NBA MVP Rankings: Can LBJ Repeat?
Every few weeks, FanHouse will offer a writer's opinion on the current NBA MVP Rankings. This time, Tom Ziller gives his top 20 through the season's first four weeks, as well as an assessment of the multitude of rookie point guards.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland. The Chosen One won his fairy tale Podoloff last season before embarking on the Summer of 'Bron, but missed out on the real prize, the O'Brien. This season, with the Finals on his mind and free agency taking up slot No. 2, LeBron doesn't exactly seem to be gunning for a repeat MVP coronation. But who cares? The offseason shooting work worked: James is matching his '08-09 scoring average (28 points a game) on two fewer FGAs, owing to a much improved jumper. Thirty-six percent from long range? Be afraid, America.
2. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas. My brosef Bethlehem Shoals has handed Dirk the early season lead, and with good reason: the Mavericks are smoking, and Nowitzki's the ringleader. Dirk can and will shoot more efficiently, but don't forget that because he primarily shoots jumpers he rarely coughs up turnovers (just 18 through 12 games). He's also rebounding like a champ, and forcing flashbacks to his '06-07 MVP season.
3. Chris Bosh, Toronto. The Raptors can't quite put it together as a team, though there are signs of a pending breakthrough. But Bosh has it together individually, and he's shattering the old definition of Bosh. Playing two fewer minutes a game in the high-octane Toronto attack, Bosh is averaging an extra four points (with just one extra FGA) and almost four more rebounds a night. Call this the Chris Paul Memorial "Outshone by Ridiculousness" Third-Place Award, for now.
4. Josh Smith, Atlanta. Speaking of putting it altogether, a la Bosh. Smith abandoned the three (for the most part) and took over the paint. His field goal percentage is outrageous (56 percent, compared with 45 percent career), his rebounding has been stellar and he has regained the indefatigable blocking spirit missing from the soulless but successful '08-09 campaign. It's like the exclamatory Smith from Atlanta's lean years has found a way to exist within the framework of team success. And it is GLORIOUS.
5. Dwyane Wade, Miami. Wade will probably never win a Podoloff -- he's already 28, LeBron has gone into full-on Madman mode, and the next wave is ready to rise up -- and he has definitely relaxed a bit from that psychotic '08-09 bit. Of course, this is because he has more, better help, especially on defense (Jermaine O'Neal is downright spry). Still, 27/5/5? Not sane.
6. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles. This ranking is too low for the extraordinary Bryant, but that's owed more to the excellence above than anything Kobe has done. The Mamba is shooting more frequently than anyone in the league (excluding Antawn Jamison's night of infamy), and he's making plenty of his attempts. The surprising thing in the pre-Gasol games has been Kobe's lack of assists. He's at 2.9 per game right now, the lowest level since he was 19 years old. And even then he averaged 2.5 per game ... in 13 fewer minutes a night. With Kobe's scoring where it is, it's not a huge problem. But it bears monitoring. So, you know, we can call him selfish the next time there's a two-game losing streak. </predictable cliche>
7. Brandon Roy, Portland. Like Dirk, Roy's shooting looks a bit off in the ledger right now, but that's owed to a slow start amid the Blake-Miller media malaise. Now that 'Dre is in charge, Roy is back, with the Blazers on his back. Like Dirk Part II, Roy is sure as Brevin Knight (slight exaggeration) with the rock, only giving up two turnovers a night despite 15 shots, seven free throws and five assists. That is some ridiculous ball efficiency. Naismith weeps in joy.
8. Carmelo Anthony, Denver. 'Melo has made a mockery of his rep, coalescing last season's defense/periphery-focused approach with his original Murderous Scorer persona to create some jacked-up Megatron of Impending Doom. It's all come out to the most effortless 30-point per game average in recent memory, a razor-like focus I can't see fading over the long march. All these cats on the list should matter in the postseason, assuming everyone makes it. (Looking at you, CB4.) But you can really foresee 'Melo taking May by its haunches, can't you?
9. Chris Paul, New Orleans. Paul is injured badly, and will fall from this perch as his absence rolls on. Because -- not in spite of, because -- of that, what he did in 10 games deserves mention: 24/9 on a True Shooting percentage of (ahem) .706. Paul shot better from three than almost the entire league shoots in the paint. All birds touch Earth some day, and it's unlikely CP3 would have kept up the clip. But doing it for 10 games is a triumph in itself.
10. Dwight Howard, Orlando. Even though the early going has been a disappointment for Howard and the Magic, the young Superman has still dominated the paint with regularity, and with ease. It's the "ease" that bothers -- there's a sense that, based on previous exploits, Howard could be doing more. On defense, especially. But he leads the league in defensive rebound rates and is currently second in total rebound rate. He leads the league in field goal percentage. He's fine.
11. Steve Nash, Phoenix. The Suns have been amazing, and refreshing, but it's amazing and not refreshing to see Nash mentioned as an early MVP candidate. His offensive contribution remains exemplary (hence this fairly lofty rank above some deserving friends), but -- here's this old canard -- his defense can't be hidden, not now and not in April. Phoenix is a bottom tier defensive squad, and while the frontline is less than optimal, Nash is a huge, glaring reason as to why opponents score at near-will. It's not Nash's fault -- his flaw is a physical one, and he knows (as well as Alvin Gentry and thankgoodnessnow Steve Kerr) to play and prepare to his strength. But it's there, it's readily apparent, and it's non-negotiable.
12. Joe Johnson, Atlanta. That Johnson's best pro season has coincided with Atlanta's leap up the leaderboard is not coincidence. J.J. has basically been a more gunner-y, less stopper-ish Roy. One could argue he belongs way up this list (like, say, alongside Roy), but Atlanta's backcourt is giving up as many open looks as the frontcourt (anchored by Smith and stout Al Horford), and while Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford are leading suspects, J.J. is not immune from rotating late.
13. Rajon Rondo / 14. Kevin Garnett, Boston. Rondo and Garnett don't drop jaws in the stat lines (OK, Rondo's numbers at least leaves jaws aloof on occasion), but there's a reason Boston again has the league's best defense, and I'm willing to credit the continued physical psychosis of Rondo and the return of a not-quite-healthy-but-still-incredible Big Ticket. Rondo is like the defensive version of Nash. I could read a story about Rondo working with a physicist on finding the most anatomically efficient method of swiping at a live dribble without batting an eye. As for Garnett, he still has the mental capacity to stop any scorer, and the physical capacity hasn't left him yet. For basketball's sake, I hope it's not over for at least a couple more years.
15. Joakim Noah, Chicago. Laugh (at me and him), but Noah's superlative defense and energetic flavor have kept the Bulls afloat despite struggles for Derrick Rose and John Salmons, and injuries (one emotional, one physical) to Tyrus Thomas. If not for Noah and Luol Deng (playing as well as he ever has after recovering from a leg fracture last spring), the Bulls might be sitting on one or two wins. What a steal at No. 9 in the 2007 draft.
16. Andrew Bynum, Los Angeles. I said you could laugh at the Noah pick, but hold your fire here. Q(uick): how does one score 20 points on 14 shots in the NBA? Ask Andrew Bynum, who's gone 20/12, basically, and might actually improve considering he's been more efficient in the past. The Lakers have missed Pau Gasol -- that's undeniable. But Bynum has helped Bryant keep the Lakers elite during that absence. Bynum showed in the past how well he works with Pau, and I expect that while the center's raw numbers will fall to make room for the star Spaniard, his effectiveness will continue to shine through.
17. Danny Granger, Indiana. Granger continues to build his invisible brand. The Pacers look better (excepting the loss to the Knicks), and Granger is outpacing his own standard, averaging roughly 25/7. His shooting efficiency is grand, owing to an underhyped propensity to get to the stripe and a killer three-point stroke (which is a bit behind in the early going). The defense is also coming along. That's wasted in Indiana, of course, but it's still nice to have in your back pocket. (Shockingly, Indiana is currently in the top 10.)
18. Greg Oden, Portland. Did someone say defense? The Blazers improbably boast the league's No. 2 defense, and Oden -- all 24 minutes per game -- is the biggest reason. Oden leads the league in rebound rate (grabbing 20.9 percent of all rebound opportunities) and block rate (swatting 7.6 percent of all opponent FGAs while on the court). While Oden's on the court, opponents shoot 43 percent from the field, which is, my friend, ridiculous. At the other end, while Oden turns the ball over way too much (about three for every 36 minutes played), he doesn't take shots he can't make, and his free throw rate is shockingly good for a defensive specialist big man. So, yay Greg Oden. You're doing it.
19. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee. The triumphs heaped upon the wonderfully joying Jennings may not last -- forget the rookie wall, there's an inkling Jennings might be on a serious hot streak before accounting for the schedule-based struggles first-year players often see. In that case, let's pile on now. Not even Jennings, confident as he's been, could have expected this much success so early. Heck, it was a minor upset than Jennings won over coach Scott Skiles enough to get the starting job over Luke Ridnour (a victory, you'll remember, Ramon Sessions couldn't quite reach most of last year). Jennings has been a scoring wizard, a legit playmaker and a mascot for a team in desperate need of spirit. Well done, sir. Well done.
20. Amar'e Stoudemire, Phoenix. Stoudemire has seen a decline in his numbers despite the Gentry reversion, but he has seemingly gotten his head on straight and his defense (while still not exactly excellent) has improved. In the interest of promoting this type of behavior, let's give Stoudemire as much credit as we would if he were still averaging 25 points and 10 blown defensive rebounds a game.
Five more: Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Ben Gordon.
Etc.: Top Rookie Point Guards
2. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento. Evans has scored 20 points in each of his past five games, and is putting up numbers which could be defined as Roy-ish/R.O.Y.-ish. During the course of a game, you can actually see him learning NBA defense. It's pretty striking how receptive to real-world lessons Evans has been -- it's like he learns through basketball osmosis, giving new meaning to "trial by fire." Kudos as well for spending so much time with assistant coach/basketball Yoda Pete Carril, who has turned this fellow into a really good free throw shooter. (How often does an average college FT shooter fail to improve in the pros? Evans has been in the lig four weeks.)
3. Jonny Flynn, Minnesota. Ramon Sessions has now been displaced by two rookie point guards -- first Jennings, now Flynn, who isn't getting too many assists (just 3.2 per game) but has been a bright spot in an otherwise dispiriting situation.
4. Ty Lawson, Denver. I have no idea why anybody would be surprised that Lawson, as efficient a college point guard as he was, is just as successful as a blur off the bench for a team like the Nuggets.
5. Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas. Beaubois, on the other hand, I can understand. The young Maverick is now featured with Jason Kidd in a double-PG starting line-up, shattering all early expectations. Beaubois hasn't quite been the Caribbean Westbrook we'd expected, but no one will care if he keeps shooting like a Dwarven rifleman.
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State.
7. Darren Collison, New Orleans. Collison has plenty to learn about defending the Steve Nash pick-and-roll, but don't we all? Collison missed a ton of shots against Phoenix Thursday, but stuck with it and sealed the game with a ballsy drive to the rim in the final moments. Bully for you, sir.
8. Eric Maynor, Utah.
9. Jeff Teague, Atlanta.
Nowhere to be found in North America: Ricky Rubio, Minnesota.