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Analyzing the early season NBA MVP race

Only one-third of the NBA regular season is in the books, but the 2017-18 MVP already looks like a two-horse race. LeBron James is having the best season of his 15-year career, while James Harden leads the NBA in scoring and has the Rockets atop the Western Conference standings.

Here’s an early look at the top five candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award this season.

James Harden

As of this writing, the Rockets (23-4) are riding an impressive 12-game winning streak and own the best winning percentage in the NBA. He is the best player on the NBA’s best team, which gives him the inside track as the frontrunner for MVP this season.

Harden has been ridiculously efficient this year, scoring 31.5 points a night on 45.5 percent from the field, 39.4 percent from the three-point line and 86.5 percent from the free throw line. He’s adding 9.3 dimes, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game and has the advanced stats to back up his MVP case too.

Harden has the smoothest and most complete offensive arsenal of any player in the game right now. The Rockets’ dynamic guard is scoring more than 10 points per game in isolation, while averaging 1.26 points per possession in one-on-one situations. LeBron James is second in the NBA in isolation scoring at 6.9 points per game.

Opponents are faced with an impossible dilemma while trying to slow down The Beard. Guard Harden too tight – and he will blow by defenders for an easy bucket. Cut off the dribble drive – and he unleashes a lethal step back jumper. Harden is shooting a ridiculous 55.3% on step back three-pointers this season – a move that has made him impossible to defend.

And he’s doing it while playing less than 36 minutes per game. In fact, he is playing the least number of minutes (35.7) since coming over to Houston in the 2012-13 season.

He has even found a way to co-exist with Chris Paul. The Rockets’ star backcourt is outscoring opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions while sharing the court together so far this season.

Harden has been the NBA’s best player on the NBA’s best team. The Rockets look like they have a legitimate chance to upstage the Warriors in the Western Conference and could finish with the number one seed, especially if Stephen Curry’s ankle injury lingers throughout the season.

LeBron is having an absolutely fantastic year, but if the Rockets earn the number one seed in the Western Conference, it would be a shame for Harden to lose a second straight MVP award over a couple of rebounds per game.

LeBron James

A lot is being made of how well James is playing in his 15th NBA season, but at age 32, he’s still in the prime of his career. James is in the midst of his best and most efficient season ever and he’s gunning for the MVP award.

LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, and a career-best 9.1 assists per game this season. He’s shooting 57.8 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three-point range so far this season, which both represent career-highs as well.

With the Cavs playing more small ball, LeBron has also taken on the role as the team’s rim protector. He’s set the tone on the defensive end by averaging 1.1 blocks and 1.4 steals per game through the first 29 games.

LeBron has had five seasons with a player efficiency rating (PER) of over 30 – his four MVP campaigns and this one. He leads the league in PER at 31.51 and owns a league-best 11.3 estimated wins added so far this season.

With the inevitable return of Isaiah Thomas looming, the Cavaliers look primed to take over the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

If they can make a late season run, I have a feeling that voters will give the edge to James and crown the king as the league’s most valuable player.

Kyrie Irving

What the Boston Celtics have done without Gordon Hayward has been truly remarkable and a lot of that has to do with how well Kyrie Irving has adapted to Brad Stevens’ system.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine how dangerous this team could be when adding another 20 point per game scorer and playmaker to the equation.

When Irving made the decision to leave Cleveland, a lot of fans questioned why he wouldn’t want to play with the greatest playmaker in the world – LeBron James. But since coming to Boston, Irving has bought into a more team-centric approach and is getting more help than ever. According to Basketball Reference, teammates have assisted on 27.1 percent of Irving’s field goals inside the arc this season. Not only does that represent a career-high for Irving, but it also marks a nearly five percent increase from the year before.

Irving’s handles make him one of the toughest guards in the NBA to defend, just ask Avery Bradley, one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. Uncle Drew is averaging 24.3 points, 4.9 assists, and 1.3 steals this season, while flirting with a 50/40/90 line.

But, that doesn’t tell the entire story.

Irving has matured into a leader and a playmaker that makes everyone around him better.

Despite playing just 32.3 minutes per game, Irving is enjoying the highest usage rate of his career (31.2) and averaging a career-high 27.2 points per 36 minutes. He’s also averaging career-highs in box score plus-minus (5.9) and win shares per 48 minutes (.233).

If the Celtics can repeat as Eastern Conference Champions, voters will have to keep Kyrie in the MVP discussion.

Kevin Durant

It is important for everyone to remember: there is still a lot of basketball left on the regular season schedule. With that being said, there is one player that people shouldn’t count out of the MVP race – Kevin Durant.

Durant has taken his game to another level in the absence of Stephen Curry. When Durant has played, the Warriors are an undefeated 5-0 without Curry this season and KD has stepped up in a big way in lieu of Curry’s recent injury. Durant is averaging 33.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 7.3 assists in the four games since Curry has been sidelined.

Curry has had a history of ankle injuries and it’s not unlikely to think that the Warriors would opt to rest their superstar point guard throughout the season to keep his ankle 100 percent.

That would leave the door open for Durant to remind everyone that he’s the best player in the world right now – something he did often in last year’s postseason run.

Durant’s numbers already stack up with the likes of LeBron and Harden – and like I mentioned before – they could be on the rise.

He’s already averaging 26.1 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.1 blocks per game for the season, so it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to come away with the MVP award – if the Warriors can win the West.

Durant is the most likely candidate to slide into the MVP conversation and the dark horse to win the MVP at this point in the season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Early on, it looked like the Greek Freak was going to be the odds-on favorite to run away with the MVP award, but Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have cooled down considerably since the month of Novemeber.

The evolution of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game has been fun to watch and he took another major step forward as a scorer this season. Not only has been more aggressive on the offensive end, but he’s dunking on EVERYONE this year.

He attacks the rim with a ferocity that hasn’t been seen since the likes of a young Amare Stoudemire or even a vintage version of Shawn Kemp.

And his skill set is as unique as anyone who’s ever played the game.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 29.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game so far this season.

But, it doesn't end there.

Antetokounmpo continues to mature on both ends of the floor. The Greek Freak is turning the ball over on a career-low 10.5% of his plays this season, while averaging a career-high 33.1 percent usage rate. He’s also on pace to set career-highs in points, rebounds, steals, and field goal percentage (54.8 percent) in his fifth NBA campaign.

Antetokounmpo has been a menacing force on the defensive end as well, causing problems for opposing big men with his length and athleticism. He’s averaging over 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals for the second consecutive season, making him one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA.

Never has a player created so many mismatches on the floor, but even with the major step forward this season, The Greek Freak is still probably a couple of years away from nabbing his first MVP award.