NBA season gets going.

10. Gordon Hayward, forward, Utah Jazz

It’s somewhat hard to believe, but Utah currently finds itself with a 33-19 record and as the fourth seed in the Western Conference. Sure improvements from the team’s backcourt has played a role here, but Hayward has been the glue to keep this whole thing together. He’s simply playing tremendous all-around basketball.

Having improved in each of his first seven seasons in the NBA, the 26-year-old Hayward is having by far the best year of his career. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per outing. He’s also shooting at a six-year best 47 percent from the field and a tremendous 39 percent mark from distance.

What’s made Hayward so valuable to the Jazz outside of their record is his tremendous level of consistency. He’s put up 20-plus points in 34 of his 45 outings this season. To put this into perspective, Utah’s second and third-leading scorers (George Hill and Rodney Hood) have combined for 20 games of 20-plus points.

Of course, there’s the injury issue that should come into play here as well. Hill, Hood and Derrick Favors have combined to miss 53 games this season. Even then, Utah is on pace to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. That’s reason enough to include Hayward in this list.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi