The best MVP race ever during the most top heavy season ever

Nov 16, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) react after a play against the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 16, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) react after a play against the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

Whoever came up with the MVP award is a genius. Not because of what the award represents, but because of how incredibly vague it is. “Most Valuable Player” has no set definition. Valuable is a subjective term that will vary from person to person, leaving the MVP award as one of the most openly debated awards in sports. What is truly valuable? Is being the best player in basketball not valuable? Doesn’t it really just mean the player that’s had the best season or whoever has been the most outstanding?

Thanks to terms like this, the NBA can sit back and watch as basketball fans endlessly debate each other on which player is truly the most valuable. Some years the debate is pointless. LeBron James came one vote away from being the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, and Stephen Curry finally shattered that ceiling last season. However, this year features a healthy group of candidates for the NBA’s most prestigious award, which is rather interesting considering the state of the league right now.

Even with the Warriors going through a rough patch during the Kevin Durant injury and the Cavaliers playing defense so bad a high school team could score on them, there is no question who the majority of fans expect to see in the NBA Final: Golden State vs. Cleveland. The road to that inevitability is a lot rockier than anybody has expected, but there isn’t much reason to believe any different without a second true contender in the East.

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Of course, there are still teams in the conversation as title contenders. The Rockets and Spurs have been incredible this season and while it’s not expected for them to knock off the Warriors, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them make a run at the finals if an injury or a couple of breaks fall the right way. They’ve been that good this season. A huge part is both teams have serious MVP candidates in Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.

In a season this top heavy, the expectation is there will be a runaway MVP candidate like years past, but that’s not the case. The Warriors are without an MVP candidate despite having the best record in the league and James is currently in the tightest MVP race of his career. MVP races like this aren’t just rare. They’ve never been seen before, and it might be remembered as the greatest race in the history of the sport.

James is averaging career-highs in assists and rebounds while playing an absurd 37 minutes per game at 32-years-old. This is a season he was expected to coast through and instead he’s playing basketball at a level we’ve never seen from him before. He’s still the best player in basketball by a comfortable margin and it’s hard to see where Cleveland would be right now without him. Is it a problem that he picks and chooses when to play defense? Yes. Is it also a problem that his team has chosen to basically punt on the rest of this regular season? Also yes. But to ignore the incredible season James has had when he does play would be a disservice to this MVP race.

At his age, players aren’t supposed to increase their production and James is the reason there is still confidence in Cleveland to reach their third straight NBA Finals.

James is so good that players have been rewarded for merely slowing him down. Leonard is one of those guys. When the Spurs defeated the Heat in 2014, Leonard won Finals MVP and the main reasoning for it was he didn’t let LeBron James go completely nuts, which is a perfectly good reason. Years later, Leonard has somehow become an even better defender. It’s impossible to isolate him. Even superstar players would prefer to take him on in the pick-and-roll or play him off ball instead of a head to head matchup. Offenses usually take the man Leonard is guarding, stick them in a corner and try to reduce his impact as much as possible.

This was Leonard’s role in years’ past, but his evolution as player has made San Antonio expand that. The offense runs through him now, and the results have them playing at a top-10 level. Leonard is scoring more than ever. He has more assists than ever. The only place he’s seen any decline in is rebounding, but that’s an after effect of his new offensive minded role. If this were any other season, he would be the runaway MVP.

Like Leonard, Harden has had the role of running the offense thrusted into his hands and he’s thrived. Harden is someone who has always responded well to controversy. The Rockets were a disaster last season and most of that blame was put on his shoulders. History says that when Harden has a chance to prove those that doubt him wrong is when he plays at his best. This season has been the perfect example of that. He’s currently averaging 29 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds with a true shooting percentage of 61 percent. Ignore the amount of points he’s scoring right now and focus on the efficiency metric. There are players that score 15 points per game and don’t do it that efficiently. That Harden is doing it while averaging 29 points is out-of-this-world insane.

Harden is not a laughingstock for his defense anymore, either, and he’s been good enough to avoid Houston completely bottoming out defensively while he’s on the floor. Just like Leonard, if this were any other season, he would be the runaway MVP.

Houston, San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland are the only four teams that can even be in the discussion for contention right now — even if Cleveland’s play as of late has many concerned in their ability to reach the Finals again. It’s also no coincidence that three of these four teams have leaders in the MVP race right now. That’s typically how the MVP race pans out with the contenders’ best players getting all the spotlight.

Then, Russell Westbrook crashes the party. The Thunder are not contenders. Westbrook’s chances of winning MVP are better than the Thunder’s chances of getting out of the first round. His level of play has exceeded his own team’s that much. He’s averaging a triple-double and very likely will finish the season averaging one. He chucks all day, chases down rebounds and throws down dunks so hard they register on the Richter scale. This man has put the entirety of Oklahoma City on his back and carries them. Never was this more prevalent than when he dropped 50 in Orlando to close a 20-point deficit. He capped off this game-tying effort with a 3-pointer that had people cheering for him in the opposing arena. He then proceeded to chuck shots in overtime. It was awesome. Basketball purists hate it, but there are few players more entertaining.

Everything that revolves around Westbrook is represented by the triple-double. The reason he’s in the MVP discussion is because it’s really hard to not vote for a guy that might be the second player to ever average a triple-double. Does the route he takes to get there match up with “good basketball?” Not exactly, but that doesn’t matter. Westbrook is basketball junk food. It might not be necessarily good for the team, but it’s absolutely incredible in the moment.

One other thing the MVP race does very well is describe the narrative of a season. When Curry became the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, that was the same season Golden State won 73 games. The year before that it was a two-man race between Curry and Harden in a season where they established themselves as members of the NBA Elite. What story does this year’s MVP race have to tell? It tells us a story of incredible individual play amidst overall dominance. The narrative of this season has been dominated by the very small list of contenders sitting at the top of the standings. So much so that it can be easy to miss the forest for the trees and not see how many players are having great individual years.

Multiple young stars broke out this year and are having phenomenal seasons. They’ve gone unnoticed because the top heaviness has overshadowed them. The East, despite their poor showing, has some of the best young point guards the NBA has to offer. The Jazz are going to be a force in this league one day. So are the Bucks. Nikola Jokic is one of the best young bigs ever. None of these stories have gotten the attention they deserve because the dominant narrative this season has been Warriors vs. Cavaliers and who could potentially dethrone them. The MVP race is the perfect example of that.

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In a season where two teams dominated the narrative, the NBA got their best MVP race ever. In a season where two teams dominated the narrative, the NBA had more young players breakout than ever. It might be better late than never, but the sheer amount of great individual performances there have been is finally starting to get noticed with this year’s MVP race. The play of Harden, Westbrook, Leonard and James has escaped the narrative’s shadow.