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Sizing up the MVP race

Could Steph Curry win a third MVP trophy? Let’s check in on the competion

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NBA: All Star Practice Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, Duby posed an interesting question: could Stephen Curry win his third MVP award? For a while, it seemed like Curry’s historic back-to-back awards would be the only regular season MVP trophies he would amass.

After all, he’s sharing the spotlight with another top-five player in Kevin Durant, which always makes winning harder. And, unfortunately, voter fatigue is a real thing.

But after 12 brilliant games, Curry once again finds his name linked with the prestigious award. Basketball-Reference’s MVP Tracker, which statistically ranks MVP candidates based on historical precedent, has Curry third. At Bballbreakdown, Kelly Scaletta ranks candidates based on how he expects voting to go; he has Curry second.

Sekou Smith of the NBA’s website has Curry sixth on his personal ballot, and AJ Neuharth-Keusch of USA today puts the sharpshooter fourth.

In other words, Curry has a strong case for becoming just the ninth player in NBA history to collect three MVP trophies. So, let’s see who he’s up against. For reference, here’s Curry’s stat line: 25.4 points, 6.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals per game, 38.9% 3FGA, 65.4% true-shooting.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Season stats: 29.5 points, 9.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals per game, 40.4% 3FGA, 61.8% true-shooting

Harden was having a very nice season, and then Sunday happened. Against the defensively-dominant Utah Jazz, Harden shot 19-25 from the field, including 7-8 from downtown. He finished with 56 points, 13 assists, and a spot at or near the top of every MVP list.

Harden has long been a bridesmaid, but never a bride with the MVP trophy. He’s finished twice in voting on two separate occasions, and also finished fifth once. Surely he feels it’s his turn.

He has a lot going for him: the Rockets, off to an 8-3 start, figure to be one of the best teams in the league. With offseason addition Chris Paul injured, Harden will have a chance to not only pad his stats, but establish his role as Houston’s go-to player. If he and the team keep up these numbers, he’ll likely be the frontrunner when the season ends.

What could stop him: In the coming weeks, Paul will return to the Rockets. Houston’s two-headed monster has only played together in one game, and it remains to be seen how they mesh. If there are chemistry issues, or Harden takes a backseat at all, his stats may lower. And if Paul plays well enough, it may diminish Harden’s impact.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Season stats: 31.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.7 blocks, 1.5 steals per game, 65.7% true-shooting

The Greek Freak has been off to an unreal start. He leads the league in points, despite being one of the game’s most efficient scorers. He passes, rebounds, is an elite defensive player, and can play all five positions on either side of the ball.

Antetokounmpo is the very definition of an NBA unicorn, and his ridiculous stat line shows that. Plus, he’s entertaining, young, and lovable, which MVP voters tend to like.

What could stop him: The Bucks are only 4-6. While reinforcements are on the way in Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee simply needs to play better to field a true MVP candidate.

Historically, players need to finish with a top-three seed if they want to win MVP; there are exceptions, of course (such as Russell Westbrook last year), but in general, team success is a must. This is especially true in the Eastern Conference, which is currently very weak.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers v Washington Wizards Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Season stats: 28.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks per game, 37.2% 3FGA, 67.3% true-shooting percentage

LeBron James remains at the top of the league. He’s the best player alive by most people’s count, and for good reason: he’s a historically great player, somehow still near his peak despite playing in his 15th season.

This year is no different. James is filling up the box score, and putting a struggling Cavs team on his back. He’s known for coasting a bit during the regular season, but with Cleveland’s issues, James may have to play a bit harder this year; that could go a long way towards earning MVP votes.

What could stop him: Right now, the Cavs are bad. Like, really, really bad. They have a losing record, the worst defense in the league, and are 24th in net rating.

Voters know that James often takes his foot off the gas, especially on defense. They’ll be looking for that as a reason to discredit his season. Cleveland will need to turn things around, on both sides of the floor, if James wants to have a strong case.

Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans

Orlando Magic v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Davis season stats: 28.4 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1.2 steals per game, 41.4% 3FGA, 65.5% true-shooting

Cousins season stats: 28.9 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.9 blocks, 1.7 steals per game, 59.5% true-shooting

The two big men in New Orleans have been absolutely terrific. Outside of Curry and Durant (or Curry and Draymond Green, or Durant and Green, or Curry and Klay Thompson, or . . . you get the point), they’ve been the best duo in the league.

There isn’t anything these two can’t do. They dominate in the post, and can shoot from the perimeter. They’re wrecking balls in the pick and roll, can playmake for teammates, and are terrific defensively. They’re a joy to watch.

What could stop them: New Orleans is unlikely to be very good this year; chances are, they miss the playoffs. That alone kills any MVP case for either player. And that’s before you get to the fact that they might take votes from each other.

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Season stats: 24.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.5 blocks, 46.4% 3FGA, 66.2% true-shooting

Before the season it was Durant, not Curry, who was generally seen as the Dubs’ most likely MVP candidate. It didn’t take long for that to change, but KD is still in the running.

Durant has reinvented his defensive game. Always a decent defensive player, KD has become a stalwart this year, and looks on pace to earn his first all-defense nod. Despite being a small forward, Durant is second in the league in blocks per game, and has been everywhere on that end of the court.

Of course, he’s been his usual dominant self offensively as well. He’s sacrificed a few shots this year, but he’s also been more efficient than in any other season.

What could stop him: If Durant continues to focus so strongly on defense, he’ll essentially cede the nomination to Curry. While his unreal defense ultimately makes him more valuable than he’s been in the past, it’s virtually impossible to imagine voters awarding an MVP trophy to a player who isn’t his team’s first option on offense.

Honorable mention

Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers), Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers), Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics), Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)

It would be shocking if any of these players won MVP, but any one of them could end up earning a fair share of votes. A combination of their record, their stats, and holes in their respective games will keep them from taking home the hardware, but they could end up with some MVP shares.

This is what it looks like now, but a lot can change. We’ll check back next month and see where things stand.

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