The MVP Race: Christmas Aftermath
Every year, the Christmas day showdowns are a way for MVP candidates to put an exclamation mark on their case at capturing the Maurice Podoloff trophy.
This season, few of the leading candidates managed to truly take advantage of the stage; however some of the more fringe candidates were able to seize the opportunity and use the showcase as a way to catapult themselves up the rankings.
Let’s start with every basketball fan’s favorite ex-teammates, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Coming into the holiday season neither player had really made much of a case for being named the NBA’s MVP. After all of the fanfare behind KD’s showing in the NBA Finals, so far this season he hadn’t even looked like the best player on his own team. In fact, it was Steph Curry who had been leading the Warriors to another great regular season with Durant having a slightly less impressive season thus far. However, with Curry missing from the lineup, Durant showed up for the Christmas day match-up, outplaying LeBron James and leading the Warriors past the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In Oklahoma City, the script was a little different. With the Rockets missing starting guard Chris Paul, the struggling Thunder were able to overpower Houston as each member of the ‘Big Three’ contributed signature performances, combining for 75 points. Westbrook led the way with 31 PTS, 6 REB and 11 AST while shooting 50% from the field. Although it hasn’t been a smooth season for OKC, it seems as though they have finally found a winning formula on the offensive end. If the Thunder can maintain their winning ways, the reigning league MVP could find himself right back in the thick of this year’s race.
Unfortunately, where there are winners there must be losers. Each of the top-3 candidates had lackluster performances on Christmas day.
James Harden, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving each suffered losses on the big day, with each man playing below their own standards. Although Harden managed 29 PTS and 14 AST, his shooting percentages (39% from the field and 27% from the 3-point line) left a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, both James and Irving looked disinterested at times throughout their respective games and while each tried to turn on the jets late in the fourth quarter, it was too little too late.
James Harden (32.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 9.2 APG, 31.0 PER) Houston Rockets (25 – 7) James Harden has been on a scoring tear as of late, averaging 44 PTS and 10 AST over the last three games but unfortunately it hasn’t exactly resulted in wins for the Rockets who are 0-3 over the same stretch. Luckily for Houston, they are coming off a 14 game winning streak and are 14-1 when both Chris Paul and James Harden both start.
LeBron James (28.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 9.1 APG, 30.6 PER) Cleveland Cavaliers (24 – 10) LeBron James didn’t look like himself on the big day, but luckily for the King and the Cavaliers the winner of the Christmas day showdown has gone on to lose in the NBA Finals in each of the previous two seasons. James is averaging 28 PTS and 9 AST over his last 5 games, and the Cavs are starting to look every bit the title contender we thought they would be.
Kyrie Irving (24.7 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 4.9 APG, 25.6 PER) Boston Celtics (27 – 10) The Celtics have slowed down from their blistering start to the season, but they are still playing great basketball and Kyrie is still having a career year. For all of the doubters during the off-season, it looks like Kyrie might have made the right decision. He is playing the most efficient basketball of his career and finally looks as though he can lead his own team to success.
Kevin Durant (26.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 5.1 APG, 24.8 PER) Golden State Warriors (27 – 7) With Steph Curry missing time due to injury, Durant has stepped up in a big way for the Dubs. In the 6 games without Steph, Durant is averaging 28 PTS, 8 REB, and 3 BLK and the Warriors have gone 5-1. On separate teams, Durant and Curry are perennial MVP candidates, but together they are arguably the greatest offensive duo in NBA history.
DeMar DeRozan (24.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.9 APG, 24.0 PER) Toronto Raptors (23 – 9) After a slow start to the season, DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors are really picking up steam. Although his scoring numbers are down slightly from last season, DeRozan has clearly improved in some key areas. For starters, his 3-point shooting has developed drastically this year (34.1 3P%) and his ability to create offense for his teammates has improved tremendously (4.9 APG).
Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.6 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 4.6 APG, 30.9 PER) Milwaukee Bucks (17 – 15) The acquisition of Eric Bledsoe has turned the Milwaukee Bucks into a very dangerous team in the Eastern conference, and with Jabari Parker expected to return in early 2018, they don’t look like they’re going away. Giannis has been playing at an MVP level all year long and as the team begins to rack up more wins, his case will only get stronger.
DeMarcus Cousins (25.9 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 5.2 APG, 23.6 PER) New Orleans Pelicans (17 – 16) Cousins continues to barrel his way through the rest of the Western conference, carrying the Pelicans on his back with Anthony Davis in and out of the rotation as he deals with nagging injuries. In NOLA’s last ten outings, Cousins has completely stuffed the stat sheer averaging 27 PTS, 12 REB, 5 AST, 1.6 STL and 1.3 BLK. When Davis doesn’t play, Cousins’ numbers jump to 30 PTS, 14 REB, and 6 AST.
Russell Westbrook (23.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 9.9 APG, 23.5 PER) Oklahoma City Thunder (19 – 15) The Thunder are slowly starting to look like the squad that we expected them to be. After winning 5 straight and 7 of their last 8 games, Westbrook has OKC right back in the thick of the playoff race. Unfortunately, amid their recent success, trade rumors surrounding Paul George continue to swirl. Regardless, the team has looked strong lately and Westbrook has looked every bit the former MVP that he is.
Victor Oladipo (25.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 3.9 APG, 24.0 PER) Indiana Pacers (19 – 15) Not only is Victor Oladipo a dark horse MVP candidate, but so far this season he is also a leading candidate for Most Improved Player as well. After the Pacers were criticized for their poor return in the Paul George trade, who could have guessed Oladipo would put together a season that (statistically speaking) has been more impressive than any season George put together in Indiana.
LaMarcus Aldridge (22.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.0 APG, 24.0 PER) San Antonio Spurs (24 – 11) With Kawhi Leonard being out for close to three months, Aldridge was able to maintain the status quo in San Antonio, keeping them as a top-3 seed in the Western conference and only 3.5 games behind Golden State for the number one seed. Now with Leonard back in the fold, it is up to Aldridge to make sure that his reintegration goes as smoothly as possible. Did you disagree? Let me know your MVP picks at @awrashoo