NBA MVP Odds 2014: LeBron James Enters Uncharted Territory
A whole lot has changed since we last broke down NBA MVP odds on Nov. 18.
Anthony Davis missed time with a broken hand, costing him precious position in a cutthroat race. The Minnesota Timberwolves swooned and Kevin Love froze up in the clutch of a recent loss that shouldn't define his season, but probably will.
Los Angeles Clippers point guard (read: point god) Chris Paul separated his shoulder and will miss up to five weeks, an injury that'll sap enough of the season to make a real dent in his MVP chances. Elsewhere in the West, the Golden State Warriors are scorching hot, which makes Stephen Curry and his eye-popping numbers a big climber in this edition.
Most of all, though, the past few weeks have been marked by the tightest race atop the MVP rankings we've seen in a long time. Kevin Durant is approaching LeBron James' rarefied statistical air, and the absence of Russell Westbrook is only going to make it easier for KD to pile up the numbers.
King James has been predictably excellent and gaudily efficient while picking his spots for the Miami Heat, but has he done enough to hold off his greatest challenger?
There's only one way to find out.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
**Stats accurate through games played on Jan. 6, 2013.
10. Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Statistics: 21.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks, 21.5 PER
Last Edition: 30-1
Blake Griffin will have to do without his primary facilitator for a few weeks as Chris Paul rests a bum shoulder. And while flying (often literally in Griffin's case) solo would have been a death sentence for his numbers in the past, the rim-rattling forward has grown enough this year to carry on alone.
Per B/R's Jared Dubin, Griffin might not need Paul's assistance so desperately because he's become much more self-sufficient this year. More simply, he's become a beast in the post:
His average points per play on post-ups has shot up to a career-best level, while he's shooting over 50 percent from the field out of the post for the first time and drawing fouls at a hyper-elite level.
There's no doubt that Griffin will miss his absent pick-and-roll partner, but because he's been able to score on his own at a much more efficient rate this season, he'll remain a major offensive force. In fact, with Paul out for a while, Clippers coach Doc Rivers may have no choice but to toss the ball in to Griffin more frequently.
Who else is going to create high-efficiency offense? Jamal Crawford?
More touches on the block will mean bigger numbers for Griffin, and I think we all know how MVP voters enjoy big numbers, don't we?
MVP Odds: 40-1
9. Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs
2013-14 Statistics: 17.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.0 blocks, 20.0 PER
Last Edition: 25-1
While so many of Tony Parker's younger point-guard counterparts have succumbed to injury—Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, to name a few—the San Antonio Spurs' 13-year veteran just keeps on going.
The Spurs have won four of their past five games and currently sit just a single game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the No. 1 spot out West. In those five most recent contests, Parker has averaged 18.4 points and 6.4 assists on 53-percent shooting, which sounds remarkable until you realize those figures are pretty darn close to his season averages.
With Tim Duncan slowing down a bit in his 17th NBA season, it's been Parker's consistency that has set the tone for San Antonio.
Realistically, he's not going to come close to winning the MVP this year, but somebody has to get the credit for the Spurs' ongoing dominance. Why not the five-time All-Star who runs the show?
MVP Odds: 35-1
8. Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Statistics: 12.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 2.7 blocks, 17.6 PER
Last Edition: No Odds
I suppose if you wanted to get critical about Roy Hibbert's MVP candidacy, you'd point to his substandard rebounding (4.8 boards per game over his last five contests) and his 48-percent shooting on the season. Neither of those numbers screams "Most Valuable Player," but then again, Hibbert's actual value doesn't necessarily show up in conventional numbers to begin with.
To really see why he's the most impactful defensive force in the league and, therefore, an MVP candidate, you've got to go "next level."
Per NBA.com, Hibbert holds opponents to just 40.9-percent shooting at the rim, the lowest number allowed by any center who has played at least 20 games this year. Everything the Indiana Pacers do in their league-best defensive scheme is designed to send offensive players to Hibbert.
When they get there, the hulking center swallows them up or sends them away licking their wounds. Either way, possessions tend to end badly for opponents when Hibbert is involved.
Being the best defensive player on the league's best defensive team is at least as valuable as being the top scorer in the NBA's most effective offense. It's time we started acknowledging Hibbert's value in those terms.
Oh, and one more thing: As we continue to figure out how to quantify defense in the coming years, I suspect this ranking is going to look comically low in hindsight.
MVP Odds: 30-1
7. Kevin Love, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
2013-14 Statistics: 26.4 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 28.4 PER
Last Edition: 3-1
You're probably asking yourself, "Self, how is it that the guy who ranks second in the NBA in rebounds per game, second in scoring and third in PER has suffered such a significant drop since the last edition of MVP odds?"
The answer is twofold.
First, Kevin Love's Timberwolves have been a pretty pedestrian outfit lately, playing .500 ball since the beginning of December and displaying the kind of bad body language that often presages a collapse. Minnesota is still a playoff contender in the absurdly competitive Western Conference, but its recent mediocrity (amid Love's statistical dominance) is adding to the perception that his numbers are empty.
That's an absurd narrative. The Wolves simply can't score when Love sits, and his impact on the defensive end is only marginally negative, per NBA.com. Basically, he's the only reason Minnesota isn't one of the worst teams in the league.
But that narrative persists nonetheless, and many voters aren't going to pore over the advanced stats or on- and off-court splits that debunk it. Instead, they'll focus on his trio of missed crunch-time foul shots that would have won the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 4.
Per the Associated Press (via ESPN), Love said after that disappointing effort, "I was more upset about the first one I missed. I left it short. I think they were flat and short. There was no real air under them. Just missed them."
Love is a brilliant, productive talent. But fair or not, his team's ho-hum play and the lasting memory his bricked free throws created will likely cause him to miss something else: a real shot at the MVP award.
MVP Odds: 20-1
6. Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers
2013-14 Statistics: 19.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.1 blocks, 27.6 PER
Last Edition: 5-1
On the one hand, there's a slim chance Chris Paul's shoulder injury will actually help his MVP case. Maybe seeing the Clippers offense trying to function without its most important piece will open everyone's eyes to just how valuable CP3 truly is.
If Los Angeles goes into the tank without its point guard, maybe voters will view that as an endorsement of Paul's worth.
More likely, though, Paul's absence will justifiably result in him slipping out of realistic contention for MVP. Missing as many as five weeks could constitute nearly 20 games, which would represent almost a quarter of the season.
He's been terrific to this point, but when voting time comes around, it's going to be hard to ignore the chunk of games he missed. Obviously, he won't be of any tangible value to his team during the span—however long it winds up being—he sits out.
Compounding that worry, there's also the chance that he'll be less effective upon returning. Shoulder injuries are tricky, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him struggle with an injury to his dominant right side.
Unless voters take an outside-the-box approach to defining the term "valuable," Paul's chances at an MVP award have taken an irreparable hit.
MVP Odds: 15-1
5. LaMarcus Aldridge, PF, Portland Trail Blazers
2013-14 Statistics: 23.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks, 22.3 PER
Last Edition: No Odds
The man almost single-handedly keeping the mid-range game alive is the biggest reason for the Portland Trail Blazers' surprising start this year.
LaMarcus Aldridge has been dominant on the court, albeit unconventionally.
He's taken 259 shots from 15-to-19 feet this season, 82 more than the second-most trigger-happy player from that distance, Gerald Henderson, per NBA.com. That's nothing new for Aldridge, who has always made his living with two-point jumpers.
What is new, though, is Aldridge's emergence as leader and voice of the entire Portland squad.
Per Grantland's Jordan Conn, head coach Terry Stotts runs virtually every significant decision past his best player first:
So Stotts relies on Aldridge to serve as the voice of the players. When he's wondering how hard to push in practice, he asks Aldridge how much the team can handle. When he's thinking of rescheduling a flight, or of arranging a team meal, he relies on Aldridge to let him know what works best for the rest of the guys.
That's the kind of alpha-dog role an MVP is supposed to play.
It remains to be seen if Portland's weak defense will allow it to win enough games for Aldridge to have a realistic shot at the MVP award. But right now, he's definitely in the mix.
MVP Odds: 12-1
4. Paul George, SF, Indiana Pacers
2013-14 Statistics: 23.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 22.8 PER
Last Edition: 3-1
Paul George's Pacers are still the class of the NBA, boasting the Association's best winning percentage and largest per-game differential. But the dynamic small forward has gradually regressed since tearing it up in the month of November.
Don't be mistaken; George is still playing at an elite level on both ends. He's just balancing out after spending the first month of the year in a semiconscious fugue state of dominance.
As Sekou Smith of NBA.com points out, stepping back a bit might actually be another indicator of George's arrival as a superstar:
A true testament to George's star power is how well he's handled giving the space needed to Lance Stephenson and, lately, Danny Granger, to shine alongside him in the backcourt.
George has made a leap this season, both in terms of on-court performance and leadership. His odds have slightly declined because of forces beyond his control, though. The three players ahead of him have simply been better.
MVP Odds: 10-1
3. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
2013-14 Statistics: 23.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks, 22.9 PER
Last Edition: 15-1
The biggest climber since the last edition of these odds is also the best player on the NBA's hottest team.
The Warriors have won nine straight games behind a criminally underrated defense—fourth-best in the league, per NBA.com—and the nightly heroics of their rapidly improving floor general.
Stephen Curry has been remarkable all season, but he's been particularly great lately. Since the beginning of December, Curry has registered double-digit assists a dozen times. He logged a triple-double in a 115-86 win against the Phoenix Suns two days after Christmas and, of course, went off for 36 points on 22 shots in a decisive 123-114 win at the Miami Heat on Jan. 2.
The shooting has always been there for Curry, but what's different this year is his growth in other areas. Only CP3 averages more assists per game, and defenses now have to account for Curry's ability to find the open man more than ever.
Plus, Curry has been attacking defenders who overextend to contest his deadly jumper. That has allowed him to get into the lane with much greater ease, posing yet another problem for opponents.
If the Dubs continue to climb the standings out West (they currently occupy the No. 5 seed), expect Curry's MVP buzz to build.
MVP Odds: 8-1
2. LeBron James, F, Miami Heat
2013-14 Statistics: 25.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 29.0 PER
Last Edition: 2-1
Let's get one thing straight: I don't think LeBron James is the second-best player in the league. He's still the league's most efficient scorer, leading the NBA with a true shooting percentage of 66.9 percent.
He's also still the most versatile player on the planet, defying conventional notions of "position" in ways nobody has since Magic Johnson.
When his team really needs it, James still has an extra gear that no other player in the league possesses. He can completely take over a game on both ends. Ultimately, he's still the most skilled, most dangerous force in the NBA. Nobody is objectively better than James when he's fully engaged.
But James is coasting, making things look a little too easy and ensuring—along with the rest of his team—that no amount of regular-season exertion gets in the way of the ultimate goal: another championship.
That approach has opened the door for somebody else to climb atop the MVP odds for the first time in memory. I suspect you have an idea of who that somebody is.
MVP Odds: 3-1
1. Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City Thunder
2013-14 Statistics: 29.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks, 29.1 PER
Last Edition: 10-1
Well, it's finally happened.
Thanks to a combination of factors—let's call it the perfect MVP storm—Kevin Durant is a slight favorite to take home the league's Most Valuable Player award.
Durant has narrowed the statistical gap between himself and LeBron James to such a degree that the distinction is now nearly invisible. KD leads the league in scoring, is a couple of made foul shots and field goals away from reaching the hallowed 50-40-90 mark and has edged past James in PER by the slimmest of margins.
He's also averaging career highs in rebounds, assists and steals.
Most importantly, though, KD has actually profiled as a more statistically dominant defender than James this year, as I explained here.
Combine those stats with some voter fatigue. Then toss in the fact that Durant has finally proved he can carry his team without Russell Westbrook as a safety blanket. Finally, factor in the very real chance that James will continue to coast while Durant keeps his foot on the gas all season long.
The result? KD's slim advantage in the MVP race, something he hasn't had, well...ever.
MVP Odds: 5-2