LeBron, Durant, Aldridge in early MVP discussion

LeBron, Durant, Aldridge in early MVP discussion
December 20, 2013, 9:15 am
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Mark Strotman

Teams have passed the one-quarter mark of the regular season, and what a top-heavy season it's been. Just 13 teams have a record better than .500, down from 18 a year ago, thanks to the weak Eastern Conference, which features just three teams with a winning record (Indiana, Miami, Atlanta).

So as the NBA nears the two-month mark of the season, it's only fitting to take a look at the MVP candidates to date. Trends are no longer just trends, and hot starts (in some respects) from certain teams and players have cooled off, while others have proved legitimate and worth noting as the calendar flips to 2014. This list may look identical in two months or it may look insanely different. What will stay the same indefinitely, however, is that this list will be made up of superstars who are leading their respective teams into the playoffs in search of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

1. LeBron James, Miami Heat (25.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 6.8 apg; 29.9 PER)

If you haven't stopped trying to nitpick LeBron James' game or wonder when the planet's best player will plateau, it's time to find a seat, sit back and enjoy greatness in front of your eyes. The four-time MVP, including the last two, has once again taken his game to new levels, doing things that no player in NBA history has ever accomplished.

In 2013-14, it's been his shooting. James has connected on 59.7 percent of his field goal attempts and 41.1 percent of his 3-pointers through 25 games. No one in NBA history has ever shot 60 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc; in fact, James' shooting last season (56.5 percent from the field, 40.6 percent from beyond the arc) is the closest anyone has ever come to the feat. It shouldn't come as a surprise then that James' 29.9 PER is best in the league by an entire point, ahead of Kevin Durant (28.9).

The Heat haven't been consistently dominant thus far and they don't have that intriguing storyline most MVP candidates require, but their 19-6 record is fifth best in the NBA (second in the East) and the Heat are an NBA-best 6-1 against teams with a record .500 or better. The Heat are rolling and James is doing historic things on the court. Yes, some things never change. If James continues this historic pace, it's hard not to see him winning his third straight MVP.

2. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder (28.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 4.9 apg; 28.8 PER)

It's difficult not to rank the NBA's leading scorer who plays for the NBA's best team by record this high. Durant's unbelievable consistency, combined with his quiet demeanor seems to make his dominance on the court go relatively under the radar. That's not to say anyone isn't noticing; it's just that Durant is having the best season of his seven-year career and is doing these things at just 25 years old. Twenty-five!

They've done it in relatively quiet fashion, but the Thunder own the league's best record at 21-4, have won 16 of 17 games and are a perfect 13-0 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. At the forefront of this stellar start is Durant, who is averaging career-highs in rebounds, assists, steals and free-throw attempts. He's leading the NBA's sixth most efficient offense, playing with a third starting shooting guard in as many seasons, and he's also contributing his best season defensively.

He's also hovering around the elusive 50/40/90 club for the second straight season. Durant's current 49.4/42.5/88.0 slash has made him the most efficient scorer in the game, all while leading the NBA in scoring (28.7 ppg) by more than two points (Carmelo Anthony, 26.4 ppg). There's always an argument for the best player on the league's best team to win MVP, and this year Durant holds that title through 25 games.

3. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers (23.3 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 2.8 apg; 23.2 PER)

Those of you who had the Trail Blazers at 22-5 with wins over San Antonio, Indiana, Oklahoma City and Houston through 27 games, try your luck with the MegaMillions next. Portland has been the NBA's biggest surprise, and it's been led by Aldridge, who has transformed from All-Star the last two seasons to MVP contender in his eighth season.

All the 6-foot-11 Aldridge has done is average career-highs in points (23.3), rebounds (11.1) and assists (2.8) for the perimeter-oriented Trail Blazers. Portland leads the league in points per game (108.3), 3-point field goal percentage (41.1 percent) and offensive efficiency (110.4). And while the likes of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum have done damage on the outside, Aldridge's work inside the arc has proved most beneficial to the team's success.

The Trail Blazers are relying on him more than ever (his 28.5 percent usage rate is a career-high) and he's coming through when they need him most. His most impressive games include 28 points and 10 rebounds against the Pacers, 38 points and 13 rebounds against the Thunder, 30 points and 21 rebounds against the Warriors and 31 points and 25 rebounds against the Rockets. In true MVP form, Aldridge is playing his best basketball against the league's best competition.

4. Paul George, Indiana Pacers (23.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.6 apg; 23.2 PER)

Last season Paul George won the NBA's Most Improved Player award, and if it were possible for a player to win twice in a row he may be a leading candidate. The 23-year-old star-in-the-making has put together a phenomenal season through 25 games and has the Pacers as arguably the team to beat for the first time in four years.

After a jump from 12.1 points to 17.4 a year ago, George has increased his scoring load to 23.8 points per game for the top-seeded Pacers. His shooting has improved from 42 percent to 46 percent in his fourth season, and he's making 2.6 3-pointers per game (eighth in the NBA) at a 40.6 percent clip. His shooting was the one thing holding him back from true stardom last season, and it's something he's improved on to become one of the league's best players.

George is also getting it done on the defensive end for the Pacers. As the leader of the league's best defense (though Roy Hibbert undoubtedly means plenty), George leads the NBA in Defensive Win Shares (2.0) and is averaging 2.0 steals per game, sixth best in the league. If George continues his stellar play and the Pacers are able to fend off the Heat and earn the No. 1 seed in the East, George will find himself at least near the top of MVP voting.

5. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers (19.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 11.3 apg; 28.2 PER)

Chris Paul has ranked second and fourth, respectively, in the last two years of MVP voting, and his play this season will have him in the discussion once again. The Clippers are holding steady at fourth place in the Western Conference, and Paul's super-efficient seasons is one of the main reasons why.

Purely based on stats, his 11.3 assists per game lead the league, he's averaging 2.3 steals to go with 19.5 points and 1.3 3-pointers, the last of which is a career-high.

But Paul's MVP credentials are seen more in the non-numeric variety. JJ Redick is out with a wrist injury and the Clippers are dealing with a new system in Doc Rivers. Paul has been a stabilizing figure in the lineup and he's the main reason a talented Clippers team will be around late in the playoffs. If the team goes through a hot streak and can find their way to the top of the Western Conference standings, Paul may move up in these rankings.

6. Stephen Curry
7. Tony Parker
8. Kevin Love
9. Anthony Davis
10. Eric Bledsoe