Every year during the run-up to the postseason, NBA prognosticators both amateur and professional attempt to forecast the results of the MVP race. In some seasons, like last year with Steph Curry, one player rises so clearly above the rest that the media vote determining the winner is more a point of procedure than anything else. This is not one of those seasons.
This year, four players have established themselves as major contenders in the MVP race—Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and LeBron James. Each can make a unique argument for why they’re deserving of the league’s ultimate individual award. But instead of comparing the four players to one another statistically, we took a broader look at the context of the award itself to figure out who history says has the best chance of earning the distinction.
“The Big Stats On A Meh Team” Candidate
From a statistical standpoint, Russell Westbrook is having perhaps the best season of any MVP candidate in modern history. Averaging 31.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.6 assists per game, the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard is on pace to become the second player to average a triple-double over the course of an entire season. (Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 was the first.) Making the feat even more impressive is the fact that Russ is doing this in about 10 fewer minutes per game than The Big O averaged 55 years ago. Oh, and the fact that he’s doing this in 2017, not NINETEEN-SIXTY-TWO.
Westbrook, 28, is on track to become just the third player to finish top 10 in points, rebounds, and assists per game in a single season. One of those other players was Robertson, of course, and the other was Wilt Chamberlain. Coincidentally, Oscar Robertson’s historic triple-double season in 1961-62 didn’t result in an MVP nod for the then-23-year-old star. That was thanks to a campaign by Chamberlain that same year in which he averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game and led the Philadelphia Warriors to the second seed in the Eastern Division. Robertson, despite his marvelous individual efforts, earned the Cincinnati Royals a 43-37 record and a 3-1 series loss to the Pistons in the opening round of the playoffs.
Currently, Westbrook’s Thunder are on pace to finish in sixth place in the Western Conference, with about 48 wins. And while there’s no Wilt Chamberlain to overshadow Russ’ statistical accomplishments this season, it’s worth noting that only one player over the past 30 seasons has been named MVP despite his team finishing outside the top two seeds in their conference. That one exception was Michael Jordan in 1987-88, when he racked up 35.0 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.2 steals while leading the Bulls to 50 wins and the No. 3 seed in the East.
Taking into account the Thunder’s standing in a loaded Western Conference, historical context, and the fact that many media members—who will cast the deciding vote—simply dislike Westbrook, it’s hard to imagine him overcoming all that and taking home the trophy.
“The Breakout Superstar On A Legit Contender” Candidate
Booooooring, right? If he were to be named MVP this season, Kawhi Leonard would undoubtedly be the most understated winner in modern NBA history. But the phlegmatic 25-year-old small forward would be a superbly on-brand representative for a Spurs team that once again has flown under the radar all season long, despite challenging the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the league. Leonard would also be an outstandingly qualified winner, given his impact on both ends of the floor and the improvements he’s made over the past several seasons.
Putting up 25.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 48.3% from the floor and 36.6% from beyond the arc, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year has taken his offensive game to the next level. And Leonard, who finished second in MVP voting last year, is the undeniable leader of a San Antonio team that has maintained its standard of excellence while transitioning away from retired future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and two men who will soon join him in that distinction, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Simply put, he’s been awesome this year, and if we’re talking about the individual player doing the most on a team that is very likely to reach the conference finals at least, it’s got to be Kawhi.
For voters who are typically inclined to go with the best player on the best team, Kawhi Leonard might be their most realistic alternative. And looking at the past indicates to us that many ballot-receiving members of the media will be inclined to vote in exactly that way. From Allen Iverson in 2000-01, to Steve Nash in 2004-05, to Dirk Nowitzki in 2006-07, to Derrick Rose in 2010-11, and to Steph Curry in 2014-15, the MVP award has a history of rewarding breakout superstars leading teams to No. 1 or No. 2 playoff seeds. This is true despite those players not necessarily having put together the most statistically outstanding seasons in the years in which they won.
“The Best Season On A Good Team” Candidate
The Houston Rockets have been outstanding this season, but they’re still decidedly a notch below the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. And when it comes to the MVP, that seems to stick in the minds of voters. As we mentioned earlier, only Jordan has won the award while playing for a team seeded below No. 2 in its conference in the past 30 seasons. But if any player were going to buck that trend, it might be James Harden.
A four-time All-Star entering this season, Harden has completely transformed his game under new head coach Mike D’Antoni, embracing an equally ball-dominant, but more facilitatory, role in his run-and-gun offense. The 27-year-old shooting guard’s 29.3 points, 11.3 assists, and 8.0 rebounds per game are all career highs, and he’s one of four players in the past 20 seasons to average more than 11 dimes per game, joining Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, and Chris Paul. Oh yeah, and he’s leading the league in win shares (10.9) and having his most efficient scoring season as a Rocket (.615 true shooting %).
For voters uncomfortable with handing the award to either Leonard, simply because he’s the most deserving player on a team that will likely win 60-plus games, or Westbrook, simply because of his ungodly statistical production, Harden is a nice compromise. And there’s historical precedent for media members making that type of bargain when need be.
In 2008, Kobe Bryant was named MVP despite LeBron James averaging more points, assists, and rebounds per game and having more win shares and better shooting efficiency. Kobe’s Lakers won 57 games that year, while LeBron’s Cavs won 47; the 66-win Boston Celtics, like this year’s Warriors, were too balanced for voters to hone in on one player deserving of the award. The same was true of 2002, when Tim Duncan was named MVP after averaging 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.5 blocks in a season in which his Spurs were pretty clearly a notch below the Sacramento Kings, who won 61 games despite their best player, Chris Webber, missing 28 games. Were it not for the injury, Webber very well could have won the award that season instead.
The “Voter Fatigue” Candidate
Let’s be real here: There hasn’t been a single season over the past decade in which LeBron James hasn’t had a legitimate argument for MVP honors. But the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing voters hate more than casting their ballot for someone who has been there before.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1986 to find the last time a player has three-peated MVP honors, when Larry Bird did so as a member of the Boston Celtics. Since then, six players have won MVP back-to-back, including Curry and LeBron on two different occasions since 2009. But three times in a row? That doesn’t happen. Hell, even Jordan was denied it in 1997, after averaging nearly 30 points per game on almost 50 percent shooting at age 33 in a season in which the Bulls won 69 games. And he’d only won it once in the previous five seasons!
It’s always been this way. Even dating back to 1969, when Chamberlain led the Lakers to a 55-27 record while putting up 20 and 20 a night, the reigning three-time MVP was snubbed in favor of Wes Unseld, who averaged seven fewer points, three fewer boards, and two fewer assists per game and did so less efficiently than Chamberlain. Wilt didn’t even receive a single MVP vote that year.
LeBron James has won the award four times, tied with Chamberlain. He’s shy of only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won it six times, and Bill Russell and Michael Jordan, who each won it five times. Averaging 26.0 points and putting up career highs in both assists (8.8) and rebounds (8.4) per game for the Cavs this season, James could take advantage of a slightly diluted field and notch his fifth MVP. History isn’t in his favor, but with four years standing between today and the last time he won the award, perhaps enough time has passed for voters to warm up to the idea of once again crowning King James.
So who's the winner?
All right, you probably clicked on this story because you were hoping we’d offer a definitive take on who will win the MVP. Picking a winner was more difficult this season than most because even as we reach the waning days of the regular season, a definitive leader has yet to emerge from the pack. But still, we believe there is one player a bit more deserving than the rest.
James Harden is doing something special this year, putting up monster stats eclipsed only by Russell Westbrook, while doing what the OKC star has not been able to do…win. The Rockets are on pace to finish third in the NBA with 57-ish wins, and Harden has led the league in win shares while directly accounting for 56.6 points per game if you sum up the 29.3 points and 27.3 points per game he assists. He’s put up 19 triple-doubles this year, including one against the Knicks on New Year's Eve in which he notched an insane 53 points, 17 assists, and 16 rebounds. Once rebuked for his selfish offensive style and poor defensive effort, Harden has reinvented himself as one of the league’s best playmakers and as passable on the other end of the court.
The Houston star satisfies all the areas voters typically look at—impressive numbers, big impact, winning basketball, and a compelling storyline. For that, and for everything else he’s accomplished during his outstanding 2016-17 campaign, we believe he deserves the title of Most Valuable Player.