Who has the clearest path to MVP as we reach the quarter point of the NBA season?
Having led his Houston Rockets to the Western Conference's best record at 16-4, James Harden -- the runner-up to Russell Westbrook a season ago -- looks like the early MVP favorite. However, four-time MVP LeBron James is also in the mix to reclaim the award he last won in 2012-13, and other contenders could emerge.
Using the historical breakdown I put together last fall, let's take a look at which paths this season's candidates could follow to winning MVP.
Best player on best team
MVP percentage: 91.7 percent (11 of 12)
I'm defining the best player as the one with the most wins above replacement player (WARP) by my metric. When that player has also led his team to the league's best record, it basically has been a wrap for MVP. Only Karl Malone, who was beaten out by Michael Jordan in 1997-98, has failed to win MVP when meeting these criteria since media began voting for the award in 1980-81.
There appear to be two realistic candidates to join this group. One is Harden, whose Rockets have the second-best projection in both FiveThirtyEight's CARM-Elo model and ESPN's Basketball Power Index. The other is Stephen Curry. Remember him? The two-time MVP is putting up numbers in the same ballpark as those that won the 2014-15 award for him, despite making only 37 percent of his 3-point attempts.
If Curry could maintain something close to the incredible 58 percent of his shots he's making inside the arc while returning to his usual 3-point accuracy, that could make him the league's most valuable player by advanced stats despite his limited minutes (32.3 per game so far). Already, Curry is second behind Harden in ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM).
Top-5 player on best team
MVP percentage: 66.7 percent (10 of 15)
It's more realistic for Curry to land in this category, which has produced MVPs more often than not. He's currently sixth in WARP but tied for fourth in player win percentage, the per-minute component of WARP akin to PER. The question then is how much Curry would be hampered in the voting by playing with multiple other stars, most notably Kevin Durant -- still often considered the better of the Golden State Warriors' two MVPs.
I don't think Curry is anywhere near a favorite for MVP, but given the probability the Warriors end up with the league's best record and the possibility he plays even better going forward, his chances are probably underrated.
Best player on top-10/top-5 team
MVP percentage (top 10, but outside top 5): 42.9 percent (3 of 7)
MVP percentage (top 5): 30.8 percent (4 of 13)
We'll lump these two categories together since there's no compelling reason to believe the leader in WARP actually has a better chance of winning MVP when his team finishes with a top-10 record but outside the top five. While leading the league in WARP hardly guarantees an MVP, it puts a player in the conversation as long as his team is competitive.
The two players with the best chance of qualifying for one of these categories are Harden and James, the latter of whom holds a slight lead in both WARP and Basketball-Reference.com's value over replacement player (VORP) metric. After a slow start, the Cleveland Cavaliers again look likely to finish with a top-five record (FiveThirtyEight has them tied for the fourth-best projection, while they're tied for fifth in BPI, and neither system knows specifically that Isaiah Thomas could return before long).
So if James can keep this up, this looks like his best shot at MVP since his Miami Heat days. After all, as Brian Windhorst noted before the season, research by our former colleague Tom Haberstroh found that James has typically played at an MVP level in the second half of recent campaigns.
As for Harden, the big question -- explored earlier this week by Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight -- is whether he can continue to produce at such a high level while playing with Chris Paul. Inevitably, Harden's volume will take some hit playing with another elite playmaker, and we'll see whether his efficiency can rise enough to compensate.
Top-5 player on top-5 team
MVP percentage: 8.1 percent (5 of 62)
The huge drop in MVP chances from the last tier emphasizes how important it is to either be the league's best player statistically or play on the team with the league's best record. Both players who qualified for this category last season (Harden and James, with Kawhi Leonard just missing out in WARP) lost out to WARP leader Westbrook despite the Oklahoma City Thunder's weaker record.
Top-20/top-10 player on best team
MVP percentage (top 20, but outside top 10): 5.6 percent (1 of 18)
MVP percentage (top 10): 5.0 percent (1 of 20)
Historically, MVP voters have occasionally rewarded the top player on the team with the league's best record with MVP even when he doesn't rate as exceptionally valuable in terms of WARP. That's the path for Kyrie Irving, an MVP candidate at this point largely because his Boston Celtics have the NBA's best record at 18-4.
Irving's box-score stats are largely similar to what he posted last season with the Cavaliers when he wasn't even chosen for an All-NBA team. Because he has improved his effort as part of the league's best defense, Irving has in fact been more valuable this season, and his outstanding clutch play also deserves bonus credit. Still, the only way for Irving to win MVP while ranking ninth in WARP, seventh in VORP and eighth in RPM is the Celtics somehow holding off Golden State and Houston for the NBA's best record.
Top-20 player on top-5 team
MVP percentage: 2.0 percent (2 of 101)
While this category has improbably produced a pair of MVPs (Allen Iverson in 2000-01 and Steve Nash in 2005-06), it's unlikely such a player would win now that there is more focus on advanced stats in the discussion.
Best player on bottom-20 team
MVP percentage: 0.0 percent (0 of 5)
Because the Thunder finished with the NBA's 10th-best record, there still has yet to be an MVP from a team outside the league's top 10 in the modern era. That's bad news for Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, who rank third and fourth, respectively, in WARP and third and sixth in VORP.
Both Antetokounmpo's Bucks and Davis' Pelicans are projected to finish a little better than .500. Barring their teams making a jump or the kind of history-making season Westbrook had last year, when he averaged a triple-double, that's probably not good enough for them to be serious MVP contenders.