By Kelly Scaletta

After taking a week off for the holidays (and I hope you all enjoyed whatever version of them you partake of), we’re back with the MVP ladder, and what a strange time it’s been in the two weeks since I last posted. It’s almost like no one wants to be MVP this year.

James Harden went on a five-game losing streak, and from what Twitter tells me, it really is all his fault.

LeBron James, trying to keep up, is on a personal three-game losing streak. Twitter hasn’t yet told me if that’s all his fault.

Russell Westbrook trying to force his way back in the conversation before the Thunder dropped a couple of bad games.

Kevin Durant did well for a spell, but then he lost to the Charlotte Hornets (it as all his fault). Then Stephen Curry came back and nearly burned down the Oracle with his jump shot–a little something I like to call a “Steph-back.”

Kyrie Irving has been impressive the last couple of weeks, averaging 26.4 points per game with reasonable efficiency. But he’s only averaging five assists and the Celtics were just 4-3 in those seven games. Three of the wins came against losing teams. Three of them came at home. And the biggest win of them all came against a beat-up Rockets team that blew a 26-point lead, and the Celtics still needed an obvious blown travel call to cement the win.

All the frontrunners have been failing to impress, so a darkhorse candidate is emerging, and his name is Jimmy Butler. Over the last two weeks, the ‘Wolves are 7-1, and Butler is averaging 28.8 points, 5.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals. His true shooting percentage is 76.2. He’s become “point Jimmy” which is my favorite version of Butler, averaging 7.0 assisSt per game in the three contests since Teague went out.

In addition to doing all that, his on-court mentoring has been having a positive effect on Towns’ defense, and perhaps Wiggins’ too. Over the last eight games, the ‘Wolves are only giving up 105.6 points per 100 possessions (which OK, it’s still 14th), but that’s decent. Their offensive rating is 114.7, though, which is the best in the league over that span, as is their plus-9.1 net rating.

In other words, Minnesota is greatly improved and you can draw a straight line from that to Butler, and that’s about as sound of an MVP argument as you can make. The ‘Wolves are only 1.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 3 seed, and if they move past them, it’s going to be time to seriously consider Jimmy as a candidate.

1. James Harden is still number one here, in spite of the fall-off. Partly because even though Houston struggled, Harden averaged 27.5 points and 9.3 assists with a 64.3 true shooting percentage over the last six games. It’s hard to pin the losses on him when he’s performing at that kind of level, regardless of what Twitter says. The bigger issue could spin on what happens when he’s out.

2. LeBron James might have had a chance to pass Harden if it weren’t for the losing streak he endured as well. Still, the man just turned 33 and he’s playing like he’s 28, averaging 27.5 points and 10.3 assists for the month of December while shooting 61.8 percent from the field. Still, he was pretty human during the losing streak, averaging 21.7 points 8.7 assist and 8.0 rebounds with a 50.4 true shooting percentage.

3. Kevin Durant still gets credit for carrying the team sans-Curry, and the Warriors do have the best record in the NBA now, but it’s hard to consider him or Curry over players which are lugging their teams around on their backs.

4. Jimmy Butler for all the reasons stated above. Kyrie Irving is a close fifth, but two things put Jimmy over Uncle Drew. First, while Irving’s defense has improved, he’s not a bonafide, two-way player, so if the stats are close, you have to give the push to Butler. And second, because I think Butler is not only the best player on the T’Wolves, he’s assuming the role of pack leader too.

5. Kyrie Irving we’ve already discussed. His clutch performances can’t be denied.

6. DeMar DeRozan just had a 52-point night. But more importantly, he scored those points on 74.9 percent true shooting and he also added eight assists in the process. As I wrote for FanRag, DeRozan is a big part of the culture change in Toronto, and he’s not very far behind Butler and Irving.

Honorable Mention: None. There are some players having great seasons, such as DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis, but I can’t really in good conscience say they should be in the MVP conversation.

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Kelly Scaletta

Kelly Scaletta writes for Vantage Sports, Bleacher Report and BBALLBREAKDOWN. He has the crazy notion that watching games and understanding stats are not mutually exclusive.

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