Harden? Westbrook? Tim Bontemps dives into the NBA MVP debate.
Harden appears to have the edge over Westbrook, James and Leonard
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.
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?