What's interesting about this year's MVP race is that MVP races usually aren't this interesting. Over the past eight years, LeBron James has typically been so far out in front that there's no serious debate.
The times he failed to win -- the 2008 national realization that, oh dang, Kobe doesn't have an MVP!, the post-Decision backlash that benefited Derrick Rose and last year's Kevin Durant coronation -- are exceptions that prove the rule. (They were also fascinating. For example, Rose was no better than Russell Westbrook in 2011.)
This year is something else entirely. LeBron's slow start and Durant's injury problems opened the field up wide and a bevy of young stars have raced through. LeBron has fought back into relevance, too. It's become clear that Stephen Curry and James Harden are the favorites, but any guess as to which will come out ahead is just that. Then you have surging triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, wondrous quadruple-double threat Anthony Davis (a guy close to setting the record for top PER season ever) and a resurgent Bron Bron.
But my pick is the guy who is in all likelihood going to finish No. 6 in the voting: Chris Paul.
My case for CP3 is brief and clear. While CP3 scores just 18 points per game on efficient shooting, he creates 23.4 points per game by assist -- some four points more than Westbrook, five points more than Curry and LeBron and six points more than Harden. If you add the points scored and points created by assist, he's right in the mix with those four. The only one much higher than CP3's 41 points created and scored per game is Westbrook, who is by far the least efficient scorer of the group.
CP3 also commits far fewer turnovers than the others -- just about two full turnovers fewer than both Westbrook and LeBron, 1.5 fewer than Harden and 0.7 fewer than Curry. Turnovers take points off the board. CP3's ability to avoid giveaways despite producing a huge number of points has helped L.A. tie Golden State for the No. 1 offense in the NBA. Considering his efficiency and huge production with the pass and the shot, there's a case he's been the best offensive player in the league.
He also happens to be the best individual defender of any of the other MVP candidates right now. Best offensive player in the league and a better defender than any other MVP candidate -- that's a hell of an MVP case.
Nothing is that simple, though, so let's wind through some MVP narrative thoughts that I think help bolster the case for CP3.
1. The "best player on the best team" criteria is often a lie
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This is one of Curry supporters' best arguments, yet it doesn't actually happen consistently. The Spurs were the best team in the NBA by three wins last season. The Spurs' two best players, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, tied for 12th in the MVP race. In 2011-12, the Spurs and Bulls tied for the best record in the league. Tony Parker finished fifth in MVP voting with all of four first-place votes (out of 121). Derrick Rose finished No. 11. LeBron's MVP wins have typically come when his teams were the best, and Rose's Bulls in 2011 did finish with the top record. But more frequently, the best player from the best team is a factoid best applied after the fact.
Consider this. The Warriors are currently a half-game better than the Atlanta Hawks. Imagine if Atlanta goes on (another) run for the last month of the season and Golden State eases up while Klay Thompson is injured. Are "best player on the best team" voters prepared to chuck a vote at Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Al Horford or Kent Bazemore? I didn't think so.
2. That said, team quality does matter
In practice, MVPs always come from very good teams, usually ones given legitimate chances to win the title. Philosophically, this makes sense. In no other major team sport do a squad's fortunes rise and fall more with one player. That's both an argument for great players whose teams are championship threats and an argument against great players whose teams are ultimately irrelevant.
This is the biggest mark against both Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. One of those two guys is going to miss the playoffs through no fault of his own. That's a serious demerit.
To me, it's not a disqualifier. If a player is clearly the best in the league but his team is on the weaker end of the scale, I'd be totally comfortable advocating his candidacy. Unfortunately for Westbrook and Davis, they haven't been so dominant that they've blown Curry, Harden, LeBron and CP3 out of the water.
As for the Clippers, despite what everyone feels, the numbers indicate that L.A. is a serious title contender.
3. Defense matters even though we struggle to measure defense
All awards but Defensive Player of the Year are really offensive awards. Sixth Man goes to the top bench scorer from what is usually a good team. Rookie of the Year goes to the best offensive rookie. Most Improved usually goes to the guy who has boosted his per-game scoring average the most. And of course MVP is linked pretty tightly with the scoring crown.
But defense matters. In a perfect world, just as we judge the best teams by how good they are on both ends of the floor, we'd judge MVP candidates similarly. It just doesn't work out in practice because our methods of judging an individual's impact on defense still lag.
Top of Their Games
Harden remains on top in a tight NBA MVP race
None of the top MVP candidates stood out this week, so we still have James Harden at No. 1.
Top of Their Games
Consider this problem. Curry is perhaps the least valuable defender of the MVP candidates. (Harden is right there with him.) But because Curry isn't really all that bad and because his team features Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, it matters not a whit to Golden State's performance. (The Warriors currently have the No. 1 defense in the NBA.) Curry's deficiency on that end compared to CP3 especially, but also Davis, Westbrook and LeBron is wholly irrelevant to actual team performance. Meanwhile, his incredible scoring and playmaking output is a major factor in Golden State being ranked No. 1 on offense.
It takes me back to the Steve Nash debates. Now, I didn't think Steve Nash deserved the MVPs back then, and I don't now. But a major argument against Nash was that he was always a bad defender. The Suns in those years were among the very best teams in the NBA despite being wholly average on defense. If Nash were a better defender, Phoenix could have been historically good. That's not the case with Curry, because Curry is sufficient enough that Golden State is historically good. Can you ding a guy for his defense when his team has the best defense in the land? I don't think you can.
Only one of the candidates plays defense so well so consistently that it's a real boon to his MVP case, and that's CP3. Yet his team's defense is mediocre. LeBron and Davis play plus defense, too, but their team defenses are in the same boat. (The Pelicans are No. 25 in defense!) Harden has improved but still lacks on that end, yet Houston is No. 9 in defense. So we have two meh defenders whose deficiencies don't matter because their teams are great on that end, and three plus defenders (one of which is a legit DPOY candidate) whose team defenses are average or worse. What a conundrum!
Of course, the Warriors and Rockets were built to cover up their star scorers' defensive deficiencies. Should Curry and Harden get credit for their GMs sacrificing extra offense to cover up their holes? All of that context makes it difficult for me to ding Curry or Harden for being worse than their rivals on defense, but it does allow me to boost CP3 for being so good individually despite his team's problems.
4. Geography shouldn't hurt candidates
If New Orleans or Oklahoma City were in the Eastern Conference (or if the top 16 teams regardless of conference got in), the Pelicans or Thunder would be easy playoff teams. If your criteria is that your MVP candidate must be in the postseason, you have to take that into consideration. Decades-long geographic imbalance shouldn't cost a player.
What affects my case for CP3, though, is that if the Clippers were in the East, they'd be tied with the Cavaliers for the No. 2 seed. If you consider how much tougher L.A.'s West-heavy schedule is than Atlanta's East-heavy slate, the Clippers might be rivaling the Hawks for the No. 1 seed. Just by virtue of being out West, CP3's team performance looks much less impressive than it's been.
(This is where I mention that the Clippers are No. 3 in margin of victory and No. 2 behind Golden State when you adjust for schedule strength.)
5. Being particularly memorable isn't a great criteria
I understand the desire to recognize Curry and Westbrook for their marquee performances. There's nothing more exciting than when Curry gets hot or Westbrook has 10-5-5 in the first half of the first quarter. Basketball is nothing if not entertainment, and there's something to be said for being the most entertaining.
But it's not like our memories of Chef Curry or The Terminator will be lost without an MVP. It's not as if commemoration via hardware is the only commemoration available to us.
6. Chris Paul is not the first dirty player in the NBA
This applies to Harden, too. Both CP3 and The Beard are hated for their floppy ways, and flopping is annoying. But it's just the current flavor of dirty play, which has a long, long history among the NBA's best players. Michael Jordan was dirty. He has a few trophies. Larry Bird had sharp elbows. So did Karl Malone and John Stockton and Isiah Thomas. This is not new.
The shaming via Vine is new and wonderful. Alas, being a trickster on the court has never been a reason to deny someone an award in the past, and I hardly think that should start now.
Let me close by saying I don't think any of the six candidates has a bad case. The one beautiful thing about having a wide open race is that no one can be robbed. I just think CP3's case is most compelling in the wide view.
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