NBA Superstar Rankings 2015: MVP Edition

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 8, 2015

NBA Superstar Rankings 2015: MVP Edition

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    Have you ever seen an MVP race like this one?

    If you're a younger NBA fan, probably not. Then again, even if you're an older one, there's a solid chance you've never witnessed anything quite like this six-man competition. There have been plenty of two-player battles during the stretch run of seasons past, but this is taking that to an extreme.

    James Harden and Stephen Curry are still the presumed favorites, but there are quite a few other standouts with outside chances of being crowned. At the very least, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook deserve mentions in the competition, since they'll certainly feature prominently on many a ballot.

    We're obviously looking at those six here, but who else is going to earn a featured spot in the superstar countdown? It was Westbrook taking the top spot in the March 25 edition, so will he hang on to the pole position?

    As always, recent play matters a lot, though it's not going to completely trump the body of work from the 2014-15 season. We're looking at who's had the most impact while in the spotlight, based on an ever-changing combination of defensive dominance, offensive prowess and everything in between.

Injured Players

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    Before delving into the rankings, it's worth noting that injured players are not considered for any of the featured spots, and they will not be listed as honorable mentions.

    If a player is expected to be out of action for a prolonged period or has missed too much time in the last few weeks, he's automatically ineligible for the remainder of this slideshow. Recent performances are weighted pretty heavily here.

    As a result, Carmelo Anthony, Chris BoshKobe BryantKevin DurantPaul GeorgeSerge Ibaka and Derrick Rose will not be appearing, although they would make the cut—or at least be considered—if the injury imp didn't dictate otherwise.

Honorable Mentions

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    Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

    Here comes the offense. 

    Somehow, Andre Drummond's 32-point outburst against the Miami Heat on March 29 doesn't feel like a fluke. Not when he dropped 22 points in a win over the Atlanta Hawks one game later, thoroughly dominating on the offensive glass but also involving himself offensively.

    Now, Drummond is averaging 15.5 points and 15.1 rebounds per game in March and April. There's no turning back.  

    Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

    Since returning from his midseason elbow surgery, Blake Griffin hasn't skipped a beat.

    Not only has he averaged 19.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game over his last seven outings, but he's shot 55.6 percent from the field and accumulated 5.9 dimes per contest. Griffin is incredibly involved in Doc Rivers' offense, regardless of whether he's scoring or helping other players do the same.

    But until he elevates those scoring numbers, he's going to be doomed to the honorable mentions.

    Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Kyrie Irving ranked No. 7 in the superstar rankings during the last edition, but he hasn't played up to those same standards since March 25. Though his scoring game has been fine, his defense has regressed, and he's been largely uninvolved in the passing department.

    All things considered, he's still been quite valuable to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But in a set of rankings that heavily values recent form, that's not enough to avoid being the de facto No. 1 player in the honorable mentions.

    Other Notables: Eric Bledsoe, Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward, DeAndre Jordan, Damian Lillard, Brook Lopez, Kyle Lowry, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Klay Thompson, Dwyane Wade 

10. John Wall (Previous Ranking: Other Notables)

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    Team: Washington Wizards

    Position: PG

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.6 blocks, 20.2 PER

    Since March 25: 21.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 11.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks

    The Washington Wizards are starting to come around, taking care of an easy schedule and then going on the road to win a big test against the Memphis Grizzlies. And much to the surprise of absolutely no one (well, maybe one person), John Wall has been right at the center of the stretch-run turnaround.

    At this point, the dynamic point guard has a right to be proud of his skills. 

    Those 11.8 assists per game he's averaged since March 25? They included an 18-dime outing against the New York Knicks, which gave Wall a new high-water mark for his career. Quite frankly, he probably could've pushed the total even higher if the Madison Square Garden residents were dangerous enough to keep him on the court for more than 29 minutes. 

    For now, this superstar floor general will have to be satisfied with his remarkable performance in limited action. 

    After all, only five other players since 1985-86 have ever hit 18 assists without spending 30 minutes on the court. Magic Johnson did it first, and Doc Rivers, John Lucas, Mark Price and Nick Van Exel joined the club before Wall gained entry. 

    Maybe now Wall can set his sights on joining Johnson as a two-time entrant. 

9. LaMarcus Aldridge (Previous Ranking: No. 8)

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    Team: Portland Trail Blazers

    Position: PF

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.0 blocks, 22.8 PER

    Since March 25: 22.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.6 blocks

    More trouble with his thumb is threatening to push LaMarcus Aldridge into the honorable mentions, but he's staving off such a decline by remaining remarkably effective whenever he's on the floor. The Portland Trail Blazers have been brutalized by that pesky injury imp throughout the second half of the season, but Aldridge has been the driving force behind actually keeping them afloat. 

    He sat out March 24 against the Golden State Warriors, but he returned one night later, and Rip City has been back on track ever since. In seven games, the Trail Blazers have lost only once, and it's hard to be particularly upset about a dropped game against the Los Angeles Clippers. 

    Reflecting back on the original injury to his teammate's thumb, Damian Lillard told The Washington Post's Michael Lee the following at the beginning of April: 

    When he got hurt I was like, "I don't know how the rest of this season is going to go." I knew that I would have to step up and play bigger. I knew my role would really increase. We could've still been a playoff team but it would've been really hard. When he decided to play, I was relieved, knowing that our best player was going to be out there and we're going to be an elite team, knowing that we had him out there. It said a lot about him as a person. Without him out there, obviously, we aren't the same team and he realizes that.

    Throughout the season, Lillard and Aldridge have often taken turns serving as the team's best player. 

    But lately, there's been no doubt who it is. 

8. Kawhi Leonard (Previous Ranking: No. 9)

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    Team: San Antonio Spurs

    Position: SF

    Age: 23

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks, 22.0 PER

    Since March 25: 18.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.4 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Remember when Kawhi Leonard was a defensive dynamo with limited skills on the scoring end? 

    We have to talk about such status in the past tense now, since he's definitively asserted himself as an offensive force during the second half of the season. Even before a 26-point game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, the 18.4 points per game he was scoring since the last edition of these rankings were actually quite misleading. And not in a bad way.

    First, they didn't do justice to his marvelous efficiency.

    Before Tuesday, Leonard had shot 57.3 percent from the field during that stretch, 45 percent from beyond the arc and 81.8 percent at the charity stripe, giving him a stellar true shooting percentage of 65.4. For perspective, Kyle Korver (70.5) and DeAndre Jordan (69.2) are the only qualified players beating that mark on the season. 

    Second, Leonard was playing only 27.6 minutes during his average outing because the San Antonio Spurs are too good again. There's no need to push the limits and have him wear down before the inevitably deep playoff run.

    More perspective? Leonard was averaging 24 points per 36 minutes during the stretch, which is something only 10 players achieved this season among those who are spending at least 20 minutes per game on the floor. 

    Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Klay Thompson, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook populate that list, and there's nary a lackluster scorer among them. 

    Oh, and as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale noted on Twitter, "Per NBA.com, Kawhi Leonard's net rating (+11.7) is better than those of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Combined. (+11.3)"

    He's arrived. And then some.

7. DeMarcus Cousins (Previous Ranking: Honorable Mention)

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    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Position: C

    Age: 24

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.1 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.8 blocks, 25.3 PER

    Since March 25: 27.4 points, 16.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 3.0 blocks

    Though the Sacramento Kings are hemorrhaging losses left and right, DeMarcus Cousins is absolutely dazzling as an individual. 

    On March 27, in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, he exploded for 39 points and 20 rebounds. After sitting out one game, he'd prove it really wasn't an explosion for him. Against the Houston Rockets, he went for 24 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists (along with six blocks and three steals), making for quite the impressive triple-double. And one contest later, he posted 24 points, 20 boards, 13 dimes and three swats in a dropped game against—once again—the Pelicans. 

    Think about that. Not only did he record back-to-back triple-doubles with at least 20 points and 20 boards—something that hadn't been done by anyone but Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, per SportsCenter's Twitter feed—but he's now had back-to-back-to-back 20-20 games.

    Since the start of the 2009-10 season, only Kevin Love, Dwight Howard, Nikola Vucevic and DeAndre Jordan had managed to do that

    Cousins is keeping some elite company these days. It's only fitting he should do the same in the superstar rankings.

6. LeBron James (Previous Ranking: No. 4)

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    Team: Cleveland Cavaliers

    Position: SF

    Age: 30

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.7 blocks, 26.0 PER

    Since March 25: 21.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.2 blocks

    Thus begins our run of MVP candidates. 

    Strange as it may seem to see LeBron James—who can legitimately still be called the best player in the world, even if he hasn't achieved that status this season—all the way back at No. 6, there's actually a solid chance he's left off MVP ballots entirely. Five candidates have better claims to the title at this point in the season, which is just bonkers. 

    After all, James has been amazing. He's paled in comparison to his usual greatness, and that, coupled with the fan fatigue resulting from his consistent excellence, has made it harder for him to stand out. It's especially true since the Cleveland Cavaliers have other stars on the roster and play in the Eastern Conference. 

    But let's not sell his achievements short.

    This season, more so than any other in recent memory, finishing behind a quintet of fellow MVP candidates is nothing to complain about, especially when he's played more passively in recent weeks. 

5. Russell Westbrook (Previous Ranking: No. 1)

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: PG

    Age: 26

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks, 28.7 PER

    Since March 25: 29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Is it even crazier that Russell Westbrook is falling all the way down to No. 5? Possibly, as he's continued to function as a one-man wrecking crew who feeds off triple-doubles. 

    Nevertheless, the Oklahoma City Thunder entered Friday night no longer in control of their own playoff destiny, and it's hard to make too many arguments that Westbrook should win the league's most prestigious individual award when he's simply trying to do way too much. 

    Those numbers since March 25 look fantastic, but they lose some of their luster when you realize that the often out-of-control point guard was shooting 34.8 percent from the field and 22.7 percent from downtown before an inefficient loss to the San Antonio Spurs. And it gets worse, as my FATS projections (based on historical similarities and explained in full here) show that the Thunder have been far better with Westbrook on the bench during their recent skid. 

    In those seven relevant games (six of which resulted in losses), OKC has played like a 21-win team with Westbrook standing on the hardwood. Well, running on the hardwood, since he plays as if he's incapable of standing still. 

    But when he sits, admittedly a small sample size, the Thunder have performed like a 43-win squad. That's not a discrepancy indicative of a successful MVP bid, and it's Westbrook's past performance that's ensuring he doesn't fall all the way to the bottom of the true candidates for the award.

4. Anthony Davis (Previous Ranking: No. 6)

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF/C

    Age: 22

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 24.4 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 3.0 blocks, 30.8 PER

    Since March 25: 22.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.3 blocks

    Anthony Davis just keeps on keeping on. 

    Though his scoring and rebounding numbers are slightly down in recent weeks, he's more involved in the offense, improved on the defensive end of the floor and leading the playoff push for the New Orleans Pelicans. Beyond that, he's been the driving force for a team that now controls its own destiny for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference after its Tuesday night victory over the Golden State Warriors.

    His play down the stretch run, which hasn't reached the historic levels attained by those in front of him here, prevents him from elevating all the way up to the top spot in this countdown. But on the season as a whole, he's arguably been the league's best individual standout, and that's a case that can be bolstered by a certain year-long number. 

    Davis' 30.8 player efficiency rating (prior to the GSW victory) not only leads the NBA, but it's one of the best marks in the history of the Association. Only 10 individual seasons have ever topped it, and they've all been posted by Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan or LeBron James.

    There's no shame in trailing three of the 10 best players who have ever suited up on the NBA hardwood.

    Especially when he only just turned 22 years old.

3. Chris Paul (Previous Ranking: No. 5)

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: PG

    Age: 29

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 25.9 PER

    Since March 25: 22.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 11.9 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.1 blocks

    "So I'm a little biased because I still think he's the best point guard in the league," Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott said about Chris Paul before last Sunday's matchup, per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "I think definitely the way he's played this season, with some of the injuries that they've had, he definitely should be in the [MVP] conversation."

    Doc Rivers, Paul's current coach, may be even more biased. But he's no less free with his praise: 

    I just think CP is taken for granted. He should take that as a compliment, really. He's really good and he's very consistent at being really good. I think we just kind of take it for granted. I've seen it done in a lot of places. But the MVP thing, I think people have already decided between two or three guys. I don't think anybody else is going to enter into that.

    Paul deserves to be more entrenched in the conversation. He's not slowing down in the slightest, seamlessly reincorporating Blake Griffin back into the Los Angeles Clippers offense and continuing to showcase some heavy involvement. 

    The Clips and their 112.5 points per 100 possessions are quite easily the top offense in the league, and that's a status earned in large part by Paul's craftiness at the 1. He's always in total control of the proceedings, and he's no stranger to throwing up some historic performances. 

    Case in point, April 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers. 

    Paul became the first player since 1985-86 to record 41 points, 17 assists and four steals, and that wasn't his only accomplishment on the night. No one had gone for 17 dimes and no more than one turnover since Rajon Rondo in 2010, and this was only the 24th such performance in the last three decades.

2. Stephen Curry (Previous Ranking: No. 3)

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PG

    Age: 27

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.2 blocks, 27.6 PER

    Since March 25: 25.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks

    After his 5-of-8 showing from downtown against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night, Stephen Curry has taken 8.6 three-point attempts per game since March 25 and drilled them at a mind-numbing 58.3 percent clip. Going back even further, he's lofted up 8.5 tries per contest from beyond the arc during March and hit on 52.3 percent of them.

    Those are insane numbers. There's no other way to describe them.

    Now, he's going to break his own three-point record. 

    In 2012-13, he set the all-time mark by knocking down 272 triples in a single season. One year later, he was off his game, hitting "only" 261. But now, he's already up to 268.

    With four games remaining on the schedule, Curry just needs to keep playing. Steve Kerr is basically the only man who can keep him from establishing a new career best—and league-history best—as the Golden State Warriors have already locked up the sought-after No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. 

    If he plays, he's going to get there. There shouldn't be any doubt about that, especially given his recent form. 

1. James Harden (Previous Ranking: No. 2)

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: SG

    Age: 25

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 27.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.7 blocks, 27.0 PER

    Since March 25: 32.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.3 blocks

    At this point, James Harden should be the MVP favorite. 

    The other candidates—Stephen Curry in particular—have been fantastic, but Harden has been on that proverbial next level. He's still throwing up a ridiculous number of points while scoring in efficient fashion, and he hasn't let that prevent him from rebounding with aplomb, racking up plenty of dimes and playing vastly improved defense.

    Team success is always a huge component of the MVP race (even if it shouldn't be in some cases), and that works in favor of the bearded 2-guard. 

    Through injuries to key pieces and a ridiculously tough group of teams to compete against in the Western Conference, Harden has maintained his level of play and flat-out carried Houston into prime position. Thanks to his efforts, the Rockets have the No. 2 record in their half of the NBA, even if the level of healthy talent on the roster wouldn't point toward such a lofty position. 

    Right now, there's no wrong choice for MVP, so long as some level of discretion is applied. Curry, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James are all justifiable choices, depending on the criteria that are most important to a certain voter. 

    All the same, Harden is the right choice. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com and are current heading into April 7's games.