NBA MVP Odds: Can LeBron James Hold off Kevin Durant, Chris Paul?

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2013

NBA MVP Odds: Can LeBron James Hold off Kevin Durant, Chris Paul?

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    The race for 2013 NBA MVP has only heated up in the month of January.

    More and more, it's appearing to come down to a three-man race between the reigning MVP, LeBron James, the three-time reigning scoring champion, Kevin Durant, and the best point guard in the world, Chris Paul.

    Other fringe candidates (Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker) lurk as challengers in case one of the top three get injured in the second half of the season. Barring injury, however, it'll be an uphill battle for anyone not named James, Durant or Paul to end the season as MVP.

    Can James hold off Durant and Paul and win his fourth league MVP? Or will voters be in the mood to recognize a new star with the hardware?

    Let's find out where the top 10 candidates stand this week.

    Note: Statistics and records are current through games played on Jan. 14. Last week's rankings here

Honorable Mention

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    In alphabetical order:

    Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks

    Chandler may not fit the mold of a typical MVP candidate (he hardly scores), but he's been contributing in more subtle ways to his team's success this season.

    He's fifth in the league in terms of win shares, according to Basketball-Reference. He's also eighth in the league in terms of rebounds per game (10.9), and he's averaging a career-high 12.4 points per game for the Knicks.

    Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    Of anyone in the honorable mentions list, Curry is the most likely to move into the top 10 soon. He's averaging career highs in points (20.5), assists (6.6) and three-point attempts (6.8) per game, but he's also drilling a career-high 46.1 percent of those three-pointers.

    The only slight concern? Curry hyperextended his right knee during a loss against Denver on Jan. 13. It remains to be seen how he's affected by the injury, if at all, but it's worth watching.

    Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

    Surprised to see Griffin mentioned in the fringe MVP discussion? Don't be. His per-game stats of 17.7 points and 8.4 rebounds are career lows for him, but he's also playing a career-low 31.8 minutes per game due to the Clippers' astounding depth.

    What's truly impressive about Griffin in 2012-13 are his defensive numbers. He ranks 10th in the league in points per possession allowed (0.69), according to SynergySports (subscription required), and despite the career low in minutes, he's averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game.

    Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    Will Lillard ever hit the feared "rookie wall"? At this point, it doesn't appear so. He dropped 37 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in a loss to the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 11, and he is averaging 18.2 points, 6.5 assists and 3.6 boards per game for Portland.

    He was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month in both November and December, and appears all but a lock for the Rookie of the Year award.

    Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

    Surprise, surprise, look who's back from the dead. The Celtics are winners of six of seven, only two and a half games behind Brooklyn for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference, and Rondo has dropped two triple-doubles in his past five games.

    Rondo continues to lead the league in assists per game (11.2) and will soon move up in these rankings if the Celtics can maintain their winning ways. 

    Dropped from rankings: Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies 

    Just missed the cut: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers

10. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Last week's ranking: 5

    I promised last week that if the Los Angeles Lakers couldn't start stringing together a few wins, Kobe Bryant would plummet in the MVP rankings.

    Well, win against the Anderson Varejao-less Cleveland Cavaliers and Bucks weren't enough to prevent Bryant's MVP free fall this week.

    To Bryant's credit, he still holds the league lead in scoring average (29.9 points per game), shooting a career-high 47.8 percent from the field. He's also shooting 36.4 percent from three-point range, his best since the 2007-08 season, and he's averaging five rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game.

    He's is fourth in the league in win shares (6.4), according to Basketball-Reference, and is tied with Brook Lopez for sixth in the league in PER (24.9).

    However, the league MVP isn't coming from a team that's four games below .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs, which is right where the Lakers stand (17-21) as of Jan. 16. Unless the Lakers right the ship soon, Bryant's MVP candidacy won't be able to get back off the ground.

9. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's ranking: 9

    Russell Westbrook remains one of the more enigmatic MVP candidates in 2013. He's a triple-double waiting to happen, but he's also been massively struggling with his shot throughout the season.

    On the one hand, he's averaging 22.2 points per game along with career highs in assists (8.4), rebounds (5.3) and steals (2.1) per game. He's also shooting a career-high 35.7 percent from three-point range despite attempting a career-high 4.1 shots from that range each game.

    Westbrook ranks eighth in the NBA in PER (23.4) and seventh in win shares (5.5), according to Basketball-Reference. As a result, he deserves to at least be considered an outside contender for the MVP award, although not a favorite by any means.

    His ghastly shooting percentage of .416 from the field is the No. 1 reason that he can't be considered one of the favorites to win the award.

    Against Portland on Jan. 13, he nearly shot the Thunder out of the game by scoring 18 points on 21 shots. The next night against Phoenix, however, he poured in 36 points on 14-of-24 shooting.

    Also, having Kevin Durant on his team doesn't exactly help his MVP prospects. That's before you even consider how much K.D. has elevated his play in 2012-13.

8. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

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    Last week's ranking: 10

    In true San Antonio Spurs fashion, Tony Parker is putting up a career year in 2012-13 while going largely unnoticed.

    He's shooting a career-high 42.6 percent from three-point range and a career-high 82.6 percent from the charity stripe for the 30-11 Spurs, who trail the Oklahoma City Thunder by two games in the Western Conference.

    He's also knocking down just under 52 percent of his shots and averaging 19.5 points, 7.1 assists and 2.9 rebounds in only 32.4 minutes per game for San Antonio.

    In terms of PER, Parker is 11th in the league (22.5), according to Basketball-Reference. He also ranks eighth in the league in win shares (5.4), one-tenth of a win share behind Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to Basketball-Reference.

    Parker has three major obstacles in the MVP race, however. In no particular order, they are: the low number of minutes he's playing; the excellence of teammate Tim Duncan; and the otherworldly play of fellow point guard Chris Paul, who, as the headline of this piece suggests, you just may be seeing later in these rankings.

7. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

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    Last week's ranking: 8

    I've asked this every single week of these MVP rankings, but this question still holds true: How is it possible that Tim Duncan is doing what he's been doing this season at 36 years old?

    In 29 minutes against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 13, Duncan finished with 12 points, nine boards, seven blocks (!!!), five assists and three steals. Two nights before, he posted 13 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and three blocks in a 101-98 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

    On the season, the Timeless One is averaging 17.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks in a shade over 30 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, he's posting career highs in defensive rebounds (9.5) and blocks (3.3), according to Basketball-Reference.

    He also ranks seventh in the NBA in PER (24.3) and is tied with Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies for 10th in the league in win shares (5.0), according to Basketball-Reference.

    It would be one thing for Duncan to be stuffing the stat sheet like this for a miserable team, but the San Antonio Spurs only trail the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder by two games.

    As a result, despite only playing 30 minutes per game, Duncan has firmly inserted himself in the MVP conversation, even if he remains only a fringe candidate. 

6. James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    Last week's ranking: 7

    The Houston Rockets' sensational season got slightly off track thanks to five straight losses, but James Harden continues to be the bright spot for the team.

    He ranks fourth in the league in terms of scoring with a career-high 26.4 points per game, and he's also setting career highs in assists (5.3), rebounds (4.3), steals (1.9) and blocks (0.5) per game.

    Despite never being a full-time starter before 2012-13, Harden leads the league in both free throws made (316) and attempted (369), according to His former teammates Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rank second and fourth, respectively, in terms of free throws made.

    The Boston Celtics snapped Harden's 14-game streak of scoring at least 25 points per game in a 103-91 win over Houston on Jan. 11, but not before Harden set the franchise record for the most consecutive games with 25-plus points. (Moses Malone, with 13 straight games, was the former record holder.)

    Despite the Rockets' recent rough patch, Harden continues to look like a star worth building a franchise around. Houston needs to stay ahead of the other fringe playoff contenders in the Western Conference to give Harden even a remote shot at the MVP award, though. 

5. David Lee, Golden State Warriors

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    Last week's ranking: 6

    Are we really living in a world where David Lee is a top-five MVP candidate? For the time being, yes.

    Lee's one of only four players this season to be averaging at least 18 points and eight rebounds per game (along with LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love). Of those four, he's the closest to averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

    On the season, he's averaging 19.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 79.6 percent from the free-throw line. He's a major reason the Golden State Warriors have rumbled out to a 23-13 record despite the absence of Andrew Bogut, who remains sidelined by ankle troubles.

    With Bogut out, Lee has stepped up his play on the defensive end. He's allowed only 0.51 points per possession when guarding the roll man in a pick-and-roll situation (49 attempts), according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), which ranks fourth in the league.

    The Warriors have stumbled as of late, going 2-3 in their last five games, which could send Lee tumbling down these MVP rankings if the swoon continues. If the Dubs can stay in the top half of the Western Conference standings, however, Lee will remain a viable MVP candidate outside of the usual suspects.

4. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks

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    Last week's ranking: 4

    Carmelo Anthony appears in danger of going from legitimate MVP candidate to pure NBA sideshow, based on what's happened to him in the month of January.

    First, he gets suspended one game for attempting to confront Kevin Garnett over "certain things that you just don't say to men, another man." As a result, New York Knicks owner James Dolan stationed audio technicians at the two corners of the court on Jan. 11 to record "every syllable Anthony utters," according to a Jan. 13 report from The Star-Ledger.

    Then, after the New York Knicks' 100-87 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Jan. 13, Anthony revealed that he's been on a no-meat, no-carbs diet for the past 15 days, which could help explain a few slow starts he's had as of late.

    Before the showdown with Garnett, Anthony was well on his way to garnering some serious MVP consideration. He ranks second in the NBA in scoring (29.3 points per game) behind only Kobe Bryant, and despite boasting the highest usage rate (34.4 percent) of any player in the league, he's managing a career-low turnover rate of 8.9 percent, according to Basketball-Reference.

    The only thing truly damaging Anthony's MVP candidacy? The Knicks' malaise as of late. Since starting point guard Raymond Felton broke his right pinkie finger in a Christmas Day loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Knicks have gone 4-5.

    If the Knicks can't maintain their hold on a top-two seed in the already-weak Eastern Conference, Anthony's MVP candidacy ends there.

3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Last week's ranking: 3

    Chris Paul is getting to the point where words can hardly describe how sensational he's been this season.

    Consider this: On Jan. 9 against the Dallas Mavericks, Paul poured in 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting, a season-high 16 assists, five rebounds and two steals. Three nights later in a loss to the Orlando Magic, Paul again dished out 16 assists, along with 10 points, four steals and a rebound.

    On the season, he's averaging 16.8 points, 9.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and a league-best 2.6 steals per game for the Los Angeles Clippers, who trail the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder by only one game.

    He's posting the highest number of win shares per 48 minutes (.300) in the league, according to Basketball-Reference, and trails only Kevin Durant and LeBron James in terms of total win shares. He also trails only James and Durant in terms of PER (26.6).

    Paul bruised his right knee cap late in the Clippers' loss to Orlando on Jan. 12, however, and he missed the team's last two games against the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. He's currently being listed as day-to-day.

    If the knee heals up quickly and allows Paul to return to his dominant ways soon enough, it'll be only a blip in an otherwise MVP-caliber season. If the knee ends up sidelining Paul for weeks instead of days, though, his grip on a top-three MVP spot will start to loosen.

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Last week's ranking: 2

    If the MVP went to the league's best player every year, LeBron James would win in a landslide. There's not a player in the league who can do what he does, both offensively and defensively.

    However, the MVP doesn't always go to the best or most talented player, which could end up being James' undoing in this race. Otherwise, how do you explain Steve Nash's back-to-back MVPs in the mid-2000s?

    There's no denying that James has been playing sensationally well in 2012-13. He's averaging career highs in shooting percentage (.546), three-point field-goal percentage (.407) and rebounds per game (8.2), along with a career-low 2.9 turnovers per game.

    He leads the league with a PER of 29.6 and ranks second to only Kevin Durant in terms of win shares (7.9), according to Basketball-Reference.

    However, the Miami Heat have run into some serious struggles as of late. They've dropped six of their last 10, and James often looks like the only Miami starter fully engaged in every regular-season game.

    The Heat aren't concerned with boasting the league's best record; they're concerned with winning a second straight championship. If that means mailing in a few games to keep their players healthy, so be it.

    That attitude should help them in their eventual playoff run, but it will prove catastrophic to James' MVP chances, especially if the player who ranks No. 1 on this list continues his dominant stretch of play.

1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Last week's ranking: 1

    Is Kendrick Perkins rubbing off on Kevin Durant? This season more than ever before, Durant's allowing his nasty side to shine through to the pleasure of NBA fans worldwide.

    Durant faced criticism at times in his first four seasons for not taking over and dominating for a full 48 minutes, similar to what LeBron James heard before winning his first championship in 2012.

    It may be time to put those concerns to rest for Durant. He annihilated the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 11 with 42 points on 25 shots, along with eight rebounds, five assists and a block.

    He dropped 33 points, six assists, four rebounds and two blocks against Portland two nights later and followed up with 41 points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks against Phoenix on Jan. 14.

    He also obliterated poor Marcin Gortat of Phoenix on a dunk that's likely being printed on posters as you read this. (That dunk also led to some excellent quotes from Gortat, including, "Well, first of all, I was looking for my car keys under the basket.")

    Durant remains in the 50-40-90 club for the time being, averaging 52.4 percent from the floor, 40.2 percent from three-point range and 90.2 percent from the charity stripe on the season.

    He ranks third in the league in scoring with 28.9 points per game, behind only Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. He's also averaging career highs in assists (4.2), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.3) per game.

    When you consider that Durant leads the league in win shares (9.3) by over a full win share, according to Basketball-Reference, you can start to get a sense of just how dominant Durant has been this season.

    If the Miami Heat weren't struggling so much as of late, James would be neck-and-neck with Durant in the MVP race. For the time being, Durant has started to create some separation between himself and the rest of the pack.