By Kelly Scaletta

For the most part, James Harden has been leading the MVP debate through the season with guys like Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James intermittently being the “other guy” in the conversation. But now a new player, Kevin Durant, is charging hard and demanding his case be heard.

Durant wasn’t really a part of it because–what with him being surrounded with the most talented and deepest roster in the history of humanity and all–he just had too much help.

But then that “help” got to be a lot less helpful.

Stephen Curry has missed the last three games and will be missing more time. Draymond Green has been out for the last two games. Zaza Pachulia has missed three. Nick Young missed the last one. Now Shaun Livingston is hurt too. As the Warriors build what might the greatest M.A.S.H. team in history, Durant has stepped up.

Over his last three games, he’s averaged 33.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 3.3 blocks. He’s shooting 56.7 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3 and 93.8 percent from the stripe. The Warriors have plus-14.2 net rating when Durant is on the court and a minus-8.2 without him.

Narrative, as much as numbers, make an impact on the MVP debate. Part of that “narrative” is what happens when a co-star goes down. James Harden carried the Rockets without Chris Paul. LeBron James has been bearing the burden of the Cavaliers without Isaiah Thomas.

Now Durant is lugging the Warriors without Curry and Green. Granted, it’s not yet for as extended of a time, but if it keeps up like this, he might be forcing his way into the conversation.

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For now, though, Harden and James are still at the top.

1. James Harden had his “worst” week of the season, in part because he’s playing hurt. He “only” averaged 26.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 2.3 steals and 0.8 blocks. Three of the Rockets’ four games went into clutch time. In 10 total clutch minutes, Harden scored 19 points, assisted on another two, and the Rockets outscored their opponents by 22. In the fourth quarter of those games, he averaged 42.6 points, 11.0 assists, and 7.9 steals per 36 minutes. Not too shabby for a “down week.”

2. LeBron James has probably caught Harden on a statistical level after having an amazing run over the last five games in which he’s averaged 25.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 13.4 assists.  He has the Cavaliers back to winning as he dominates the world, and the Cavaliers have won 18 of their last 19 with a plus-8.5 net rating. Her’es the problem, though. Harden has the Rockets playing even better. Houston has won 19 of their last 20 and have a plus-15.0 net rating.

You also have to factor the earlier season into account. LeBron owns some of the Cavs bad starts and James carried the Rockets without Paul.

The bottom line, LeBron is playing in an easier conference and the Rockets are on pace to win nine more games. Winning matters too, and Harden has that.

3. Kevin Durant (See Above) 

4. Does It Really Matter? I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now, but it’s getting worse. The difference between the top three and the rest of the field has just gotten too huge to care. Does anyone think that Kyrie is really going to win if we had the vote today? How many players not listed above are even going to get a top-three vote?

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Stupid is as stupid does–witness the Carmelo Anthony vote that prevented LeBron from being the first unanimous winner–but there’s enough consensus on the top tw0 right now that it’s not even really worth discussing anyone else. The fight for the MVP is like playing a free cash no deposit slots. You need to pump up those points to get the award.

Durant could move into the picture if he continues what he’s doing in Curry’s absence. Kyrie Irving could get into the discussion if he steps up his overall production. Antetokounmpo could get back in there if the Milwaukee Bucks go on a huge run. But there are three players playing at an elite level on elite teams right now, and discussing other players out of some perfunctory duty just seems superfluous.

Scaletta is Italian for “little ladder,” so that’s what I’m going to leave you with this week–a little ladder.




Kelly Scaletta

Kelly Scaletta writes for Vantage Sports, Bleacher Report and BBALLBREAKDOWN. He has the crazy notion that watching games and understanding stats are not mutually exclusive.

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