NBA MVP Odds: Is This Finally Kevin Durant's Year?

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2012

NBA MVP Odds: Is This Finally Kevin Durant's Year?

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    Through the first trimester of the 2012-13 NBA season, LeBron James' biggest obstacle to a repeat performance as league MVP appears to be none other than Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Yes, the same Durant who he faced off against in the 2012 NBA Finals.

    Yes, the same Durant who he played alongside in the 2012 Olympics.

    Yes, the same Durant who he's trained with during each of the past two offseasons, going through a set of rigorous workouts that the two superstars describe as "Hell Week."

    Through Dec. 19, Durant had the edge over James in the MVP race, with the Thunder riding hot on a 12-game win streak and the Heat coming off three recent losses, including one to the league-worst Washington Wizards.

    Since then, Durant's Thunder finally fell (albeit to a very good Minnesota team), while James and the Heat started up their own four-game win streak.

    Was it enough to move James over Durant in this week's rankings? Or did Carmelo Anthony's heroics earn him the top spot?

    Read on for this week's top 10 in the NBA MVP rankings.


    Note: Statistics and records are current through games played on Dec. 24. Christmas Day games are not included. Last week's rankings here.

Honorable Mention

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    In alphabetical order:

    Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks

    Chandler earns his first MVP honorable mention of the year for shooting a league-best 70 percent from the field and scoring a career-high 12.8 points on only 6.7 shot attempts per game.

    He's been the 10th best post-up defender in the league, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), but won't climb much higher in these rankings until the Knicks' defense tightens up. The team currently sports the 16th best defensive efficiency in the league.


    Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    Curry went on an absolute tear in the Warriors' three games from Dec. 19-22, dropping a combined 79 points, 19 assists, 18 three-pointers, 17 rebounds, five steals and three blocks with only 10 turnovers.

    On the season, he's averaging 20.2 points, 6.4 dimes, 4.3 boards and 1.6 steals per game, proving why Golden State handed him an extension despite the ankle problems he had in 2011-12. He's only in the honorable mentions because a teammate of his edges him out for a top-10 spot.


    O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks

    Mayo drops to the honorable mentions this week after going 9-of-33 from the field and 1-of-11 from three-point range in the Mavericks' three straight losses from Dec. 20-23.

    He kept the Mavericks competitive with Dirk Nowitzki sidelined by injury, but Nowitzki finally made his season debut on Dec. 23 against the San Antonio Spurs. Mayo and Nowitzki need time to develop chemistry, which could sabotage Mayo's MVP credentials for the time being.


    Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

    Rondo remains the only point guard in the league averaging over 10 assists per game—he was averaging 12.2 heading into Christmas Day—which merits an MVP honorable mention, no matter the Celtics' record.

    His poor three-point and free-throw shooting holds him back from being a legitimate MVP candidate, though, especially if the Celtics hover around .500 all season.


    Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

    Josh Smith recovered from his worst game of the season against Golden State on Dec. 15 with 17 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks and three steals against the league-worst Washington Wizards on Dec. 18.

    He's averaging 16.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.1 blocks and 1.4 steals per game on the season, pleasing his fantasy basketball owners more than ever.

    Smith's three-point shooting cooled off in the week before Christmas, however, as he only hit 2-of-9 of his attempts from downtown in the Hawks' four games from Dec. 18-22.


    Dropped from rankings: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers


    Just missed the cut: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

10. David Lee, Golden State Warriors

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    Last week's ranking: N/A

    David Lee makes his debut in these MVP rankings on the heels of five straight games with at least 20 points and eight rebounds from Dec. 15-22.

    He's averaging 20 points, 11.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on the season, shooting 53.9 percent from the field and 81.3 percent from the charity stripe.

    Along with Stephen Curry, Lee's been a main reason the Golden State Warriors have been one of the pleasant surprises of the 2012-13 season. As of Christmas morning, the Dubs stood fifth in the Western Conference with a 18-10 record.

    With center Andrew Bogut out indefinitely, Lee has been stepping up on the defensive end of the ball for the Warriors, too. He actually ranks as the best pick-and-roll roll man defender in the NBA in 2012-13, allowing only 0.51 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).

    Lee is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game this season, which, given the Warriors' record, should earn him at least fringe MVP consideration.

9. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Last week's ranking: Honorable mention

    Before the season started, if you predicted that the Houston Rockets would stand at sixth in the Western Conference on Christmas morning, you should quit your job and become a full-time basketball prophet.

    James Harden, who the Rockets traded for just days before the season, has been the catalyst for the team's surprise start.

    Heading into Christmas Day, Harden ranked fourth in the league in scoring with 25.6 points per game, trailing only Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. In addition to the jaw-dropping scoring totals, he's also averaging 5.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds, two three-pointers and 1.8 steals per game.

    In the two games preceding the team's Christmas matchup with the Chicago Bulls, Harden posted back-to-back 30-point performances, chipping in a combined 15 assists and five three-pointers, too.

    Harden's pick-and-roll skills have helped the Rockets establish the seventh highest offensive efficiency in the league, despite having virtually no continuity from the 2011-12 season on the roster.

    If the Rockets can stay above .500 and remain competitive in the playoff race, there's no reason Harden shouldn't merit legitimate MVP consideration, especially given his per-game averages.

8. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Last week's ranking: 6

    Zach Randolph has been a double-double machine in the month of December, having registered at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in all but two of the Memphis Grizzlies' 11 games through Dec. 24.

    He's ripped off five straight double-doubles since putting up only 10 points and five boards in a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 14, including a 25-point, 16-rebound night against the Utah Jazz the night after the Denver game.

    Randolph has been nothing short of a beast on the backboard, snagging 4.8 offensive rebounds and 12.8 total rebounds per game in 2012-13. Only Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers boasts higher totals of both offensive rebounds and total rebounds per game.

    Z-Bo has fluctuated wildly with his shooting performances this season, however. He followed up a 10-of-16 shooting game (.625) against the Jazz by going 4-of-14 (.286) against the Chicago Bulls two nights later.

    The Grizzlies remain one of the stronger teams in the Western Conference, but seeing the way the Houston Rockets blistered them on Dec. 22 doesn't bode well if they hope to remain a top-tier team.

    Randolph, especially, needs to start stringing together more consistent performances to help the Grizzlies stay elite.

7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's ranking: 8

    The Oklahoma City Thunder's six-point loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 20 was the textbook definition of what's both so amazing and so maddening about Russell Westbrook.

    On the positive side of things, Westbrook finished the game with 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, a stat line posted by no other NBA player in 2012-13, according to Basketball Reference.

    On the other hand, he also finished the game with eight turnovers and bricked on seven of his first eight field-goal attempts in the fourth quarter.

    Westbrook is averaging career highs in both assists (8.8) and steals (2.1) per game this season, along with per-game averages of 21.4 points and 4.9 rebounds.

    Heading into the Thunder's Christmas Day matchup against the Miami Heat, Westbrook posted at least nine assists in each of OKC's past five games.

    He'll need to boost his shooting percentage to have any realistic chance at the MVP, though, and as of Dec. 24, he was hardly above 40 percent on the year (40.7, to be exact).

    He'll also need to be spectacular enough to make voters forget that he's on the same team as Kevin Durant, which is no small task.

6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Last week's ranking: 7

    Can you imagine what Tim Duncan could be doing at the age of 36 if he wasn't on such a tight minutes limit from San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich?

    NBA fans got a glimpse on Dec. 18 in a Spurs loss against the Denver Nuggets, when Duncan exploded for 31 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, five blocks and two steals.

    It's a performance that would have been impressive even if he were a decade younger. Considering that he's 36, it's virtually unfathomable.

    On the season, Duncan is putting up 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in only 30.4 minutes per game.

    He's also making a rather convincing case for being the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, as Tom Haberstroh laid out for Insider on Dec. 21.

    If Pop let Duncan play 34-36 minutes per night instead of 30, he'd have an entirely realistic shot of becoming the oldest player in NBA history to take home the regular season MVP. (Karl Malone currently holds the record.)

5. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last week's ranking: 4

    If not for Kobe Bryant's superlative play over the first trimester of 2012-13, the Los Angeles Lakers could well have plummeted into a funk deep enough to end any 2013 championship dreams.

    Instead, Bryant helped the Lakers weather the storm through Steve Nash's fractured fibula, Pau Gasol's knee tendinitis and Dwight Howard remaining less than 100 percent from offseason back surgery.

    Bryant is averaging a league-high 29.7 points per game, along with per-game averages of 5.4 rebounds, five assists and 1.6 steals.

    His record shooting efficiency from the earlier portion of the season appears to be a thing of the past, however.

    After shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 40 percent from downtown in November, Bryant's only knocked down 44.8 percent of his field goal tries and 34.2 percent of his three-point attempts in December.

    Heading into their Christmas Day matchup with the New York Knicks, the Lakers were riding their first four-game win streak of the season, buoyed by four straight 30-point scoring nights by Bryant. (Granted, he took 41 shots in the Lakers' 118-115 overtime win against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 22.)

    A few more nights of Bryant jacking up 40-plus shots with Gasol, Nash and Howard all healthy could bring the drama back to the Lakers, but for now, the team finally appears ready to become the championship contender everyone expected it to be at the beginning of the season. 

4. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last week's ranking: 5

    As the undisputed leader of the NBA's hottest team, Chris Paul moves to the highest spot that he's held in these rankings all year.

    Despite playing a career-low 32.9 minutes per game and averaging fewer than 12 shots per game, Paul has helped the Los Angeles Clippers establish the fourth-highest offensive efficiency of any team in the NBA.

    With per-game averages of 16.1 points, 9.6 assists and a league-leading 2.7 steals per game, Paul's been the catalyst for the Clippers on both ends of the ball.

    He ranks second in the league with 5.6 win shares in 27 games, behind only Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to Basketball Reference. He's third in the league in PER, behind only Durant and LeBron James, for players who've appeared in at least 10 games this season.  

    Considering that the Clippers were currently riding a franchise-record 13-game win streak heading into Christmas Day, Paul bumps Kobe Bryant from the No. 4 spot this week by virtue of his team's unparalleled recent success.

    Bryant may hold the per-game statistical advantages over Paul, but the Black Mamba would trade all of that for the Lakers (13-14 on Christmas Eve) to swap records with the Clippers (21-6).

3. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Last week's ranking: 3

    Heading into the Miami Heat's Christmas Day game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron James found himself in the midst of two incredible streaks.

    With his 30-point, nine-rebound and seven-assist performance against the Utah Jazz on Dec. 22, James matched Karl Malone's record streak of 24 straight games with at least 20 points to start a season.

    Perhaps even more impressively, James didn't get called for a personal foul against Utah for the sixth straight game. Despite the media's best attempts to jinx him before the game, James extended his foul-less streak to over 250 minutes.

    In December, James is averaging  25.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.7 blocks per game, while shooting 55.6 percent from the floor and an eye-popping 45.2 percent from three-point range.

    On the season, he's converting over 77 percent of his looks at the rim and 55.6 percent of his attempts from 3-9 feet, according to HoopData. Both are career highs for him.

    James started off the 2012-13 season as his usual sensationally efficient self and only upped the ante as the calendar moved toward Christmas.

    If he keeps raising his game as the season goes on, the next two players on this list have a dogfight on their hands if they hope to stay above James in the MVP race.

2. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Last week's ranking: 2

    Carmelo Anthony finally appears to understand what it takes to elevate to the level of the truly elite in the NBA.

    Whether it was experience with the 2012 Olympic team or the embarrassment of the New York Knicks' first-round knockout in the 2012 playoffs, Anthony decided to "reinvent" himself in 2012-13, he told ESPN's Stephen A. Smith in a SportsCenter Sunday Conversation.

    He's long been an elite scorer, but the knock on him in years past was that he didn't possess any elite qualities besides scoring. This season, he's committing on defense and taking care of the ball like never before.

    "Scoring the basketball, that's what I do. Nobody can take that away from me. But if I add all those other aspects to my game, that takes me over the top," Anthony said to ESPN's Smith.

    What keeps Anthony at the No. 2 spot on the MVP list this week over James? His 33-point performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 22, where he exploded for a 19-point fourth quarter in what ended up being a three-point Knicks win.

    Anthony trails only Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers in terms of scoring, and despite attempting a career-high 5.9 three-point attempts per game, he's shooting a career-high 43.7 percent from downtown.

    Given the Knicks' shocking rise to the top of the Eastern Conference, Anthony deserves legitimate MVP consideration as long as he continues to round out his game.

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's ranking: 1

    Kevin Durant officially joined the 50-40-90 shooting club in 2012-13 after going a perfect 7-of-7 from the charity stripe against San Antonio on Dec. 17, and he hasn't looked back since.

    He went 17-of-18 from the free-throw line over his next two games, bringing his season averages to 52.1 percent shooting from the field, 42.7 percent from three-point range and 90.4 percent on free throws. All three shooting averages are career highs for Durant.

    He's currently third in the league in scoring (27.9 points per game), behind only Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony, and is averaging career highs in rebounds (8.4), assists (4.2), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.3) per game for Oklahoma City.

    In essence, he's raised his offensive game in nearly every measurable way. He leads the league with 6.2 win shares in only 24 games, according to Basketball Reference, and has been a deadly shooter from almost anywhere on the floor, as shown by his 2012-13 shot chart

    He's also stepped up his game on the defensive end of the floor this season, ranking 31st in the league in terms of defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers and 33rd in the league in spot-up situations, according to SynergySports (subscription required).

    Durant gives Oklahoma City a reason to believe it can win any game, so long as he's healthy. He's one of the rare players that can stuff shots on one end, then run the break and finish with a nasty and-one dunk on the other. (Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks can attest to that.)

    One close loss to a talented Minnesota Timberwolves team isn't enough to bump Durant from the top spot of these MVP rankings, especially not while he's only solidifying his spot in the 50-40-90 shooting club.