The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We asked 105 NBA media members to pick this season’s MVP so far. There’s a clear favorite.

Four players have strong cases for MVP so far, but two truly stand out. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images, first two photos; Kyusung Gong/Associated Press; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The 2016-17 most valuable player race was arguably the best in NBA history. Russell Westbrook became the second player ever to average a triple-double for a season. James Harden transformed into Steve Nash 2.0. LeBron James reinforced why he is the greatest player of his generation, and one of the handful of players in the conversation for greatest of all-time. And Kawhi Leonard proved he is the best two-way player in the sport.

In the end, Westbrook’s historic statistical season — coupled with lifting the Oklahoma City Thunder to the playoffs in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure in free agency — was enough to swing the necessary votes in his favor, as he topped Harden by a slim margin.

This season doesn’t have quite the same drama around the award, but it’s still shaping up to be a compelling race with strong cases already being made once again by Harden and James, as well as the Boston Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and Golden State Warriors duo Stephen Curry and Durant.

To measure where things stand a quarter of the way through the NBA calendar, The Washington Post conducted its second annual MVP straw poll, a survey of 105 media members who cover the league. They were asked to place votes for five players, just as the actual ballot requests at the end of the season. It should be noted that not all of these media members are part of the 100-member panel that does the actual voting but, with the survey conducted over the past 72 hours, their selections provide a snapshot of where things stand right now.

Harden has led the Houston Rockets to the best record in the Western Conference, largely without co-star Chris Paul, while James has powered the Cleveland Cavaliers to 12 consecutive wins, lifting the team back up the standings after a lackluster 5-7 start. His former Cavaliers sidekick, Irving, leads a Celtics team with the NBA’s best record, one that stunned the NBA by reeling off 16 straight wins in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury on opening night. Antetokounmpo has taken the final step to NBA superstardom, while the Warriors continue to be the league’s best team thanks to the combined brilliance of Curry and Durant.

According to The Post’s poll, Harden — at least for now — is the front-runner for this season’s award, as the Rockets star finished first with 73 first place votes and 944 out of a possible 1,050 points. James placed second with 24 first-place votes and 773 points, with Irving (eight first place votes and 347 points) coming in third. Antetokounmpo finished fourth with 317 points, while Curry rounded out the top five with 208. Neither received a first-place vote.

Seventeen players received at least one vote, with Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Andre Drummond, Bradley Beal, Ben Simmons and DeMarcus Cousins rounding out the poll, in that order.

The survey shows Harden has a firm grip on the top spot. He is the only player to exclusively receive first-, second- and third-place votes — nothing lower — and 100 of the 105 voters polled had him either first or second on their ballot. Harden, a five-time all-star averaging a career-high 31.7 points per game, has never won the most valuable player award over his first eight seasons. He has twice finished second.

The fact it isn’t a runaway for Harden indicates how impressive this season has been for James, who is once again defying logic and the toll of time by continuing to look like the league’s best all-around player in his 15th season, as he approaches his 33rd birthday. Even when the Cavaliers were floundering early in the season, James was posting eye-popping numbers. That has only continued as Cleveland’s streak has moved the team back into second place in the Eastern Conference with James settling into averages of 28 points, 8.5 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game. He has also added another tool to his belt, posting a career-high .416 three-point percentage. Doing so, after Irving was shipped to Boston last summer for still-sidelined star Isaiah Thomas, has made James the only other player besides Harden to earn a place on all 105 ballots cast. If he’s able to surpass Harden for the top spot by the end of the season, he would capture his fifth MVP statue, tying Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) won the award more times.

Harden and James occupy a clear-cut top tier, as there was a significant drop to Irving and Antetokounmpo, who are on the list for contrasting reasons. Irving’s personal statistics (23.5 points, 5.0 assists per game) haven’t been particularly noteworthy, but he gets the nod as the face of the Celtics’ remarkable season. The opposite case is true for Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 29.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists for a Milwaukee team that, at 12-10 after a loss in Boston to Irving’s Celtics on Monday night, is in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Antetokounmpo’s personal brilliance and unique style has landed him in the race in his fifth season. Neither player has ever come close to winning MVP before — Irving has never been among the top-10 finishers for the award, while Antetokounmpo tied the Washington Wizards’ John Wall for seventh place last season, with just seven total points won.

The field thins out from there. Despite the Warriors’ usual dominance, Curry and Durant wind up canceling each other out for the award — just as was expected when Durant chose to leave the Thunder to join Curry in the Bay Area in the summer of 2016, after they had combined to win the award the three previous seasons. The San Antonio Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge placing seventh, meanwhile, should be seen as a nod to his impressive play (22.8 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) as Leonard has missed every game this season due to a mysterious leg injury, though he could return as soon as this week. Aldridge has twice been among the top 10 vote-getters for MVP, but has never placed higher than seventh.

At the season’s quarter mark, it looks like Harden’s award to lose. But there’s still plenty of basketball left to be played.

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