It’s a whole new season in the NBA, and the playoffs are rolling. Five teams have already punched their way into Round 2: Warriors, Rockets, Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Wizards.
The NBA is a long and grueling 82-game season, in which the best teams and players have the time and space to rise to the top. In the playoffs, however, new life, close attention and small sample sizes give everyone the opportunity to have their moment in the spotlight. A few big games could vault a player into the national conversation, and some hot shooting could make them a household name.
The regular season is over, ladies and gentlemen. They have their own awards for that. The slate is wiped clean, and what everyone did before doesn’t matter. Here are the Playoff MVP Power Rankings to help you sort through the NBA players who are playing the best in the biggest games thus far.
1. Stephen Curry – 4G 39.8M 33.8PPG 5.3REB 7.3AST 1.3STL 0.0BLK 45%/42%/85%
I had three rules in my head when coming up with this list: 1) don’t take the regular season into consideration at all, 2) cut the list off at 10 players, and 3) no ties. I would go on to break the second and third rules, but I don’t think I’m breaking the first one here. Separating what Curry and LeBron James did during their first-round sweeps is hard to do. Both teams were heavy favorites, and both players were leaders in the MVP race all season. Curry answered the question about his usage, as his minutes increased in the first-round series and you saw an uptick in his numbers to match. He’s playing seven more minutes per game, which led to seven extra shots and 10 more points per game so far. He’s jacking up 12 three-pointers a game, and although his shooting percentages are slightly down, it begs the question of what type of numbers he could have put up this season if he played in the fourth quarters of these games. This is a crowded field, but between the big comeback and the four-game dismantling of the Pelicans, Curry starts with pole position here.
2. LeBron James – 4G 43.0M 27.0PPG 9.0REB 6.5AST 2.3STL 1.5BLK 47%/20%/74%
James made a good case for himself as well. He was really darn good, and while players often are admired for what they can do in a limited workload, playing 43 minutes per game during a sweep of the Celtics just adds to how marvelous he can be despite carrying the team for extended minutes. His overall shooting percentage stayed relatively even from the regular season, although he needs to be a little better from behind the arc, and he has amped up the other parts of his game, with his rebounds, steals and blocks all seeing nice jumps. With Kevin Love out, James will likely be playing at the 4 more than usual for the rest of the playoffs, and the Cavs will need his best on defense and on the glass if they’re going to make a legitimate run at a championship.
3. Jimmy Butler – 5G 44.2M 26.6PPG 6.2REB 3.6AST 2.2STL 1.0BLK 47%/40%/79%
Had Chicago been able to close out the Bucks in four or five games, Butler might have been No. 1 on my list. The minutes here are ridiculous. Even with the overtime game, this guy never feels like he comes off the court. He has added nearly seven points per game to his scoring average, while only taking an extra four shots per game. His overall shooting percentage and three-point percentage are both up from the regular season, as are his rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game. He’s the best player on a Bulls team that went up 3-0 in Round 1, and he’s doing all of this against a Bucks team that was second in defensive efficiency this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the talent everyone salivates over in terms of length, athleticism and potential, but Butler is all of that realized, and he’s carrying the Bulls on both sides of the floor so far.
4. Blake Griffin – 5G 41.2M 23.8PPG 13.4REB 7.2AST 1.8STL 1.2BLK 45%/0%/69%
I understand the complaints about Griffin, considering he was the guy who made the big turnover that cost the Clippers a chance to go up 2-0 on the Spurs. (Also really struggled down the stretch of Game 5.) It wasn’t his best moment of the game. What was his best moment, you ask? It was the whole rest of the darn game, where he lit up the box score for 29 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. His averages during the postseason are ridiculous. He has increased his minutes and points a healthy amount, even though his shooting has dipped a little bit in the process, which is what happens to most of the Spurs’ opponents. He’s getting to the line more often, and he has increased his rebounding from 7.6 per game to 13.4. 13.4! It may make me reconsider his regular-season commitment, but that doesn’t matter here. All I see is a number, and it’s a big one, and the rebounds he gets are big ones. He’s playing better than expected on defense, keeping up with the rotations against the whirring San Antonio ball movement. What really sticks out are the assists; 7.2 a game for a big man who plays on the same team as Chris Paul. That number is good for fifth out of all players in the playoffs, ahead of some very good point guards and barely behind Curry.
5. James Harden – 5G 36.0M 28.4PPG 3.8REB 7.8AST 1.2STL 0.2BLK 47%/39%/96%
I knew this was a crowded race when I had to drop Harden to five. Goodness gracious he hasn’t stopped a bit in these playoffs. He’s third in points scored and second in assists, shooting high percentages for his usage rate, including 96 percent on his free throws, of which he has taken an outrageous 10.4 per game in these playoffs. For reference, that’s more free throws per game than DeAndre Jordan has taken in the playoffs, and the Spurs are putting him to the line on purpose with 23 seconds left on the shot clock. It’s no surprise Harden is still carrying the team, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to move up this board in the next series.
6. Chris Paul – 5G 38.6M 22.6PPG 5.2REB 6.8AST 1.6STL 0.4BLK 53%/40%/95%
Paul gets left out of the top five, even though I originally slotted him at three. There’s the case to be made that Paul has been better than Griffin, but once I popped one up there it unfortunately takes away from the other. Paul has played great defense and is shooting at an unbelievable clip. He may sit out of the top five today, but if the Clips can get past the Spurs and he keeps this up, here’s your dark horse playoff MVP.
7. Kawhi Leonard – 5G 35.4M 23.4PPG 7.0REB 3.0AST 1.6STL 0.8BLK 54%/47%/74%
Kawhi was the best defender in the NBA this year, but that doesn’t matter here. Paul has really made him work on that end, which is more a credit to Paul’s candidacy than Leonard’s. Still, Leonard is scoring at a high rate, and efficiently at that with a monster 54/47 split on field goals and threes. He’s aggressively attacking the basket, and if there was any doubt he’s the Spurs’ best player, that’s gone at this point. Now, it might sound crazy to rank Leonard so low while I have Griffin and Paul so high, and my answer is that choosing between these guys is insanely hard. Griffin and Paul get the edge because they have gotten nothing out of Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick hasn’t been a big enough factor and Jordan can’t stay on the floor because of his foul shooting. The Clips are relying on Austin Rivers for big minutes. Austin Rivers! Also, side note, ranking Kawhi seventh on this list is a terrible decision and I hate myself for it.
8. John Wall – 4G 38.0M 17.3PPG 4.0REB 12.5AST 0.8STL 1.0 BLK 39%/27%/86%
Here we have a little drop-off after those top seven havoc-wreaking candidates. Wall is the alpha dog on a team that earned a first-round sweep. He handed out 12.5 assists per game in that series. If Wall retires tomorrow (probably unlikely, but let’s not rule it out) that would be the 17th-best average for a player in the playoffs in NBA history, per Basketball-Reference.com. That would put him behind Magic Johnson and John Stockton 12 times, and be the best mark since Steve Nash in 2007. The shooting splits for field goals and threes is pretty low, which keeps him out of the top seven, but if this team can keep scoring despite Randy Wittman’s best efforts, Wall could be on the verge of superstardom in these playoffs.
9. Dwight Howard – 5G 32.6M 16.6PPG 13.8REB 1.2AST 1.6STL 3.0BLK 58%/0%/46%
This is the surprise candidate for the top 10. Over the past few seasons, Howard has been intermittenly washed up, hurt, looked like he was hurt, playing better but not “Orlando Dwight,” and a little washed up again. He still might not be “Orlando Dwight,” but he’s playing like a real second star next to Harden. He has come alive, grabbing 13.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs to lead all players, and has been enough of a deterrent on defense to keep the Mavericks away from the hoop. The best part is how diligently Tyson Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki had to pay attention to him when guarding him, afraid he might have another outburst of lob passes from Josh Smith turning into easy dunks.
T-10. Tim Duncan – 5G 36.2M 17.2PPG 10.8REB 3.8AST 1.8STL 2.0BLK 55%/0%/58%
T-10. Kyrie Irving – 4G 40.5M 23.3PPG 5.0REB 4.3AST 1.0STL 1.0BLK 43%/48%/81%
Here’s where I break two of my rules at once. I’m not supposed to have any ties, and I’m supposed to cut the list after 10. Well, which of these two would you have left out? Old Man Duncan, who’s still scoring efficiently for the series despite one off night, averaging a double-double and putting a demoralizing block on Blake Griffin in a key spot. Plus, he’s Tim Freaking Duncan. Then again, Kyrie is red-hot from beyond the arc and is carrying a big load in Cleveland next to LeBron for a team that ran through an overmatched Celtics team.
Duncan gets his name first, because what he did all year as he turned 39 years old is so astonishing it puts him slightly ahead. Crap, that’s a third rule broken. Scratch that. Duncan gets his name first because of the alphabet and for no other reason.