If you watch any basketball coverage on any program, you will hear LeBron James name at least 100 times per hour. Hearing the “Chosen One”, “LBJ”, or “The King” has, at times, convinced me that James is the greatest basketball player to have ever played this game. Fortunately, I reel myself back in during these times of utter absent-mindedness and remind myself that players such as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and this other guy named Michael Jordan have also played for the National Basketball Association. LeBron is a fantastic player and is the G.O.A.T for most people during this generation, but it is important to remember the history of this league and to not forget those who paved the way for the King. All of that aside, you will hear analysts on a variety of networks universally acknowledge LeBron as the best player in the NBA and that he can win the league MVP every year. Truthfully speaking, this is a correct assertion. There is no person playing basketball right now that is more valuable to their team than LeBron is to Cleveland. This is what will happen if you take LeBron off of the Cavaliers. First, the Cavaliers drop to a fourth or fifth seed, not be considered championship contenders, and fail to attract free agents in the offseason. Second, the team that he goes to (it could be Philadelphia, Los Angeles, etc….) will jump to the top five in terms of odds to win the title. Finally, other teams will fail to sign key free agents because they will be heading wherever LeBron is. I will put aside all of the heat that I have given James for creating the Heatles to simply say that he is deserving of the MVP every year that he plays basketball and averages his normal 25 points per games, and 7+ rebounds and assists per game. Unfortunately for LBJ, the Most Valuable Player award doesn’t necessarily go to the player who is actually the most valuable player overall.
Stephen Curry and Steve Nash took over the NBA world in their respective decades, both garnering two MVP awards each. Photo Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The MVP typically goes to the player that has taken over the league by doing things that most players could only dream of doing or that we have never really seen from a player before. Also, these players put up gaudy numbers and a level of efficiency that was outstanding considering the load they had to carry for their team. Stephen Curry has won the award the past two seasons because he captivated the NBA audience with his Harlem Globetrotter-esque style of play that featured opponents looking like fools and him making ridiculous shots no human could ever make. Derrick Rose won it six years ago because of the rare athleticism that we had never seen from a point guard and the greatness he brought to a Bulls franchise that desperately needed a player with Michael Jordan-type impact. Shaquille O’Neal won the MVP at the start of the millennium due to the unstoppable force that he was in the paint, and that he was literally unguardable. Besides the fact that these players did things on the court that we have never seen before, you know what else they had in common? Their teams finished with the best record in their respective conferences. Time for a little “Did You Know?”. Since 1982, every single player who has won the MVP has led their team to a top three spot in their conference. And that’s where my argument against Russell Westbrook comes into play.
Russell Westbrook has probably been listening to Taylor Swift a whole lot since Kevin Durant left. Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty
Let me start off by saying that Westbrook is having one of the greatest statistical seasons in the history of the NBA. He is keeping a team afloat that would have had a guaranteed lottery pick if it weren’t for his presence. Since he entered the league, Westbrook has become a dynamic passer, a knockdown midrange shooter, and has turned up the motor that allows for him to average nearly 11 rebounds a game while standing just 6’3″. Russell attacks the paint like it disrespected his mother, he treats his opponents like they are the final roadblock in his path to greatness, and there is never a game where he does not give it 110% on both sides of the court. For that, I commend him and thank him for bringing an 80’s feeling to modern times where the game is significantly softer than it used to be. I have two knocks on Westbrook, however, and one of them shoves him out of the top spot for the MVP award.
The first knock on Russell is that he sometimes plays recklessly. I watch every game the Thunder play on TV because their superstar is my favorite player to watch, but I have noticed a trend throughout the course of the season. Whenever the lead seems to be extending for the opponent, Russell goes into a mode that features unnecessary turnovers, rim-missing layup attempts, and bad three point shots. I do not hold these negative aspects of his game against him when evaluating who my NBA MVP is, however, because every player has their faults. LeBron complains to the referees too much and does not get back on defense. James Harden becomes James Haren sometimes because he lacks interest in playing defense. Even Kevin Durant goes cold when the lights are the brightest and he seems to disappear from his team’s offense. The second knock on Westbrook that pushes him out of the MVP top spot is his team’s record. The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently the 7th seed in the Western Conference, and their best hope is to make the 5th seed. I am hoping that the additions of veteran Taj Gibson and shooter Doug McDermott can open up second chance opportunities and spread the floor for the Thunder, but they aren’t going to jump the Grizzlies, Jazz, and Clippers with 23 games to go. There has not been an MVP in the past 34 years who has led a team that finished outside of the top three in their conference, and I don’t see the voters going against that logic this year. The only hope that Westbrook has is that his individual statistics and his potential triple-double average will be historic enough to get him the award. But I think his former teammate has a better shot to win the award.
Which former Thunder did I chose as my MVP? Photo Credit: Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports
Alright, I think I stalled enough. You probably know who I am going to go with as my 2016-2017 MVP, so it should not be a surprise to anyone. I have James Harden as my MVP. Some people probably thought that I was going to take Kevin Durant. Nah. Kevin Durant is not even in consideration for me because his team has not drastically improved from where they were last year, which is surprising. His defensive presence and offensive output has been stellar, but I would think that adding a future Hall of Famer to a 73-9 squad that was up 3-1 in the Finals would essentially guarantee them a championship. I still think the Cavaliers, Spurs, and Clippers have a legitimate shot to knock off the Warriors, and I am in the mindset that Durant should have eliminated the thought of those other three teams winning just by joining Golden State (the Thunder were eliminated by default due to Durant leaving). James Harden is my choice for MVP because he does it all for his team. Mike Antoni (man, I forgot the D for defense because the Rockets are 24th in the league as it pertains to points allowed per game) made Harden the point guard, and Harden flourished in this transition from being a shooting guard to running the show. Dwight Howard leaves for the Atlanta Hawks in free agency and Harden makes his team even better. Steve Nash is obviously a better passer and more of a pure point guard, but Harden has demonstrated that he can be an elite passer and he can score the ball in ways that Nash never could. Harden has been the catalyst for success for a Houston Rockets team that is 42-18 and should finish as a three seed in the tough Western Conference. On a team with Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, and Trevor Ariza (no All-Stars), Harden has done a magnificent job with his distribution of the rock and scoring when his team is in a slump. James Harden is doing things on the basketball court that few in the league, if any, can do, and he has brought the Rockets back to relevance after a terrible year last season.
The former Thunder guard is the perfect choice for MVP because he meets the necessary criteria I laid out beforehand. Is his team going to finish as a three seed or better in his conference? Yes. Does Harden have the stats to back it up? 29 points per game, 11 assists per game, 8 rebounds per game, and a PER of 27.48 sounds pretty decent (the six turnovers per game could be lower, but every player has an area they can improve upon). Finally, is Harden doing something we have rarely, if not ever, seen before? I would be inclined to say yes. James Harden is Steve Nash on steroids mixed with Kobe Bryant and the smooth, left-handed shot that reminds me of Michael Redd. Harden does everything for his team while playing over 36 minutes per game and carrying a heavy offensive load. James Harden is the clear-cut choice for the MVP, and I would be absolutely shocked if anyone else wins the award.
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