Houston Rockets

NBA MVP Power Rankings: James Harden emerges as clear leader in MVP race

Can anybody catch James Harden?
Can anybody catch James Harden? (Getty Images)

Each week here on NBA.com, we update our NBA MVP Power Rankings by asking our experts to submit their updated top five.

Some key questions as team's arrive at the 50-game mark:

  • Will James Harden ever slow down?
  • How will Chris Paul's return impact Harden's grasp on the lead?
  • Can Giannis make a second-half push?
  • If the Warriors keep rolling, does Steph Curry make a run?
  • Has Kawhi Leonard missed too many games?

On to this week's rankings!

5. Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic (tie)

Kawhi Leonard is set to return to the Raptors' lineup on Saturday after missing four games and it couldn't come at a better time as it is now Toronto's turn to try and slow down the buzzsaw otherwise known as James Harden.

Leonard's had some success over the years slowing down Harden and forcing tough jumpers. According to Second Spectrum's player tracking data, Harden's field goal percentage on contested shots against Leonard is among his worst against any primary defender over the last five years.

MORE: What missing time means for Leonard's MVP odds

Will Leonard match up with Harden in their head-to-head tilt on Saturday morning? The last time they played back in December 2017, Harden shot just 6-18 although just one of those attempts came against Leonard. The result? Leonard swatted it into the stands.

As for Jokic, his MVP candidacy remains in large part tied to the success of the Denver Nuggets. Looking at the schedule, the 7-footer is a potential candidate to fade from MVP contention as the Nuggets have the second-hardest remaining schedule when accounting for home and road.

4. Paul George

A banner year for Paul George just keeps getting better.

After drilling a game-winning four-point play last weekend to pull out a tough road win at Philadelphia, George was announced as a Western Conference starter on Friday for this year's All-Star Game.

He's back inside the top five after a two-week hiatus. The only time he's received end-of-year votes for MVP came in 2013-14 when he finished ninth.

What can I say? Thank you guys for all the love and support! I was told I wouldn't be an All-Star again coming to the west.. I was told now that Bron is in the west it's over for me... y'all held the kid down. THANK YOU and Love y'all! #6 #Palmdale

A post shared by Paul George (@ygtrece) on

3. Stephen Curry

Is there a roadmap for Curry to win a third MVP?

The Golden State Warriors are heating up, winners of nine straight games entering the weekend. Leading the charge is Curry who is averaging a team-high 31.2 points per game during that stretch. He's only scored fewer than 28 twice in that stretch, finishing with 14 in a win over the Knicks and 11 in a win over the Lakers. Even though Curry had an off night scoring, he still dealt out 14 and 12 assists, respectively, his two best games of the year as a playmaker.

Let's say Golden State goes on a big run. I'm talking something like 20 straight wins and a 30-4 stretch to close out the season. That would get them to 64 wins in a conference in which nobody else is currently on track for more than 55.

Also on the table for Curry? A 50-40-90 season in which he also averages 30 points per game. Only one player in NBA history has ever done that and it was Curry himself when he became the first unanimous NBA in league history in 2015-16.

There's no guarantee any of that happens. There's also no guarantee that Harden stays as hot as the sun, especially with Chris Paul on the verge of returning to the lineup. If Harden comes back down to Earth or even a close orbit while the Rockets settle into a 7th or 8th place finish in the West, there will be an argument for Curry.

Remember, Kobe Bryant didn't win MVP in 2005-06 when he averaged over 35 points per game.

Ditto for Michael Jordan in 1986-87 when he averaged over 37 points per game.

Both lost out to players on better teams. If the Warriors keep rolling, don't rule out Curry once again holding up the hardware.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo

This is the first week in which Antetokounmpo did not receive a first-place vote from any of our voters.

And while it may seem as if the Greek Freak is starting to fall back from Harden in the race for the MVP, things aren't always as they appear.

Case in point?

The Basketball-Reference.com MVP tracker.

An entirely objective algorithm based entirely on past season's statistics, team records and voting trends, the tracker provides daily updates on each player's chances of winning the awards based on what we know to be true of past voting patterns.

Basketball-Reference.com MVP Tracker
Player Chance To Win
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo 35.9%
2. James Harden 21.1%
3. Anthony Davis 7.8%
4. Kawhi Leonard 7.4%
5. Stephen Curry 6.9%
6. Kevin Durant 6.5%
7. Nikola Jokic 5.4%
8. Joel Embiid 4.4%
9. Paul George 2.7%
10. Kyrie Irving 1.9%

Going by this measure, it's Antetokounmpo who is still out in front.

1. James Harden

James Harden is having the most prolific month in over 50 years.

MORE: The highest scoring months in NBA history

Here's some absurd context on Harden's season so far:

  • He's averaging over 36 points per game. Nobody has done that since Michael Jordan in 1986-87.
  • He's hit 205 pull-up 3s. The next most? 99 by Kemba Walker.
  • Harden is averaging 45.3 PPG in January, 12.7 more than anyone else. The gap between Harden and 2nd (Davis) is the same as the gap between 2nd and 33rd.
  • Harden could go scoreless over his next 10 games and still lead the league in scoring.
  • Entering Saturday's game, each of his last 76 made baskets have been unassisted.
  • Harden has scored at least 30 points in 21 straight games. The only player in NBA history with a longer streak is Wilt Chamberlain who had several, most notably a 65-game streak.

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