Even as the NBA regular season winds down, the race for Most Valuable Player is still just as close as it was two months ago. The consensus top-four candidates have been James Harden of the Houston Rockets, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs, and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Golden State’s Kevin Durant was in the mix until he was ruled out with a month-long injury a couple weeks ago; the same applies to New Orleans’ Anthony Davis until the Pelicans started playing like the Pelicans again and fell firmly out of the playoff picture.
If last year was technically the easiest choice for MVP in NBA history with Stephen Curry becoming the first unanimous recipient of the award (even though LeBron should have gotten at least one vote), this season is the opposite. For much of the first half of the season, Westbrook was the favorite due to his historic rate triple-double production. Then Harden started playing the best basketball of his life on the best Houston team he’s ever played for (sorry, Dwight); this could be attributed to his switch from playing shooting guard to point guard, or new head coach Mike D’Antoni, or just that James Harden is very good at basketball and is showing us that on a nightly basis. Then Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs to a huge win over Harden’s Rockets, which included the game-winning shot and block of Harden by Kawhi; all of a sudden, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year became the favorite to win his first MVP. And throughout this entire season, LeBron has been doing the same thing he’s been doing for the past decade—being the best basketball player on planet Earth.
So who should win this prestigious award? All four players are more than deserving of it. In typical NBA voting fashion, LeBron will most likely not win it. Although he is inarguably the best player in the league, he’s so good that the voting committee—and all of us—take his once-in-a-generation talent for granted. The stigma around LeBron is that he plays in the Eastern Conference and “coasts” through the regular season. Not this year. Kevin Love, Cleveland’s All-Star power forward, missed a month due to a knee injury. J.R. Smith, one of the team’s focal offensive weapons, missed almost three months. LeBron has ten triple-doubles so far this season; he had a combined ten in his past five seasons. Obviously, Westbrook and Harden have mastered the art of the triple-double (Russ is averaging one this season), but there’s something to be said for LeBron’s perceived lack of effort in the regular season.
I think Westbrook should win it, but I think that come June, James Harden will be heralded the 2016-17 NBA Most Valuable Player. Both of these players have had historically great seasons, but what will ultimately separate them are their respective teams. Westbrook’s Thunder are currently 40-30, good for the sixth spot in the Western Conference. Harden’s Rockets, on the other hand, are in third place in the same conference with a 49-22 record; they’re also on pace to smash the all-time record for most three-pointers made in a season by a single team. \I think if you take Westbrook off of the Thunder, that team earns a lottery pick in this year’s draft; whereas if you do the same with Harden and the Rockets, that team could be a borderline playoff contender with Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley running the offense. I also think that if someone averages a triple-double for an entire season, they should probably be hoisting that Maurice Podoloff Trophy—but then again, I came off the bench during my lone season of JV basketball, so what do I know?