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NBA MVP Odds: Chances Each Superstar Claims the Throne

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2012

NBA MVP Odds: Chances Each Superstar Claims the Throne

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    A full month into the 2012-13 NBA season, the race for the league MVP has become more closely contested than ever.

    A host of the league's elite teams, all led by bona fide superstars, have stormed out to stellar records through the first 10-15 games.

    From Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks to Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Miami Heat's LeBron James has a number of serious and legitimate challengers to his MVP throne.

    And that's before you factor in any potential voter fatigue for James, who's angling to win his fourth MVP award in 2013.

    Who's in the lead heading into December? Let's break it down.

    Note: Statistics and records are current through games on Nov. 26. Last week's rankings here

Honorable Mention

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    In alphabetical order: 

    Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

    Sure, Andrew Bynum may never play a game as a Sixer due to injuries in both knees, but hey, at least Holiday hasn't been a giant waste of money, right?

    Holiday's been anything but, in fact. He dropped a career-high 33 points and 13 assists in a Sixers win against the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 25 and has averaged a career-high 18.6 points and 9.2 assists on the season. Throw in his career-high 41.3 percent shooting from three-point range, and suddenly, Holiday is starting to look like a steal at only $10 million per year.

     

    O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks

    The Mavericks may be sans Dirk Nowitzki until mid-December, but Mayo has done his part to make up for Nowitzki's absence. He's shooting an eye-popping 53.2 percent from downtown, knocking down three of his 5.6 three-point attempts per game, and has been hitting a career-high 49 percent of his baskets from the floor.

    Mayo doesn't contribute much besides scoring—he's averaging only 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.2 blocks through 14 games—but he's largely been responsible for keeping the Dallas Mavericks afloat in the Western Conference and deserves some recognition for doing so.

     

    Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies

    Zach Randolph has been a rebounding machine in 2012-13, yanking down 13.6 boards per game, which suggests that he's finally healed from the torn MCL he suffered back in January of 2012.

    He posted a double-double in each of the Grizzlies' first 11 games in 2012-13, averaging 16.7 points per game on 46.8 percent shooting, before seeing that streak get snapped on Nov. 26 with 19 points and eight boards against Cleveland. Memphis would presumably like to see him bump that shooting percentage into the low-50s, but he's holding his own from the free-throw line (especially for a big man), averaging 74.1 percent shooting on 4.8 free-throw attempts per game.

     

    Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

    Rondo's superlative play in the early part of the 2012-13 season has done wonders to draw focus away from how surprisingly mediocre the Celtics have been.

    Rondo's averaging a career-high and league-leading 13.7 assists per game and, behind LeBron James, may be the most potent triple-double threat in the league. He fell one rebound shy of a triple-double against the Orlando Magic on Nov. 25.

    Free throws remain a glaring weakness; he's only averaging 2.4 free-throw attempts per game, knocking down a paltry 61.3 percent of those tries.

     

    Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Since Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers' most logical MVP candidate, is being forced to miss a month worth of games due to a fractured finger, Anderson Varejao deserves some credit for what he's been doing to keep the Cavs competitive.

    Varejao leads the league with 14.1 rebounds per game, and he's chipped in 14 points, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.3 blocks per game, too. He also came perilously close to posting one of the most surprising 40-20 nights in NBA history, falling five points and two rebounds short against the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 13.

10. Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last week's rank: 7

    Just when you thought the drama surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers in 2012-13 had begun to subside after the firing of former head coach Mike Brown and the hiring of new coach Mike D'Antoni, Dwight Howard has to screw everything up by posting back-to-back single-digit scoring games.

    He started the week of Nov. 18 with a 28-point, 13-rebound domination of the Houston Rockets, then followed up two nights later with 23 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in a win against the Brooklyn Nets. All good things for Lakers fans.

    The not so good? Taking only four shots in a 16-point loss to the Sacramento Kings, then scoring only seven points on seven shots two nights later in an eight-point loss to Memphis.

    On the season, through 14 games, Howard has averaged 18 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game for the Lakers, shooting an excellent 58.8 percent from the field. His free-throw percentages are more ghastly than ever (49.7 percent!), which has enticed a few Laker opponents to resort to the Hack-a-Dwight strategy early and often.

    At this point, Howard's hanging onto this last spot on the MVP candidates list by the skin of his teeth. If he remains offensively passive over the next week or two, he's going to find himself in the honorable mention list sooner rather than later. 

9. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last week's rank: 8

    Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is dealing with a plethora of riches when it comes to talented players in 2012-13, leading him to play Chris Paul a career-low 34.4 minutes per game.

    Look, Eric Bledsoe may be playing out of his mind right now (Beckley Mason explains more on HoopSpeak), but when you've got the best point guard in the league, you can't afford a major dip in production from him.

    Paul's currently averaging a career-low 15.8 points per game on a career-low 11.7 shot attempts per game and has been struggling with his long-range shot (30.6 percent from downtown) and his shooting percentage as a whole (44.7 percent).

    These are all major red flags for the Clippers if they hope to truly contend for the 2013 NBA championship.

    What Paul has done, however, is average 9.6 assists and 2.7 steals per game while only turning the ball over 2.4 times per game. No matter how much he may be struggling to score the ball as usual, his superlative point guard play earns him a spot in the top 10 of the MVP race.

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Last week's rank: 10

    Damian Lilllard hasn't just wrested control of the 2013 Rookie of the Year race from Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets; he's turned it into a no-contest in the first month of the season.

    Up until a brutal 4-of-18 shooting performance against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 26, Lillard had been making his transition from Weber State to the NBA look like a breeze.

    Through the Portland Trail Blazers' first 13 games (not including the loss to the Pistons), Lillard was averaging 19.6 points, 6.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, shooting 46.4 percent from the floor, 41.8 percent from three-point range and 82.4 percent from the free-throw line.

    In essence, Lillard has played far beyond his years in his first dozen or so NBA games. The rookie wall may eventually come calling, which would knock Lillard from these rankings, but until it does, he deserves some legitimate MVP consideration based on how well he's played to date.

    Another potential concern for his MVP candidacy: While the Trail Blazers have managed to hover around .500, it's not difficult to imagine the team slipping a bit as the season wears on. The Blazers need to finish around .500 (at a bare minimum) for Lillard to even have a prayer of winning MVP.

7. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Last week's rank: 9

    Remember when some NBA fans thought James Harden wasn't worth a maximum contract and that the Houston Rockets were crazy to sign him to a five-year, $80 million deal?

    After seeing Harden post per-game averages of 25.2 points, 4.9 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals in the Rockets' first 13 games of 2012-13, where are those same fans now?

    His shooting percentages from the floor (43.9 percent) and from three-point range (32 percent) are both down from what he managed with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011-12 (49.1 percent from the field and 39 percent from three-point range), but that's not altogether unexpected.

    Harden's still learning to adjust to being the No. 1 option on offense every night for the Rockets, after being no better than the No. 3 offensive option for the Thunder behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

    As he continues to work his way through the struggles of having a defense game-plan against him, those shooting percentages should only trend upward, and his 4.1 turnovers per game should begin to decline somewhat.

    If those two things both happen before April 2013, Harden will find himself slotted much higher in future MVP rankings.

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's rank: 6

    It appears that after a somewhat rocky start to the 2012-13 season, Russell Westbrook has found his way with the Oklahoma City Thunder once again, despite the absence of James Harden.

    He put up 12 points and 11 assists against the Charlotte Bobcats in only 22 minutes before being taken out of the game for good (the Thunder had more than a 40-point lead by then) and scored at least 23 points in each of his four prior games.

    On the season, Westbrook's now averaging 21.1 points, a career-high 8.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, while managing a career-low 2.9 turnovers per game.

    His shooting percentages still aren't stellar—41.9 percent from the field, 32.8 percent from three-point range—but seeing as how the Thunder traded Harden a few days before the start of the 2012-13 season, it's not a surprise that he's struggled with his shot in the early part of the season.

    Already, the Thunder have grown more acclimated to the loss of Harden and the addition of Kevin Martin in his place, with Westbrook and Kevin Durant both shouldering more responsibility in terms of creating offense for their teammates.

    Don't look now, but anyone who counted out the Thunder as a legitimate championship contender after trading Harden may end up the NBA's biggest Chicken Little this year. Westbrook's been a huge part of keeping them in contention, even if his critics might suggest otherwise.

5. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Last week's rank: 3

    Carmelo Anthony has thrived in the absence of Amar'e Stoudemire in the early portion of 2012-13, having dropped at least 20 points in all but one of the New York Knicks' first 13 games.

    With Stoudemire sidelined, Anthony stepped into his starting 4 role and began firing away, averaging a career-high 43.3 percent from downtown on a career-high 5.2 three-point attempts per game.

    He's currently ranked second in the NBA in scoring with 26.3 points per game, only 0.6 points behind the league leader, Kobe Bryant, and has been chipping in roughly seven rebounds and two assists per game for the Knicks, too.

    What caused him to fall this week? Turnovers. Anthony had seven turnovers against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 21, another seven against the Houston Rockets two nights later and six more against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 25.

    The Knicks may need Anthony to post one of the highest usage rates in the league, especially in Stoudemire's absence, but 20 turnovers in three games won't be the recipe for the Knicks to stay hot in the East.

    ESPN's David Thorpe isn't convinced of Anthony being a legitimate MVP contender, largely because "he's not carrying them nearly as much as they are riding along with him" in the early part of the season.

    I'm still in wait-and-see mode, anticipating some hiccups once Stoudemire does return to the lineup, but Anthony has been the fuel that's been lighting the Knicks' fire in the early part of 2012-13 and deserves credit in the MVP race for doing so. 

4. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Last week's rank: 5

    If the 36-year-old Tim Duncan keeps up the level of play he's been demonstrating in the San Antonio Spurs' first 15 games of the 2012-13 season, the NBA will soon need to do a blood test on him to verify that he's not actually a robot disguised as a human.

    Because, really, there's no other logical explanation for the way that Duncan has been defying Father Time.

    In only 30.9 minutes per game, Duncan has averaged 18.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.3 blocks per game. He's effectively posting his career statistical averages in nearly five fewer minutes than he would typically play in his younger days.

    The Spurs have rumbled out to a ridiculous 12-3 record thanks to Duncan's timeless play, somehow creeping along quietly as the Los Angeles and New York teams draw most of the media attention.

    In other words, Duncan and the Spurs have the rest of the NBA right where they want them.

    The only thing that's going to hold Duncan back from winning MVP in 2013 will be the minutes restriction that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich continues to maintain over him. It's going to be incredibly difficult for Duncan to best players who average six to eight more minutes per game, even if he keeps up this superlative level of play.

3. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last week's rank: 4

    Despite the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers are hovering right at .500, it doesn't detract from the otherworldly start to the season that Kobe Bryant has been enjoying.

    Remember the days when Bryant was lumped into the "chucker" category next to Allen Iverson? His 2012-13 season begs to differ.

    After never shooting above 46.9 percent from the field before 2012-13, he's knocked down 51 percent of his field-goal attempts through the Lakers' first 14 games.

    He's also averaging a career-high 41.5 percent from three-point range on 4.6 attempts per game and a career-high 87.4 percent from the charity stripe on nearly eight free-throw attempts per game.

    Per-game averages of 26.9 points, 5.1 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals would have Bryant in the thick of the MVP race regardless.

    Once you add in his eye-popping shooting averages across the board, and it's clear that even at the age of 34, Kobe "Bean" Bryant is going to give the rest of the NBA's superstars a run for their money when it comes to the 2013 MVP race.

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Last week's rank: 2

    Anyone who expected LeBron James to grow content after winning his first NBA championship in June 2012 was sorely mistaken, as it turns out.

    Not only is James being the stat-stuffing dynamo that he's been since entering the league in 2003, he's averaging a career-high 8.8 rebounds through the Miami Heat's first 13 games in 2012-13.

    After shying away from the post in his early years, James grew to appreciate how dominant he could be down there during the Heat's run to the 2012 championship, and he's now seemingly embraced the paint as his own.

    He hasn't scored fewer than 20 points in any of the Heat's 13 games, knocking down 53.1 percent of his attempts from the field and a career-high 43.9 percent of his three-point shots.

    James has also considerably cut down on his turnovers, averaging only 2.4 giveaways per game after never finishing with fewer than three per game in any of his first nine NBA seasons.

    His free-throw percentage (67.1 percent) could stand to improve, if we're nitpicking, and he's averaging only 5.8 free-throw attempts per game, the lowest since his rookie season.

    He's only hairs behind the next player on this list in the MVP race, but if the season ended today, it'd be difficult to hand him the award based on how well the next guy is playing.

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's rank: 1

    There was reason to worry about how Kevin Durant would handle the trade of James Harden heading into 2012-13, but he's all but quashed those concerns in the first month of the season.

    After not topping 24 points in the Oklahoma City Thunder's first five games of the season, he didn't score fewer than 25 in the next nine games and was on pace for another 25-point performance against the Charlotte Bobcats on Nov. 26 until being removed after only playing 26 minutes.

    He's averaging a career-high 9.2 rebounds and a career-high 4.5 assists per game for the Thunder, having to shoulder more of the offensive load with Harden's absence.

    He's clearly pushing himself to become a more complete player (a la LeBron James) instead of a scoring specialist like Carmelo Anthony or O.J. Mayo, which will only help the Thunder in the long term, despite a few short-term hiccups.

    Currently, Durant is also dangerously close to joining the 50-40-90 club, as he's shooting 49.8 percent from the field, 43.6 percent from three-point range and 89.9 percent from the charity stripe through the Thunder's first 15 games.

    James is having a stellar season in his own right, but Durant's continued evolution gives him the slight edge over James in the MVP race for now.

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