This season ruled. 

The 2016-17 NBA season was phenomenal for what it gave fans. Historic performances, legendary nights, incredible drama and maybe the best MVP race we have ever seen. You can argue about various races that existed before the internet, cell phones, HD broadcasts or "Shark Week," but there's no denying how amazing this competition has been. 

In the end, we wound up with four major candidates: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The arguments at a glance:


READ MORE: Bill Reiter makes the case for LeBron James as MVP

  • He's the best player in the league. We all know it. So why shouldn't he be the MVP?
  • Cavaliers finished with top-five record.
  • Averaged a triple-double per 100 possessions (34.0 points, 11.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists).
  • Shot 36.3 percent from 3-point range.
  • Finished with a 27.0 PER.
  • Biggest on/off differential of the candidates in offense, defense and net rating. 
  • Career highs in rebounds and assists.
  • Per-game statistical lines comparable to his two prior MVP seasons.


READ MORE: The Definitive Case for Kawhi Leonard as MVP

  • Best player on 60-win team, best team record of all players in contention for award.
  • Best player on West's No. 2 seed with no other All-Stars.
  • Best perimeter defender in the NBA.
  • One of only four players to record a season shooting as often as he does per 100 possessions, scoring as much as he does per 100 possessions, with as many defensive win shares as he has. The other three were Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant
  • Legendary efficiency on offense.
  • Does more with less, putting up comparable scoring numbers to James Harden, Russell Westbrook, with radically lower usage rate.
  • Has contributed to the most wins.
  • Spurs offensive efficiency is 10 points per 100 possessions better with Leonard on-court.
  • Team 7-2 record against the other three main candidates, including signature performances against Houston (including this sequence) and OKC (this sequence). 
  • No discernible weaknesses in his game.
  • Has the most blocks, most steals and fewest turnovers per 100 possessions of the major candidates.
  • Has the second-highest PER of the major candidates (27.7) with the second-lowest usage.


READ MORE: 2017 NBA MVP Race: The definitive case for James Harden, the bearded maestro

  • Led Rockets to what is currently the ninth-best offensive season in NBA history, as the leading scorer and playmaker.
  • Averaging a triple-double per 100 possessions, one of three players (Westbrook, LeBron) to do so this season.
  • Leads the league in points produced, combined points and points from assists.
  • Leads the league in win shares, via Basketball Reference.
  • Second in points.
  • Leads the league in assists and per 100 possessions among players averaging 30 minutes (14.8).
  • Ranks 15th in true shooting percentage, second among leading candidates (LeBron James).
  • On pace to be the first player in history to average 25 points and 25 points from assists.
  • Only player to ever score 2,000 points and generate 2,000 points from assists in the same season.
  • Leads Westbrook in points per possession plus assists, per Synergy Sports (1.392, 95th percentile).
  • Has made the Rockets into a legitimate contender, with 54 wins (entering Wednesday), more than Westbrook or James, the third most league-wide.
  • Most games since 1984-85 with 30-plus points and 15-plus assists.
  • Has made his teammates better than any player has made theirs.
  • Has seamlessly moved to point guard with a greater role, responsibility and function, not only adjusting, but thriving.


READ MORE: The Definitive Case for Russell Westbrook for MVP

  • Second player in NBA history to average a triple-double.
  • Did so while leading the league in scoring.
  • Third in assists, second in assists per 100 possessions, trailing Harden by just 0.3 assists.
  • NBA-record 42 triple-doubles this season, one more than Oscar Robertson.
  • Thunder record when Westbrook has a triple-double: 33-9 (.786 win percentage).
  • Ninth in rebounds per game.
  • No. 1 in PER.
  • No. 1 in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player).
  • No. 1 in offensive box-score plus-minus.
  • Carried Thunder to a likely top-six seed and 47 wins (entering Wednesday) the season after Kevin Durant shockingly left the team.
  • Thunder offense is 10.7 points per 100 possessions worse when he's on the bench.
  • Thunder net points per 100 possessions is plus-3.3 when he's on the court, and a minus-9.2, effectively the worst team in the league per 100 possessions, when he's on the bench.
  • Sheer force of will to accomplish history.
  • In "clutch time" (defined as a five-point game inside five minutes), Westbrook leads the league in points per 100 possessions (74.3), shooting 44.6 percent from the field and OKC is a plus-21.7 per 100 possessions with him on the court in such situations.
  • Recorded the highest-scoring triple-double in NBA history with 57 points.
  • Has single-handedly won games for the Thunder in a capacity no other player has.

Narrowing the field

LeBron is eliminated first. I wrestled long and hard with Bill Reiter's argument that the best player in the league is having a career season. How is that not the MVP? But I also know I've done the work, watching all those random games along the way in this weird Cavs season, and at its end, James' performance, not his ability, hasn't held up over the others. 

The post-All-Star slide contributes to it. The Cavs fell off the map. A 51-win Cavs team, in the East, with a terrible defense, that surrendered a sizable lead for the No. 1 seed? A horrendous defense is the other problem. One of LeBron's pillars is that he's arguable the best two-way player in NBA history, and the Cavs' defense, no matter what the problems are, is his responsibility. 

Also, James has taken off assignments. He has often been placed on a wing shooter, opting to play more free safety instead of guarding the best player, until late in games. He still can go into any matchup and dominate it; he's LeBron James. But his workload on that end has been less, and his effort has corresponded. You can't fault the man. He's 14 seasons in, has gone to six straight NBA Finals. He has earned the right not to lock in and shut down guys in Milwaukee on a Tuesday night in February. And James is still far better than Westbrook or Harden defensively.

But that stuff matters, and that, combined with the talent around him, and the Cavs' downward slide at the end of the season is enough to knock him to fourth. 

Kawhi goes out next. As I wrote. He's bulletproof. Nearly. 

Let's get this out of the way: His defensive metrics indicating weird things with the Spurs when he's on court vs. off did not sway me here. There are a lot of contributing factors, and he remains the best perimeter defender in the NBA. His defense slipped slightly this season relative to the past two seasons with his increased offensive output, but it was by fractions and shavings, and there is a limit to how much a guy can balance both ends. 

His offensive efficiency was truly amazing; to be so good in so many different playsets and in so many different facets is both unique and incredible. 

There is a strong feeling that Leonard should not be punished for a false narrative that he is a "system" player and that is absolutely, 100 percent correct. You can't just plug any random wing into that role and get the same results; Rudy Gay is not MVP as a San Antonio Spur. (Apologies to Gay, who had a good career and a great couple of seasons lately before his injury.) The Spurs' system does not impact the quality of player Leonard is in any negative or "fake" way. 

How he operates in it, however, does have an impact on the evaluation. 

Leonard is the tip of the spear for the Spurs. He is the end point. He is the guy the offense runs to, not through. That's not his fault, it doesn't mean he's a ball-hog or a bad passer. It does mean he's not a playmaker. That's reflected in the points produced statistic cited below. He's an incredible scorer, and has the best true shooting percentage of any of the candidates. But that efficiency is created by a system designed more than the other candidates to do so. And again, he shouldn't be punished for that, but the others are in different positions, with different responsibilities. 

Finally, the winning issue. Yes, Leonard has the most wins, and yes, Leonard is the biggest reason the Spurs win. But it can't be the end-all for this. That would ignore how the players have played, and ascribes a lot to a regular season where win/loss totals are impacted by any number of things. It matters. It does. Just not enough. Leonard executes the Spurs' formula for success. Westbrook and Harden are the engines for their teams.

Down to two

Facts:

  • I grew ill while debating the MVP and I absolutely blame my failing health on this decision.
  • If possible, I would vote for co-MVPs in a heartbeat without a second thought. These two are so even you have to get granular to the basketball molecule to discern between them. You can't. That's not how the vote works. 
  • In the span of the final week, I changed my mind eight times. That's not hyperbole. I had decided who I was "decided on" eight times, including four in the span of the final 48 hours. This is not usual for me with MVP. In 2015, I did just as deep of a dive and it became clear to me Curry should win.
  • There's this idea that "there is no wrong answer." And that's true. But that also means there is no "good choice" because one of these guys inherently gets screwed. You're failing to recognize greatness with the most important award the league has. It's just reality. 

So, yeah, I didn't make the call on who the MVP is lightly. 

The MVP is James Harden. 

hardenismpv.jpg
James Harden is the 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player.  USATSI

Here's what it came down to, for me:

  • I wrote a primer for questions you have to ask yourself in this debate, and the first is, of course, how you define "valuable." For me, it's "most impactful." What I learned in the course of this debate is that this means "what is the best result of the most impact?" Harden's impact has been greater in that regard. 
  • As I wrote Monday, of those that have done the most (Harden and Westbrook), Harden has made his team the best. Westbrook took what is at the very least a flawed team and made them good. Harden has taken his team and made it elite in the area he makes his impact (offense), which has contributed the most to wins. He does more than Leonard, and does what he does better than Westbrook. 
  • Note that does not mean "more." Westbrook does "more" for his team, which is what makes it so tough. Westbrook gave absolutely everything on offense this season, every possession, every game, every time down. He never quits, never stops, never relents. 
  • However, part of that, part of what is inherent in his DNA, is a recklessness. He plows into triple-teams. He finds loose balls and in key situations, hoists up 3-pointers like found money instead of seeking better shots. Westbrook is shooting 48 percent on drives this season, 40 percent in the paint when it isn't the restricted area, and even there, he's shooting considerably worse than Harden. These are fractions of possessions that are wasted in a race this tight, and that hurts. 
  • The triple-doubles mattered to me. If it were easy, everyone would be putting them up on a nightly basis. Westbrook made history, and though it doesn't mean he should be excluded for it, he doesn't need the MVP for everyone to remember this as the "Westbrook" season. What he did was incredible and every time you say, "He led the league in scoring while averaging a triple-double" you tend to think "That has to be the MVP." 
  • But everything we've learned about basketball says possessions are more important than per-game numbers. Coaches speak in possessions. Players talk of possessions. And we've learned the impact pace can have on a team in affecting stats. So per 100 possessions matters too. There have been 20 seasons since possession data is available where a player averaging 30 minutes per game averaged a triple-double per 100 possessions. Four were this season: Draymond Green, James, Westbrook and Harden. 
  • By the same token, Westbrook has caught Harden in assists per 100 possessions, while averaging way more points. So while the triple-double mark can be redefined, Westbrook still finds ways to challenge. 
  • The most annoying part of this months-long debate has been the misconception that usage is good or bad. Having the ball in your hands does not make your numbers better or worse. It provides opportunities. Low usage can bring efficiency at the cost of production. High usage comes with an efficiency cost. You still have to produce with the opportunities provided. Westbrook and Harden have the most opportunities, which means they have the most responsibility. They have delivered with the most production. 
  • Look at this chart. It shows "points produced-- points per game plus points created from assists per game: 
  • Westbrook's individual scoring lead is huge, but so is Harden's advantage in points per assist, despite how close they are in assists, because Harden is dishing passes to shooters and Westbrook is having to create scores inside the arc. I wrestled with whether Harden should be applauded for operating a more efficient offense or whether Westbrook should not be punished for passing to different personnel. It's an impossible maze. 
  • Three more charts and then I promise, we're done with numbers: 

On court

PlayerOffensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating

Kawhi Leonard

112.6

104.7

7.9

James Harden

113.3

107.3

6.0

Russell Westbrook

108

104.7

3.3

LeBron James

114.9

107.1

7.8

Off court

PlayerOffensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating

Kawhi Leonard

102.6

96.8

5.8

James Harden

106.8

103.3

3.5

Russell Westbrook

97.3

106.5

-9.2

LeBron James

101.8

110

-8.2

Net on-minus-off

PlayerOffensive RatingDefensive RatingNet Rating

Kawhi Leonard

10

7.9

2.1

James Harden

6.5

4

2.5

Russell Westbrook

10.7

-1.8

12.5

LeBron James

13.1

-2.9

16

  • By this measure, it looks like Harden has the least impact. But look at the on-court numbers. The Thunder are way worse when Westbrook is on the bench, but the Rockets are better when Harden is on the floor than the Thunder are when Westbrook is on. 
  • The clutch stats favor Westbrook, heavily. But the efficiency and recklessness we talk about with Westbrook also helped lead to the necessity of his clutch performances. Only 13 of his 33 triple-doubles in wins were against teams over .500. That's still an insane amount, but it also shows how often the Thunder needed his heroics against bad teams. 

There's no "wrong" argument here. Some voters really believe it is that simple, that Westbrook's averaging a triple-double is enough. Some think Leonard is the best player on both side of the ball on the best team, and that's enough. Some think LeBron is LeBron, and that's enough. 

There's an argument against overthinking it. But in a season this incredible, with so much history being made, we can do with a little overthinking. 

Harden did more than James or Leonard, and did what he did more efficiently than Westbrook. He led his team to more wins. He adapted more, made his teammates better, made his team better, even if they were better than Westbrook's to begin with.  

James Harden is the most impactful player this season, and so, he's the 2017 NBA MVP. 

I'm going to go lie down for a while.