The collective eyes of the basketball world may shift to the college game Thursday afternoon with the commencement of the NCAA tournament, but that doesn’t mean the NBA is taking a break. Thursday marks the beginning of the final four weeks of the regular season, weeks which have plenty of things worth paying attention to.
There are legitimate races for the top seed in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, with the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers leading the Boston Celtics by two games in the East and the Golden State Warriors leading the San Antonio Spurs by a game in the West. Meanwhile, there are five teams battling for the final three playoff spots in the East and four fighting for the final spot in the West, so there will be meaningful games up and down the standings right up until mid-April.
But there will be nothing more compelling to watch in the NBA over these final few weeks than the race for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Between Cavaliers forward LeBron James, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and Houston Rockets guard James Harden, there are four future Hall of Fame players who are having incredible seasons — so good that it is accurately being discussed as to whether this could be the greatest battle for the award in league history (and that doesn’t include Kevin Durant, as the Warriors forward would’ve been right in the middle of that fight had he not suffered an MCL sprain and a 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. And, surprisingly, the survey laid out a clear answer: Despite the intense competition, it remains very clearly Harden’s race to lose.
After surveying 106 media members who cover the sport (though, to be clear, not all will be among the voters for the award when ballots are sent out next month), Harden finished with exactly half (53) of the available first-place votes, and finished either first, second or third on 102 of the 106 ballots cast (finishing fourth on the other four).
That allowed Harden — just as he did in the initial 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, in second, 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 guess here is that, as the year goes on, Thomas and Wall will wind up duking it out for that fifth spot, with the likely winner being whoever’s team, between the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, finishes ahead of the other in the East standings.
The true drama, though, is at the top of the ballot, where there are clear arguments in favor of each candidate, and no clear reasons 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 47-21 Rockets to one of the league’s best records while leading the NBA in assists. Westbrook remains on pace to average a triple-double for the season — something that hadn’t been done since Oscar Robertson 55 years ago, and was long suspected no one would ever do again. James is simply averaging 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.9 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 that 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 will likely surprise many, especially since Westbrook is the one doing something truly historic this season as he props 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 referenced Westbrook’s triple-double exploits as a reason for voting him number one, and several said that if he stopped averaging it, he would immediately 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 are on pace to win 46 or 47 games this season — a more-than-respectable total, and one that could get them as high as fifth place in the West standings, depending on how long the late-season swoon of the Los Angeles Clippers carries on.
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 Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds that season.
Bill Russell, the best player on the league’s best team, the Boston Celtics, won the award. 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. He could cut into the vote totals for both Harden and Westbrook before it’s all said and done.
The biggest long shot among the four candidates seems to be James, despite the fact he’s still nearly universally 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.