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Houston Rockets

NBA MVP Power Rankings: James Harden rises, Kawhi Leonard falls

Did Harden climb to the top of the list?
Did Harden climb to the top of the list? (Getty Images)

Who is the leader in the MVP power rankings?

When we last updated our race for the MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo edged out Kawhi Leonard for the top spot.

Since then, the Raptors have played .500 ball, James Harden has uncorked a historic month, Paul George has elevated his game, LeBron James has missed time and the Golden State Warriors have looked like, well, not the Warriors.

As a result, there's some rather significant shuffling in our MVP power rankings.

The five voters this time around from our NBA.com staff? Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13), Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles), Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay), Manuel de la Torre (@manueltorresanz) and Leandro Fernandez (@fernandezlea).

All stats through games of Thursday, January 3.

5. Stephen Curry and LeBron James (tie)

These guys know a thing or two about the MVP race.

James is a four-time winner and has finished in the top five 13 straight seasons, which is an NBA record.

Curry is a two-time winner and the only unanimous MVP in league history.

Both could mount a serious challenge to winning it in 2019 even if today they sit on the fringe of the top five.

MORE: How do LeBron's teams play when he misses games?

The Los Angeles Lakers have struggled of late with James still out with that strained groin. They are currently 1-3 with him out of the lineup entering Friday's game against the Knicks. Kyle Kuzma (19.8 PPG on 16.5 FG attempts) and Brandon Ingram (19.3 PPG on 16.3 FG attempts) have tried to carry the offense but it's simply not the same, as the Lakers rank 29th in offensive rating since James has been out.

Curry sits exactly where he stood a month ago in our most recent MVP rankings. Since then he's still scoring at a good clip (28.1) even as his shooting percentages have fallen off. For Curry to get back in the mix, Golden State will need to start looking like the two-time defending champs and less like the team that blew a 20-point lead at home to the Houston Rockets.

4. Paul George

Not only is Paul George enjoying by far the best season of his career, he's also been by far the best player on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

That's no small feat given he's teammates with Russell Westbrook who is a former MVP and once again averaging a triple-double.

Since dropping a career-high 47 points on Dec. 5 at Brooklyn, George is pumping in 32.2 points per game on 50% shooting from the field, including 42% from beyond the arc. If it weren't for James Harden's recent play (more on that in a minute), we'd be talking about how George suddenly looks like peak Tracy McGrady and a player that could swing a series against the Warriors.

Even if he's likely not a threat to actually win the MVP, George should absolutely be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Over this same stretch where he's gone torrid on the offensive end, OKC's defense has been nearly 7 points per 100 possessions better with George on the floor than on the bench, a swing that's essentially the difference between the league's best D and one that's barely top 10.

3. Nikola Jokic

The Denver Nuggets are still in first place in the Western Conference.

They've done it while missing more games to injury than any other team and they've done it with Jokic likely being the only All-Star.

Given the larger-than-life statures of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis - let alone Luka Doncic, who ranked second in voting among Western Conference frontcourt players in the first release - it's a long shot that Jokic even starts the All-Star game.

MORE: Takeaways from first release of All-Star fan voting

Barring some serious separation at the top of the standings, I'm dubious Jokic can actually win it as he just doesn't fit the statistical profile of an MVP. Since the merger, the only two players to win it while averaging fewer than 20 PPG are Steve Nash and Bill Walton.

Both actually serve as decent templates for a Jokic MVP candidacy. Like Nash, Jokic serves as the fulcrum for high octane offence that falls on its face whenever he's off the floor. Like Walton, Jokic is a brilliant passing center for a first-place team on a roster devoid of any true second star.

2. James Harden

James Harden is lighting the world on fire.

When we did this exercise a month ago, Harden did not receive a single vote. Now, he's neck and neck with Giannis Antetokounmpo with two of our five voters listing him first on their ballots.

Unless you've been living under a rock, the case for Harden's MVP push is relatively straight forward. He's averaging just north of a billion points per game over the last several weeks while single-handedly dragging the Rockets out of the basement of the Western Conference.

MORE: Top stats from Harden's MVP-worthy push

When the Rockets sat in 14th place in the Western Conference following a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 7 that dropped them to 11-14, Harden was leading the league in scoring, just as he is now.

The biggest reasons he didn't register had nothing to do with his own play. Harden's teammates couldn't buy a shot and the defence couldn't get stops.

Now that both of those have started to swing back in the other direction, Harden's other-worldly push has elevated him towards the very top of contention.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been consistently excellent the entire season for a team that's hovered near the top of the East from the jump.

I'd like to take a moment to address one of the narratives floating around that the reason Antetokounmpo isn't the MVP is that he doesn't control games down the stretch.

For the season, he ranks 7th in the league in 4th-quarter scoring while shooting 57% from the field. Shrink the limits to clutch time - the final five minutes and the score within five - and you'll find that the Greek Freak is "shooting" an absurd 61%, best in the NBA.

Why the need for parenthesis? Well...

Nobody can stop him from getting to his spots when it matters the most. When that spot happens to be the highest percentage spot on the floor, I'd tend to say that's a very good thing for Bucks fans.

For now, Antetokounmpo is still the MVP front runner.

MVP Power Rankings By Month
December January
1st. Giannis Antetokounmpo Giannis Antetokounmpo
2nd. Kawhi Leonard James Harden
3rd. LeBron James Nikola Jokic
4th. Joel Embiid Paul George
5th. Stephen Curry Curry/James (tie)

Honourable Mention

Kawhi Leonard falls from second to a tie for sixth with Joel Embiid. Though Leonard has continued his strong individual play, the Raptors are just 5-4 in his last nine games. Hurting matters is that each of those losses were ugly, too. Toronto lost back-to-back games to the Trail Blazers and Nuggets before getting blown out in Orlando and San Antonio. There's certainly time for Leonard to get back in the MVP mix.

Joel Embiid is on the fringe of the top-5 as he continues to have one of the most dominant seasons we've seen from a centre in a long time. Look for his case to rise as the 76ers push for one of the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference.

Anthony Davis is in somewhat of a similar boat as Leonard, though more exaggerated. He continues to put up big numbers on both ends of the court, and yet the Pelicans have only won three of their last 10 games. Only the Suns have a worse record than them in the Western Conference right now. You simply can't contend for an MVP award while living in the cellar.

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