One of the more open and interesting races going on right now in the NBA is the one for the MVP award. James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook or maybe even LeBron James. Not an easy choice to make.
The two names being mentioned the most right now are Westbrook and Harden, but it’s almost criminal to discount what Leonard has done this season and continues to do yearly for the San Antonio Spurs. It’s also wrong to forget about James, despite the 4 MVPs he already has and the overall idea that is an automatic response for too many people who decide on these awards. He might be 32 and voter fatigue is a real thing, but James is alive and kicking when it comes to this award, especially this season.
Statistics is one way to measure the best player, although with so many quotes hovering around about the selectiveness of using statistics, digits aren’t a definitive way. Still, when it comes to numbers, Westbrook has this thing in the bag. It’s not just the triple doubles he’s picking up left and right, on pace to set a new NBA record for those in a season; he’s leading the league in scoring, PER, assist percentage (56.5%), box plus/minus and VORP (the NBA’s version of WAR from baseball). Harden, on the other hand, leads the league in offensive win shares, overall win shares and assists per game, while getting to the line more than anyone else in the NBA.
Where do Leonard and James fall into this? James’ overall numbers might be slightly inferior to those of Harden and Westbrook, but one must take into account the kind of basketball that Houston and Oklahoma City play. It’s a one-man-show on both teams, with Westbrook setting a new record for usage percentage (over 41%) and Harden not far behind at 34%. James is just over 30%, but with the Cavaliers being 18.6 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, while James is playing more minutes than he has in three years and maintaining the same ability and dominance, he can’t be overlooked as an MVP candidate.
The same goes for Leonard, who is a very likely candidate to win the NBA’s defensive player of the year award for the third time in a row. His numbers are terrific, improving his scoring average for the 5th straight year, putting up 26 points per games on just 33 minutes a night. He does it all without the team making him their one and only go to guy, but instead a model of offensive efficiency, not to mention his stoic demeanor, which always counts for something.
The Triple Double Effect
People love round numbers, and things that are easy to comprehend. The triple double, despite being a misleading start, has that effect on fans. A 10-10-10 or better somehow resonates in magical ways. Westbrook has done it 34 times so far this season, and is averaging a triple double. Even if his pace slips a bit as the season enters its final stage, the amount of times he touches the ball and how the team makes way for his rampages makes it almost impossible to imagine him not getting a 30-10-10 when this season is over, a first since Oscar Robertson from over 50 years ago.
But Westbrook isn’t the only one getting an impressive numbers of triple doubles. Harden has 19 of them this season, a personal record. James has 10 of them, a personal record. Heck, Nikola Jokic has five of them. Is it an overrated stat? Yes, in my book, and Westbrook (and Harden too a little bit) is going through a season of some serious stat padding. Yes, it has to be taken into account when making the final decision, but it shouldn’t have the kind of effect it has in the voting as it does on the media hype.
Who wins it
I think it should be Harden or Leonard. Leonard isn’t the best player in the NBA, but when you try to make it a case of best two-way player, his defense should put him over the top. However, when it comes to that weird, elusive combination of having best player and being the most important to his team, it should be Harden, also because I feel he was robbed in 2015 by not winning it, losing to Curry in the regular season MVP voting. Westbrook? Again, the numbers are hiding a player who sometimes is destructive to his own team, can be horrendous on defense and is playing exciting, but not very efficient basketball. LeBron James is trying harder than he has in three or four years and it shows, but I feel like a combination of voters fatigue and his stats being slightly inferior when put next to Harden’s and Westbrook will leave him behind in the voting.
James and Leonard are the ones who care the least about this award, and coincidentally have the better chance of ending winning something more important, the championship. Both of them have NBA Finals MVP awards too. Westbrook wants this award badly, and has the best odds of winning it. It’s hard to say he doesn’t deserve it for effort, but when trying to give it the most objective-as-possible look, Harden and Leonard are slightly more worthy.