6. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are enjoying their best season ever through the holidays, and a lot of their thriving is owed to Marc Gasol’s increased offensive role. Averaging a career-high 14.7 shots per game, Gasol is making mincemeat of other centers with his 23.68 player efficiency rating, and he’s doing it without dropping off on the defensive end. Tennessee’s team is closer to NBA gold than they’ve ever been after Gasol — who slimmed down considerably in the offseason — rededicated himself after a stinging loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s playoffs.
5. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Move over, Derrick Rose. The famous Chicago-born point guard is back and healthy this season — but he’s no longer the best player on his team. That honor belongs to Butler, whose shockingly strong production has been the delight of the Windy City. Previously known as a one-way player (Butler gained Second All-Team Defensive honors last season), Jimmy Buckets is now a deadly scorer, averaging a team-high 22.2 points per game while leading the league with 40.1 minutes played per game. Many have mentioned Butler as a candidate for the Most Improved Player platform, but his play thus far suggests a greater goal.
4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
If the Unibrow was on a playoff team, we might cite him as the runaway favorite for this trophy. The fact is, however, that the Pelicans are of a middling sort, on the outside looking into the staggering Western Conference playoff picture. The 21-year-old still has an outside shot at becoming a wunderkind MVP — especially if he keeps putting up numbers that evoke Hakeem Olajuwon — but your money is more safely put in the hands of contender. If you were starting a team from scratch, though? A.D. is the clear No. 1 cornerstone in the game.
3. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If Kyle Lowry keeps this up, he’s going to steal Chris Paul’s mantle as the sport’s most fearsome little man. Lowry’s Toronto Raptors are the surprise top seed in the Eastern Conference, following his ferocious lead to the top. A statement was made — and heard quite clearly — when Kyle took down CP3 this past weekend, tallying 25 points, seven assists and three steals as the Raptors smashed Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers, 110-98, in L.A. Give this 6’0” guy a bit more national TV exposure, and he might become the NBA’s new go-to folk hero.
2. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors’ best start in franchise history is about more than just their terrific new coach, Steve Kerr. Freed up and freewheeling in Kerr’s offense is the best shooter in basketball, Steph Curry. Curry is a threat to destroy your defense from deep at the moment he crosses the half-court barrier, demanding constant attention from the opposition and always making you pay for the double team with a sharp, uncanny passing eye. Anyone who can figure out how to guard this guy should probably be drawing up strategies for the military.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The biggest, boldest chip in basketball lies firmly on James Harden’s shoulder. The former Sixth Man of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder has taken on more responsibility every year of his career, finally crescendoing into the MVP-worthy present. After improving on his defense this season and consistently taking over games in crunch time (leading the Rockets to an almost unbelievable 21-9 record, despite a litany of costly injuries), there’s really not much left for Harden to add to his game. He’s stronger, smarter, and has more touch than anyone who’s got the foot speed to stay in front of him, and he gets to the charity strike as often as he pleases. He’s the NBA’s leading scorer, and he’s had more impact, on more games, than anyone this season. If you opened the polls today, the Beard would become the Statue.
— John Wilmes