Predicting the season’s Most Valuable Player after the first five games of the season is a crap shoot. This is the time of the season that most analysts’ “Way Too Early MVP Predictions” slide to the backburner in the face of actual gameplay, and all of our predictions either come to fruition or fade to obscurity.
Everyone knows that the MVP is an award based on narrative as much as it is individual statistics or team record. As stories develop and rivalries emerge slowly, it isn’t until the spring that an MVP is crowned in the eyes of the public. For this reason, any prediction made before the halfway point in the season is a gamble.
But how reliable can the first few games of the season be in determining regular season MVP? Player narratives might not be fully developed by this point, but the statistics are telling. Below are the last five MVP winners’ regular season statistics compared to the numbers they put up over the first five games of those seasons.
Last Five MVP Winners, first five games
James Harden – 2017-18
Regular Season stats: 28.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 9.7 apg; 45/40/76 shooting splits
First Five Games: 26.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 9.6 apg; 44/34/75 shooting splits
Russell Westbrook – 2016-17
Regular Season stats: 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg; 42/34/84 shooting splits
First Five Games: 34.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 10.0 apg; 43/34/78 shooting splits
Stephen Curry 2015-16
Regular Season Stats: 30ppg, 5.4 rpg, 6.7 apg; 50/45/90 shooting splits
First Five Games: 35.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.8 apg; 57/51/94 shooting splits
Stephen Curry 2014-15
Regular Season Stats: 23.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 7.7 apg; 48/44/91 shooting splits
First Five Games: 27.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 6.6 apg; 49/41/97 shooting splits
Kevin Durant – 2013-14
Regular Season Stats: 32 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 5.5 apg; 50/39/87 shooting splits
First Five Games: 29.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.0 apg; 45/34/88 shooting splits
The above samples show clearly what we all know, that inflated averages eventually round out after 82 games. For Durant and Harden, their stats rose as the season went on, but both of Curry’s seasons and Westbrook’s one saw their scoring averages fall over time. Either way, all five of the past MVP seasons shared one thing in common: They all broke away in the first five games with blazing hot starts.
These samples obviously lack comparison between the eventual winners and their main competitors. For example, Westbrook’s 2016-17 triple-double average doesn’t show his early season competition with Harden. Similarly, pure numbers don’t show how historically dominant Curry was in 2015-16 because they don’t show his unanimous win over second place, Kawhi Leonard.
Nevertheless, we’re throwing inflated averages out the window to compare some of this season’s MVP candidates’ early performances. If we’ve learned anything from the past five MVP winners, it’s that they all had red-hot starts to their season. Compare and contrast the early season statistics of the eight players listed below. Each has played four or five games as of this article’s writing. Try your hand at predicting the 2018-19 MVP, but be warned: Some of these averages are unheard of. For the sake of fun, we’re comparing these numbers as if they’ll be easily sustained, but what will they look like after a grueling 82 game season?
This Season’s Early MVP Candidates, First Few Games Played
LeBron James: 25.8/8.6/9.2; 47/17/78 shooting splits
At first glance, the undisputed best player of the world looks to be having an off year, but let’s be honest: We’re spoiled by the King. His NBA Finals triple-double averages and frequent 4o point playoff games have clouded our memories of LeBron. Despite the relatively low scoring average over five games, this is the closest LeBron has come to averaging a triple-double in his career.
17 percent is his worst career three-point percentage, but 78 percent is tied for his highest free-throw clip ever. 2.8 turnovers per game is a career-low, and he’s logged the most total minutes in the NBA thus far. The Lakers’ final record may hold the key to the 35-year-old’s MVP chances, but after five games he may have a horse in the race after all.
Stephen Curry: 34.6/4.8/6.8; 55/52/90 shooting splits
What can be said about Steph Curry that hasn’t been said before? Perhaps after playing two seasons with the 2014 MVP, Curry wanted to remind us of the historical, back-to-back MVP performances he was capable of before sacrificing for Kevin Durant. He is leading the league thus far in scoring with the highest point per game average of his career. This season he’s shooting also the highest field goal and three-point percentages of his career, and that’s saying a lot. According to Sam Amick, Curry is on pace to hit 541 three-pointers made this season, completely destroying his record of 402 in 2016. Whether Curry can keep this up will be interesting to track, but he has certainly made a point with his explosive start to the season. Curry is back.
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Kevin Durant: 27.4/8.0/6.0; 52/25/93 shooting splits
As mentioned, it’s clear that Steph Curry is making an attempt to regain the crown as Golden State’s most valuable Most Valuable Player. In doing so, two-time Finals MVP, Kevin Durant, has taken a backseat for the first five games of the season. He’s hoisting the lowest amount of three-point attempts per game since his sophomore year in the league (3.2), and his true shooting percentage has fallen to its lowest since 2011. Despite his passivity in shooting, he’s scoring the most per game since joining Golden State. Whether Durant takes the wheel from Curry sometime this season remains to be seen, but regardless of who’s driving, the Golden State Warriors are proving themselves to still be the nonstop offensive monster truck we’ve become familiar with.
James Harden: 28.5/6.3/9.0; 46/44/73 shooting splits
James Harden suffered a Grade-1 hamstring strain which will sideline him until at least November 2. However, the reigning MVP still played four games before going down — ample enough sample size for this early season candidate comparison. Harden is so-far scoring his lowest average in four seasons, but a low of 28.5 per game just goes to show you how dominant Harden has been on offense the past few years.
Conversely, 44 percent from three is Harden’s highest season average, and 2.0 steals per game is also a career best. An odd spitting and fist fighting match with the Lakers has seen Chris Paul suspended, which, coupled with Harden’s sidelining hamstring strain, has caused Houston to fall to 1-3 on the season. With 78 games left, time will tell whether Harden can make a statement for back-to-back MVP.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 28.5/16.5/6.8; 47/06/70 shooting splits
The Greek Freak was hailed as many an NBA fan’s preseason MVP prediction. Rightfully so, as Antetokounmpo is on a mission for his first ever MVP award. Over four undefeated games, Giannis is averaging his highest point, rebound, and assist per game averages of his career. He is trailing only Andre Drummond in rebounds per game and is tied with Harden for seventh in scoring. He’s shooting the most three-point attempts per game of his short career, but at an abysmal six percent clip. Giannis’ shooting may be the key to proving many pundits correct and snatching his first MVP award, as the Bucks’ 4-0 record shows he means business in the LeBron-less East.
Blake Griffin: 33.8/11.0/5.0; 55/65/66 shooting splits
Who would have thought Blake Griffin would be in the early season MVP conversation? If you say you did, you’re probably lying, as Griffin surprised many by coming out swinging in the first four games of the season, scoring the most per game of his career on the highest efficiency of his career. At 5.8 attempts per game, Griffin is hitting 65 percent of his three-pointers, further cementing himself as one of the league’s best shooting bigs, a tremendous turnaround after shooting only 30 percent on less than one attempt per game over his first seven seasons.
Now on season number nine, Griffin has improved nearly every facet of his game. He is grabbing the second most rebounds per game of his career and 5.0 is his most assists dished with fewer turnovers per game over nine years. Wow. As Lob City crumbles in the past, the new Blake Griffin of Motor City is having the best season of his career. With 78 games left to go, we’ll see if he wins MVP, Most Improved, or both.
Anthony Davis: 30.3/13.0/5.3; 59/75/70 shooting splits
OK, so I lied about the four to five game thing. The Brow is an exception to our rule. Despite only playing three games so far this season, he is another player without an MVP to his name who really, really wants one. For that reason, this list would be dishonest to not include him. Like Giannis, Anthony Davis is scoring, rebounding, and assisting the most per game of his short career. 75 percent is an unbelievable three-point shooting clip, but don’t be fooled — Davis has only attempted 1.3 per game. Regardless, 59 percent is the highest field goal efficiency of his career, and 3.3 blocks and 2.0 steals are other highs. Davis is gunning for both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards, and his numbers thus far prove it.
Kawhi Leonard: 28.0/7.8/2.5; 51/41/89 shooting splits
The final player on this list is Kawhi Leonard. After a weird injury controversy in San Antonio, Leonard is restarting his career in Toronto. And boy, talk about new beginnings. The Klaw is averaging the most points and rebounds per game of his career, along with the most efficient field goal and three-point percentages he’s ever had.
Leonard recently broke the NBA with a no-look, diving steal against Minnesota, a highlight reel way of saying, “I’m back” to MVP and DPOY voters alike. Leonard’s new Toronto Raptors are undefeated over four games as well and are making an obvious push to regain the first seed in the LeBron-less East. Though they will have to fight the Bucks, Celtics, 76ers, and Pistons to get there, Kawhi will have ample competition for the first MVP award of his career.
There you have it. Eight early season MVP contenders. Despite playing only a handful of games, statistics show us that a fast-paced, high scoring start to the season is important for award candidacy. Over four to five games, these select players have made an impact on their team and the league, thus proving their eligibility for this year’s MVP race. Which one will take home the award? It may be too early to tell, but the numbers have highlighted eight solid players who are ready for the fight.
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