Photo courtesy of usatoday.com

Throughout the basketball season, five players have separated themselves from the rest, making their case as the NBA MVP. Here is a breakdown of who we believe should win the MVP award:

James Harden
First up on our list is James Harden. Since his once controversial move to point guard at the beginning of the season, Harden has taken the NBA by storm, practically reinventing what it means to be a ‘point guard’. Harden has tallied 21 triple-doubles on the season, trailing behind Russell Westbrook as the league’s leader. With the season dwindling down Harden has led the Rockets to third place in the West (54-27) while averaging 29 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists. Prior to the start of the season, the Rockets were projected to finish as the number 8 seed according to ESPN, but have clearly done significantly better. The Houston fan favorite has found a way to shake up the Western Conference and the Rockets look poised for a deep playoff run. Harden’s offensive plus-minus ranks second in the league at a fantastic +6.53, however his defensive plus-minus sits at a disparaging -1.65. While Harden’s defense continues to be a weak spot, his phenomenal overall improvement has propelled him into many analysts’ number one spot in the MVP race.

Russell Westbrook
After the loss of fellow teammate, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook has finally had a full season to show the league what he can do on his own and- wow. Westbrook has single handedly carried the Thunder into the six seed in the West, while also finding a way to put the ‘me’ in ‘team’ and still succeed. To his credit, the Thunder roster is meager at best and with an injury-plagued season Russ’ contributing teammates have been lacking. Nonetheless, Westbrook has averaged 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Westbrook has become just the second person in NBA history to ever average a triple double for an entire season. Russ also broke Oscar Robertson’s triple double record, which now sits at 42 triple doubles on the season. If that isn’t impressive enough, Westbrook also became the first player to ever have a perfect shooting night while still recording a triple double. Russ’ season has been nothing short of sensational, but his style of play, which includes an average of 24 shots per game, rubs many coaches and analysts the wrong way, and in the end it may be what keeps him from winning MVP.

Kawhi Leonard
For years Kawhi Leonard has flown under the MVP radar, but his abilities can no longer be overlooked. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year (2014-16) can clearly defend the best players in the league, but this season his offensive dominance has finally shown through as well. Leonard is averaging 26 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per game while also ranking sixth in the league in steals per game. Leonard truly gains an edge over other MVP contenders by actually guarding them (something players like James Harden can hardly boast). The Spurs star is also shooting lights out, beating both Russell Westbrook and James Harden in overall field goal and three-point percentage. Leonard has also defeated the Thunder and Rockets and hit game winning shots against both teams. Despite all of this, Leonard finds himself in the bottom half of the MVP pool. Leonard’s downfall may come from his Spurs-esque personality along with his inability to keep up with the triple double craze set forth by his contenders. While Leonard’s season has been the best of his career, it just hasn’t been “showy” enough to fully swing the vote.

Photo courtesy of foxsports.com

LeBron James
Love him or hate him, LeBron James deserves to be in the conversation. At 32 years of age, King James has actually improved in both the assist and rebound categories, achieving career highs in both for the season. LeBron is averaging 26 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists while shooting 54% from the field. If those numbers don’t do James justice, at 32, nothing will. Nevertheless, James isn’t in the MVP conversation based on his name. The numbers don’t lie and James is putting up some of the best. The King ranks fifth in offensive plus-minus and just barely beats out Kawhi Leonard in defensive plus-minus. LeBron’s greatness has surely continued into his 14th season in the league, but he is not without fault. James’ free throw percentage sits at a lousy 67%, the lowest of his career. While James’ performance continues to put him up there with the league’s best, fans have seemingly grown accustomed to this type of play from him and this leaves the King unlikely to win MVP.

Isaiah Thomas
Coming in at 5’9, Isaiah Thomas has absolutely shocked the NBA with his ability to lead the Celtics into contention for first place in the East. Thomas and the Celtics have dethroned the King, for the time being, and look like a legitimate threat to the Cavaliers championship hopes. Thomas has been a huge factor in the reshaping of the Celtics team, as he is averaging 29 points, 2 rebounds, 6 assists and ranks at fourth in offensive plus-minus (beating out LeBron James). Thomas has been called the ‘King of the Fourth Quarter’ after shooting a fiery 47% from the field during the fourth and after leading the Celtics to countless last minute wins. While IT4 has been tremendous on offense, his 5’9 frame has left him vulnerable on defense as he sits at -4.25 on the defensive plus-minus scale. Thomas has clearly become the Celtics MVP, but he must improve his defense before he can truly contend in the league race.

The Breakdown
While Kawhi Leonard may have the most balanced performance of the season, the Spurs roster is simply too good to truly allow Leonard a realistic shot at league MVP. Therefore, this year’s MVP race appears to boil down to ex-teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook. These two players have shown the ability to take over games time after time and the two stars have a combined 63 triple doubles on the season. Both players also have nearly identical stat lines, making the decision process even tougher. According to ESPN, Kobe Bryant was quoted saying, “We might see our first co-MVPs this year” in reference to Harden and Westbrook. While this prediction is unlikely to come true, this may be one of the closest MVP races the NBA has had in years.

The Decision
Historically, the award tends to go to the player whose team is more successful, giving Harden the edge over Westbrook. However, Westbrook has done more with much less and his recent success in breaking the triple double record gives him a statistical edge. We believe that the judges will overlook the Rockets eight game lead over the Thunder and send the MVP award to Russell Westbrook. The award truly is anyone’s game, but we believe Russell Westbrook will swing the vote and bring home the MVP trophy.

Photo courtesy of foxsports.com

About The Author

Wes Stenovitch is a sophomore sports management major at the University of North Texas. He spends his spare time watching sports, fishing, and playing basketball. You can catch him re-watching "The Office" or playing with his dog, Duke.

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