There are some years when no NBA player makes a clear case for himself as league MVP, and voters are left trying to talk themselves into someone as the league’s most valuable man.
This is not that year.
A handful of players are having seasons that would have had them in a serious discussion for MVP in the past, from Giannis Antetokounmpo to Anthony Davis to Kawhi Leonard to DeMar DeRozan to Jimmy Butler to Kevin Durant to LeBron (this season has been crazy), but two have risen above the pack — Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
All year, I’ve leaned toward Westbrook as the presumptive MVP. He’s been an absolute force for the depleted Thunder, making the team in his own image after the departure of Durant to the Warriors. He’s leading the league in scoring with 31.8 points per game, second in assists with 10.8, 11th in rebounding with 10.6 a game. I never thought an NBA player would average a triple-double in a season after Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62. It was one of those untouchable records, like hitting .400. Just wasn’t going to happen.
Westbrook is doing it. He’s averaging a triple double and keeping the Thunder relevant when they really don’t have any right to be. This is a historically great season he’s putting together.
…And yet in the last week, I’ve started leaning toward James Harden as the league MVP.
It doesn’t make any sense. It’s impossible. Westbrook is doing something none of us ever thought would happen again, and he still might not be the NBA’s best player this season. It’s flabbergasting.
But look at what Harden is putting together: He’s third in the league in scoring with 28.5 points per game, and leading the league in assists with a flabbergasting 11.8 per game. You don’t average nearly 12 assists per game and score nearly 30. It just doesn’t happen. The entire Rockets offense is running through him right now.
He’s also leading the Rockets with 8.4 rebounds per game. Not quite a triple double average like Westbrook, but he’s close, and he’s playing improved defense. (Not great, but neither of these guys are exactly lockdown defenders at this point, especially considering how much energy both are expelling on the offensive end.)
Both guys turn the ball over a bunch, so there’s no real dividing line there. So why am I leaning toward Harden at this point? It’s not just that he’s led the Rockets to a 31-9 record and making a serious run at the top of the Western Conference, while the Thunder are currently sitting as the 7-seed in the Western Conference at 23-16. It’s how efficiently Harden has been in getting those points.
As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller pointed out last week, Harden’s true shooting percentage is higher than Westbrook’s (.612 to .546) and his usage rate is lower — basically, he’s making 28.2 points and 11.8 assists happen every game while using up fewer possession than Westbrook. If you want to toss aside the numbers and do the eye-test thing, well, Harden is trusting his teammates more than Westbrook, who still has a tendency to try and take over games when his teammates miss open shots. (Not that I blame him, I too might get frustrated watching Anthony Morrow — currently shooting 29 percent from deep — miss another 3.)