San Antonio Spurs

Is DeMar DeRozan an early contender for the NBA MVP award?

Can DeRozan join Giannis and Curry in the MVP discussion?
Can DeRozan join Giannis and Curry in the MVP discussion? (Getty Images)

Who are the top MVP contenders so far this season?

Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard are all names you're likely to hear. Further down the pecking order, you might see the likes of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kyle Lowry or Kevin Durant.

Ask most experts and fans alike to keep rattling off names and you might hear 10 names before DeMar DeRozan.

Here's why everyone is wrong for sleeping on DeRozan's hot start.

Historic company

Entering this season, DeRozan ranked 16th in preseason MVP odds after finishing in 11th in 2016-17 and 8th in 2017-18. Due in part to the change in scenery along with a switch to the mighty Western Conference where wins are much harder to come by, it wasn't too much of a surprise to see DeRozan down among the likes of Donovan Mitchell, John Wall and Victor Oladipo.

Sure, it's insanely early but based on the historic precedent of what he's currently doing in San Antonio, DeRozan should be at least 10 spots higher.

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Sure Not Now

We always knew he could score. That he's averaging 27.3 points per game - which would match his career high set from 2016-17 in which he exploded out of the gates by dropping 30 in 10 of his first 12 games - isn't a shock.

That he's doing it while averaging more assists per game than two-thirds of the league's starting point guards and making over half of his shots, something which he's never done?

Now that's a stunner.

Just how rare is averaging 27 points and 6 assists per game on 50 percent shooting? It's only been done 12 times in the history of the league by five different players.

You've probably heard of them.

27.0 PPG, 6.0 APG and 50.0 FG Pct
MVP Finish
2017-18 LeBron James 2nd
2015-16 Stephen Curry 1st
2013-14 LeBron James 2nd
2011-12 LeBron James 1st
2009-10 LeBron James 1st
1991-92 Michael Jordan 1st
1989-90 Michael Jordan 3rd
1988-89 Michael Jordan 2nd
1987-88 Larry Bird 2nd
1986-87 Larry Bird 3rd
1984-85 Larry Bird 1st
1962-63 Oscar Robertson 3rd

As you can see, none of the players to do this finished worse than third in MVP voting, with the 12 seasons averaging out to a finish of 1.8.

The evolution of DeMar DeRozan

If anyone was going to drop 32 points, 14 assists and 8 rebounds in the Staples Center this season, the good money would be on LeBron James.

Well, it wasn't James. Instead, it was DeRozan, who finished with a career-high 14 assists in the Spurs' thrilling win back on Oct. 22.

Here are all 14 of his assists, a mix of drive and kicks, transition bucks to trailers and nifty pick-and-roll dimes:

Never his strong suit, DeRozan made strides last season as a playmaker, averaging a career-high 5.2 assists per game after hovering just under 4.0 over his previous four seasons which dated back to his first All-Star campaign in 2013-14.

Now in his 10th season, he's made yet another leap almost out of necessity given San Antonio's sudden dearth of playmaking in the backcourt after the injury to Dejounte Murray, the retirement of Manu Ginobili and the departure of Tony Parker to Charlotte. Given LaMarcus Aldridge isn't exactly Nikola Jokic in terms of creating for others, that left DeRozan in the critical role of primary facilitator for a system known for ball movement and unselfishness, a role that not even San Antonio knew he would play when they made the deal with Toronto.

The Spurs rank in the middle of the pack in terms of potential assists per game, not bad considering the current roster make-up. Leading the way is DeRozan as the Spurs are attempting 10.7 shots per game off his passes, nearly five more than off of passes from any other player. It's also not far off from the likes of Jokic (11.2) and Draymond Green (11.5), two of the best playmakers in the league.

Moreso than the scoring and efficiency, the passing has unlocked a new layer to DeRozan's game which allows him to be far more than simply an elite bucket getter.

Better than Kawhi?

All things being equal, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone that thinks DeRozan is overall a better player than Leonard.

However - at least in the early going - you can certainly make the case that DeRozan has been better this season, not to be taken lightly given Leonard himself is perhaps in the early stages of his own career year.

Let's start by simply laying out the facts, thus far:

PPG FG Pct APG RPG Blks PG Stls PG FTA PG TO PG Mins PG Miss Gms
DeRozan 27.3 51.6 6.7 5.6 0.2 1.2 6.2 2.3 36.9 0
Leonard 26.1 50.4 3.4 7.6 0.6 2.0 5.9 1.6 34.0 4

Let's call it a wash with the scoring, give DeRozan the upper hand with playmaking and Leonard the nod with rebounding.

Obviously, DeRozan is not in Leonard's class when it comes to the defensive end of the floor. That's not a path anyone should ever venture down. But you could make the case that DeRozan's availability more than makes up for it.

That's no knock on Leonard, who is still getting back to his former self and has the luxury of easing back into a full workload on a talented team more than capable of holding down the fort in his absence.

Context matters and while it's unfair to knock Leonard for taking a big picture view and putting himself in position to succeed in May and June, it's certainly OK to give DeRozan credit for playing nearly 37 minutes a game and shouldering the burden for San Antonio every single night.

The Spurs desperately need DeRozan to sustain much of anything on offence as they have an offensive rating of 113.0 with him on the floor and 102.0 with him off, essentially the difference between the 6th and 29th-ranked offences.

MORE: When does DeRozan return to Toronto?

If they're going to make their 22nd consecutive postseason appearance, a thought which seemed perilously in danger after losing Dejounte Murray, they need their franchise player on the floor. That alone might be enough to swing the pendulum in favour of DeRozan in any conversation about who has been more valuable thus far.

When it comes to picking your MVP narrative, everyone loves the shiny new toy with a good story or the return to prominence by an all-time great.

But as you consider the arguments for Antetokounmpo, Davis, Curry or any other top talent, don't sleep on the long-time Toronto staple now making a statement in the Lone Star State.

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