NBA: True MVP Race Becomes A Two-Man Affair

WARR contributor Josh Hicks offers his thoughts on the Chicago Bulls and the NBA

This season’s MVP race in the NBA has been very interesting. Players like Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Cleveland’s LeBron James and Chicago’s Jimmy Butler are having arguably the best seasons of their careers and are the clear leaders of playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

However, two “bros” from out West have taken the league by storm and they haven’t stopped reigning in the top two spots in the MVP race: Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Houston’s James Harden.

Westbrook and Harden are familiar friends who started their NBA careers together. Westbrook came into the league as the fourth overall pick during the end of the Seattle Supersonics era in 2008 and Harden joined the same franchise at the beginning of the OKC era as the third overall pick in 2009, the two exciting combo guards grew together as teammates under the initial leadership of former franchise player Kevin Durant.

The young core experienced much success, but with the loss in the 2012 Finals souring things some and with new money an issue for upcoming contracts, time came soon for OKC’s burgeoning Big 3 to branch off to different leadership rolls on different teams. Harden made the first move when he was traded to Houston within months of the Finals loss. By 2016 Durant chose to strike competitive gold with Golden State, leaving Westbrook the reigns in OKC.

Westbrook and Harden have spent several years on different teams now, but each player has spent that time harnessing a similar killer instinct: attack, attack, attack!

And attacking is paying off big-time for both.

Westbrook is currently averaging a triple-double with 31 points, ten rebounds and ten assists a game, giving himself as good a shot as anyone in the modern game of doing something that only the great Oscar Robertson has been able to produce — a season-long triple-double average. Harden has hardly slouched himself, averaging a career high 11 assists a game a long with his 28 points a game for a Houston team that looks as competitive as it ever has since his arrival in “Clutch City.”

Both men are having career seasons, however for this MVP race, a couple of factors are going to separate Harden-Westbrook and distinguish one or the other in the eyes of voters of the MVP award.

A primary factor, of course, is wins. Entering Friday, the Thunder are ranked sixth in the Western Conference with a 24-16 record. The Rockets are ranked third with a 31-10 record. MVP awards in the NBA most often go to the best winners in that season so being on a team with the higher seed in the conference and/or league should provide an edge.

Another factor is the way the way each player exploits their performances. Westbrook has never averaged a triple double, but he has always been a triple-double machine. With 18 triple-doubles at this point of the season Westbrook matches the amount he had all of last season, his amped-up production is almost solely is keeping his team afloat in the tough Western conference.

When Michael Lee of The Vertical asked Harden about who is the best guard, he responded with this statement:

“Best point guard or best player?…I am.”

And he has the numbers to back it up. Harden’s 11 assists a game is one of the most shocking developments in the league this season, a clear 4 assist jump per game from his previous high in the 2015-16 season (7.5) and more than 6 better than his career average (5.4).

Known mostly throughout his career as a scorer, we are used to Harden’s lack of defense and tendencies to fill up the board to the detriment of his teammates. But since the hiring of coach Mike D’Antoni in Houston, Harden has gotten the reins of an offense perfectly formatted for him to run efficiently. To that effect comes Harden’s 11 triple-doubles this season, which in a Westbrook-less NBA would be a  jaw-dropping total for a season that’s only reached mid-January.

This can be Harden’s year of redemption in winning the MVP, but he does have a friend in Westbrook that would have no problem taking that opportunity out of his hands.

Joshua M. Hicks is a sports writer and broadcaster and a recent graduate of Roosevelt University, follow him on Twitter @jhicks042

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