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Tony Jones: It'll be James Harden by a nose in what is shaping up as a historic MVP race

Published March 18, 2017 2:52 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

James Harden. LeBron James. Russell Westbrook. Kawhi Leonard. Which one of these superstars will win the NBA's MVP?

You can ask four people this question and get four different answers. That's how close this MVP race is.

By March, we almost always have a name in mind. Sometimes, we have two names competing with each other. This month, though, we have four players who have had phenomenal and even historic seasons. But only one can win it.

Who will come out on top? There are different favorites, depending on who you talk to. So we're taking an objective look. Here goes:

James Harden

Pros • Has turned the Houston Rockets around this season with his move to the point guard spot. Yes, the Rockets qualified for the postseason last year. But they've been the third-best team in the West this season. Harden's numbers have been off-the-charts good. He averages 29 points and leads the NBA with 11.3 assists a game. He averages eight rebounds and has even found time to play a little defense. His biggest accomplishment is almost changing the narrative around him. Heading into this season, Hardenwas thought of as a talented loser, a guy who couldn't lead a team. This season has rehabbed his image, and ultimately he has improved his overall legacy.

Cons • Harden is still too lax defensively. As good as he's been, it's tough to imagine the Rockets beating the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. Other than that, Harden's resume has been pretty flawless this season. He has been amazing.

Russell Westbrook

Pros • Do we even need to state this? He is leading the league in scoring at 31.7 points per game. He's averaging 10.4 assists and 10.5 rebounds per night. Yes. Westbrook is averaging a triple-double, and is on track to become the second player in NBA history after Oscar Robertson to accomplish the feat. Westbrook has carried the Thunder on his back into playoff contention, following Kevin Durant's defection to the Warriors, and Westbrook is a an example of a guy who plays hard every possession he's on the floor. He has been a one-man gang this season, the likes we haven't seen since Allen Iverson when he dragged the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals, or LeBron James when he took the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals.

Cons • For as good as Westbrook has been, the Thunder are sixth in the Western Conference. MVPs usually don't come from teams that finish sixth in their conference. You can go back to 1980 and you won't find an MVP who's team finished lower than third. Westbrook's individual season has been good enough to buck that trend. But with three other competitors who are as worthy — and play on better teams — this could be a tough precedent to overturn.

LeBron James

Pros • He is the best player in the league, and has performed as such all season. This has been James' best regular season since 2012. He is averaging 26 points a game. His 8.4 rebounds per game will be a career-high. His 8.8 assists per game will be a career-high. He's shooting 54 percent from the field, his highest since 2013, when he shot 56 percent. He's shooting 38 percent from 3-point range, his highest since 2012 and the second highest of his career. And he's shooting 4.6 3-pointers a night, his highest volume shooting 3-point season since 2009. James — at age 32 — is doing the impossible: He's getting better.

Cons • As good as James has been, Westbrook and Harden have individually been historic. Almost any other season, James would have his fifth MVP locked up by now. This season? If he wins it, it will be an upset. No doubt, he deserves to win it. But the other three do as well.

Kawhi Leonard

Pros • He has carried the Spurs and has raised his game with Tim Duncan's retirement. Because of Leonard, the Spurs are going to finish no lower than second in the Western Conference, and they have a puncher's chance at beating the Warriors and advancing to the NBA Finals. Leonard has raised his scoring average by at least four points a game since 2013, and is averaging 26.4 per game this season. He is one of the three best defensive players in the league, along with Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert. He is shooting 50 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point range. Guys who are as good as he is defensively, aren't supposed to be as lethal and efficient as he is offensively.

Cons • Much like James' situation, Leonard is up against history — Harden and Westbrook have been otherworldly. Leonard also is the quietest of the four candidates by far. That matters. Harden, Westbrook and James are always featured on SportsCenter, while Leonard's game is usually devoid of viral-ready highlights. He simply goes about his business It's amazing that can be a detriment, but in the text of this conversation, it is.

And the winner is ...

Harden will win his first MVP by the slimmest of margins. Out of this quartet, he has made the biggest turnaround from last season while also leading his team's resurgence, and that deserves the ultimate recognition.


Twitter: @tribjazz NBA Power rankings

1. Golden State Warriors • Most wins in the league and best point differential in the NBA. So why does it feel like they are mortal?

2. San Antonio Spurs • The top seed in the Western Conference is in play. Do they go for it, or rest guys down the stretch?

3. Cleveland Cavaliers • LeBron James scores 17 of his 33 points in the fourth to beat Utah, and the Cavs needed every one of them.

4. Houston Rockets • A soft schedule late should lock up the third seed in the Western Conference for this group.

5. Boston Celtics • No Isaiah Thomas on Friday at Brooklyn. That shouldn't matter at all.

6. Utah Jazz • Injury woes to Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors continue. Jazz hoping for a full roster in the playoffs at this point.

7. Washington Wizards • Only team in the top seven with a negative road record. That needs to change to have success in the playoffs.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder • Russell Westbrook is having a historic season. Will it ultimately be recognized as such?

9. Toronto Raptors • Had a team meeting and aired out differences after loss to OKC.

10. Memphis Grizzlies • Marc Gasol notches triple-double in a win over the Bulls. Everyone is getting in on the act.

11. L.A. Clippers • J.J. Redick: "I don't know what to expect from this team anymore." Not a good sign.

12. Atlanta Hawks • Rolling along under the radar. Fourth in the Eastern Conference is not out of the question.

13. Indiana Pacers • Paul George is averaging 28 per game since the All-Star break. He's gearing up for the postseason.

14. Denver Nuggets • They've taken off since realizing Nikola Jokic was their best player.

15. Milwaukee Bucks • A good shot at making the playoffs, despite losing Jabari Parker. That's a good look for coach Jason Kidd.

16. Miami Heat • They started the season 11-30. They are currently 33-35. Think about the enormity of that turnaround.

17. Detroit Pistons • Stan Van Gundy bemoaned Detroit's lack of strong starts after loss this past week to the Jazz.

18. Portland Trail Blazers • Fighting hard to make the playoffs, but Denver keeps winning games and holding them off for eighth.

19. Minnesota Timberwolves • Ricky Rubio is playing some of the best basketball of his career. At just the right time.

20. Dallas Mavericks • Getting smacked around by Philadelphia on Friday wasn't the best way to keep fledgling playoff hopes alive.

21. Chicago Bulls • Dwyane Wade is done for the season with a fractured elbow. That's a crushing blow.

22. Charlotte Hornets • Nic Batum gets a CAT scan because of relentless migraine headaches. That's scary.

23. Philadelphia 76ers • Dario Saric is slowly gaining Rookie of the Year support throughout the league.

24. Sacramento Kings • Skal Labissiere is showing encouraging signs, averaging 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in March.

25. New Orleans Pelicans • DeMarcus Cousins is assessed another technical foul … and then the NBA rescinds shortly after.

26. New York Knicks • The team issues statement saying Jeff Hornacek won't be fired. Is that a good thing?

27. Orlando Magic • Have lost four straight as of Thursday night. Let the lottery positioning begin.

28. Phoenix Suns • They shut down point guard Eric Bledsoe for the remainder of the season. Let the lottery positioning begin.

29. L.A. Lakers • They shut down Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, both of whom are healthy. Let the lottery positioning begin.

30. Brooklyn Nets • Their lotto pick goes to the Boston Celtics. So they are still playing hard and to win.






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