Harden? Westbrook? Kawhi? Who deserves to win the impossibly-close MVP race this season?
This article was first published in my column for Ekalavyas.com on April 4, 2017. Read the original feature here.
The first definition of ‘value’ on my Dictionary app tells me that the word means ‘relative worth, merit, or importance’. Notice ‘relative’ as the operative word: there is no singular answer to “What, or Who, is Valuable?” For me, an afternoon chomping down on a dozen mutton fried momos is probably of higher value than it’s to you. It’s all relative.
There are a lot of individual awards given by the NBA every year, but the one that truly matters is the MVP. The Most Valuable Player. Basketball is a team sport and, rightfully so, the most-celebrated achievement every season is the NBA Championship. Nevertheless, the MVP award is a celebration of the individual who truly stamped his greatness on to the season, and did it better than his competition. Relative to the rest of the great players, he was the greatest.
I’ve long been intrigued, concerned, amused, and even sometimes angered by the definitions of MVP. The intrigue is added by the fact that each one of us can have our own definitions. My plate of momos might be your masala-dosa. They can all be right answers depending on the angle we choose to define them. Is the most valuable player the one with the best statistics? Is he the best player on the best team? Is he the player who best defined the narrative of how the season unfolded? Is he, as per the ‘eye-test’, simply the most-talented player, no matter what his team or individual numbers might say?
Here is my definition: the ‘Most Valuable Player’ is the one player whose absence would make the biggest difference in the final standings of the league. This player isn’t just the best stats guy or the best player in the best team: he is a combination of all factors that affects both his team and the rest of the league more than any other player.
In recent years, at the end of the regular season, the hazy race has usually become clearer and the favourite for the award stood out over his worthy challengers. In 2012 and 2013, the Miami Heat finished back-to-back in top two of their conference and had the game’s best talent LeBron James getting the best stats, leading to consecutive MVP awards. In 2014, MVP Kevin Durant led the league in scoring while carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to second place in the Western Conference while his superstar teammate was injured. In 2015, Stephen Curry edged out James Harden to win MVP as the best player in the best team (67 wins!). In 2016, Curry doubled down, leading the league in scoring and in all the advanced metrics to make the Warriors the best team again, breaking the All Time wins record (73), and becoming the game’s only-ever unanimous MVP. There was no argument in Curry’s case: from every definition of ‘value’, he was the most valuable.
12 months later, things couldn’t be more different. With only a few weeks left before the end of the regular season, we are amidst an MVP race for the ages, forcing us to employ all of our relative intelligence, reasoning, definitions, and experience. A number of truly-deserving candidates stand out, and a win for any singular one will automatically signal a major snub for the losers. Let’s take a closer look, in last-name alphabetic order, at the top contenders.
The case for: The Rockets lost Dwight Howard and restructured their squad with Harden as the point guard and shooters to complement his style. The result has been an epic success: after finishing at the 8th seed last year, Houston has improved to third this season with a .689 winning record. Harden has been magnificent, leading the league in assists and scoring the second-most points per game in the NBA to make the Rockets the league’s highest-scoring team. Harden has had 20 triple-doubles this season and numerous 50-point games. Unlike the teams with a better record than them, Houston are the only one being carried by a single elite player.
The case against: We have to nit-pick to find weaknesses in Harden’s MVP candidacy. Such as the fact that he is in ‘only’ the third-best team this season, and that, despite his own gaudy averages, Russell Westbrook is putting up even better individual stats (more on that later). And of course, there’s the defence; as great as Harden has been offensively, he’s a sieve on the defensive end and the Rockets as a whole are a below-average defensive team.
The case for: LeBron fans, after his superhuman performance over the unanimous MVP in last year’s Finals, can only point to what they believe to be the given truth: ignore the distractions and crown the most-talented player as the most-valuable one. This season, James has evolved his game to become an even more-rounded player, averaging a career-high 8.8 assists to go with 8.4 rebounds and 26 points. Despite their recent dip, the Cavaliers are still one of the best teams in their conference; they are terrible when he is off the court.
The case against: This is not a legacy award, it’s an award for a player’s performances in this season, and LeBron’s “potential” to be better than his competitors shouldn’t count unless he is “actually” better. And as good as he has been, he has simply not matched the statistical output of some of the other contenders. His team has underachieved (“only” 0.644, despite being stacked with the talent they have) and he has missed six games so far. Head to head, he has been outplayed by many of the contenders listed below.
The case for: Just a couple of games behind Golden State Warriors for the league’s best record, the Spurs are a true title contender, and Kawhi Leonard has been chiefly responsible for their success. Leonard is his team’s best offensive player and one of the top 10 scorers in the league. He also happens to be the best perimeter defender in the NBA. There is no better two-way player in the world. Leonard’s MVP campaign rests on being the best player in almost the best team.
The case against: He is almost there, but not quiet. His team is second-best, his statistics are good, but in comparison to others in this list, not great. And he relies on the NBA’s most-efficient system to blossom. The Spurs might not have been a great team without Leonard, but they would still be pretty damn good.
The case for: This dude is averaging a friggin triple-double while simultaneously leading the league in scoring!!! Westbrook could be the first since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double all season and beat Robertson’s single season record (he’s already on 40). No single player carries a heavier burden on his shoulders every night. His efforts have carried a Durant-less Thunder to an impressive playoff spot, battling for fifth or sixth in the West.
The case against: At the current rate, the Thunder are heading for a sixth-place finish in the West with about 48 wins. This is simply not good enough: my belief is that the MVP of every season needs to come from a true title contender, and Westbrook has been a great player in an average team. His maximalist style of play and high usage rate has made the Thunder a one-man team to a fault.
This is an impossible race and can’t be truly determined until the very last day of the season. All of the contenders have played at an unimaginably high level, and the shortlist didn’t even mention players like Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and John Wall, all of whom have turned heads with their stellar play.
My answer might change day to day, or even hour to hour, but on this moment in time, I sniff gingerly towards James Harden. Ask me if I’ve changed my mind tomorrow.