The end of the NBA’s regular season is within sight, and the MVP race has narrowed to four players running neck-and-neck.
Left for the NBA’s biggest individual honor, we have a King ruling his kingdom perhaps more impressively than ever, a chip-on-the-shoulder-powered point guard chasing the ghost of Durant and the history of Oscar Robertson, a beard enjoying a career season and a Spur lifting his team yet again to the top of the league.
So close. So tough to call. And yet decisions must be made, so to my ballot we go:
1: Lebron James
For the second straight of these semi-regular MVP rankings, he has a small but clear edge. Yes, he’s only eighth in scoring this season, averaging 26.2 points. But his greatness -- and the value that must be attached to his season -- goes well beyond scoring.
He is still averaging career highs in rebounds (8.8) and assists (8.4). Career highs in a career that few, if any, have surpassed. But unlike MVP competitors James Harden and Russell Westbrook, he’s led without requiring that he dominate the ball and shoot an ungodly number of times.
His usage rate of 29.7 percent is the third-lowest of his career, yet his offensive rating of 114.2 is the best ever from The Chosen One. He leads in ways beyond getting buckets, has called out and cajoled teammates and the front office to great success, and well into his career still finds mesmerizing ways to be the best player on the earth -- and its most valuable.
He’s No. 1, by a hair, on my MVP ballot.
2A: James Harden
Man, this one is tough. Harden and Westbrook are too close to call, but call it we must. So Harden gets the edge.
He has seven 40-point triple-doubles, the most in a single season in league history. This season he became the first player in the history to notch a 50-15-15 triple-double. And his 11.2 assists per game -- a career high -- are in line with or ahead of Steve Nash’s assists per game the two years Nash won MVP, when he dished 11.3 and 10.5 assists per game.
But the biggest stat pushing Harden ahead of Westbrook is this one: 49-22. That’s Houston’s record, good for third-best in the Western Conference, and Harden doesn’t have all-stars or stars alongside to help his team along. The man is a machine, and 2A on this list.
2B: Russell Westbrook
So Westbrook is seven triple-doubles away from tying Oscar Robertson’s record of 41 in a season. To get there -- to carve his name in that rarefied historical ledger -- he needs to average 7.25 rebounds and 8.25 assists over his final 12 contests. That’s beyond doable. That’s history within reach.
Yet what isn’t within reach is making the Thunder as a viable postseason contender. Which means Westbrook falls just below Harden. Like his former teammate, Russ has no true stars to lean on. And what he’s done in OKC after Durant’s departure is extraordinary. But he’s not ahead of The Beard.
One argument for that: No player has won MVP on a team lower than a 3-seed since the 1981-82 season, when Moses Malone got it done. The Thunder are currently in sixth in the West.
The argument against Westbrook being this low: History is history, and numbers should and do have special meaning. Scoring 99 points in an NBA game isn’t the same as scoring 100. Hitting .399 in a major league baseball season is great, hitting .400 is forever. And so on ...
Averting a triple-double for an entire season means something, maybe something for the ages. But for me, at least for now, it doesn’t mean enough to get Westbrook to No. 1. Maybe that’ll change if and when those numbers stop being theoretical and stare me in the face. But not yet.
Talk about a player who doesn’t get the respect he deserves or, given the MVP competition this season, enough luck. But Leonard has been nothing short of a superstar in San Antonio, stepping seamlessly into Tim Duncan’s shoes as the worthy heir of a tradition under Pop stretching back years and five championships.
The Spurs’ star has six 30-plus point games in 14 outings since the All-Star Game. The Spurs are 11-3 over that stretch. And they’re just 2.5 games behind the Warriors and the mark for best team in the league.
Yet it’s not that, or even his 26.1 points per game, that have him tantalizingly close to adding to his nearly-youngest-ever Finals MVP with a regular-season version. It’s the fact that, as a two-way player as good as any other than (maybe) James, he is the Spurs’ most valuable player in ever facet.
This probably won’t be his year. But that time is coming, and soon.
5: The Other Guys
Davis is great. Thomas has been a catalyst for the Celtics that makes them really intriguing. John Wall has had a marvelous 2017. And Steph is still Steph. But in this race they’re afterthoughts.
It’s a four-man race, and who finishes where remains a matter too close to call.