We're approaching the quarter mark of the NBA season, and MVP candidates are starting to step forward. Some of the usual names are having standout campaigns, but there are some early-season surprises as well. Let's take a look at the top candidates in our first edition of the 2014-15 NBA MVP Power Rankings.
1. Stephen Curry, Warriors
After putting up MVP-worthy numbers last season, Curry is back and better than ever this year. Although his 41.2 percent mark on three-pointers would be the lowest of his career, he's making up for it by hitting 56.8 percent of his two-pointers. That number blows away his previous career-high of 51.4 percent on twos in 2011-12.
In addition to becoming more efficient on two-pointers, Curry is getting to the line more frequently and assisting at a similarly high rate to last season. These improvements have the point guard third in the league in win shares, first in win shares per 48 minutes, first in box plus/minus and first in value over replacement player, per Basketball-Reference.com. He's also second in the league in PER at 27.88.
Curry's dominance is a major reason why the Warriors have gotten off to a 15-2 start, and his offensive impact is especially notable when comparing how the team does when he's on the floor versus on the bench. Golden State has scored 112.7 points per 100 possessions in 556 minutes with Curry on the floor, compared to just 93.2 points per 100 possessions in 260 minutes with him on the bench, per NBA.com.
It just doesn't get much better than this:
2. Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Davis is putting up out-of-this-world numbers and his PER of 33.33 leads the league by a rather wide margin. However, The Brow is docked some points because of the Pelicans' 8-8 record.
3. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
Gasol has always been known as a defensive ace and one of the best passing big men in the game. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and led centers in assists per game for two straight years before Joakim Noah took his crown last season.
This year, Gasol has made the transformation to go-to scorer. The 29-year-old has never averaged more than 14.6 points in a season, but this year, he's at 20.1 points per game. And although his usage is up, his efficiency is also up. His 59.1 true shooting percentage is higher than what he finished with the last four seasons.
The increase in scoring load hasn't hurt Gasol's defense or assist numbers, and his superb two-way play has the Grizzlies boasting a league-best record of 15-2. Much of the credit to his improvement can be attributed to a healthier diet, which includes him growing and eating his own produce, according to Sam Amick of USA TODAY:
"I'm thinking about what I'm going to do tomorrow, what I'm going to do today (rather than free agency)," Gasol said. "I want to see if the broccoli that I planted and my cauliflower has grown at all since we've been gone (on a road trip). ... I have a little (garden). But it's been cold and been up and down, so I don't know if they held up or not.
"(The diet change) started because of my injury last year. After being hurt, being away from the game for a few weeks, that (showed) me that I was not invincible. I've never missed games like that, so after that I had to make a conscious effort. 'How can I change the things I do?' I was a pretty good player, pretty OK player, but if I wanted to be better and stronger, I had to change a few things and change them - you just change your habits - and this is kind of the result. I don't think it's over yet. I think there's more to come."
It appears going from Big Macs to veggies has helped turn Big Marc into an MVP candidate.
4. James Harden, Rockets
Dwight Howard has missed six games. Terrence Jones has missed all but four games. Patrick Beverley has missed 10 games. But the Rockets are still 13-4 thanks in large part to Harden, who's having one of his best all-around seasons ever despite a dip in offensive efficiency.
Harden is putting up 25.2 points, 6.7 assists and 6.2 rebounds, and his 25.06 PER would be a career high. Yes, he's shooting just 40.5 percent overall and 33.9 percent from long range, but he's still efficient because he gets to the line 9.7 times per game, which is tops in the league.
Harden has also put more effort into the defensive end, where he had become a laughingstock the past few seasons. There have still been some terrible lapses, but he somehow leads the league in defensive wins shares, per Basketball-Reference.com. The Rockets rank second in defensive rating, per NBA.com, and they've been a tad better on that end with Harden on the court.
5. Chris Paul, Clippers
Paul is, somewhat quietly, having another dynamite season. The Point God currently leads the league in offensive win shares and win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com.
6. LeBron James, Cavaliers
James' averages of 24.9 points, 7.4 assists and 5.8 rebounds would be superb for most players, but he's having a down year by his standards. The four-time MVP's uneven play on both ends of the floor has contributed to the Cavs' rocky start as a team, although four straight wins has them on the right track.
7. DeMarcus Cousins, Kings
Cousins is one of the most, if not the most, dominant low-post forces in the league. He's averaging 23.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 blocks while shooting 51.2 percent from the field. All of those stats would be career-highs except for the assists, and he's also shooting over 80 percent from the line, which is something he has never done in his career.
Perhaps more important than Cousins' continued offensive improvement is his work on the other end of the floor. Not only is he blocking more shots than ever, but he's doing an excellent job contesting shots. Opponents are taking 8.9 shots at the rim against the big man, but they're making just 43.6 percent of those attempts, per SportVU. That's a better mark than Gasol and noted defensive stalwart Omer Asik, among many others. It must also be noted that the Kings are 15.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Cousins on the floor, per NBA.com.
Cousins has also done a nice job keeping his temper in check. While he leads the league with 4.7 personal fouls per game, he hasn't committed a flagrant foul and has only been whistled for two technical fouls (one was later rescinded). His improved play and maturity was key in Sacramento's surprising 9-5 start, and his absence in the last three games due to an illness has hurt.
8. Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Lowry is the straw that stirs the Raptors' drink, and his strong early-season performance has Toronto atop the Eastern Conference and second in the league in offensive rating, per NBA.com. Lowry's MVP candidacy will be put to the test with DeMar DeRozan sidelined, and the point guard's 27-point, 13-assist effort was huge in a tough road win in Sacramento on Tuesday.
9. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
Lillard just keeps getting better and better in his third campaign. While his scoring average is down from last season, his 61.3 true shooting percentage is well up from last year's mark of 56.8 percent and his assist numbers are also on the rise.
10. Jimmy Butler, Bulls
Butler and the Bulls couldn't come to an agreement on a contract extension before the season, and Chicago has to be kicking itself now. That's because it appears the fourth-year man has made the leap to stardom and a likely max contract.
Butler has been an elite defender since coming into the league, but his offense has always been a bit shaky. He really struggled on that end last year, shooting just 39.7 percent overall and 28.3 percent from three. While the three-point shot is still a work in progress, the rest of his offensive game has improved by leaps and bounds. His shooting numbers are up almost across the board (stats via NBA.com):
|In The Paint (Non-RA)
|Above The Break Three
Another reason for Butler's rise is a knack at getting to the free throw line. He's third in the league in free throw attempts per game, and his free throw rate (FTA/FGA) of .613 is tops among guards, even better than Harden.
Butler is averaging 22.0 points on the year, and he has reached the 20-point mark in 12 games. That happened just 10 times in his first three seasons in the league, including the postseason. Butler's great two-way play has helped lead the Bulls to an 11-7 record despite a litany health problems, including multiple nagging injuries to Derrick Rose.
Next 5: Klay Thompson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, John Wall, Chris Bosh