The NBA is roughly a quarter of the way into its 2010-11 season; as such, it's a good time to begin keeping track of what's really important: the MVP race! Every other Wednesday at SBNation.com, we'll provide MVP Power Rankings based on the season to date. On the other Wednesdays, we'll check in on the other award races.
Disagree with these rankings? Comment below or fire tweets at @teamziller.
1. Chris Paul
The Hornets have cooled substantially; that hot 11-1 start was not unsustainable, but an outright mirage. The team just isn't terribly talented, except for one guy. Chris Paul, back from 2009-10's injury troubles, retakes his position at the best point guard in the league, and I'm not accepting arguments otherwise. Not until the others can score 1.2 points per shot attempt, deliver assists on half their individual possessions and create more turnovers than any other player in the league. The competition isn't far away, but I can't see CP3's lead slipping away.
2. Pau Gasol
For the second consecutive year, Pau Gasol looks like the best offensive big man in the NBA. That's saying a lot when a guy named Dirk is still in the league and near his peak; Pau's been better, though. Andrew Bynum's injury has Pau playing more minutes than at any point since his Memphis days, and it's paying off for L.A.: 20.2 points on a strong .586 True Shooting percentage, with well above-average rebound rates on offense (11 percent) and defense (21.7 percent), a strong block rate (4.2 percent) and only 37 turnovers in 21 games. The Lakers have been great because of a few factors. Pau's the most important.
The unspoken contender for CP3's "top point guard" title is Deron Williams, for the obvious reason that Deron, already amazing before this season, has become a killer in 2010. With new faces in the rotation and a real lack of perimeter help on offense, Williams has been a whirlwind of production for the Jazz. Deron is averaging 21.8 points a game on a strong .590 True Shooting percentage; if he manages to re-find his three-point stroke, he could push those averages even higher. Add to that 10 assists a game, understand that the 3.5 turnovers are what largely separate him from Paul, and appreciate one of the best maestros of the milennium at work in Salt Lake City.
There isn't much to say about Dwight Howard that hasn't been said in the last three seasons: he's an incredibly productive scorer, the league's best rebounder, the league's best post defender and the unquestionable star of an elite team. The Magic aren't quite mud around Howard, but Dwight doesn't have the teammate support most other league stars do. All the major contenders in the East have at least two legit All-Star options. No one's putting Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson or Rashard Lewis on their ballots. (Brandon Bass? Eh, maybe.)
It's a secret of the stathead cabal that Manu Ginobili has often, over his career, been the most productive Spur per-minute. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker certainly aren't slouches, and Duncan is without question the franchise's eternal MVP thanks to the wonderful impact he makes on both ends as well as his rock-steady dependability. But Manu is a bolt of production just about every time he steps on the floor, and the combination of a 32-minute starting role and the Spurs' new up-tempo offense have suited the Argentine well. Ginobili is scoring 20.6 points a game on absurd .631 True Shooting, and adds five assists from the off-guard position, and is 11th in the NBA in steals at 1.9 per game. The Spurs look smooth, and Manu's the biggest reason why.
6. Al Horford
The Hawks have needed more offensive production with the loss of Joe Johnson; Al Horford's been providing that boost all year, even before the All-Star guard was shelved. More than two minutes a game have been chopped off Horford's playing time, in part due to Larry Drew's penchant for sitting players with two fouls for huge stretches of the first half, and in part because Drew has moved true center Jason Collins into the rotation, which should last all of another week. But despite the playing time constriction, Horford's scoring average has shot up to 17 (from 14.2) Despite the extra shots, Horford's scoring efficiency has also risen (59 percent from the floor, .630 True Shooting). He's also still one of the best rebounders in the game and a superlative defender down low. He's a winner, and the Hawks robbed him by locking him up for $60 million over six years. He'll be worth every penny.
7. LeBron James
Cue the Imperial March. I've already argued the Heat are better than dudebros who just look at W-L record would realize, but there's no deep science needed to explain LeBron James' position on the MVP Power Rankings. Here are the basics, bub: 23.7 points, 7.3 assists, 5.7 rebounds. Exactly one other player is accomplishing similar numbers this season (Russell Westbrook), and exactly one player not named LeBron has gone 23/7/5 since 2001: Dwyane Wade, in his would-have-been-MVP-if-not-for-LeBron 2008-09 season. Through the muck and the mire of the Heat's sloppy start, LeBron has still been doing what he does: fill up the box score like no other.
The Mavericks, currently riding a 10-game winning streak, have fulfilled their promise to compete with everyone in the West, Lakers included. That obviously wouldn't be possible without Dirk Nowitzki wrecking the court, as he has been for a decade. Nowitzki's season-to-season consistency has been something of a marvel; he's averaged 23-26 points and 7-10 rebounds a game every season since 2004-05, and hasn't been below 46 percent on field goals in that span. He's at 25 points and seven rebounds on a career best 55 percent this year. Everyone always scoffed at the Larry Bird comparisons, but if you ignore the gaping championship disparity and some measure of defensive efficacy, this is the type of production Bird always had. Maybe that's sacrilege; from my seat, though, it's truth.
9. Paul Pierce
Speaking of the Celtics: they, not the Heat, are on top of the East. As has been the case since 2007-08, it's a real team effort; as such, any MVP campaign for a Celtic is immediately deflated. But Pierce has been too good to ignore. The Truth is averaging a team-high 19 points on super-strong .621 True Shooting, and chipping in on the league's No. 2 defense with physical but surprisingly smart play.
10. Joakim Noah
I argued with my colleague Andrew Sharp over the benefits of Horford vs. Joakim Noah earlier this season; in the end, I don't think either of us would say a bad word about either player, because they are so freaking good. To my eyes, Horford's been more valuable, but Noah's no slouch, this year boosting his averages to 15 points and 12 rebounds in almost 38 minutes a night. That's a huge minutes jump, by the way -- he played just 30 a night under Vinny Del Negro last year -- and it's not necessarily due to Carlos Boozer's early absence, as Noah has gone past 38 minutes in two games of the three competitive games since Boozer's return. That means Tom Thibodeau believes heavily in Noah, as well he should.
11. Russell Westbrook
I mentioned in the LeBron entry that Russell Westbrook was the second player meeting the 23/7/5 standard this season. So ... why is he below LeBron? Westbrook, as explosive and awesome as he's been, still isn't an efficient scorer (it takes 18 field goal attempts and nine free throws to get those 23 points) and his turnovers are off the charts, in a bad way. But those are quibbles. Westbrook carried the Thunder during Kevin Durant's physical and metaphysical absenses, plays defense better than any point guard not named Rajon Rondo and has had some huge end-game heroics. Westbrook may be the best player from the 2008 NBA Draft, but that's a discussion for another time, after we see a few dozen more Westbrook-Derrick Rose showdowns.
12. Amar'e Stoudemire
Knicks fans may revolt when they see New York's new darling Amar'e Stoudemire this low, but, come on, let's be realistic. While Stoudemire's offense has been extraordinary and not far off what it had been in Steve Nash's orbit, and while he's obviously the biggest factor in the Knicks' immense turnaround, he's still a defensive nightmare (in a bad way) and his rebounding is just not good enough given the minutes at center he's been getting. Still, Stoudemire remains one of the most impactful big men in the game, and for all his faults makes his team much, much better.
13. Kobe Bryant
Surprise, surprise; Kobe Bryant has been one of the NBA's top scorers early this season. Bryant's at 26.7 points a game, which is his lowest average since 2003-04, but is still worth No. 2 in the league (behind Kevin Durant). The problem for Kobe (as well as Durant, while we're here) has been efficiency: it's taking 21 FGAs and more than eight FTAs to get those points; it shakes out to Kobe scoring 1.08 points per shot attempt. That's equivalent to league average. The problem is that the Lakers have five rotation players well over league average (and Kobe) in efficiency, and they really ought to be getting a couple of Bryant's shots. This includes, with a bullet, Lamar Odom, who has been a champion (58 percent from the floor, .638 True Shooting) but receives about half the shots Kobe does.
14. Paul Millsap
The Jazz join the Lakers as the only team with two entrants in the MVP Power Rankings, as Paul Millsap ensures that Utah will never ever miss Carlos Boozer. Millsap has boosted his scoring average to 18 while maintaing efficiency (55 percent from the floor). He and trenchmate Al Jefferson need to pick up their performance on the defensive glass, but otherwise, Millsap's interior scoring punch is helping Deron Williams put the Jazz in strong position to jab with the Spurs, Mavs and Lakers at the top of the West.
15. Kevin Love
And now, some love for the losers: Kevin Love's Timberwolves are awful, but the power forward has been a whirlwind of wonderful. Love is on pace to become the first NBA player to average 15 rebounds a game over a full season since Ben Wallace in 2002-03; if he maintains his current 20 points per game average as well, he'd become the NBA's first 20/15 player since Moses Freaking Malone in 1982-83. And remember: some folks believed, due to his height and lack of epic athleticism, that he couldn't even survive in the NBA, let alone wreck it. Height ain't nothin' but a number.