THE MVP RACE is headlined by two significantly improved candidates. But with two-plus months to go, they will not only battle each other but also a familiar face poised to make a late charge.
Stephen Curry's transition from All-Star to MVP front-runner, from crowd-pleasing gunner to the man poised to surpass LeBron James as the best player in basketball, has little to do with his prolific shooting. Yes, the Warriors' 26-year-old point guard is still lethal from the perimeter, and he's connecting on 48.1% of his attempts, including 39.9% from beyond the three-point line. His offensive outbursts have become routine: 40 points against the Heat in November, 34 against the Pelicans in December; 51 against the Mavericks in February. Curry's quick release, flawless form and seemingly limitless range make him the league's most explosive scorer. But it's his evolution into a James-like complete player over the last two seasons that has rocketed him to the head of the class. Curry ranks among the best playmakers (7.9 assists per game, fifth in the league), with as many 30-point, 15-assist games since the start of last season (five) as the rest of the NBA combined. Curry also leads the league in steals per game (2.2) and has made noticeable improvements in his on-ball defense. "He's been much better the last two years," says a scout. "He's always had fast hands and smarts; it's the consistent effort that has changed."
Curry's chief competition, Rockets guard James Harden, has made a similar transformation. In recent years his defense had become a punch line, his indifference immortalized on Vines, YouTube clips and Instagram. (In September, Nuggets guard Ty Lawson posted a Photoshopped image of Harden wearing a Cowboys headset during Dallas's season-opening blowout loss, calling him the "Cowboys defensive coordinator.") This season Harden, the NBA's leading scorer, is eighth in defensive win shares and second in the NBA in steals. With the off-season addition of defense-minded forward Trevor Ariza, a more dedicated Harden has helped Houston move into the top 10 in defensive efficiency, where the Rockets could finish for the first time in his three seasons there.
Still, Curry or Harden will have to wrestle the hardware from four-time MVP James, who incredibly has vaulted back into the race. After a rocky start, the Cavaliers won 14 of 16 games heading into the All-Star break, with James, following his return from a left knee injury, averaging 27.6 points (on 49.1% shooting) and 6.7 assists.
Ultimately the award could come down to team success: Since 1989 every MVP has come from a team that finished either first or second in its conference. That's why James, citing Golden State's NBA-best 42--9 record at the All-Star break, recently declared Curry to be the leading candidate. But if Cleveland's ascent in the Eastern Conference continues in the second half, the improved games of Curry and Harden may not matter; the King will reign again.
TIM CLAYTON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
HOT IN CLEVELAND James entered the race by taking the Cavs on a 14--2 run before the break.