Final votes have not yet been cast for this season's Most Valuable Player, but it has clearly been a two-horse race since early in the season.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been miles in front of the competition pretty much since tip-off on opening night. Together they've produced 32.7 Win Shares this year, more than Kevin Love, Stephen Curry and LaMarcus Aldridge combined. They have also spent most of the year pushing each other forward in redefining the hypothetical boundary behind usage and efficiency.
In short, LeBron and Durant have put together two of the most dominating offensive seasons the league has ever seen. If they don't finish 1-2, in some order, in the MVP voting, it would be a surprise of epic proportions. While watching to see who will claw their way over the other to the top of the podium leaves plenty of intrigue, there is just as much to be found at the bottom of the podium.
A murky field of competitors are battling for recognition as the third-best player in the league this year. At various times Kevin Love, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge, Stephen Curry and Paul George all appeared to be staking firm claims on that final position on the MVP podium.
But the Timberwolves have faded mightily, taking Love's MVP case with them. Every close-game collapse for his team chips away at his credentials as the kind of player who can lead. Aldridge's MVP case has been undone in largely the same way, as has Paul George's, with the added dirt of teammates sniping at his shot selection after a close loss.
Chris Paul hasn't played enough games and neither Stephen Curry nor Dirk Nowitzki appear to have done quite enough for teams struggling to meet their preseason expectations. When we wipe those names from the field there are really two contenders left—Joakim Noah and Blake Griffin.
Joakim Noah's campaign for MVP votes does not rely on his statistical resume. His per game averages—12.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.5 blocks—scream a reminder of his impressive versatility, but they pale in comparison to some of the voluminous numbers put forth by other candidates.
But research I've done shows that only about half of the variation in MVP voting can be explained by player statistics. The rest is decided on how compelling a narrative each player presents. Therein lies the strength of Noah's case.
The Chicago Bulls were left for dead when Derrick Rose was injured at the end of November. They had survived a similar situation the season before, but as Rob Mahoney pointed out at Sports Illustrated, the odds of them repeating that sort of desperate success were unlikely:
The Bulls managed to win 45 games last season as Rose rehabilitated from a torn ACL, though any efforts to subsist this season would pose a greater challenge. Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli, both of whom played valuable roles as ball handlers and scorers for the Bulls last year, are no longer in Chicago after signing elsewhere during free agency. In their place, an overmatched Kirk Hinrich, underwhelming Marquis Teague, and over-the-hill Mike James will initiate offense for the Bulls.
But at this point the Bulls are 10 games over .500 with a win percentage even higher than last season's. They've accomplished that despite trading Luol Deng, suffering through a disappointing season from Jimmy Butler and having to turn to castoff D.J. Augustin for big minutes at point guard.
Joakim Noah is the glue that has held it all together.
Noah's defense has been typically fantastic this season, chaotic, active and utterly disruptive.
But he's also become a much more important offensive player for the Bulls this season. He has posted a career-high Usage Rate, 18.6 percent, and a career-high Assist Percentage, 26.0 percent, this season. Those are indicative of the greatly expanded offensive role he's taken on.
His passing has been of particular importance. His assists are not so much about shot creation or finding seams. There is very little highlight quality to them.
But his passes from the low post and elbows to cutters and players curling off screens has helped organize the offense. In many respects Noah is the one responsible for getting the Bulls into their sets and facilitating all the moving parts getting into the right places.
The Bulls have wrapped themselves in the narrative of "hardworking, overmatched team makes good." But more than ever before Joakim Noah has become the central protagonist of that story and it should earn him more than a few MVP votes this season.
This season Blake Griffin has quietly become the player we all thought he could be. He still dunks with uncommon height and ferocity. He still sees the floor and passes out of double teams as well as any big man in the league. He still uses tremendous athleticism to sustain a campaign of shock and awe.
His per game numbers—24.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists—are not that different from what he's put up in the past, other than a big increase in his field goal attempts which is mostly responsible for his scoring increase. But the vigorous focus he's applied to skill development over the past few seasons is really showing up in the little things.
Griffin is now an honest-to-goodness, completely frightening post scorer. He's been effective in the past, relying mostly on brute force and an iron will, but this year we're continuing to see his versatility expand on the low block.
Jump hooks in the lane, face-up jumpers, baseline counter-spins, Griffin now has an array of moves and counter-moves to wield against hapless defenders. Some are more effective than others but he has moved well beyond the days when simply lowering his shoulder and trying to jump over everyone was his go-to move. He's currently the 22nd most-efficient post scorer in the league, per mySynergySports (subscription required).
While his offense has improved dramatically around the basket, he's also gotten much better from a distance. Griffin is shooting a career-high 38.2 percent on mid-range jumpers this year. His ability to be a pick-and-pop threat, as well as diving to the rim makes the Clippers' entire pick-and-roll game exponentially more difficult to defend.
But the most important part of Griffin's case is that he's made all of these improvements while shouldering more responsibilities than ever. His Usage Rate, 28.9 percent, is a career-high and he's played 18 games without Chris Paul this season.
In looking at these two, Noah and Griffin, it seems likely to me that Griffin ends up with the edge in MVP votes. He has the numbers and two compelling narratives—pushing both his team and himself to new heights.
But the MVP voting is always unpredictable. We can say with near-certainty that LeBron and Durant will be at the top, but the exact order is too difficult to project. We can also say with near-certainty that Noah and Griffin will be among the leading vote getters and either could headline the pool of players staring upwards at first and second.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats