The midway point in the 2016-17 NBA season is closing in fast. For the most part, the campaign has gone according to predictions. But one of the league’s few pleasant surprises has also disrupted what would otherwise have been a coronation in the MVP race.
That’d be James Harden, whose Houston Rockets are lunging toward the top of the West under Mike D’Antoni. Harden, the MVP runner-up in 2014-15, has been fully unleashed as a point guard in D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll attack, and his numbers are just astounding. He’s currently No. 4 in scoring at 28.4 points per game and No. 1 in assists with 11.9. The Rockets are currently on pace to win 60 games. Their second-best player is either Patrick Beverley or Eric Gordon. You see why Harden is an alluring MVP candidate.
The expected MVP is Russell Westbrook, who is in fact putting together a year worthy of an MVP trophy. Westbrook leads the league in scoring at 30.9 points per game and is No. 2 in assists with 10.5. More notably, he’s averaging a triple-double: his 10.4 rebounds per game are good for 12th in the league. He has 16 triple-doubles on the season, which is already tied for the 11th-highest season total all time.
He might not catch Oscar Robertson’s record of 41, but he might be the first since Oscar to average a triple-double on the season. It’s just an incredible display of all-around greatness. It’s a hell of an MVP case all on its own, especially considering the Thunder are seven games above .500. (Despite losing Kevin Durant for nothing in free agency, OKC is only three games behind where they were a year ago.)
Harden has nine triple-doubles himself. No player outside of Westbrook and Harden has more than three this season. Harden’s averaging 8.2 rebounds per game this season, tops on the Rockets.
Once you determine that both are turning the ball over at an equally extraordinary rate, neither is playing highly effective defense, and the combined points and assists are roughly comparable, how do you determine who has been more valuable to their team? Is it Westbrook’s rebounds and triple-doubles? Is it Harden’s fatter win total?
Here’s why Harden gets the edge.
Of the 32 players averaging 20 points per game this season, Harden is No. 5 in True Shooting percentage at .614. Westbrook is No. 29 at .543. Harden is contributing his 28 points and 12 assists per game on fewer possessions than Westbrook is contributing his 31 points and 10.5 assists. In fact, Westbrook takes about five more field goal attempts per game than Harden to get three additional points. That’s not a good trade off.
This isn’t to cheapen Westbrook’s achievement. But efficiency very much matters, and given how close the two superstars are in the big picture, it’s the relevant tiebreaker here. That Harden is able to shoot so efficiently while shooting so much is really incredible, on par with Stephen Curry’s 2015-16 MVP performance.
And now, the rest of our inaugural 2016-17 NBA MVP Power Rankings.
1. James Harden
2. Russell Westbrook
3. LeBron James
King James is having a typical LeBronian season — 25-8-7 — for the best team in the East, a club that has felled the Warriors once and the Raptors thrice. He’s shockingly playing a ton of minutes and remains the best player in the world. We all remember what he did in June. It’s just impossible to set that aside when grading out current year performance. Chekov’s championship. Only because Harden and Westbrook are threatening history is LeBron not in the No. 1 spot.
4. Kawhi Leonard
His shaky defensive numbers are misleading — he’s still the best lockdown wing in the NBA. He’s also the offensive workhorse for an elite club. Ho hum. He’s going to end up undervalued over the long-term like Tim Duncan if we’re not careful. But even a Kawhi acolyte like me knows there’s no argument to put him over Harden or Westbrook this season.
5. DeMarcus Cousins (tie)
No. 2 in scoring at 29 per game. No. 13 in rebounding in 10.1 per game. His scoring efficiency is well above average despite an incredible usage rate of 37 percent (No. 2 in the league, highest for a big man in the modern era). The Kings are not what you would call “good,” but they are in the playoff hunt (No. 8 seed with a one-game cushion). Without Boogie, they would be the NBA’s worst team.
5. Anthony Davis (tie)
Boogie, but with the volume ratcheted down one notch, the efficiency twisted up half a turn and a worse team by a couple games. We ignore how good Davis is because of how bad his team has been. It’s not his fault!
7. Chris Paul
Still the best maestro in the game, a strong defender, and an on-court leader for a very good team. We have no idea what’s going to happen to the Clippers if they don’t do something amazing this spring, but that’s not because of any particular flaws of CP3.
8. Kevin Durant
It’s very difficult to assign value to any Warrior because they have all sacrificed in the box score for a greater mission. But Durant has been outrageously good all season, including on defense.
9. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (tie)
It’s pretty hard to separate the impact of the two star Raptors. Lowry is averaging 22 per game on really strong efficiency — Lowry has actually been every bit as good as Steph Curry this season (more efficient with slightly less scoring but more assists and equal-if-not-better defense). DeRozan, of course, is No. 6 in scoring at an above-average efficiency, and is the last bastion of the mid-range. These two players are so darn good.
A word about Stephen Curry
Both of these things are true: Curry is way less impressive than last season, and he is still one of the most spectacular players in the league. I’m not sure he’ll ever win another MVP, though. The threshold for impressing us after what he did the last two years is just so high.
Also receiving consideration
Marc Gasol, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kemba Walker, John Wall, Isaiah Thomas.