Kawhi Leonard drew some fresh heat in the NBA MVP race this week after a masterful two-way performance against the Rockets and their MVP candidate James Harden. This isn’t to say that Kawhi is a sudden MVP candidate, just that his candidacy reached a fever pitch this week.
One night later, Russell Westbrook put up 58 points in vain as the Thunder lost their fourth straight. Make no mistake: Oklahoma City lost in spite of Westbrook. The Thunder won the 35 minutes Russ was on the court and badly lost the 13 he sat.
Harden, meanwhile, continues to put up absurd numbers regularly for a very good team. Oh, and LeBron James is putting up career numbers in assists and rebounds, which says something considering we’re talking about LeBron Freaking James.
This is a legitimate MVP race with four excellent candidates.
So, why are we in a rush to consider it settled right now?
It’s here where I note that I declared Kawhi the victor after his transcendent moment against Houston; never forget that Twitter isn’t real and I am not an authoritative voice on anything, much less basketball. I have also in the past made the case for Harden over Westbrook, and I have been sympathetic to Paul Flannery’s argument that it should go to LeBron based on his regular season excellence and his inevitable postseason dominance.
Really, instead of making grand declarations in early March, we should appreciate how strong the four cases are and let this play out over the next five weeks.
At Deadspin, Albert Burneko makes the entertainingly wrong case that Westbrook is the obvious choice and any other pick will look like ahistoric foolishness in the future. The basis of this argument is that Westbrook is leading the NBA in scoring and averaging a triple-double, something that has never been done.
He’s also on track to break the record for usage rate and has an insanely high assist rate. His team would be lottery-bound if not for his presence; instead, they are destined for a lower playoff seed.
But so much of Westbrook’s candidacy is tied up in round numbers, which really mean nothing. Russ is at risk of falling below 10 assists per game if he has seven or fewer in his next contest.
Will Westbrook’s case for MVP really be materially different if he averages 32-11-9.8 on the season, just missing the triple-double year? Of course not! It would still be a historically great individual effort.
Achieving the round numbers don’t automatically translate into clinching the MVP. Westbrook’s season is amazing whether he averages 9.8 or 10.2 assists per game.
Besides, it’s not like what Harden is doing is some ho-hum accomplishment. No one has averaged 29 points and 11 assists per game since 1973, when Tiny Archibald accomplished that for a mediocre Kansas City-Omaha Kings team. Harden’s doing it for a squad on pace to win 56 games. Harden was given a new position and the reins to a team loaded with shooters, and he’s aced just about every test.
Harden also happens to be averaging just three points fewer than Westbrook on six fewer shots per game. Kawhi and LeBron are each six points per game behind Russ on about eight fewer shooting possessions. This might be dismissed as contrarianism or fealty to efficiency. But if we’re going to base MVP candidacies on numbers, we should look at all of the numbers. And the basic fact is that it’s easier to win the scoring title when you’re taking four shots per game more than any other player.
There’s no doubt that Westbrook’s performance has been incredible on a nightly basis. Burneko’s smartest point is that the consistency of Westbrook’s breathtaking excellence has dulled its impact: he has actually made 40-10-10 look normal. It’s not. This is something to keep in mind as we watch the last 20 games and judge the candidates on their merits.
It’s also something to remember as we weigh LeBron’s case. We’ve had 14 years of LeBron doing unthinkable things in the NBA. He is as good as ever this season, carrying a heavy load for an excellent team. History suggests he’s still the best player in the NBA, despite having fallen out of the MVP race most seasons. Ask the Warriors circa June 2016.
There’s some real cognitive dissonance going on when we genuflect before LeBron when the playoffs begin, but dismiss his case as the most valuable player in the league just before that. If we roll our eyes at Karl Malone’s 1997 MVP over Michael Jordan, shouldn’t we be suspect of any MVP not won by LeBron in the current era?
As for Kawhi, the odds of him actually winning the MVP are low. Defense still isn’t priced into the MVP award as it should be. Leonard is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, anchoring the league’s best resistance again. He’s the only defender in the league you can trust to guard LeBron and Steph Curry.
Just as Westbrook’s high usage rate and penchant for triple-doubles is historic, so is Kawhi’s two-way game. His impact on the game reminds me of Hakeem Olajuwon — Leonard just looms on every possession on both ends. That doesn’t result in particularly gaudy numbers (though he is averaging 30 per game over the last two months). But to dismiss it out of hand in deference to Westbrook seems misguided.
Westbrook could very well win the MVP, and may deserve it more than any other candidate. The race isn’t over yet, though. Let’s see what happens before anointing anyone.