This year’s race for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award is one of the most entertaining the league has seen in a long time, mostly thanks to the incredible performances this season by James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Both players are putting up statistics that many of us have never seen in our lifetimes. Westbrook is averaging a ridiculous 32 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds per game, and he’s tied all-time great Oscar Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a single season, with 41. Harden, too, has put together his fair share of triple-doubles, registering 20 of his own this year while averaging 29 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds.
Westbrook’s triple-double record-setting season is rather jaw-dropping. But being the triple-double king is not, on its own, enough to win a player the MVP. Take, for example, the 1961-1962 season, when Robertson set the NBA single-season record for triple-doubles. He finished only third on the MVP ballot that year. Interestingly, the top-three that year seemed to descend in terms of how impressive their statistical resumes were: Robertson and his ridiculous triple-double average came in third; Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points (!) and 25 rebounds, but finished in second; Bill Russell won the award despite averaging just 19 points per game and 24 rebounds per contest. Instead of his individual statistical performance, it was more likely that Russell’s Boston Celtics finished with the best record in the league is what set him apart from Robertson and Chamberlain. If that added weight for team success holds true when voters cast their ballots this season, it likely means Harden will edge out Westbrook. But it could also give a slight advantage to Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs.
Leonard probably won’t win MVP, but he’ll almost certainly get some votes for first place. Like Russell, Leonard’s case for MVP rests not in the sort of flashy, statistical smorgasbord, but in perhaps the most important of all MVP categories: value to his team. Consider that this is the first Spurs season without franchise legend Tim Duncan. Cornerstones Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are well past their primes. Gregg Popovich didn’t have to come back for his twenty-first season coaching the Spurs (he could’ve run for president!), but he did, largely because with Leonard, the team would still contend for the NBA championship. Under Leonard’s leadership, the Spurs have sailed to the second-best record in the league, nearly catching the Golden State Warriors for the top seed in the West. Leonard has won the last two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, and it’s likely he’ll win his third in a row this year. He’s a far superior defensive player to both Westbrook and Harden. He’s also averaging more than 25 points per game, so he’s certainly no slouch in the statistics department. It’s easy to forget him given all the hype surrounding Westbrook and Harden, but it’s just as easy to make a compelling case that Leonard should win MVP over those other guys.
Still, it seems to be a two-man race between Harden and Westbrook. In mid-March, the Washington Post surveyed 106 members of the media who cover the NBA, and while not all of the respondents have a vote in the MVP race, the results clearly favored Harden. The bearded Rockets star garnered 53 first-place votes, and finished either first, second, or third on 102 ballots (he finished fourth on the other four), giving him a total of 910 points, way ahead of Westbrook, who tallied 768 total points (28 first place votes) and Leonard, who finished third with 658 points while earning 17 first-place votes. Harden is ahead of Westbrook in the important “team success” category too. His Rockets have emerged this season as one of the league’s most dangerous teams, and they’re a legitimate threat to challenge the Spurs and Warriors for the Western Conference title. Westbrook’s Thunder, on the other hand, are having a solid season, but OKC will enter their first playoff matchup as the lower seed.
On balance, then, it looks as though this season’s MVP award is Harden’s to lose.