One of the NBA's closest and most interesting MVP races in some time has tightened since my previous running ballot for the award.
Last time around, I had James Harden at No. 1 followed by Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas and then Kawhi Leonard. In this incarnation LeBron has dropped, Thomas has skyrocketed and the race for the No. 1 spot has grown too tight to call.
For me, at least, the first three players on my ballot are just too close to call. And no -- LeBron isn't in the mix for the top spot anymore, at least not now.
Let's kick off with the three guys tied for No. 1 on the ballot, in no particular order:
He has been stunning, but his secure hold as the current MVP diminished right along with the Rockets' play in the past month. This is a team that has won only six of its past 14 games. Yet Harden remains, under D'Antoni's system, utterly incredible. He's averaging almost 28.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and a league-best 11.4 assists per game. He has eight 40-point games -- two with 50 or more -- and had triple-doubles in five of those. He's as important as anyone in the league, just not, for now, alone in that respect.
Speaking of triple-doubles and guys who ooze value -- while Harden has 14 this year, Westbrook has 25. That's astounding. He's averaging 30.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.2 assists. That makes him first in scoring, third assists and 12th in rebounds per game. If he keeps it up, he would join Oscar Robertson as the only other player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a season. Wilt never did it. Jordan couldn't do it. Neither could Magic, Bird, Kareem or LeBron. But Westbrook might, and the result happens to coincide with his team being playoff bound. Harden gets a ton of love for putting a brutal roster on his back and carrying them to the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference at 38-17 record, but Westbrook isn't exactly surrounded by superstars. Yet his team, sans Kevin Durant and all that means, is 30-23. And to date, Westbrook and the Thunder have faced the eighth-most difficult schedule, while Harden's Rockets have had just the 17th-most difficult.
Short story: Westbrook is neck-and-neck with his former teammate.
Behold, the surprise! Though it shouldn't be, and I'm perplexed by the cluster of NBA writers who don't understand why the Celtics' star point guard deserves MVP consideration. Thomas is second in points per game (29.9), third in PER (27.7) and second in offensive win share (7.7). He's leading the league in fourth-quarter scoring and, for those who clearly missed it, has helped turn a Boston team that was mediocre early on into the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. Will it last? No idea. But for the time being he belongs right here, in the mix for the MVP with Westbrook and Harden.
Here's another star who doesn't get the love and respect he deserves. Yet largely because of him the Spurs (39-12) own the league's second-best record. He's the best or second-best on-ball defender in the league, is charged night after night with defending the opposition's top scorer and still manages to score 25.3 points per game. Tim Duncan may have retired, but a new, quiet, under-appreciated great has seamlessly taken his spot as the leader of the NBA's most consistent and impressive organization.
I get it. You're probably angry James is all the way down here. He's averaging right at 26/8/9. And he's still the best player on Earth. But being a team's undisputed leader works both ways. You get the credit for the good times, and the blame when things go badly. The Cavs' recent lackluster play -- and the drama LeBron helped usher in as a result -- falls on him. So does the greatness, including 32 points, 17 assists, seven rebounds, two blocks, two steals and a sick bank-shot three to force overtime against the Wizards earlier this week. He's amazing. He'll probably climb this list. But the Celtics are only 2.5 games behind Cleveland for the East's top spot, and the drama that helped create that falls on its best, and most important, player.
With LeBron, it's also worth noting that Kyrie Irving would be his team's second-best player if he were with the Thunder, Rockets or Celtics. Kevin Love would be the second-best player in Oklahoma City or Houston, and I don't think he's that far behind Al Horford in Boston. LeBron is amazing, but the notion that the Cavs have nothing without him simply isn't true.
Curry and Durant are, of course, incredible players -- but they cannibalize each other's numbers, impact and, surely, votes. Wall has helped turn the Wizards into one of the game's best teams since 2017. George is averaging 24 points during his team's seven-game win streak, and he does so much to make the Pacers better.
And a quick note on Davis, who's on here even though his team is brutal: This season he is better statistically than LeBron in points per game (27.9), rebounds per game (12.2), blocks per game (2.4), PER (27.7) and personal defensive rating (101). They're basically the same in steals per game, 1.4 vs. 1.3. His Pelicans might be 20-32, but it's hard to see them with anything beyond single-digit wins without him. That surely accounts for value, and we shouldn't lose track of his greatness despite toiling on a terrible team.