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Anthony Davis is surging, but MVP race is still between James Harden and LeBron James

Since fellow all-star DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles’ injury Jan. 26, New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis is leading all NBA players in scoring average (33.9) to go with 13.2 rebounds per game. (Veronica Dominach/Associated Press)

Anthony Davis, the two-time All-NBA forward for the New Orleans Pelicans, is making his presence known in this season’s MVP race.

Davis scored a season-high 53 points while matching a season best with 18 rebounds against the Phoenix Suns on Monday night, helping the Pelicans overcome a 17-point deficit en route to a 125-116 victory, their sixth straight win. Over those six games, Davis is averaging 41.5 points and 15 rebounds while shooting 54.2 percent. Since fellow all-star DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles’ injury Jan. 26, Davis is averaging a double-double, leading all NBA players in scoring (33.9) and adding 13.2 rebounds per game.

What he’s doing is great. I’m almost taking it for granted, because I see it and just assume that’s what’s going to happen,” Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry told Jack Maloney of CBS Sports. “He’s playing great basketball for us, been really aggressive, been setting the tone early in the game for us and been doing it consistently. The numbers he’s putting up have been really, really impressive.”

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But let’s hold off inserting him into the MVP race just yet: James Harden of the Houston Rockets and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers are still performing way above most other MVP candidates.

Even after taking Davis’s recent statistical outburst into account, he still trails Harden in points scored per 100 possessions and in advanced metrics such as Player Efficiency Rating, win shares, box score plus-minus, ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (which adjusts for teammates and opponents) and value over replacement, a box-score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions a player contributes above a replacement-level player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season. Davis trails James in most of those categories as well. The only metric in which Davis comes out ahead of the other two is in rebounds per 100 possessions.

2017-18 Points per 100 possessions Rebounds per 100 possessions Player Efficiency Rating Win shares Box score plus-minus ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus Value over replacement
James Harden 43.0 7.1 30.5 11.9 11.1 6.5 6.3
Anthony Davis 36.8 14.4 28.8 10.0 4.8 4.3 3.4
LeBron James 35.2 11.1 27.9 9.7 9.0 4.3 6.2

Not only have Harden and James both been better than Davis this season, they are both having historically efficient seasons.

Harden uses 38 percent of the Rockets’ possessions, meaning more than a third of Houston’s plays end in Harden taking a shot, getting fouled or committing a turnover. His true shooting percentage, which takes into account free throws, is 62 percent. Harden also registers an assist on more than 12 percent of his team’s possessions. James uses 36 percent of Cleveland’s possessions, also has a true shooting percentage of 62 percent and assists on 12 percent of the team’s possessions. That makes them the only players since 1973-74, the first year usage data is available, to meet or exceed 30 percent usage with at least a 10 percent assist rate and 60 percent true shooting percentage. And they have both done it before.

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James hit those marks in 2009-10 and 2012-13, seasons in which he was named the league’s most valuable player. Harden met that standard last season but lost the MVP award to Russell Westbrook after Westbrook averaged a triple-double (31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists), becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson (1961-62) to do so for the season. Davis, by comparison, uses 29 percent of New Orleans’s possessions with a 3.1 percent assist rate and career high 62 percent true shooting percentage. And remember: He is coming off a monster set of games to get him to this point.

Harden has the team edge as well. Typically, the MVP has come from one of the two best teams in his conference: Since 1985, only Michael Jordan (1987-88) and Russell Westbrook (2016-17) have been on teams ranked lower during the regular season. Only one MVP, Westbrook, has been on a team that won fewer than 47 games in an 82-game season, and that took him averaging a triple-double to do it. The Rockets are No. 1 in the West with a 47-13 record and are expected to finish no worse than second in the conference. The Cavaliers (36-24) are the third-best team in the East, and the Pelicans (34-26) are the sixth-best team in the West.

“It’s tough to be the MVP in the league when you’re in the middle of the pack,” Gentry told’s Jeff Duncan. “If we had 40 wins right now, I think [Davis] would definitely be in the conversation.”

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