NBA MVP Odds: From Long Shots to Legit Candidates

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2012

NBA MVP Odds: From Long Shots to Legit Candidates

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    If the first month of the 2012-13 NBA season is any indication, LeBron James' quest to repeat as MVP won't be a stroll through the park.

    James was expected to thrive this year with the pressure of winning his first NBA championship finally lifted off his shoulders, and he's done exactly that.

    The reigning MVP has posted his typical video game-like averages with more ease than ever, appearing as though he's largely in cruise control through the regular season with an eye toward the playoffs.

    But unless James decides to play every game like it's the last he'll ever play, the door is inevitably open for one of the NBA's other superstars to backdoor their way into the 2013 MVP.

    The line between MVP pretenders and contenders is only growing more apparent after the first month of the season, though. 

    Note: Statistics and records are current through games on Dec. 3, except where otherwise noted. Last week's rankings here.

Honorable Mention

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    In alphabetical order:

    Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    Of anyone on this list, Lillard is most at risk of dropping off completely next week. He hit a rough patch in the Blazers' five games from Nov. 26 through Dec. 3, averaging 17.6 points per game (a good thing) on only 33.8 percent shooting from the field (not so good).

    His per-game averages of 19.1 points, 6.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game should be enough to keep even the most pessimistic of Trail Blazers fans pleased, but he'll need to prove that he's not hitting the first round of the dreaded rookie wall now that teams have plenty of tape on him with which they can prepare.

    O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks

    Through 17 games in 2012-13, Mayo is averaging an eye-popping 2.9 three-point field goals per game and shooting 52.7 percent from downtown. He's shooting at a higher percentage than Ray Allen from deep, and Allen's more open each night in Miami than he's been in the past half-decade.

    Throw in a career-high 20.2 points on a career-high 47.6 percent shooting from the field, along with 3.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, and Mayo suddenly looks like a possible star down the road once again, not to mention dark-horse MVP candidate.

    Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

    Parker's per-game averages of 18.1 points, 7.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds don't have the "wow" factor of some of his fellow MVP candidates, but all he's done is lead the San Antonio Spurs to one of the three best records in the Western Conference, right alongside the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Despite Parker only playing just over 32 minutes per game (and already racking up one DNP-Old), the Spurs offense has been five points better per 100 possessions with him on the court vs. on the bench, according to The defense holds the opposing team to four fewer points by the same token.

    Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

    Rondo's MVP candidacy revolves around his passing ability. He leads the league with 12.9 assists per game and was working on a 37-game streak with double-digit assists before being ejected in a game against the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 28, for which he earned a two-game suspension.

    The Celtics split the games in Rondo's absence—a win against Portland, a loss against Milwaukee—but sorely missed his floor leadership in the latter game.

    To become a realistic MVP contender, Rondo will need to step up his scoring (12.6 points per game) and show at least a modicum of improvement in his free-throw shooting (61.3 percent).

    Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers

    The thought of Varejao as a legitimate MVP candidate may sound ridiculous, but when you consider that he's finished each of his past nine games with 15 or more rebounds, his candidacy quickly gains some credibility.

    Varejao leads the NBA with 15.2 rebounds per game and has kept the Cavaliers competitive while star point guard Kyrie Irving recovers from a finger fracture.

    If the Cavaliers catch fire when Irving returns and begin threatening for the playoffs, Varejao could well be on the outskirts of the MVP race for the long haul.

    Dropped from rankings: Dwight Howard (ranked 10th last week). 

10. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Last week's rank: 7

    The Houston Rockets have managed to stay afloat around .500 all season, largely thanks to the efforts of their newest star, James Harden.

    After trading for Harden a few days before the start of the 2012-13 season, he immediately proved his worth, dropping a combined 82 points in his first two appearances as a Rocket.

    He somewhat cooled off from there, shooting only 42.7 percent from the floor and 34.1 percent from three-point range through 16 games, but he's still acclimating to being a team's No. 1 option on offense night in and night out.

    With per-game averages of 24.1 points, 5.4 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals, Harden isn't far off from being the only player in the league besides Kobe Bryant to be averaging 25 points, five rebounds and five assists on the season.

    What's limiting his MVP candidacy? Well, the tiny little fact that Houston's offense has actually been better per 100 possessions with Harden sitting on the bench instead of playing, according to

    If Harden boosts his shooting efficiency, cuts down on the turnovers and gets the Rockets a few games above .500, he'll have a much more believable chance at taking home the 2013 MVP award.

9. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last week's rank: 9

    It's tough to project Chris Paul winning the 2013 MVP when he's averaging a career-low 34.2 minutes per game, but he's doing all he can to force his way into the conversation regardless.

    Through 17 games, Paul has averaged 16.2 points, 9.3 assists, 3.6 rebounds and a league-leading 2.6 steals per game, while shooting a career-high 89.2 percent from the free-throw line. He's also fifth in the NBA with a PER of 24.99, according to ESPN's John Hollinger.

    How important has CP3 been to the Los Angeles Clippers? Their offense in 2012-13 has been nearly eight points better per 100 possessions with Paul on the court instead of on the bench, according to 82games.

    However, the defense has improved by even more with Paul on the bench, allowing opponents to score only 96.9 points per 100 possessions without Paul compared to 105.9 points with him playing.

    Despite the defensive struggles, Paul has been the Clippers' unquestioned leader through the early part of the season. After a four-game losing skid in late November, Paul helped the Clippers right the ship with three straight wins, finishing with 51 points, 25 assists, 10 rebounds and only five total turnovers.

    CP3 needs to start averaging 36-plus minutes per game to have a realistic chance at claiming the 2013 MVP, but it's not for a lack of effort on his part, at least on the offensive end.

8. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Last week's rank: Honorable mention

    Zach Randolph may soon become one of the more polarizing MVP candidates in 2012-13, pitting the "look at the box score" crowd against advanced analytics advocates once more.

    Looking at the box score, Randolph passes the immediate smell test, with 16.3 points and 12.7 rebounds per game for the 12-3 Memphis Grizzlies.

    He ranks second in the NBA in rebounds per game, behind only Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and posted a double-double in 13 of the Grizzlies' first 15 games.

    Dig a little deeper, though, and it gets harder to make Randolph's case as a true MVP candidate over guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant.

    Both the Grizzlies' offense and defense have been more effective with Randolph on the bench rather than on the floor, according to (through Dec. 4).

    The Grizzlies average 107.9 points per 100 possessions on offense with Randolph playing and allow 101.4 points on defense, compared to scoring 110.9 points and allowing only 97.4 points with Z-Bo resting.

    He looks to be largely over the ill effects of tearing his MCL in January, but he needs to boost his field-goal percentage (46.6) to the low 50s and step his defensive game up to have any realistic shot at the MVP, no matter how dominant the Grizzlies are in 2012-13.

7. Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Last week's rank: Honorable mention

    With nearly a fifth of the 2012-13 season having been played, we're finally leaving small-sample-size theater, which was the qualifier attached to Jrue Holiday's MVP candidacy for the first 10 games of the season.

    Now, it appears Holiday's breakout season is for real.

    After averaging 11.9 points, 5.0 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game in his first three seasons as a pro, Holiday has exploded for per-game averages of 18.5 points, 9.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 2012-13.

    He's led the Sixers to a 10-7 record amidst a wave of unpleasant news about presumed franchise center Andrew Bynum, from knee injuries suffered while bowling to lawsuits about Bynum smoking pot and waving guns at neighbors.

    The Jruth is averaging a career-high 18.7 PER per 48 minutes, according to, while holding opposing point guards to a per-48-minute PER of only 13.2. (The league average is 15.)

    He's also drawing a career-high 3.8 free-throw attempts per game (not astronomical by any means, but a definite improvement) and shooting a career-high 45.7 percent from the field and 39.2 percent from deep.

    Who's laughing at that four-year, $41 million deal the Sixers awarded him at the beginning of the season now? Not ESPN's John Hollinger, who called Holiday a potential first-time All-Star in his Dec. 3 PER Diem column.

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's rank: 6

    To anyone who criticized Russell Westbrook for not being a true point guard before the 2012-13 season: Would you not like your team's starting point guard to be averaging 20 points, nearly nine assists, five rebounds and two steals per game?

    Critics jumped all over Westbrook in 2011-12 for only averaging 5.5 assists per game, crying foul and deeming that average unacceptable on a team with Kevin Durant.

    Westbrook has responded in spades, averaging a career-high 8.7 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game through 18 contests in 2012-13, along with 20.7 points.

    Despite having the second-highest usage rate in the league (29.8), according to ESPN's John Hollinger, Westbrook has only averaged 3.4 turnovers per game, fewer than he did in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

    He's still prone to more poor shooting nights than Thunder fans would like, and he finished with an unacceptable 18 turnovers in the Thunder's three wins from Nov. 28 through Dec. 1.

    However, you have to admire a player who can shoot 6-of-18 from the field and turn the ball over eight times but still finish with 23 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and seven steals. (That's Westbrook's line from the Thunder's Nov. 30 matchup against the Utah Jazz.)

    It's difficult to imagine Westbrook ever being able to leapfrog Durant in the MVP race given their respective shooting efficiencies, but hey, it never hurts to have two legitimate MVP candidates on the same team. Right, Thunder fans?

5. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Last week's rank: 4

    Did anyone expect 36-year-old Tim Duncan to be in the center of the NBA's largest controversy in the first month of the 2012-13 season?

    San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sent Duncan and teammates Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home a day early from their end-of-November road trip, opting to play his reserves against the Heat in Miami instead.

    By not informing the league of his plans, he earned the ire of NBA commissioner David Stern, who fined the Spurs $250,000 for doing a "disservice to the league."

    Somewhat ironically, the Spurs' reserves still had the defending champion Heat on the ropes late in the fourth quarter before LeBron James hit Ray Allen for a late three-pointer.

    And with the extra day of rest, Duncan came out on Dec. 1 in the Spurs' 99-95 overtime win against the Memphis Grizzlies and finished with a season-high 27 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal.

    Through 17 games, Duncan is averaging 18.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in only 31.3 minutes per game, essentially averaging a hair shy of his career averages in roughly four fewer minutes per game.

    What he's doing at the age of 36 is nothing short of incredible, and he deserves to be recognized as a true MVP candidate for it.

4. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Last week's rank: 5

    On Dec. 3, Carmelo Anthony was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the first time in 2012-13 on the heels of averaging a league-high 29.5 points, eight rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.

    Considering how well he's been playing through the first month of the season, it's difficult to believe it's only the first time he's taken home the Player of the Week award.

    Through 16 games, Anthony has the highest usage rate in the league (30.8), according to ESPN's John Hollinger. With Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined by knee problems, Melo stepped up into his starting 4 position at the start of the season and has dominated ever since.

    He trails only Kobe Bryant in points per game, averaging 26.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.3 three-point field goals per game to date. More importantly, he's shooting 46.4 percent from the field as of Dec. 3, an efficiency he hasn't matched since his 2007-08 season as a Denver Nugget.

    Anthony's been shockingly engaged on defense this year and isn't reverting into hero-ball mode nearly as much as seasons past. It's almost as though he heard the chorus of critics picking his game apart in 2011-12, especially now that his 2003 draft counterpart, LeBron James, has finally been fitted with a championship ring.

    'Melo didn't just come to New York for the attention; he came to win rings. Given how well he's played in the first month of 2012-13, it's clear he's becoming aware of just how much dedication it takes on both ends of the court to achieve that goal.

3. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last week's rank: 3

    No one could have foreseen the Los Angeles Lakers being a .500 team through the end of November, but lo and behold, a 20-point win against the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 30 helped the Lakers bump their record (8-8) to exactly .500.

    One person who shoulders little to no blame in the Lakers' early-season struggles? Kobe Bean Bryant.

    Through 17 games, Bryant is leading the league in scoring with 27.3 points per game, and he's chipped in 5.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game, too. All of that production translates to a PER of 24.7, good for sixth in the NBA, according to ESPN's John Hollinger.

    Bryant is one of only four players through Dec. 3 averaging at least 15 points, five boards and five dimes per game, according to the @NBAStats Twitter account. (LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry are the other three.)  

    He quickly resorted to being the Lakers' anchor this season after Steve Nash fractured his fibula in the second game of the season. 

    Per 100 possessions, the Lakers offense scores 112.5 points with Bryant on the court compared to only 97.9 points without him, according to

    The Lakers' defense takes a similar dive without Bryant, allowing opponents to score 101.7 points per 100 possessions while Bryant plays and 111 points when he's on the bench.

    While Dwight Howard is still working out the final kinks from back surgery and his continued struggles at the free-throw line and Pau Gasol mopes somewhere quietly in a corner, Bryant has been the force preventing the Lakers from completely derailing.

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Last week's rank: 2

    At this point, it's just time to embrace it: LeBron James is hands down the best player in the NBA, and if so desired, he could win the regular-season MVP award every year for at least the next three to four years.

    Lucky for the other MVP candidates, James likely isn't devoting an iota of energy toward winning the award. He's instead solely focused on repeating as NBA champion and adding to his already impressive collection of hardware.

    That doesn't mean James isn't ceding his MVP throne without a bitter fight.

    Through 15 games in 2012-13, he's fourth in the league in points per game (24.7), shooting a career-high 53.3 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range and averaging a career-high 8.9 rebounds per game.

    Toss in 6.5 assists and roughly one steal and one block per game, and it's clear that James is a pure basketball machine that came here from another planet. It's the only logical explanation.  

    His presence on defense can't be understated, either. When the Miami Heat were shockingly on the ropes against the San Antonio Spurs' reserves on Nov. 29, it was James who took complete control of the game on both ends of the court in the final few minutes.

    He just isn't burning his jets to full capacity every game. And since this next player has been forced into a larger role on his team, James falls just short of him in the MVP race for now. 

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's rank: 1

    Another week, another Western Conference Player of the Week award for Kevin Durant. Ho hum.

    Durant averaged 25 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the Oklahoma City Thunder's four games from Nov. 26 through Dec. 1, shooting 60.7 percent from the field, 46.2 percent from three-point range and 89.7 percent from the free-throw line.

    He's not just near the 50-40-90 club; he's nearly creating a new, even more exclusive 60-45-90 club.

    With the Thunder's trade of James Harden before the start of the season, Durant began shouldering more of the playmaking responsibilities for his teammates in 2012-13, leading to an early spike in turnovers. Since a six-turnover performance on Nov. 21, however, Durant hasn't turned the ball over more than three times in a game.

    Consider this: For every 100 possessions that Durant plays, the Thunder offense scores 116.4 points and limits opponents to only 100.5 points, according to When Durant rests, those numbers become 103.8 and 110.9, respectively.

    In other words, Durant is worth a net of 23 points per 100 possessions. Kobe Bryant (plus-24) and Thaddeus Young of the Philadelphia 76ers (plus-31.1) are the only two NBA players earning regular minutes who can trump Durant's value on both ends of the court per 100 possessions this season.

    For achieving all of that while weathering the storm of Harden's departure, K.D. continues to maintain his hold over the top of the MVP race.