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James Harden is the NBA MVP, but who belongs on the ballot with him?

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We know who’s winning the award, but the real intrigue is who belongs in the other top-five spots.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

James Harden is going to win the Most Valuable Player Award and deservedly so. He’s been the wire-to-wire leader. After battling through some winter injuries, Harden put his season into overdrive right when the Rockets were making their push for the best record in the league.

Harden’s season deserves to be celebrated in all its glory, and we will, but the real intrigue lies with the rest of the field. From two through five, there are arguments that could be made for maybe a dozen other players. I reserve the right to change my mind between now and the end of the season.

Let’s LIST ...

Like a Harden jumper, let’s take a step back and begin to appreciate what the Beard has accomplished this season. Way back in October, I wrote that his season would be judged on A) the performance of his team, and B) his working relationship with Chris Paul. The Rockets have the best record in the league and he and Paul have been simpatico.

The fact Harden is leading the league in scoring and having the most efficient season of his career while the Rockets are having the best regular season in their history is the beginning and the end of Harden’s candidacy. Think about the other Rockets who have come through Houston: Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, Clyde Drexler. Harden stands alone.

Where this puts him in the best player in the world conversation is subject to the postseason. The MVP, however, is his.

LeBron James is currently second on my ballot, and this is where the argument begins.

It’s true that James could have been a bit more engaged on the defensive end. It’s also true the Cavs have gone through several makeovers born of underlying dramatic tensions. The question of how much of the latter is on him is best answered by the postseason’s final exam.

What we have to work with is the regular season record, and it’s frankly astonishing. James is averaging 27 points a game with 9.1 assists, and 8.6 rebounds while leading the league in minutes at 33 years of age. That’s ridiculous.

I’ll fully cop to being a James Stan at this point in his career, and the truly fascinating thing about his career is its complexity. It will take years to unwind it all, but it stands in stark contrast to Michael Jordan’s legacy, which was defined by his obvious superiority over his peers. There’s no shades of gray with Jordan, who never lost once he learned how to win. That’s a conversation for another time.

Milwaukee Bucks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The real issue begins with third place. Every voter will have to set a baseline expectation for games players. For me, it’s 66 games, or roughly 80 percent of the season. That means there’s no room for Steph Curry, Chris Paul, or Kyrie Irving in the top five.

Kevin Durant is sitting on 60 games and looking to return Thursday night against Milwaukee. In the grand scheme of things, Durant is one the two best players in the world along with James. Anyone who watched the Finals last year came to the conclusion that Durant was the best player on the floor.

Those missed games are not insignificant relative to the field, however, and I’m honestly not sure where to place him at the moment.

Given all that, I have Anthony Davis third on my unofficial ballot, narrowly ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Davis’ numbers are the best of his career: 28 points, 11 boards, and 2.5 blocks. The blocks lead the league, which is nice, but even better is that AD has grown into his role as a defensive anchor. The Pels have a top-10 defense when he’s on the court, and one of the worst when he’s not. (Jrue Holiday has also had a major impact on this trend.)

Beyond that, AD put the franchise on his back in its time of need and brought them within striking distance of a playoff spot. This is the Davis we’ve been waiting for, and he’s still only 24 years old. Mercy.

That’s no slight to Giannis, who has performed similar miracles for a Bucks team that’s dealt with injuries, trades, and the firing of coach Jason Kidd. You can choose which season means more, and I won’t argue with it very much.

The debate is the whole point of having a subjective word like valuable attached to the league’s most prestigious award. Here’s a secret: That variable makes this whole thing worth arguing about, and it’s a debate no one can truly win.

Regardless, Giannis is fourth on my scorecard and I’m sure there are some voters who would feel justified in having him as high as second. I have no quarrel with them. In whatever order they appear, that looks like the top four.

Fifth place is entirely up for grabs. You could easily reward Durant for keeping the Warriors near the top of the standings while Curry has missed so much time. You could also make a case for DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry depending on your favorite Raptor.

Throw these names on the pile, as well: Victor Oladipo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns. Did I hear Rudy Gobert? I will listen to Gobert arguments.

If you think my injury requirements are specious, then you could put Curry or Paul in here, as well. I would have had Jimmy Butler in this conversation if he had stayed in one piece.

For me, this comes down to three players: Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Damian Lillard. The final season push will hopefully bring some clarity. For now, I’m leaving it open-ended. We’ve got to have some mysteries left to unravel this season.