Last year, no less an authority than Gregg Popovich called Kawhi Leonard the best basketball player in the world. Most everything Popovich says these days is worth mulling; the Leonard claim was no exception. Upon deep review, Leonard was indeed a contender for the moniker Best Player in the World, along with LeBron James and Kevin Durant, so long as you consider defense to be an important facet of the sport.
Leonard has obviously not had the year Popovich or anyone would have hoped: He’s barely played since that declaration last May. He didn’t get another chance to prove his mettle against Durant or James. He has, for all intents and purposes, fallen out of this competition.
Meanwhile, Durant excelled in the playoffs, won a title, and was halfway to a Defensive Player of the Year award before getting nicked up and coasting through winter. James had another strong playoff run that ended with another Finals loss to a better team. This season, James has put up unprecedented numbers for someone in his 15th year, some of the best of his top-three all-time career. His defense, however, is at this point likely the worst of any probable All-NBA picks.
Neither Durant or James will win MVP this season, nor will two-time winner Stephen Curry or reigning Russell Westbrook. MVP status would seem to be an important marker for the unofficial title of Best Basketball Player in the World. But the race can have odd swings on an annual basis — no one would have called upstart Derrick Rose the best on the planet in 2011, or Steve Nash the best basketball player alive after his back-to-back trophies. Kobe Bryant won his only MVP after the point at which many would agree he lost the Best in the World title to James. (Where the transition point between Bryant and James falls — assuming there is no Dirk Nowitzki interlude circa 2007 — is hotly debated, if only in my head.)
A single MVP race doesn’t make the Best Player in the World. But when you look over the course of multiple years, clarity arrives.
It is then another contender arrives: James Harden.
Harden will win the 2017-18 MVP award going away. His chief rival at this stage is Anthony Davis; Davis’ own coach, Alvin Gentry, declared the race is “not even close.” The win will be Harden’s first.
But Harden will then have finished first or second in three of the previous four seasons. He was the runner-up when Curry won his first in 2014-15 and came in behind Westbrook last season. The Rockets were mediocre in 2015-16 and Harden received only a few end-of-the-ballot votes. But otherwise, over four seasons, Harden has arguably been the NBA’s best performer.
We don’t know exactly how the final MVP voting will shake out other than a sure Harden win. James will possibly snatch his 13th consecutive top-five MVP finish. (That’s just unbelievable, except because we’ve watched James all these years, it’s kinda believable.) Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and possibly Damian Lillard could earn top-five spots. Either Curry, Westbrook, or Durant could end up in there.
Over the past five seasons, Curry has the two MVP wins and two No. 6 finishes in balloting. Durant won in 2014, but has just one top-five finish since then. (Durant’s entire case for the Best Player in the World moniker exists outside MVP balloting, which is a little weird, isn’t it?) James last won in 2013, but is in the conversation every single year. Westbrook won in 2017, but don’t forget he has two other top-five finishes before that. Leonard has a second- and a third-place finish.
In another month’s time, Harden will be first or second in MVP voting three times in four years. That’s a better MVP-based qualification than any other player in the conversation.
That’s the MVP-based case. What about the counting stats?
Harden is the No. 1 scorer in the NBA over the past five seasons (including the current campaign), edging Durant and thoroughly beating the other contenders. He’s No. 5 over that span in assists per game, trailing Westbrook but leading Curry. He ranks first in total minutes played during that same span, according to Basketball-Reference, ahead of human robots like Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Trevor Ariza and DeAndre Jordan. He’s played more games than the others, trails only Curry and Klay Thompson in threes made, and has a gargantuan lead for free throws. (As of Tuesday night, Harden has made 3,300 free throws since 2013-14. DeMar DeRozan is second on that list ... with 2,397, or 27 percent fewer.)
Defensively, Harden is not nearly as good as Durant. Until this season, he’d likely be below all the other candidates for this title, with the exception of Westbrook last season. But this year Harden has filled his role for a very good defensive team, using his size to his advantage. That combined with James’ stark slide in that (important!) aspect of the game shrinks the gap enough to make Harden’s offensive excellence a strong enough case.
Winning a title has never been a prerequisite for being considered the world’s best player. But given that Durant, Curry, and James all have rings, and considering how damn good they are, it seems like Harden might need to reach that level of success to gain the momentum behind his argument for the unofficial title of best player alive. That’s a tall ask, even for a player of Harden’s extraordinary caliber.