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Reevaluating the NBA’s MVP Race

LeBron’s bid for a fifth Podoloff Trophy has cratered along with the Cavs’ defense. Which superstars have the best case as of today? And which can make a push over the next three months?

LeBron James, James Harden, and Stephen Curry Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The MVP race has ebbed and flowed as much as the standings this season. As we near the All-Star break, let’s roll—or tear—up our sleeves and take the pulse of the MVP race by doing what so much of America loves, breaking it up into tiers.

The New Russell Westbrook

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

28.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.3 blocks, 55.8 eFG%

Giannis began the season by forcing us to wonder if gravity existed while we looped his highlight reels. He shot 63 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3 in the first month of the season, but crowning him the MVP favorite was like giving a Big 12 quarterback the Heisman in September. The Bucks have since fallen off, while Giannis has returned to earth from the perimeter (sub-30 percent from 3). But the highlights are still damn impressive.

The Greek Freak, perhaps fueled by the recent firing of head coach Jason Kidd, could easily vault himself into the top tier as quickly as it takes him to reach the rim from the half-court line. But with the Bucks currently eighth in the East, Giannis, like Westbrook last season, might need to make his case based on his individual numbers rather than on team success.

The Dark Horses

Kyrie Irving, Celtics

24.5 points, 5 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 54.9 eFG%

Kyrie, like the Celtics, has leveled off since the hot start to the season. But that 20-point nights—he’s had only 10 games this season in which he hasn’t scored at least 20 points—are routine speaks to how consistently good he has been.

With Irving posting career highs in points per game and PER, and Boston atop the East, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be considered for MVP. The Celtics probably won’t win 60 games without Gordon Hayward, but if they get anywhere near that number it’ll likely push him into the top five.

Jimmy Butler, Timberwolves

21.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 51.4 eFG%

Buckets. Buckets. And more buckets.

In all seriousness, Butler’s no-bullshit, pedal-to-the-medal, ice-in-the-veins, get-in-your-face oeuvre is delightful, and so far, it’s working for a Minnesota team vying for home-court advantage in the first round of the West playoffs.

After a slow start, Butler has emerged as the leader of the Wolves, pushing the team up the standings and pressing youngsters like Karl-Anthony Towns to play with more consistency. The knee injury that’s forced Butler out for the past four games is worth monitoring, but if the Wolves finish in the top three in the West, in the words of Russell Westbrook, Why not?

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

24.7 points, 5 assists, 4.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 50.8 eFG%

Let’s not dwell on this too much. The Raptors are very good. They have a great shot at being the no. 1 seed in the East. Their best player is DeMar DeRozan, who is shooting and making twice as many 3s as he ever has in his career, and is an All-Star starter. Connect the dots and you’ll find a fresh face ready for the dark-horse tier.

The Contenders

LeBron James, Cavaliers

26.8 points, 8.6 assists, 7.9 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 59.6 eFG%

You know what LeBron’s MVP candidacy needs after its—and the Cavs’—steep fall these past three weeks? A two-week vacation. Heck, even a weekend in L.A. for All-Star festivities might do the trick. LeBron might be holding down the top spot if this had been written two weeks ago. Now he’s overshadowed by a beard.

If the Cavs continue to struggle, a trade or two might become necessary. And if that happens, perhaps James bounces back to have the career season he was on course for at the beginning of the calendar year. Cleveland’s defensive struggles are the major culprit—it now ranks last in the entire league—but LeBron has shot 22.5 percent from 3 and 63.6 from the free throw line in the month of January.

Kevin Durant, Warriors

26 points, 7 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 blocks, 58.2 eFG%

Steph Curry, Warriors

27.5 points, 6.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 61.4 eFG%

Forty-nine games into this season, the Warriors have already lost more games than they did in all of the 2015-16 season. But the team still feels as dominant as ever. If Golden State reaches 65 wins this season, it will be hard to ignore Curry and Durant. Curry has had an MVP-level impact ever since returning from injury in December, while Durant is quietly on the fringe of a 50-40-90 season with career highs in assists and blocks.

The Warriors aren’t this good without Steph, but they’re also not unbeatable title favorites without Durant. There’s a chance that, if both continue to play well, the two teammates split the vote. But without much push from the tier below, one may be able to ride strong team success in the second half of the season to a top spot on some ballots.

The Front-runner

James Harden, Rockets

31.2 points, 9 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 54.7 eFG%

The only argument you can make for Harden not holding down this spot by himself is that he’s missed seven games because of a hamstring injury. That’s it. Harden is taking and making 1.2 fewer free throws per game than last season, yet his league-high 31.2 points per game are a career high. He’s also top three in the league in assists, and he’s shooting a career high from 3 while averaging double-digit attempts.

In Mike D’Antoni, Harden found his perfect coach. In Chris Paul, he found his perfect running mate; everything from their chemistry to their minute-staggering strategy has worked to near-perfection. The Rockets have yet to lose in the 18 games in which Harden, Paul, and rim-running center Clint Capela have played together.