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NBA MVP Odds: Can Chris Paul Challenge LeBron James and Kevin Durant?

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2013

NBA MVP Odds: Can Chris Paul Challenge LeBron James and Kevin Durant?

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    The Los Angeles Clippers became the third team in NBA history to go 16-0 in a month in December 2012, and it all started with point guard Chris Paul.

    After the Clips dropped four straight games in late November, Paul's teammates implored him to be more aggressive from the get-go and start taking over games earlier.

    Seventeen straight wins later, consider that mission accomplished. Heading in 2013, Paul leads the NBA's hottest team despite playing a career-low 32.9 minutes per game.

    As a result, Paul has begun garnering serious consideration for league MVP, even while the usual MVP suspects like LeBron James and Kevin Durant remain dominant.

    Has the Clippers' collective excellence earned Paul the top spot in this week's MVP rankings? Or can one of the forwards maintain their hold on the throne?

    Let's walk through the top 10 NBA MVP candidates as we head into 2013.

     

    Note: Statistics and records current through games played on Dec. 31. Games in the new year are not included. Last week's rankings here.

Honorable Mention

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    In alphabetical order:

    Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks

    Doubt Chandler's MVP credentials? Look no further than his 5.1 win shares in 2012-13, which rank fifth in the league, according to Basketball-Reference.

    The Knicks defense isn't as stout in 2012-13 as it was the season before, but Chandler has still been a one-man wrecking ball in the middle for New York on both ends of the court.

     

    Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    From Dec. 21-29, Curry exploded for 20.6 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.8 steals and one block per game for the Warriors, who went 4-1 in that stretch.

    Curry is neck-and-neck with the player ranked No. 10 on this list in terms of MVP favorites. When he cuts down on his turnovers or improves slightly with his shooting efficiency, he'll move into the top 10 if the Warriors can stay hot.

     

    Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

    The Sixers' recent struggles are no fault of Holiday's, who averaged 19.6 points, 8.8 assists and five rebounds in the team's five games between Dec. 21-29.

    He's averaging a career-high 18.6 points, 8.9 dimes and 4.1 boards per game and shooting a career-high 45.1 percent from the field, doing his absolute best to keep the Sixers afloat through the ongoing Andrew Bynum debacle.

     

    Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies

    Randolph falls out of the top 10 for the first time in weeks as the Grizzlies dropped three of their final five games in December.

    Z-Bo posted three double-doubles in those five games, including a 21-point, 15-rebound performance in an 88-83 loss to the Indiana Pacers on New Year's Eve, but he hasn't taken over and dominated offensively, as the Grizzlies have sputtered on that end of the court.

     

    Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

    Rondo continues to lead the league in assists with 11.6 dimes per game, but it's difficult to consider him a serious MVP candidate when you consider that he ranks 48th in the NBA in terms of PER.

    When the Celtics go on their seemingly inevitable run this season, Rondo could shoot up this list. For now, given their struggles (14-16 through New Year's Day), he's in danger of falling off completely.

     

    Dropped from rankings: O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks; Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

    Just missed the cut: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers 

10. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

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    Last week's ranking: N/A

    Tony Parker has been fluctuating in and out of these MVP rankings all season, but the holiday-time dominance of the San Antonio Spurs earns him the No. 10 spot this week.

    Parker exploded for 31 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and two steals in a 122-116 victory against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 28, then followed up two nights later with 21 points, nine dimes and five boards against the Dallas Mavericks.

    Through New Year's Day, Parker is shooting an astounding 51.7 percent from the field, 40.5 percent from three-point range and 82.6 percent from the free-throw line. The latter two are career highs.

    He ranks 10th in the league with a PER of 22.9 and ranks seventh in the league with 4.7 win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.

    So long as Parker continues to average only 32.5 minutes per game, however, he'll struggle to catch up to the leading MVP contenders, who routinely play 36-40 minutes each game.

9. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Last week's ranking: 9

    James Harden has turned the Houston Rockets into the most pleasant surprise in basketball outside of the Golden State Warriors in 2012-13.

    After being traded to Houston days before the start of the season, Harden initially struggled with his shot as the team's new No. 1 option. He shot only 41.2 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point range in November, well below his respective career averages of 44.4 percent and 36.4 percent.

    In December, however, Harden found his footing. He shot 46.3 percent from the field, 39.2 percent from three-point range and 88.6 percent from the free-throw line, averaging 27.7 points, 5.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and two steals per game.

    He's helped boost the Rockets into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race, something that hardly anyone could have anticipated before the start of the season.

    As long as the Rockets continue their hot play and Harden keeps run-and-gunning teams into submission, he'll be a candidate to continue rising up this list as the season progresses.

8. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's ranking: 7

    Russell Westbrook's full array of talents have been on display since the Oklahoma City Thunder's Christmas Day game against the Miami Heat, in both good and bad ways.

    The good? He scores 21 points and gathers 11 rebounds against Miami. The bad? He shoots 26.3 percent from the field and turns the ball over five times.

    Westbrook posted 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists against the Houston Rockets in only 30 minutes in a 124-94 win on Dec. 29, but like in Miami, he finished with five turnovers.

    His per-game averages of 21.5 points, a career-high 8.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals would qualify any player for the MVP discussion, and that's not even considering the Thunder's stellar 24-6 record.

    Westbrook won't move much higher in the MVP rankings until he improves his shooting efficiency, however. He's barely knocking down 40 percent of his tries in 2012-13, adding fuel to the fire for his critics who say he shoots too much.

7. David Lee, Golden State Warriors

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    Last week's ranking: 10

    Of the 11 players in the NBA averaging at least 10 rebounds per game as of Jan. 1, 2013, there's only one who's averaging 20 points per game: David Lee of the Golden State Warriors.

    Lee isn't much of a shot-blocker (0.2 blocks per game), but he's averaging an otherwise well-rounded 20.1 points, 11 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game through 31 games.

    He ranks fifth in the league in minutes played (1,166), fourth in field goals (260), fifth in total rebounds (341) and eighth in win shares (4.5), according to Basketball-Reference.

    Amazingly, Lee hasn't been much of a defensive liability for the Warriors, despite never being known as a stout defender coming into the season. In 291 overall plays, he's only allowing opponents to score 0.82 points per possession, good for 112th overall in the league, according to SynergySports (subscription required).

    It's a small sample size, but he ranks first in the league against the roll man in pick-and-roll situations, allowing only 0.51 points per possession on 41 attempts.

    With Andrew Bogut sidelined for all but four games this season due to ongoing knee troubles, Lee has aptly stepped up on both ends of the court as the Warriors' frontcourt leader. Given Golden State's surprising success (21-10), Lee is quickly rising up the list of fringe MVP candidates.

6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Last week's ranking: 6

    Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs have been quietly marching along in 2012-13 and obliterating nearly every team they come across, and they've once again gone largely unnoticed.

    Here's a newsflash: Since Dec. 23, the Spurs have blown out the Dallas Mavericks by at least 25 points twice, rocked the Toronto Raptors 100-80, escaped with a close 122-116 win against a hot Houston Rockets team and smashed the Brooklyn Nets by 31 points on New Year's Eve.

    Tim Duncan, despite playing only 27.5 minutes per game in those five games, averaged 18.6 points, six rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.2 blocks per game, shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line.

    There's not much more to say about Duncan's MVP candidacy than that. He's been sensational on both ends of the court in his limited playing time, but so long as coach Gregg Popovich keeps his minutes restricted, he's going to struggle to keep up in the MVP race.

    Hypothetically, stretch Duncan's 2012-13 stats out to per-36-minute averages and he's posting a phenomenal 21.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and a steal per game. Those are MVP numbers.

5. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Last week's ranking: 2

    Forgive me if this qualifies as "what have you done for me lately," but there's too much uncertainty surrounding Anthony's knee and Amar'e Stoudemire's return for him to bump one of the top four players from their spots here.

    Anthony hyperextended his left knee when Knicks center Marcus Camby fell on it during the second quarter of the team's Christmas Day game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and he missed the Knicks' next two games as a result.

    He hasn't undergone an MRI or X-ray on the injury, but the Knicks claim there isn't serious damage and were listing Anthony as day-to-day heading into New Year's Day.

    "There's no pain, just weakness in my leg," Anthony said after participating in part of the Knicks' practice on New Year's Eve, according to ESPNNewYork.com. "I don’t feel like I have the full strength that I need right now." 

    However, Anthony returned to the court on New Year's Day against the Portland Trail Blazers and didn't looked like he missed a beat. If he stays healthy and can mesh well with Stoudemire, who also returned on New Year's for the first time this season, he'll almost assuredly rise on this list next week.

    If Anthony's knee troubles flare up again and turn out to be more serious than the Knicks are making it out to be, however, he's only going to further tumble down these rankings, right alongside the Knicks' championship dreams.

4. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last week's ranking: 5

    The coverage of the Los Angeles Lakers' early-season struggles in 2012-13 tended to overshadow just how phenomenally well Kobe Bryant has been playing in his 17th NBA season.

    Through 30 games, Bryant is averaging 30.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.5 steals for the 15-15 Lakers. He's shooting a career-high 47.8 percent from the field and hasn't shot this well from three-point range (37.1 percent) since the 2002-03 season.

    After practice on New Year's Eve, Bryant acknowledged the year he's been having, saying, "This is probably the best I've played in a while," according to ESPNLosAngeles.com.

    Bryant credited his resurgence to being fully healthy and to sticking to a strict diet. He told reporters that he's "cut down on a lot of things" to eat healthy, which he said, "sucks, but it's worth it."

    Whatever the reason, Bryant was a one-man wrecking crew in December. Amazingly, he scored 30 points or more in all but two of the Lakers' 14 games in the month, single-handedly keeping the Lakers afloat as point guard Steve Nash recovered from a fractured fibula.

    Since a loss to the New York Knicks on Dec. 13, the Lakers won six of their next seven games and began to look like the championship contender everyone expected before the season started.

    Bryant deserves the lion's share of the credit for keeping the Lakers together, and thus deserves some serious MVP consideration.

3. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Last week's ranking: 3

    LeBron James ranking third in this list for the second straight week isn't so much a function of his individual play as it is the Miami Heat's collective failure in losses against the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks.

    Starting with the Christmas Day game against Oklahoma City, James went on a tear through five games, averaging 30.6 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block per game.

    He's still averaging career highs in field-goal percentage (54.4) and three-point percentage (41.7), and he ranks fourth in the league in scoring with 26.3 points per game. James leads the league with a PER of 30, nearly two points ahead of the closest player, Kevin Durant (28.1).

    LBJ also cleared up the one glaring weakness that plagued in him in the early portion of the season. After shooting only 64.9 percent from the charity stripe in November, James jumped up to converting an impressive 77.2 percent of his free-throw tries in December.

    James has individually been scorching hot lately, but the Heat's two losses to the Pistons and the Bucks and a closer-than-expected win against the Orlando Magic keep him at No. 3 in the MVP rankings for the time being.

    NBA expert David Thorpe recently tweeted that the Heat are "coasting," which isn't entirely surprising for a team with one eye on the playoffs at all times. That collective coasting could be enough to keep James from an MVP, unless he decides to go into 2012 Playoffs Supernova mode all over again.

2. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last week's ranking: 4

    Chris Paul reaches a new high in these 2012-13 MVP rankings on the heels of the Los Angeles Clippers' undefeated romp through December.

    Paul's been widely acknowledged as the catalyst who sparked the Clippers' amazing run. He's been getting it done on both ends of the court for L.A.'s "other" team in 2012-13, averaging 16.3 points, 9.4 assists and a league-high 2.7 steals in only 32.9 minutes per game.

    He's put up a per-48-minute PER of 27, according to 82games.com, while holding opposing point guards to a per-48-minute PER of only 11.2. (The league average is 15.)

    CP3 trails only LeBron James and Kevin Durant in terms of win shares (6.3) and leads the league in win shares per 48 minutes (.297), according to Basketball-Reference.

    What's holding Paul back from claiming the top spot in the MVP odds? Ironically, it's the dominance of his teammates.

    The Clippers' depth has afforded the team the luxury of sitting Paul and fellow star Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter of blowout wins, leaving the bench to perform the mop-up duty.

    That lack of clutch-time play is great for the Clippers, who hope to keep Paul as fresh and healthy as possible for the playoffs, but it's a detriment to the MVP resume of CP3. 

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's ranking: 1

    Chris Paul and LeBron James have equally legitimate claims for this No. 1 spot, but Kevin Durant maintains the advantage for two main reasons: the 50-40-90 club and win shares.

    No player in the league can currently trump Durant's 7.1 win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.

    As of New Year's Day, Durant was tied with Carmelo Anthony for second in the league in scoring with 28.5 points per game. He's also averaging eight rebounds, 4.1 assists and career highs in steals (1.5) and blocks (1.4) per game for the Thunder, who sport one of the best records in the league.

    Durant's shooting averages of 51.3 percent from the field, 42.5 percent from three-point range and 90.5 percent from the free-throw line, all career highs, are what's truly been impressive about his season.

    For Durant to be setting career highs across the board in shooting percentages, considering his usage rate of 29.2 percent, makes him the NBA's unquestioned offensive player of the season to date.

    Defensively, James holds the advantage physically, but Durant's been closing the gap in 2012-13. James forged his defensive reputation with massive chasedown blocks—a technique that Durant has decided to emulate this season.

    If Chris Paul played anywhere near the 39.7 minutes per game that Durant has been averaging, he'd likely lead the league in win shares. But with Paul playing a career low in minutes per game and Durant playing a career high, in the words of The Hunger Games, the odds will ever be in Durant's favor.

    James also lurks right behind Durant in this MVP race, ready to pounce into the No. 1 spot with a few monstrous performances like those he unleashed during the 2012 playoffs.

    Durant's No. 1 for now, but Paul and James are breathing right down his neck.

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