Stephen Curry's 2015-16 debut was a 40-point, seven-assist, six-rebound message to his superstar rivals: The NBA MVP award was his to lose.
More than halfway through the year, the narrative hasn't changed.
It's not for a lack of competition. From familiar foes like four-time winner LeBron James to fresh faces like two-way terror Kawhi Leonard, this season has seen several MVP-caliber efforts. It just hasn't had another talent quite like Curry, a statistical leader in countless categories and the clear front-runner heading into the campaign's final two-plus months.
A few of those "other" stars have positioned themselves close enough to make a furious charge down the stretch. And there's a handful of elites behind the top trio ready to pounce if opportunity knocks.
Top of the Food Chain
Digits seem like a disservice to Curry's game. His style must be seen to be fully appreciated. From the way he's redefined the meaning of range to his flashy and functional handles, watching him feels like catching a glimpse of the game's future.
"Curry has redefined basketball," wrote Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal. "He is in the middle of the most efficient season in NBA history in part because he has made seemingly impossible shots a very real part of his game."
But even without the highlight-reel heaves, Curry's stat sheet quickly curtails the MVP arguments of other candidates.
He is the NBA's best and most efficient scorer, tallying his 29.4 points per game on a 68.2 true shooting percentage—the best mark ever for a point-producer of that volume. His 32.4 player efficiency rating is also history's best, and the Golden State Warriors' 44 wins are tied for the most all-time through 48 games.
Two labels combine to form the crux of Curry's candidacy: best player on the best team and best player overall. Leonard could be the runner-up in both categories.
Objectively, the San Antonio Spurs are no worse than the league's No. 2 team. They have a few arguments for first place—including the best point differential (plus-13.3) and net efficiency rating (plus-14.1)—but can't match the Warriors' record and dropped their only matchup by 30 points.
Still, they're second to a historically dominant team and flashing some historical dominance of their own. And Leonard is unquestionably their heaviest hitter on either end of the floor.
"He's probably the best two-way player in the league now," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per CSNBayArea.com's Monte Poole. "He's a terror on defense, and offensively he's gotten better and better."
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard ranks sixth overall and first among perimeter players with a 4.56 defensive real plus-minus. He holds players 4.4 points below their normal field-goal percentages.
Offensively, Leonard does a little bit of everything. Once a complementary piece, he's now a 20.0-points-per-game fulcrum and the league's most accurate long-range sniper (48.5 percent). As NBA.com's player-tracking data shows below, he's an 80th-percentile finisher or better in nearly every situation.
|Kawhi Leonard's Versatile Scoring Skills|
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For all the different dangers facing James' NBA throne, perhaps none has been more problematic than the larger-than-life shadow behind him.
His velocity is constantly measured against his past speed to see if 31-year-old LeBron may have lost a half-step. The numbers say he probably has, but he's still jostling near the front of this herd.
If the campaign closed today, it would be James' ninth of at least 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game. Only two other players—both Hall of Famers—had more than three in their careers: Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson, six each.
"I hear the chatter about who is the best player in the league," James told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins. "I see the guys who are barreling down. That locks me in even more."
Leonard could probably attest to that. He was on the wrong side of James' 29-point, seven-assist, five-rebound explosion during the Cleveland Cavaliers' recent wrangling of the Spurs.
Whatever shot the Cavs have at contention starts and stops with James. They look like viable title threats when he plays (plus-11.6 points per 100 possessions; would be third) and lottery participants when he doesn't (minus-8.9, 28th).
How do you know the league's talent base is in tremendous hands? When four-time scoring champ and former MVP Kevin Durant sits in the second tier.
He's sitting No. 3 in scoring (27.2 points per game) while flirting with the second 50-40-90 shooting line of his career (.508/.387/.889). In terms of per-36-minute production, this is his best year on the boards (8.0), tied for his tops in blocks (1.2) and his second-best in assists (4.5).
He hasn't conceded his place among the elite.
"He's probably a guy that could go out and score 35 points every single night," Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, per NBA.com's Sekou Smith. "But I also think he's a guy that's smart enough to know that at some point, when he is in a crowd, he's got to show confidence in his teammates, and that he's willing to pass it and believes in them."
Durant doesn't have the strongest argument for team success and might have the best sidekick in the business, both of which could hurt him in the eyes of voters. But there's enough talent and time here to cause major perspiration for the few names ahead of him.
Remember the triple-double machine who emerged in relief of an injured Durant last season? Turns out, even that wasn't Russell Westbrook at his best.
The comically explosive point guard has upped the ante again, hitting unprecedented high notes. His saturated stat line of 24 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and two steals hasn't been seen since...ever.
Westbrook may have been a polarizing player at one point, but now he's simply a full-fledged MVP candidate.
"He'll never stop being the basketball embodiment of entropy, but only because his pull-up jumpers and reckless bursts toward the hoop consistently keep a defense on its toes," wrote Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal. "His game has just developed to the point where even his bad decisions tend to work out for the best."
Yes, Draymond Green has the luxury of suiting up every night alongside the league's brightest star on its strongest team. But his role in making both of those labels fit isn't given nearly enough credit.
"He is closer to being a 1B to Steph's 1A than a No. 2 option," wrote SB Nation's Paul Flannery. "There's no way that Golden State is this good without Draymond playing this well, and that makes them a transcendent team as opposed to merely a championship one."
Green's 8.85 real plus-minus sits behind only Curry, Westbrook and Leonard, and even that may fail to capture Green's complete impact. Only Curry causes a bigger on-court swing for his club among our top six candidates.
Green's chameleon-like adaptability—see: league-best nine triple-doubles—is one of Golden State's greatest strengths.
The 6'7" 230-pounder can work underneath as a double-digit rebounder per 36 minutes and one of the league's most effective rim protectors. If the open court starts calling, he's a top-10 distributor, a 42.1 percent three-point marksman and a crafty, scrappy finisher at the rim. And his ability to switch between point guards, centers and anything in between makes him arguably the league's most versatile stopper.
Rest of the Pack
Outside of the Alamo City, few perimeter players cause more two-way buzz than Jimmy Butler. The two-time All-Defensive selection has blossomed into a potent offensive force (22.4 points, 4.2 assists), and he continues harassing the top opposing scorer.
The 26-20 Chicago Bulls aren't quite great (third in the East), and neither are all of Butler's numbers (20th in real plus-minus and PER). But both could climb the ladder over the remainder of the schedule.
The Toronto Raptors transformed into flamethrowers during January, scorching 12 of their 14 opponents—including each of their last 11—by an average of 8.2 points. Kyle Lowry, one of three players notching at least 20 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals per game, led the charge with his best scoring (21.7), rebounding (5.5) and shooting (45.1 percent) month of the season.
The Raptors still must prove they can win when it matters most. And Lowry could lose some votes to All-Star backcourt mate DeMar DeRozan, who's had 26-plus points during five of his last seven outings. But the slimmed-down Lowry remains in this race, as his sixth-best 7.47 real plus-minus clearly shows.
Chris Paul's MVP candidacy is probably stronger than he would like. The 30-year-old is on pace to average more shots than he's taken since 2008-09 as he attempts to hold together a Los Angeles Clippers offense splintered by the loss of Blake Griffin (partially torn quad, broken hand).
So far, so good. Paul has navigated the Clippers through this potential disaster, powering them to the league's fourth-best winning percentage and third-highest net rating since Griffin's last appearance. You can find better statistical profiles, but Paul's combination of production (18.8 points, 9.5 assists) and leadership has few rivals.