The 2016-17 NBA season is shaping up to have quite possibly the most interesting MVP race in more than a decade. We've had a few surprises in recent years like Derrick Rose's win in 2010-11 or Stephen Curry's first title in 2014-15, but LeBron James has pretty much been the favorite since his third year in the league and that's no longer the case.
James is in the running, but at the outset of this season you could have pointed to eight or ten players with a real shot at MVP, and that hasn't changed too much now that we're a quarter of the way through the year. Here's a look at the Top 5 MVP candidates at the moment (with a few honorable mentions as well).
5. Kawhi Leonard
He's incredibly quiet, so we don't always notice Kawhi Leonard, but this kid (yeah, he's still 25) is becoming one of the most reliably great players in the NBA. He's probably the league's best defender (even if the media is dying to give the DPOY award to kicking enthusiast Draymond Green), and he's also by far the best offensive option in San Antonio at this point.
Throw in the fact that the Spurs are churning along at second in the West, and there's a very legitimate case to be made for Leonard as an MVP candidate. Another ranking even listed him a little higher at #4, further proving that Leonard is on plenty of people's radar for MVP.
4. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant and the Warriors have been as good as we thought they'd be together. A preseason look at divisional favorites correctly predicted some teething problems (or growing pains) when the season kicked off, and for a few days there we were concerned about the fit in Golden State. Still, the team rounded into form quickly and Durant is now playing some of his most efficient basketball ever.
Through 26 games at the time of this writing, Durant is playing his second-fewest minutes ever (34.5), but shooting the highest field goal percentage (53.5%), and third-highest three-point percentage (40.5%) of his career. He's also about a full assist and a full rebound above his career averages. The idea that Durant went to a team of stars and got better is flat-out frightening, and makes his MVP case legitimate.
3. LeBron James
It's almost easy to forget about James with all the attention being paid to other stars this season. He's won his Cleveland title and a handful of MVPs, and it sort of seems like it's someone else's turn. That is, until you realize he's averaging 25 points, 9 assists, and 7.6 rebounds. He's borderline flirting with the same triple-double average people are freaking out over regarding Russell Westbrook, but he's doing it without needing to be a one man show.
2. James Harden
Harden actually leads the MVP tracking at Basketball Reference, which are based on statistical output. His turnovers are pretty high (5.6), and yes, he's still a liability on occasion on the defensive side of the ball. But Harden has been so shockingly terrific on offense that MVP voters might look the other way where those negatives are concerned.
In his first season playing point guard under Mike D'Antoni, Harden is averaging 27.6 points (second best in his career) and 11.8 assists—more than 4 assists more than he's ever averaged. He's also at his highest rebounding average (7.8), though his shooting percentages are slightly down across the board.
1. Russell Westbrook
Finally, there's Westbrook. He's averaging the same troublesome 5.6 turnovers as Harden, but he's also currently averaging a triple-double, which hasn't been done since Oscar Robinson's playing days. As long as he's able to haul the Thunder into the playoffs, maintaining that average would almost certainly land him the MVP.
Honorable Mentions: Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin. These four are all having outstanding seasons, and could still work their way into contention for MVP.