Nearly three months into the 2012-13 NBA season, the MVP race remains as close as ever.
A few realities about the race have emerged, however. At this point, it's boiling down to a four-man race between LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, with a handful of fringe candidates lurking.
Barring a major surprise or injury in the second half of the season, it appears that either James, Durant, Paul or Anthony will be walking home with the hardware.
Choosing an MVP favorite among those four is proving to be a volatile exercise, though.
To illustrate, I've embedded a few charts from Basketball Reference's fantastic Player Comparison Finder tool, with the leader of each category in bold. All statistics are current through games played on Jan. 9.
Here, you'll find the per-game statistics of Anthony, Durant, James and Paul. As you can see, all four are thriving this season, albeit in different areas.
Take Anthony, for instance. He ranks second in the league in scoring only to Kobe Bryant and ranks 11th in the league in three-point field-goal percentage, despite attempting a career-high 6.4 shots from downtown per game.
Now, let's look briefly at Paul. He leads the league with his 2.6 steals per game, ranks second in assists only to Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics, and is averaging the fewest turnovers per game out of the foursome featured here.
Durant and James, meanwhile, appear intent on shattering all sorts of personal shooting records. Both are shooting career highs from the field and from three-point range, and K.D.'s also setting a personal best with his free-throw shooting percentage of .903.
Durant joined the 50-40-90 shooting club after a Dec. 17 win against the San Antonio Spurs and still remains there nearly a full month later.
Since per-game averages aren't enough to isolate an MVP favorite, let's turn our attention to advanced metrics.
As you'll see, these only further muddle the MVP debate.
James leads the league with his PER of 29.7, but Durant, Paul and Anthony rank second (28.3), third (26.6) and fourth (25.9), respectively.
Durant leads the league with 8.3 win shares, but Paul ranks second (7.6), and James ranks third (7.2.). Anthony is tied for 14th (4.4) with Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
K.D. is posting an insanely high true shooting percentage of .651, but James holds the edge in effective field-goal percentage (.580). Anthony, meanwhile, leads all four in terms of offensive rebounding percentage (5.0).
It's no surprise to see Paul in the lead in terms of assist percentage (45.6) and steal percentage (4.0), but you likely didn't expect to see Anthony post the lowest turnover percentage (9.1) of the four. That feat is made even more impressive by the fact that Anthony leads the league in usage rate (34.2).
And what to make of Paul's league-leading .302 win shares per 48 minutes?
In short, the numbers can be twisted enough to make a legitimate MVP case for any one of these four players.
Durant and James' record shooting efficiency bolsters their resumes, while Paul can fall back on his astronomical assist and steal rates. Anthony can point to his high usage rate, low turnover rate or career-high efficiency from three-point range.
What's going to ultimately create separation in this race? A few things.
First, as you can see, Anthony's numbers (in terms of win shares) aren't anywhere close to the other three players. His case relies more on narrative—the New York Knicks are an elite team in the East! Melo finally "gets it!"—than the other three.
If the Knicks, who have gone 5-5 over their past 10 games, can't maintain a hold on a top-two record in the moribund Eastern Conference, Anthony's MVP case ends there.
On the other hand, Paul's greatest concern in the MVP race is the strength of his team, as I've been saying for weeks. The depth and strength of the Los Angeles Clippers bench has Paul averaging a career-low 33.2 minutes per game for the Los Angeles Clippers, which puts him at a severe disadvantage when compared to James (38.5) or Durant (39.5).
Even though the Clips sport a league-best 28-8 record, no player in league history has won the MVP playing under 33.3 minutes per game, according to Basketball Reference. (The lowest ever was Bill Walton, who averaged exactly 33.3 minutes per game in the 1977-78 season.)
Does that mean it's a two-man race between James and Durant? Not exactly.
A prolonged personal or team slump for either player, while unlikely, could cause them to plummet in the MVP race. A poorly-timed injury could too.
Essentially, the MVP race appears all but certain to head down to the final weeks of the season before a clear favorite emerges from the rubble.
Until then, ride the wave of weekly variance.
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