The first MVP Ladder of the second half of the season is finally here. There’s been a lot of action to catch up on since our last ladder, and with the All-Star break coming last month, a lot of our MVP candidates have kicked it in to high gear. Particularly LeBron James and his Heat, who have now won 16 straight games but are still chasing the League’s best record. In other news, Stephen Curry proved he deserved to be an All-Star by exploding for 50-plus against the Knicks, James Harden played the best game of his career against his former team, and Kobe has the Lakers in good shape.
The second half of the season is where things really come to light. The MVP race is going to get pretty intense in the next couple of weeks, but with LeBron and the Heat flying high, it’s going to be hard for anyone to knock him off the top spot. Now that we’re in the second half of the season, team wins hold more weight in the MVP race than ever before. Sure big numbers can help you climb up the ladder, but at this point the race is becoming more about which player can make the biggest impact for their team from this point on. When the stakes are raised, who performs best?
Here are our rankings for volume 7 of Dime’s official NBA MVP Ladder.
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10. STEPHEN CURRY – Since the break: 29.1ppg/6.3apg/2.6rpg
It’s obvious that Stephen Curry’s All-Star snub put a chip on his shoulder. Even though he isn’t the type of guy to come out and say, “I should’ve been an All-Star” he was still able to get his point across by erupting for a couple of big scoring nights.
February was a rough month for the Warriors. Going into the All-Star break they lost five straight, including two crucial losses to Houston — who are only two games behind them now. So with only one win (against Phoenix) in their pocket for the month, it was really important for them to come out of the All-Star break and win some more games. After winning three close ones against the Suns, Spurs and Timberwolves, the Warriors headed east for their final two games of the month against the Pacers and the Knicks.
Curry got it going in Indiana scoring (what was then a season-high) 38 points on 14-of-20 shooting hitting 7-of-10 from long range, but unfortunately it was in a losing effort. He carried his hot shooting with him to New York the following night and went off for 54 points on 18-28 shooting. He was in the zone all night, knocking down 11-13 from long range and making all the right plays in between. There was nothing the Knicks could do to stop him. Unfortunately, that was in a losing effort, as well. The Warriors finished the month of February with only four wins to show for it. While wins are a crucial factor in the MVP race at this point, it’s hard to give Curry the 10th spot on the ladder. But after back-to-back performances like that, it’s even harder to leave him off.
9. DWYANE WADE – Since the break: 25.0ppg/5.4apg/6.0rpg
The fact that the Heat have won 16 straight isn’t the only reason D-Wade has finally climbed his way onto the MVP Ladder. He’s been playing some of the best basketball we’ve seen him play in a long time and he’s finally looking 100 percent healthy. Sitting out of the Olympics this summer was an unfortunate sacrifice he had to make to get healthy, especially after winning the NBA championship, but it’s obvious he made the right choice. There’s no arguing that choosing to sit out had a lot to do with why many thought he had fallen off at the beginning of this season. Even D-Wade’s buddy Charles Barkley said he would never be the same player he used to be. But instead of accepting the criticism or letting it get to him, D-Wade used it as inspiration.
Wade has been as consistent as can be since word got out that he “fell off.” He’s delivered on a nightly basis for Miami and although he isn’t quite the high-volume scorer he was before, he’s shown flashes of greatness all season long. Those flashes of greatness are cool and all, but it wasn’t enough to get him on the MVP Ladder until recently. Going into the All-Star break, Wade had four 30-point games on the season. He’s already had three since then, including a season-high 39 points against Sacramento last week. The time has come for the Heat to kick it into high gear and get ready for the playoffs. Currently on a 16-game win streak, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. While LeBron James is obviously the centerpiece, there’s no denying that D-Wade has a lot to do with Miami’s success as well.
8. RUSSELL WESTBROOK – Since the break: 30.6ppg/6.3apg/5.5rpg
It’s an ongoing debate that will never end: who should take more shots? Kevin Durant, or Russell Westbrook? As obvious as it seems (Durant leads the NBA in scoring), there’s no definitive answer for that question for this reason. Westbrook gives the Thunder a unique advantage over every team in the league. The fact of the matter is there’s no point guard in the NBA that can stop him from scoring and he knows that, so why would he make his opponents lives any easier by being less aggressive? He’s the most athletic player at his position and he takes advantage of it every night. He brings a different dynamic to the team that opponents have to deal with on a nightly basis, and he deserves much more credit than he gets for that.
Thunder fans are spoiled. They don’t realize how much of a luxury it is to have the league’s top-scoring PG and the league’s top scorer on the same team. That’s a deadly combination, especially against teams with a defensive liability at the point guard position. For example, in a blowout win over the Lakers on Tuesday, Westbrook had 37 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. So who can honestly continue to complain about him shooting too much anymore? Finding the middle ground between being aggressive himself and distributing the basketball has been a tough challenge for Westbrook, but he’s doing it better than he’s ever done before. He joins LeBron as the only two players to be in the top 10 in both scoring and assists this season per game.
7. JAMES HARDEN – Since the break: 27.5ppg/6.3apg/5.0rpg
The excitement of being able to enjoy his first All-Star game on his own home turf had Harden feeling good before the All-Star break. He was already having his best month of the season, putting up 30+ in three straight games in early February and he wouldn’t stop there. After enjoying the festivities and playing host in his first All-Star game, Harden got right back to business. In his first game after the break Harden put on an extra show for the Houston crowd. He had the best game of his career, scoring 46 points on 14-19 shooting with eight rebounds and six assists in a close win over his former team.
That was an important game for Harden’s Rockets, who have been fighting to stay the course after losing 7-straight in January. They currently sit in the seventh spot out West, which would have them playing the Thunder in the first round if the playoffs started tomorrow. That’s an interesting thing to keep an eye on as the playoffs approach and now that the Rockets have shown the Thunder they’re for real, it could make for an extremely exciting first round series.
6. KOBE BRYANT – Since the break: 31.6ppg/6.0apg/6.6rpg
Don’t look now but the Lakers are going to make the playoffs. They’re only a game and a half behind Utah, and when it comes down to it, they have Kobe Bryant and the Jazz don’t. Since the All-Star break, Kobe has been playing better than anyone. He’s been averaging almost 32 points per game since the break and has already eclipsed the 40-point mark twice. The Lakers have won all the games they’re supposed to win. They’ve won six of the eight games they’ve played since the break, only losing at Denver (where it’s almost impossible to get a win), and at Oklahoma City (which is a matchup they’re not quite ready for yet). Although the Lakers have had a rough season, and probably won’t make much noise in the playoffs, it will be nice for Kobe to know that he did everything in his power to give them a fighting chance. Although he has been on the bottom half of the ladder for pretty much the entire season, it’s about time he gets his fair share of recognition for putting the Lakers in the position they’re in.
Even though the real formula for success for the Lakers is to play through Howard, he isn’t quite ready to take on that responsibility just yet. He isn’t comfortable enough with his role on the team to impact games the way he’s capable of doing right now. For Howard to become the dominant player he’s always been, he’ll have to be healthy first and feel confident second. Right now it’s clear that he isn’t either of those things. But lucky for him, the Lakers still have Bryant. Kobe is getting them the necessary wins they need to make the playoffs, but he won’t keep playing this well for much longer. If Dwight can get healthy and get confident in time for the playoffs, and start dominating games the way everyone thought he would, the Lakers could make it much further than people expect them to. If they do end up making some noise and making a deep playoff run, Laker fans will have Kobe to thank.