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The NBA MVP debate has no clear winner

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Russ, or Harden? It comes down to what you value.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Time is running out to pick a 2017 NBA MVP. Which amazing candidate will win? Who should win? Who will get that coveted No. 5 slot on the most ballots? Only time will tell. Or us, we’ll tell you in this week’s FLANNS & ZILLZ.

ZILLER: We have previously insisted that everyone calm down and wait to make NBA MVP decisions until the end of the season. Well ... we're here. Teams have a handful of games left. Little will change in the contours of the MVP race at this point.

There are said to be four candidates: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard. The sense I get is that neither LeBron or Kawhi will win — they will affect this by taking first-place votes from the other two. That's where I want to take the discussion before we get into our opinions about the candidates.

Westbrook is going to be No. 3 or No. 4 on a bunch of ballots. I don't see Harden falling below No. 2 anywhere for this reason: If you're a Westbrook voter, you would be a Harden vote if not for Westbrook.

They have deadly similar cases: mainly incredible, dominant box scores on good teams. (Harden's team is somewhat better, though not the best team in the league by any stretch.) If you're a Harden voter, you might not be a Westbrook voter because you might appreciate shooting efficiency or team quality too much. In these cases, you might have Kawhi and/or LeBron at No. 2 and Westbrook lower.

So I think Westbrook may end up with the most No. 1 votes but still lose to Harden.

FLANNERY: That's an interesting theory. That unless Russ scores an overwhelming number of first-place votes, he won't win. I do think there's more of a case to be made against Russ than Harden. The efficiency numbers, the W-L record, etc. This is the crux of the MVP argument because you're right: LeBron and Kawhi have been lapped.

Before we get too far into the weeds I want to make one point.

I've been on the MVP fence this season, but at various moments I've stumped for LeBron. I had two reasons for this. 1. He's the best player in the world (We're not going to argue about this, right?) 2. He’s having a phenomenal season.

I mean, come on: 26-8-8 with a .617 True Shooting Percentage? That's not Miami Heat LeBron, but that's the best season he's put up since his return to Cleveland.

The Cavs’ March swoon undercut his argument. I still think he's the Most Valuable Player in the league, but not the MVP of the season. That make sense?

ZILLER: That makes sense. I even think it's absolutely, 100 percent crystal-clear correct. Everyone would pick LeBron if they could choose one player for a season, a game, a play right now. He is the best player in the world, and I'm not sure there's even a debate. But those two guys and probably also Kawhi have had better seasons. LeBron is still the most reliable.

You're right about the Westbrook-Harden debate. There is no case against Harden, and while the visceral case for Westbrook may be somewhat stronger — he's going to average a triple-double, and set the record for most triple-doubles in a season — the shooting efficiency numbers and win-loss record are going to give stat-oriented voters a permission structure with which to vote against Westbrook. I don't think a plurality of voters are stats-oriented, but as I said, so long as Westbrook voters have Harden No. 2, the stats-oriented voters who put Westbrook No. 3 or 4 will decide this race.

Houston is almost 10 games better than Oklahoma City. How much of that reflects on Harden vs. Westbrook and how much is simply that the Rockets have more weapons and an elite wing defender to cover The Beard? I'm not sure win-loss record should matter here, in other words. It's not like the Thunder are noncompetitive.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

FLANNERY: Right, by any objective measure the Rockets' supporting cast is deeper and stronger than OKC's. That's not a knock against Westbrook or a chip against Harden. It's just the way of the world. The question should be: Have both players helped their teams reach the fullest extent of their potential? And the answer there is an unequivocal yes.

I want to get back to something you said about the stats-based arguments. This will be framed as new metrics vs. old-school counting numbers in much the same way baseball had Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera when Miggy won the triple crown. I want to caution folks on that one because it doesn't really hold up.

The thing about basketball metrics is that they don't point to an all-in-one number that tells you who's best. I don't know enough about WAR or how it's calculated but I know that smart baseball people think it's pretty good and that's fine with me. If you really dig in deep on the NBA metrics — VORP, Win Shares, PER, RPM — they all tell a slightly different story. Harden may be more efficient, but that doesn't mean he's more metrically dominant.

I think this is a case that comes down to personal preference.

ZILLER: I agree. There's an interesting conversation being had about who the numbers really favor, especially the hardcore advanced stats. But I'm speaking in shorthand a bit. The biggest difference in basketball analysis now vs. before Dean Oliver is in how we judge scoring efficiency. Harden is well ahead there.

But you're right that this comes down to personal preference, and in a toss-up, narrative matters. That's why I'm going Westbrook. His incredible season is coming in the wake of Kevin Durant leaving for a team they almost beat together. Harden's came in the wake of a wasted year thrown off track by our potential MVP coming in out of shape due to a summer of partying, a feud with a co-star, and a war with the coach.

You hate to ascribe moral arcs to sports arguments because we don't know these people at all. But the surface-level narrative here favors Russ in my book.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

FLANNERY: And that's fine. I haven't made my mind up yet to be honest.

To me the narrative component comes down a different question: What do you like? Do you prefer a brilliantly conducted Philharmonic or are you into an avant-garde exploration into the vortex? I can appreciate them both but what moved me the most this season? I can't answer that yet.

How do you see the rest of this race playing out? The rules say voters must rank five players, which leaves a robust field of contenders for that fifth spot. This is the ‘deserves consideration’ portion of the program. I had Kevin Durant and Kyle Lowry up here before they got hurt, so now I'm down to three guards for that fifth spot: Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, and Steph Curry in some order.

Care to make the case for anyone else?

ZILLER: I would love to give Anthony Davis the nod there because of his outrageous production, but that team ... yikes. Jimmy Butler is the deserving perimeter player you didn't mention — I think he's right there with Isaiah and Wall in the honorable mention category. If this were a 10-deep ballot, Giannis Antetokounmpo would belong in there.

But it's gotta be Curry. His deferral to Durant is hugely commendable — he was the two-time defending MVP! — and since KD got hurt he's reminded us how incredible he remains. He's on his way to a Finals MVP, though.

FLANNERY: Let's not get ahead of ourselves!

You're right about Butler. He absolutely deserves to be in that fifth-place conversation. As with AD, his team's overall performance keeps him just outside those others, in my opinion. Wall, Thomas, and Curry have all been vital components on some of the best teams in the league. All things considered, that has to be part of this.

This vote is going to be brutal. Just like to point that out one more time.

ZILLER: Don't worry: No matter which way you go in the end, a chorus of those who disagree will be ready to call you an idiot. You can't lose.

FLANNERY: Or win.