MVP race coming down to the wire

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Updated: March 31, 2017
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So, who will it be? Which player will be named NBA MVP when it’s all said and done this season?

Well, that’s an easy one. How about Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, who’s averaging a career-best in points, assists, rebounds and 3-point percentage? Oh, and he’s leading the Thunder back to the playoffs in his first season without Kevin Durant.

Or, what about Houston Rockets do-it-all guard James Harden? He shifted over to the point this season, and it has done wonders for the eight-year veteran. The Beard has also seen his numbers rise across the board. Oh yeah, and he leads the league in assists. Hey, maybe Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni deserves some MVP recognition.

But wait, let’s not forget about the most underrated, soft-spoken, humble superstar in the NBA, in San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. He has proven to be an elite defender over the past few seasons, winning defensive player of the year two times in a row. But not only is he taking on the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s best player, Leonard’s also scoring from all over the court. He can shoot it from deep or from mid-range, and he can lure you to sleep with his underestimated handles, then explode to the rim and showcase his athletic ability.

LeBron James was a part of this conversation at one point in time, but after this rough stretch by the Cleveland Cavaliers, where they’re 6-10 in the month of March, James may no longer be in the running. Isaiah Thomas has been remarkable for the Boston Celtics, who currently sit atop the Eastern Conference, but he just so happened to have a breakout season when others are stacking up historical numbers.

So, it’s a three-man race. Leonard and the Spurs have the best record of the three teams, as they currently hold the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference standings. The Rockets aren’t far behind, however, as they’re holding down the No. 3 seed. And the Thunder aren’t necessarily atop the standings in the West, but they’ve locked up a playoff spot despite being without Durant, who led OKC in scoring in seven of eight seasons.

Westbrook is averaging a triple-double, and has 38 total. He’s just three shy of tying Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in a single season, and four away from breaking The Big O’s record. And not only that, Westbrook is also on the verge of becoming the first player since Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season. Yeah, it’s been 55 years since that was last done. Westbrook is currently averaging 31.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists per contest. With eight games remaining, he needs just 39 more rebounds and 51 assists to officially average a triple-double for the season, according to ESPN.

It would be difficult for the NBA not to hand him the MVP award after putting up those types of numbers — especially if OKC continues to work its way up the standings. The Thunder are just 2.5 games back of the Utah Jazz for the No. 4 seed, and 1.5 games back of the LA Clippers for the fifth seed.

But Harden has the Rockets in great position at this point of the year. They’re firmly sitting in the 3 spot, and if the season ended today, Houston would face OKC in the first round — which would be perfect from a fan’s perspective. Harden is second in the NBA, behind Westbrook, putting up 29.8 points, a league-leading 11.3 assists and pulling down 8.0 boards per game. His numbers have skyrocketed (no pun intended) this season. He has gone toe-to-toe with each and every superstar in the NBA, and cemented his spot as one of the top guards in the league. Harden has orchestrated D’Antoni’s system to perfection.

The Rockets’ 115.5 points per game are second-most in the league behind the Warriors’ 115.8. And Harden hasn’t become a lockdown defender by any means, but he’s showing effort on that side of the ball, which is more than we could’ve said about him over the past few seasons. Overall, he’s just a more polished player — and his leadership skills have went up a notch.

Leonard is just quietly doing his thing, like always. Only this time around, he’s doing it without Tim Duncan on the roster, and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fending off Father Time. He’s putting up 25.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. Not quite the numbers of Harden and Westbrook, but his team-first attitude has the Spurs sitting pretty. They’re three victories away from yet another 60-win season, and on the Warriors’ heels for the top seed in the West.

What makes this even more impressive: The second-leading scorer on all three teams averages less than 18 points per game. LaMarcus Aldridge is second on the Spurs at 17.5 points, while Eric Gordon — off the bench — averages 16.3 points for Houston, and Victor Oladipo puts up 16.3 for OKC.

For the Rockets, it’s Harden or bust. For the Thunder, it’s Westbrook or a lottery selection. The Spurs — even though they have Gregg Popovich as head coach — would likely be fighting for home-court advantage, or maybe even a playoff spot, without Leonard leading the way. None of them have a true running mate they could lean on for long stretches, similar to what LeBron has in Kyrie Irving or Stephen Curry has in Durant and Klay Thompson.

This MVP race is closer than a Biggie, Tupac and Jay Z discussion for greatest rapper of all time. It’s like choosing between MartinFresh Prince of Bel-Air or A Different World for best sitcom. OK, we could throw The Cosby Show in there as well. But you get the point.

It’s the closest race I’ve witnessed. And no, we don’t want to see the NBA hand out co-MVP awards. We want to see one winner. Only one player can be captured in a picture while holding up the trophy. We only want to see one player get emotional when giving his speech, while possibly dropping a few tears. Only one superstar can hold the title as the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player.

Who deserves it most? Because there can only be one “real MVP.”

 

Josiah Turner

Josiah Turner

Josiah is the founder and editor-in-chief at Sideline Sports Report. He is a writer for ESPN, and has written for Rant Sports and FanSided covering the Washington Redskins. He's also covered high school basketball for Virginia Preps (Rivals.com). Josiah is from Chesapeake, VA and a college graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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