Harden? West­brook? Tim Bon­temps dives into the NBA MVP de­bate.

Harden ap­pears to have the edge over West­brook, James and Leonard

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY TIM BON­TEMPS tim.bon­temps@wash­post.com

Across the NBA, even with bat­tles for the top seed and fi­nal play­off spot in each con­fer­ence, there will be noth­ing more com­pelling to watch in the NBA over th­ese fi­nal few weeks than the race for the MVP award. Four fu­ture Hall of Fame play­ers — Cava­liers for­ward LeBron James, Spurs for­ward Kawhi Leonard, Ok­la­homa City Thun­der guard Rus­sell West­brook and Hous­ton Rock­ets guard James Harden — are hav­ing in­cred­i­ble sea­sons, so good that it is ac­cu­rately be­ing dis­cussed whether this could be the great­est bat­tle for the award in league his­tory. And that doesn’t in­clude Kevin Du­rant, the War­riors for­ward who would have been right in the mid­dle of that fight had he not suf­fered a me­dial col­lat­eral lig­a­ment sprain and tib­ial bone bruise in Washington two weeks ago.

So with such an in­tense com­pe­ti­tion un­der­way for the award — and with no clear an­swer for who should be lead­ing the race — The Washington Post con­ducted a fol­low-up sur­vey to the one we did close to two months ago to see what the state of the race was. Sur­pris­ingly, the sur­vey laid out a clear an­swer: De­spite the in­tense com­pe­ti­tion, it re­mains Harden’s race to lose.

Af­ter sur­vey­ing 106 me­dia mem­bers who cover the sport (though not all are among the vot­ers for the award), Harden fin­ished with half (53) of the first-place votes and was first, sec­ond or third on 102 of the 106 bal­lots cast and fourth on the other four.

That al­lowed Harden — just as he did in the straw poll in Jan­uary — to fin­ish in first place with 910 points, putting him al­most 150 ahead of West­brook (768), who had 28 first-place votes, and sig­nif­i­cantly ahead of both Leonard (658) in third and James (600) in fourth.

There was a semi-in­ter­est­ing race for the fifth spot, with Isa­iah Thomas, John Wall and Du­rant re­ceiv­ing vary­ing de­grees of sup­port. Thomas (94 points) edged out Wall (74) and Du­rant (60).

The true drama, though, is at the top of the bal­lot, where there are clear ar­gu­ments in fa­vor of each can­di­date and no clear rea­son to pick against any of them, mak­ing for an in­cred­i­bly difficult choice for any­one try­ing to cast a vote.

Harden has be­come Steve Nash 2.0 playing for Mike D’An­toni this sea­son, pro­pel­ling the Rock­ets to one of the league’s best records while lead­ing the NBA in as­sists. West­brook re­mains on pace to av­er­age a triple-dou­ble — some­thing that hadn’t been done since Os­car Robert­son 55 years ago. James is sim­ply av­er­ag­ing 26.0 points, 8.4 re­bounds and 8.8 as­sists while playing the sec­ond-most min­utes per game in the league at 32 years old, while Leonard is the best two-way player in the league, one who con­tin­ues to add el­e­ments to his game of­fen­sively as he re­mains a one-man wreck­ing crew de­fen­sively.

But it ap­pears Harden’s com­bi­na­tion of sta­tis­ti­cal prow­ess, be­ing the engine of Hous­ton’s un­ex­pected suc­cess and push­ing the Rock­ets into the nec­es­sary place in the stand­ings for him to be con­sid­ered — no MVP has fin­ished out­side the top three spots in his con­fer­ence since Moses Malone did so for Hous­ton in 1982 — has given him a sizable lead head­ing into the stretch run.

This result likely will sur­prise many, es­pe­cially since West­brook is the one do­ing some­thing truly his­toric and is prop­ping up the Thun­der in the wake of Du­rant’s de­par­ture. At least from this elec­torate, how­ever, it ap­pears West­brook will have trou­ble mak­ing up that dif­fer­ence be­tween now and the end of the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Many vot­ers already ref­er­enced West­brook’s triple-dou­ble ex­ploits as a rea­son for vot­ing him No. 1, and sev­eral said that if he stopped av­er­ag­ing it, he im­me­di­ately would fall to fourth on their bal­lots. Bar­ring in­jury, how­ever, that won’t be an is­sue.

What will be is his team’s suc­cess. The Thun­der is on pace to win 47 games — a more-than-re­spectable to­tal.

But his­tor­i­cally, play­ers on teams that fin­ish in the mid­dle of the pack sim­ply don’t get con­sid­er­a­tion for the top in­di­vid­ual honor. Plus, Robert­son didn’t win the award when he av­er­aged the triple-dou­ble — he fin­ished third in 1962 be­hind the Bos­ton Celtics’ Bill Rus­sell, the win­ner as the best player on the NBA’s best team, and Wilt Cham­ber­lain, who av­er­aged 50 points and 26 re­bounds.

It is that dis­tinc­tion — the best on the best — that could wind up be­ing a huge boost to Leonard over the next month. San An­to­nio lost to the Port­land Trail Blaz­ers on Wed­nes­day night to fall a game back of Golden State for the NBA’s best record, but if the Spurs sur­pass the War­riors some­time over the next month, it will do won­ders for Leonard’s can­di­dacy.

The big­gest long shot among the four can­di­dates seems to be James, even though he’s still con­sid­ered the game’s best player. It’s just hard to see how the nar­ra­tive is go­ing to tip in his di­rec­tion be­tween now and mid-April. This has led some, most no­tably ESPN’s Rachel Ni­chols, to call for the award to be split into two: one to go to whomever is deemed the best player and the other to who had the best sea­son.

As of to­day, though, that dis­tinc­tion doesn’t ex­ist. And un­der the pa­ram­e­ters that do ex­ist, Harden is on pace to be the NBA’s next MVP.

GER­ALD HER­BERT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Hous­ton guard James Harden leads the NBA in as­sists and is third in scor­ing, but will it be enough to get him past some tough com­pe­ti­tion for MVP?

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