The Washington Post unveiled the results of its first media straw poll of the 2017-18 race for the NBA’s most valuable player award Tuesday, with 105 voters weighing in with their top five selections for the award if the race were to end now.
James Harden finished first, followed closely by LeBron James, before a drop to Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steph Curry, in that order.
Here are some takeaways from those results, both what they can tell us about where the season has gone so far and where it could be headed going forward:
1. James Harden won’t win this year’s MVP award (half-kidding)
This is said in jest … sort of. It should be noted that Harden has never lost one of these straw polls. In both editions last season — the first coming in January, and the second in March — Harden came out on top, and by sizable margins. That changed after a furious final month of the season for Russell Westbrook. Several thrilling fourth quarter comebacks for his Oklahoma City Thunder, combined with Westbrook becoming the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of a season, was enough to sway voters.
This season, there likely won’t be another statistical outlier like Westbrook’s season to get in Harden’s way. And he will also likely have some sentimental value from voters for it being “his turn” to win the award after finishing as the runner-up twice in the last three seasons. But he has one significant challenger, at least through a quarter of the season.
2. So far, this is a two-horse race
That challenger is LeBron James, of course, who is seeking to become the fourth player to win the award at least five times — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar claimed it a record six times; Bill Russell and Michael Jordan each have five statues. Kyrie Irving’s departure from Cleveland, combined with the various injuries the Cavaliers have had to deal with, have forced James to play at a ridiculous level just to keep them afloat. He’s done that and then some so far, averaging 28.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 8.5 assists in his 15th NBA season as he approaches his 33rd birthday. Cleveland has won 12 games in a row after beating the Chicago Bulls on Monday night — a streak that’s gotten barely any attention.
It seems likely that, barring injury, these two will be competing neck-and-neck throughout the season. While Harden has done most of his damage early this season without Chris Paul, who missed several weeks because of a knee injury, James has pushed through without Isaiah Thomas, who is rehabbing a hip injury. And though Paul is back and playing beautifully alongside Harden, there’s no certainty Thomas will be able to play at the same near-MVP level he was at last year in Boston once back on the court, likely later this month. If James can continue to keep Cleveland near the top of the East with seemingly less help than Harden, perhaps that will be enough to tip the scales back in his favor.
3. Boston’s hot start could only do so much for Kyrie Irving
As the Boston Celtics stunned the league with 16 straight wins after the devastating injury to Gordon Hayward and two losses to open their season, the idea began to take root in some circles that Irving was the front-runner for this award. That notion, however, can officially be erased after this survey.
A few voters did give respect to Boston leading the league with a 21-4 record after Monday’s win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks, as Irving received eight first-place votes and eight second-place votes — making him the only player other than Harden or James to receive any in either spot on the ballot. But Irving was named to one of the five spots on the ballot by only 77 of the 105 voters — 16 less than Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished just behind Irving, and just three more than Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who finished fifth.
Irving’s statistical profile (23.5 points and 5.0 assists per game while averaging 48.7 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three-point range) is right in line with what he’s done previously, but far from the eye-popping figures Harden and James are putting up. Therefore, it’s on the basis of winning that Irving’s candidacy would most strongly rest. If a 16-game winning streak and the league’s best record isn’t enough to put Irving over the top right now, it’s hard to see how this is anything more than a high-water mark for his candidacy.
4. The Warriors’ stars cancel each other out
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. When Kevin Durant agreed to join the Golden State Warriors last summer, the days of him and Stephen Curry being true contenders for the league’s MVP award almost certainly came to an end. That didn’t matter to either of them. The goal was to win championships — which the Warriors did last season and likely will again this June, assuming they’re healthy.
But by playing together, they blunt the other’s chances of standing out, overshadowing their individual brilliance. That’s why Curry was on only 74 ballots, despite having numbers roughly in line with his first MVP season in 2015. Durant was on only 24 despite averaging 24.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.0 blocks while shooting over 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range. The two of them were on only seven ballots together. It seems unlikely that will change moving forward, and Curry’s case will likely take a further hit because of a sprained ankle he suffered late in Monday’s win in New Orleans that appears likely to keep him out a while.
5. What a difference a year makes for Russell Westbrook
This time last year, the debate around the NBA was whether Westbrook would indeed average a triple-double for the season. This year, the debate around the NBA is what’s wrong with Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
That wasn’t supposed to be the case — not after General Manager Sam Presti swung blockbuster trades for stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Instead, the thing Westbrook excelled at last season — powering the Thunder to dramatic victories in close games — has flipped the other way, as Oklahoma City has struggled in such situations this season. Westbrook actually isn’t far from averaging a triple-double again (22.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 9.7 assists), but hasn’t looked like the same dominant player. His percentages have dropped across the board even as he’s taking fewer shots.
As a result, he finished tied for 11th with New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, and was present on just three ballots. In short: there won’t be a repeat winner of the league’s MVP award this season.
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