The race for MVP is heating up as the regular season comes to a close and the field has been whittled down to just four players. The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and the King from Cleveland, Mr. LeBron James.
Westbrook has been on an absolute tear this campaign after the departure of Kevin Durant in the offseason. Prior to the first bounce, the question was how much harder Westbrook would play with a Durant-sized chip on his shoulder. Even the most ridiculous answers didn’t include him averaging a triple-double and coming close to breaking Oscar Robertson’s record of 41 triple-doubles in a single season.
As of March 10, the OKC star is averaging 31.9 points, 10.1 assists and 10.5 rebounds per game. Those 31.9 points happen to be the best in the NBA. He’s been able to achieve this through sheer will and brute force. The pieces around Westbrook were good enough last year to push the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but without Durant to play off and the lack of a genuine second option, he’s had to put that entire load on his back. The 28-year old has the highest usage percentage in the NBA at 41.4% and his scoring accounts for 39.8% of the Thunder’s points.
The problem for Westbrook’s MVP candidacy is how much do wins matter? The Thunder, while better than expected, have still been relatively average this season with a 36-29 record and the sixth seed in the West. Meanwhile, the franchises from his closest competition are all in the top three of their respective conferences with a combined 136-56 record (70.8%). Just this week, Westbrook tied the Oklahoma City/Seattle franchise record with a 58-point performance on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers and they still lost.
Westbrook is no doubt having a 2016-17 for the record books, but when Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double in 1961-62, his Cincinnati Royals finished 43-37 in an 80-game season to eventually lose the MVP award to Bill Russell, whose Celtics became the first team in league history to win 60 games.
Playing under Mike D’Antoni and his fast-paced offence, James Harden has found a new level to his game since he was moved to the point guard position. Once thought of as a shoot-first two guard, Harden now leads the league in assists, with 11.2 per game. The most amazing aspect of Harden’s season is that his scoring hasn’t dwindled with his added distribution. He’s actually improved his scoring to average a career-high 29.1 points. Harden has guided Houston to 44-21 as a result and the third seed in the Western Conference, a tremendous achievement given it is the more competitive of the two.
However, Harden hasn’t been the most efficient offensively, shooting 44.3% from the field and 35.5% from deep. Houston’s offence is the fourth fastest in the NBA, averaging 101.8 possessions, which allows the star to take more shots but his percentages are lower than both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. His ball use leaves much to be desired by leading the league in turnovers to brake the NBA record for that department in a season. The previous worst was which himself last season. But these are likely outcomes when he’s leading the league in total minutes and has the ball in his hands as much as the Rockets require him to.
The one consistent knock on Harden’s game, and one that will hurt his MVP credentials, has been his defence. With Harden on the court, the Rockets hold their opponents to 109.9 points per 100 possessions, when Harden is off the court, however, they are 4.4 points better on defence, holding their opponents to 105.4 points per 100 possessions.
Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs have the best record of the other contenders at 50-14 to be just two games off top in the West. This is due in large part to Leonard, proving this last week against Houston when he put the Spurs on his back and won the game in the fourth quarter. Not only did 20 of his 39 points come in the final term, he also sealed the fixture in a matter of seconds with big plays on each end of the floor. First, he hit a clutch three to give them the lead with 25.4 left, then immediately followed up with a huge chase down block of James Harden.
Without Tim Duncan and seeing the experienced duo Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili deep into the twilight of their careers, Leonard had to take on more of the offensive load for San Antonio. His usage rate is at a career-high of 31.4%, but he’s stepped up to the added responsibility, averaging career-highs in both points and assists with 26.2 and 3.4 per game, respectively. He’s playing more efficiently than Westbrook and Harden, shooting at 48.6% from the field and 38.3% from deep.
The problem for Leonard is that his numbers aren’t as attractive as those of Westbrook and Harden. Sure, he’s improved his scoring and distribution, but his rebounding has decreased and his defensive impact is difficult to quantify.
It’s become so routine to expect greatness from LeBron that he’s been flying under the radar this season when it comes to the MVP conversation. This comes despite being the best player in the world and having arguably the best season of his Hall of Fame career. With 26.1 points per game, he’s scoring more than he has since his last season in Miami and is averaging career-highs in both rebounds and assists at 8.3 and 8.8 per game, respectively. He’s scoring very efficiently to boot, shooting at 53.9% from the field and 38.9% from deep.
Now that Kyrie Irving has cemented himself as a superstar, it’s allowed James to play his game without having the responsibility of running the offence every possession. His usage rate is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season and his game is so much better for it. Not only that, but he’s surrounded himself with possibly the best supporting cast of his career with a team that runs 12 deep and has players that can score from anywhere.
It’s going to be hard for LeBron, whose numbers have been on this level for almost his whole career, to convince voters that he deserves the nod over Westbrook and Harden, whose dramatic increases are more impressive.