We have an interesting situation brewing for the MVP award this year. After last season’s race, which featured four players who would win most seasons, this year–at least early on–James Harden is so far ahead of the field it’s hard to find a worthy challenger.
The problem is there are elite teams and worthy players but there really isn’t any combination of a worthy player on an elite team other than Harden. For that reason, I’m going to change up the way I write the ladder this week.
Typically, I’ll have a longer intro highlighting one player or thought followed by some brief thoughts on each of the contenders. This week, though, I’m going to cut the intro short and focus more on why the rest of the players are falling so far behind the Beard.
1. James Harden is the best player on the team with the best record in the best conference. The Rockets have the second-best Simple Rating System ranking. While he’s doing all that Harden is averaging 31.6 points and 9.9 assists per game, leading the NBA in both categories, and his true shooting percentage is 62.7 percent. While he’s not a great defender, the Rockets own the eighth best defensive rating, so the “defense” isn’t a big strike against him. The “Harden rule” is there, so people can’t complain about his flopping. Finally, his co-star Chris Paul has missed most of the season while Harden has carried them.
So the bottom line is that every criterion for MVP, individual and team success, help and narrative are all in Harden’s favor right now. For the rest of the contenders, at least one of those things is missing.
2. LeBron James is unquestionably having another LeBronian season. He’s averaging 28.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.6 assists. Which makes him the oldest person to average 25/7/7 in a season. Well, actually it makes him the two oldest people to do it since he did he already was the oldest person when he did it last year. From an individual standpoint, he’s doing quite well.
The problem with his candidacy is the Cavaliers have struggled so mightily on defense and are playing so far below expectations. Even after winning four straight against sub-standard competition, they are only 9-7. They still have the league’s worst defense. Becuase of the difference between where the team is and should be, it’s very hard to argue his merit over Harden’s.
3. Stephen Curry
Curry is the best candidate on one of only two teams that you can even argue are better than Houston right now. There are, however, two things working against him. First, while Golden State might be the better team, they have the same record as the Rockets, and Houston won the only head-to-head to date. So, right now the Rockets are in the top spot in the West.
Second, Curry has far more help with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, along with the deepest bench in the NBA. Furthermore, Curry’s numbers are inferior: 25.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists. Those are certainly MVP caliber, but they’re ‘not as good as Harden’s.
So Curry is putting up less production than Harden, has more help and his team is only doing just as good. Hard to make a case that he deserves it more than Harden.
4. Kyrie Irving is (possibly) the best player on an overachieving Boston Celtics team that has won 14 straight, which is really impressive. Irving is the leading scorer for the Cs, so he’s getting some MVP mention. But his numbers are kind of “meh”, especially for MVP consideration. He’s averaging 20.9 points and 5.3 assists. There’s an argument that Al Horford is actually more valuable though.
And there’s no case that either of them are having anything close to the individual season Harden is having. It would be pretty silly to argue that one game in the standings (in an inferior conference) merits either one over Harden, especially after Westbrook beat out Harden last season with a much more sizable gap in winning.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is here on the strength of a great start, but he’s fallen off just a smidge lately. He’s averaging 30.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists, which is MVP level production. But his Bucks are way only 8-7. There might be some consideration allowable here if the Bucks were a top-3 seed in the East and Freak was putting up numbers better than Harden’s, but when Harden is putting up better stats on a better team in a better conference, it’s hard to find a reason to vote for Giannis.
And then, who else is there? Jimmy Butler has been nice with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but they’re well behind the Rockets and Butler’s numbers are way down. LaMarcus Aldridge’s numbers are up, but the Spurs are down a little and praying to whoever will answer that Kawhi Leanoard would just come back. John Wall is kind of a thought here–but he’s getting fewer points and fewer assists with worse shooting on a worse team.
In sum, right now there’s just no one challenging Harden because he’s the only one without a glaring hole in his resume. For someone else to take it from him, they either need to elevate their team play or their stats because for now, it’s his to lose.