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MVP Power Rankings: December Edition

Barbara J. Perenic/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

We’re finally a full “month” into the NBA season, which means the sample size is finally big enough to start getting reads on early trends. The MVP race is typically the most fun one to follow, because, duh, it’s the most prestigious individual award the NBA offers.

In my pre-writing years, I ran an MVP Power Ranking and updated it weekly, which generated plenty of discussion because of the constant movement but in hindsight, that was a bit much. I’ll be updating the rankings every first of the month because that’s a lot more plausible.

Before I get yelled at, let me throw this out there now:

-Team record matters! James Harden, Anthony Davis, and Andre Drummond are all very good at basketball. Realistically, they aren’t sniffing MVP votes without making the playoffs (or in Drummond’s case, at least finishing with a top four seed)

-Stats and impact matter as well! Being on a great team helps, and we understand that stats without context — good or bad — aren’t worth putting much stock into. With that being said, if a player doesn’t have at least All-NBA caliber stats to go along with that team success, his MVP case likely won’t be that strong.

-If a player has an MVP-caliber teammate, it’s going to be hard to be high on the list unless that player has clearly been the best on the team.It is very early in the year!

-This list will change, likely in a dramatic fashion.

Enjoy the ride, and let the controversy begin.

ON THE BUBBLE:

Nov. 24, 2015 - JIMMY BUTLER (21) shoots a jump shot. The Portland Trailblazers hosted the Chicago Bulls at the Moda Center.  (Photo by David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Nov. 24, 2015 – JIMMY BUTLER (21) shoots a jump shot. The Portland Trailblazers hosted the Chicago Bulls at the Moda Center. (Photo by David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

JIMMY BUTLER (CHI, 11-5): 20.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2 spg, 0.9 bpg, 46% FG, 40% 3PT, 80.8% FT

-In a season filled with early, nagging injuries, a system overhaul, Rose-related headlines, and constant lineup changes, the Bulls sit 3rd in the East thanks in large part to the steady, two-way play of Jimmy Butler. If it wasn’t clear last year, it is now: These are Butler’s Bulls, and he’s their best player on both ends.

For now, the Butler vs. Klay Thompson discussion isn’t even worth having. It’s Butler.

BLAKE GRIFFIN (LAC, 10-8): 25 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.8 apg, 0.8 spg, 0.7 bpg, 54.1% FG, 40% 3PT, 75.4% FT

-The Clippers have been a mess this year. The bench has been awful, Chris Paul has been suffering through some combination of injuries and natural decline all season, and JJ Redick has been in and out of the lineup early on. For a team that desperately needs floor spacing to make things work, not having one of the NBA’s best shooters and replacing him with Jamal Crawford or Austin Rivers is one heck of a dip.

However, Griffin has taken yet another leap offensively, serving as one of the NBA’s best midrange shooters, statistically one of the best post players in the league (take that, haters), an unfair playmaker off the bounce for a man his size, and can still dunk on your soul. Defense has been a bit of an issue early on, which isn’t a “new” development. He must take more pride on that end of the floor to really put himself in that top 3-5 player status.

KEVIN DURANT (OKC, 11-7): 28.4 ppg, 7.4.rpg, 3.4 apg, 0.9 spg, 1.8 bpg, 52.2% FG, 47.3% 3PT, 91.1% FT

I was torn between Durant and his polarizing teammate, but I chose to leave Durant out for the time being mostly because of the games he’s missed. It’s actually pretty stunning how little attention Durant has gotten this year, at least compared to guys like Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, and Paul George.

Early on, Durant has been insanely efficient and has made the game look incredibly easy. The jumper is pure, he’s finishing at the rim at a high level, and has even stepped up his defense this year. You never hear Durant in the two-way player discussion — as arbitrary and ultimately stupid as that distinction is when you really think about it — but he probably should be in there.

It’s hard to ignore 28-7-4 on 54-47-91 with good defense. Don’t worry, he’ll move up the list soon playing like that.

5. RUSSELL WESTBROOK (OKC, 11-7): 27.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 9.8 apg, 46.8% FG, 30.9% 3PT, 83.4% FT

His defense hasn’t been good (again) and he’s turned the ball over a good bit.

That is an awful way to make a case for Russell Westbrook being top 5 in an MVP power ranking, but like Kobe, you have to take the bad with the good to really appreciate how spectacular Westbrook has been this year.

The most impressive part of Westbrook’s year so far has been his passing. Sure, the 9.8 assists a night are nice, but the passes he has fit into tight spaces this year to cutters have been amazing. The skip passes to the corner he’s fired off of high P&R opportunities have been fun to watch. Westbrook can absolutely dime out.

With Durant back, Westbrook has had even more space to attack the basket. That’s pretty scary. It’s even scarier to watch Westbrook when he gets going. It’s been ugly and reckless at times, on both ends, but as of now, Westbrook is on pace to join Oscar Robertson as the only players in league history to average 27-7-9 over a season.

4. KAWHI LEONARD (SA. 14-5): 22.2 ppg, 7.8 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.9 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 51.6% FG, 47.1% 3PT, 86% FT

** DISCLAIMER: Having Kawhi Leonard over Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook does NOT mean I think he’s a better player than either of them. I simply feel like he has a better MVP case than either of them so far. **

Now that I have that out of the way, let me offer up a quick apology to Gregg Popovich. A few years ago when Pop said Kawhi would be the face of the franchise one day, I scoffed. Loudly. Frankly, I never saw Leonard becoming more than an 18-7 guy with great defense — still very good, but not “face of the franchise” good.

Fast forward to 2015, and Kawhi is shooting over 40% from three and has one of the best mid-post games in the NBA. He’s a smart passer, doesn’t force much (which makes his 22 ppg even more absurd) and doesn’t mind doing dirty work on the offensive glass either.

Oh, and he’s the best perimeter defender in the NBA.

Barring injury, there’s no reason Leonard shouldn’t make the All-Star team and an All-NBA team this season. On a team with LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan, young, near-mute Kawhi Leonard is easily San Antonio’s best player and is the primary reason they sit at #2 in the West.

3. LEBRON JAMES (CLE, 13-4): 25.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 6.6 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.5 bpg, 49.8% FG, 30% 3PT, 67.4% FT

Do you know how good you have to be to have 25-7-6 considered as a down year?

I tweeted earlier this year that this is probably LeBron James’ last season as the consensus best player in the league, but that hasn’t stopped him from having yet another stellar season and being the main reason that the Cavs are the top seed in a surprisingly strong East.

The Cavs are without their entire starting backcourt and have been without Mo Williams and Timofey Mozgov for stretches, but James has done a very good job of shouldering the playmaking role (as always), and Kevin Love has surely helped him in the scoring department.

LeBron should probably call a players only meeting to discuss remedies for his free throw shooting. I mean, they’ve held one for everything else this year.

2. PAUL GEORGE (IND, 11-5): 27.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.6 spg, 0.2 bpg, 45.9% FG, 45.5% 3PT, 85% FT

The complete list of players to average 27-8-4 while shooting 40% from three: Larry Bird, Kevin Durant, Paul George.

No, really, that’s it.

After a gruesome leg injury temporarily derailed his ascension to stardom and limited him to six games last season, George has shook off the rust and is blossoming into a superstar right before our eyes.

George has been throwing FLAMES from three this year. Pull-up 3s, spot-up 3s, off pin-downs, curls, you name it, he’s done it. His playmaking off the bounce has been solid. He’s taken too many contested mid-range jumpers for my liking, but who the heck cares? His story is awesome!

1. STEPHEN CURRY (GSW, 19-0): 31.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 6 apg, 2.5 spg, 0.2 bpg, 51.2% FG, 44.5% 3PT, 94.1% FT

He’s been the NBA’s best offensive player and is clearly the best player on one of the best teams in NBA history. What more could you ask for?

For the heck of it though, I’ll leave you with this stat:

Among 20 ppg seasons in NBA history, Curry is on pace to be the one of four players (Barkley, McHale, Durant) to do so with a True Shooting percentage above 65 and an effective field goal percentage above 60. Curry’s 68.6 TS% and 63.4 eFG% are both tops on that list.

Throw in the fact that Curry qualifies for the 50-40-90 club this year while averaging over 31 ppg, and it’s fair to acknowledge he’s quite literally having the most efficient scoring season of all-time.

He’s a cheat code, people.

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