When James Harden limped off the court inside Houston’s Toyota Center with a hamstring strain on New Year’s Eve, it appeared this year’s NBA most valuable player award was officially LeBron James’s to lose.
But then a funny thing happened: James went and lost it.
James had one of the worst months of his career in January as his Cavaliers completely imploded. Meanwhile, Harden came back sooner than expected and went from potentially seeing his hopes of winning the league’s MVP award fall short for a third time in four seasons to becoming the overwhelming favorite to win it.
That status was borne out by the latest installment of The Washington Post’s MVP straw poll, which saw 91 of the 100 media members surveyed over the past two weeks put Harden atop their ballot.
While it should be noted that the 100 media members who were surveyed for this poll are not the same panel of 100 that will officially determine the award, the near consensus that Harden is in pole position makes it difficult to see how, barring injury, he won’t finish this season as the winner after he was runner-up twice in the past three seasons.
With eight second place votes and a lone third place vote, Harden had a final tally of 971 out of a possible 1,000 points and was the only player named on all 100 ballots.
Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry finished in second with two first-place votes and 466 points, followed by teammate Kevin Durant (one first-place vote and 318 points), James (two first-place votes and 289 points) and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (one first-place vote and 207 points).
A total of 12 players received at least one vote, with the above five followed by Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge and Chris Paul.
It’s easy to see how Harden has taken such a large lead. He’s putting up eye-popping numbers — 31.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 9.0 assists while shooting 44.9 percent overall, 38.5 percent from three and 86.6 percent at the foul line — while playing on a Houston Rockets team that has the best record in the NBA and looks like the only team capable of truly challenging the Warriors.
More surprising than Harden’s hammerlock on the award, however, is James’s tumble down the leader board. In our first version of the poll, conducted in early December, Harden and James were the clear first and second options among the media members polled, and both were named on every ballot. This time around, James made it onto 79 of the 100 ballots, had only the two first-place and eight second-place votes and fell from second overall to fourth.
Not only did James see his stats plummet across the board while Cleveland fell apart in January, but the Cavaliers also found themselves engaged in all kinds of internal drama that lasted right up until they completely remade their roster at last week’s trade deadline.
The way he’s played in Cleveland’s four straight wins heading into the all-star break — 30 points, 9.5 rebounds and 13.0 assists per game — only underscores how off he looked as the Cavaliers went 6-8 in January.
“He’s the best player, but I honestly don’t think he’s an MVP right now,” said Brian Mahoney, the Associated Press’s national basketball writer, one of the 21 voters who left James completely off his five-man ballot. “His team is underachieving and fractured, and he’s the guy who’s supposed to fix that.”
But while James slipped, Curry and Durant moved past him, as both former MVPs have been their usually brilliant selves while Golden State remains the league’s best team. Curry was injured for much of December but his dazzling January (29.5 points on 51.3 percent shooting overall and 46.3 percent from three) more than made up for that, while Durant has been a consistent presence for the Warriors at both ends of the court.
The other notable change was Irving’s drop from third place to sixth. While he did get more first-place votes (three) than anyone but Harden, he only made it onto 40 ballots — proof much of the fuel behind his early candidacy came from the lingering glow of Boston’s early-season 16-game winning streak, and that those hopes have faded as the Celtics have come back to earth since.
It appears Irving and the remainder of the field, however, are simply playing for second place. Harden’s injury looked like it would, at minimum, open up the race — and, most likely, give James a clear shot at winning a fifth MVP award, which would tie him with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell for the second-most all-time.
But James dropped the ball, Harden came back sooner than expected and now — with a third of the season remaining — it looks all but over.
Harden should start preparing his victory speech.
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