SS: The Cream of the Crop
Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Greek Freak is easily the most recognizable face on this list; from the very first game of the year (and earlier) Giannis has been in the MVP conversation. He’s unbelievably difficult to guard, and the system built around him sports the best net rating and the best record in the NBA right now. This is not about having just the deepest, most talented roster in the league, either. This team succeeds because they’ve developed an efficient offense and an airtight defense around Giannis. He is the reason this team succeeds, and everything runs through him.
James Harden: James Harden is in this tier for one very simple reason: the stuff that he does night in and night out wins his team games. Period. Full stop. With Chris Paul out, and periodic absences up and down the roster, the Houston Rockets would not be winning games if James Harden doesn’t make boss moves every time he steps on the court. In the recent hot streak the Beard has made, the Rockets have gone 11-1 for many games without CP3. This stretch of games took them from the 14th seed to the 4th in the West, putting them right back into the fray for the playoffs. Questions about sustainability aside, James Harden’s team would be scraping the bottom without James Harden. It may not be fun, it may not be pretty, but damn does it win games.
S: The Next in Line
Joel Embiid: Joel Embiid brings a two-way impact unlike almost any player at this level. His point numbers are among the highest at the center position, and his offensive versatility speaks for itself. Also, his ability to protect the paint is difficult to match; Embiid is an elite shot-blocker and rebounder to boot. On a shallow team like the 76ers, Embiid’s impact on both ends of the ball is hard to ignore.
Nikola Jokic: Nikola Jokic is similar to Giannis in that his presence is integral to the system of one of the winningest teams in the league at the moment. While he lacks defensive strength, he’s more playable on that end of the floor than he’s ever been. He can do anything on offense: shooting, finishing around the rim, screening for others, and of course, his transcendent passing ability. He’s a creator unlike any center, and unlike Giannis, whose surrounding players are more supporting, the role players around Jokic are engaged and supported by his game. The Nuggets are deep, but this is to Jokic’s benefit more than anything, as they simply have more players for him to empower.
Kevin Durant: KD’s MVP case is based on how much of a rock he is for Golden State. You don’t walk onto a court and win back-to-back Finals MVP’s for no reason. Most notably, KD has been a reliable and consistent threat offensively, even through injuries to other key pieces like Steph, or slumps from players like Draymond or Klay. Despite a minor down-tick in scoring for the past week or so, KD will always be who he needs to be in order to get the Dubs where they need to be. By the way, a “minor down-tick” still means averaging more than 25 a night. Not to mention he almost stole a game from Houston by getting away with one of the most egregious out of bounds touches of all time.
A: There’s Maybe More There
Anthony Davis: Anthony Davis’ case is brought down by one thing: the Pelicans are barren. Jrue Holiday is a killer, but with Niko Mirotic’s extended absence, and inconsistent performances from others, the Pelicans are struggling to close out games. AD is the perfect example of how the MVP does not equate to being the leagues best player. AD may be far and away a better player than say, Harden or Giannis, but the reality is those players’ performances win their teams games. As much as AD is doing, other players are doing similar stuff in ways that are getting their teams places. This isn’t to say that AD is under-performing in any regard, it’s just difficult to make a case that a player from a losing team is more valuable to his team’s not winning as another player is to his team’s winning.
Steph Curry: Steph Curry’s case is weakened by the fact that he has missed some time this year with minor injuries. With that said, his impact during his time off, and eventually when he returned, was staggering. The Warriors offense looked lost without Steph. Klay’s efficiency plummeted when tasked with point responsibilities, and the team chemistry took a hit in the absence of the order kept by Steph’s creation ability. Steph also leads the team in PPG, which on a team with such offensive tools as KD and Klay Thompson, that speaks volumes about his reliability. I do think Steph will need to stay healthy to have another shot at the award, but if he does there’s no reason to count him out.
Paul George: It’s PG’s world, and Russell Westbrook is just living in it. The Thunder’s recent roll of consistency has slowly but surely raised them into the top of the Western Conference. Paul George has scored above 35 in 3 of the last 4 games, and continues to be the closer for the Thunder. He’s taking the tough shots in crunch time. In addition to his offensive strength, he is easily one of the best perimeter defenders in the league right now, and this has not been an insignificant part of their success. He’s still a ways back from the rest of the pack in regards to the MVP, but it’s difficult to ignore his impact for a consistent, elite team offensively and defensively.
LeBron James: LeBron’s case is only looking better now that the Lakers have suffered without him. As always, it’s hard to judge LeBron when he spends so much of the regular season conserving energy for the post-season. We never quite know whether what we’re seeing is coasting LeBron or win-mode LeBron. His supporting cast is undoubtedly better than last year, but the West is so difficult that you’d be hard pressed to say winning now isn’t harder than winning in Cleveland. Regardless, we’ll have to see what he does coming back from this groin injury, because it looks like they’ll have ground to make up when the King reclaims his throne.
Kawhi Leonard: Kawhi was at one point at the top of my list for MVP candidates. The biggest knock against his case is that he misses about as many games than anyone on this list for rest, and while he remains an elite defensive presence, he seems to have taken a slight step back in that regard without the Spurs defensive infrastructure. With that said, he’s an offensive machine, with efficiency as good as anybody from 3 and midrange, as well as recently posting a career-high 45. Kawhi is one of the most stable performers on this list, but missing as many games as he has puts a big dent in the Raptors win/loss record.