Starting today, and continuing each week, we're going to provide you an evolving NBA MVP ballot. As a voter for the league's most prestigious award I take the privilege and responsibility extraordinarily seriously. So we're adding complete transparency to my process of trying to vote in the most accurate and professional way possible.
My view, like the league itself, has changed a lot since I took a first crack at this on Dec. 7. I finally have James Harden where he belongs, with a couple of other obvious names just behind him. But one guy -- hint: he's a Celtic -- who comes in high on my ballot might be a shock.
Here we go ...
Hands down. He not only is averaging 28.7 points and 8.3 rebounds, but also easily leads the league in assists with an astounding 11.7 per game. He has a Rockets team with no additional All-Stars on track to win 60 games. In Mike D'Antoni's system, he's become the league's most important player.
It's not easy putting anyone ahead of a guy who's leading the league in scoring and averaging a triple double: 30.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.3 assists. Read that sentence again. Damn. That proves just how important Harden has been to his team. Westbrook's PER is also a league-best 29.7. Westbrook is just a sliver behind his former teammate for me, and what he's done for the Durant-less Thunder in almost any other season would make him the runaway MVP.
Best player on earth, easily, and his numbers are still remarkable: 25.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.1 assists per game. While not as gaudy as the two guys ahead of him, still incredible. And let's not pretend the Cavs, despite the talent surrounding LeBron, would be anything approaching what they are now sans their leader. In his career, LeBron hasn't gotten nearly the number of MVPs he deserves, and while that looks likely to continue, there's still a lot of season left. Never count the Chosen One out.
No, really. Don't sleep on Boston or its stud point guard. I fervently believe the Celtics (with one big move before the deadline) are the only team that can challenge the Cavs in the East. Thomas is a big reason why. He's tied for third in the NBA in points per game (28.4), and he leads the league in scoring since Dec. 1 (30.6), helping his team to a 16-7 record over that span.
Thomas is also the game's best clutch player this season. He's first in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring (10.1 ppg). He's shooting 45 percent from 3-point range (vs. 38.3 percent overall) and 49.5 on all FGs (vs. 45.9 percent overall) in the fourth, helping the Celtics also lead the league in fourth-quarter scoring (29.2 ppg).
One more example: In a Dec. 20 game at Memphis he had 44 points, made 10 of 16 FGs, all 17 of his free throws and added six assists with zero turnovers. That's right -- 44 points on 16 shots! He's one of only four players to ever score at least 44 points on 16 or fewer shots. And Memphis currently has the league's fourth-best defense.
Don't sleep on Boston, or its star player.
The final ballot spot is rife with competition, but today I'd probably vote for Kawhi Leonard. He's led his Spurs to another quiet run near the top of the Western Conference, has the league's third-best PER (29.0) and is one of the game's premier defenders.
But several players are on his heels: Guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry (the latter two take votes, including mine, from one another) and until Tuesday's news that he'll miss six to eight weeks because of a thumb injury, Chris Paul.
It'll be a great race. Check in next week to see how my ballot changes, and hit me up on social media to weigh in with how you agree or disagree.