Before you read this, I need you to do me a favor. Go out to your garage or nearest Home Depot or Lowe’s and find your nearest pitchfork. Set each tip of the pitchfork on fire. Have you done that yet, before you proceed? Perfect, because I’m destined to incite a riot by trying to settle the NBA Most Valuable Player debate. Before I proceed, (I’m just trying to delay the inevitable here) I will state that there are four primary candidates for the award, and you could make a convincing argument for all four candidates when doing an MVP prediction. However, this is how the NBA Most Valuable Player race would turn out if I were the be-all, end-all voter (it’s a good thing that I’m not).
4th Place: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 season stats (per game averages): 74 games played, 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 54.8% field goal percentage, 36.3% three-point percentage, 67.4% free throw percentage.
Ah, the elusive 50-35-65 club now has LeBron James’ company. But in all seriousness, that stat-line is absurd. Regardless of what Marc Gasol says about stats ruining the game of basketball, it’s literally impossible to argue to impact James has on any team he’s on and in any game he plays in. At times, James muscled the Cavaliers through certain games, absolutely willing them to a victory. It’s common sense to say that the Cavaliers wouldn’t be the #2 seed (should be the #1 seed but that’s none of my business) in the Eastern Conference without the 13-time All-Star. If this were any other season, you would see LeBron James take home his fifth Most Valuable Player award. The competition this year was too stiff, and he might’ve even taken the third spot had the Cavaliers not floundered towards the end of the year.
James is one of the few people in the league that you can give the ball to anywhere on the court and have faith that you have a decent chance of scoring (besides the free-throw line). When applied and focused on the defensive end, James is inarguably one of the best defenders in the league and can defend all five positions on the floor. He doesn’t apply himself all the time in the regular season simply because he doesn’t have to. Regardless of what seed his team gets in the Eastern Conference, it would be tough to pick against his team, simply because his team has him, and for the better part of a decade, James has been the best player in the NBA.
3rd Place: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 season stats (per game averages): 74 games played, 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 48.5% field goal percentage, 38.1% three-point percentage, 88.0% free throw percentage.
This is one of the case-and-points where Marc Gasol’s statement about stats being misleading and ruining the game of basketball. If you compare James’ season averages with Kawhi Leonard’s, most would say that James had the better season of basketball. Like James before him, Leonard lead his team the #2 seed in his respective conference, leading the Spurs to a 61-21 record in the West. Leonard improved in a lot of aspects this season, and with Tim Duncan out of the picture, Leonard has emerged as the face of the franchise down in San Antonio.
Coming in strong with a 27.5 Player Efficiency Rating, Leonard had impressive statistics throughout the year. It seems trivial to say, but Leonard’s play was even better than statistics could show. A guaranteed lock for first team NBA All-Defense, Leonard is hands down the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and it’s not logically arguable. He has improved his offensive game to the point where not only is he one of the most clutch performers in the entire league, but he is also someone that can score in any way and attack you from any angle on the offensive end. Like James before him, if this were any other season, Leonard would likely be notching his first regular season MVP award.
(Note: This is likely where I will incite a riot. Please, refrain from shouting obscene words at me, I am fragile)
2nd Place: James Harden, Houston Rockets
2016-17 season stats (per game averages): 81 games played, 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 44.0% field goal percentage, 34.7% three-point percentage, 84.7% free throw percentage.
The Houston Rockets let Dwight Howard walk and head to Atlanta. Daryl Morey brought in Mike D’Antoni to be the head coach, and James Harden went from best shooting guard in the league to a transitional point guard in a potent and fast-paced offense. A recipe for quite the interesting season was brewing in Houston. Expectations were blatantly low for the franchise in the highly competitive and ever-improving Western Conference. Fans across the league scoffed at the idea that Harden was going to be the primary ball-handler bringing the ball up the court for Houston.
How did Harden and company respond? Well, Harden had one of the best seasons in NBA history, statistically speaking. After becoming the point guard of the Houston Rockets, Harden lead the entire NBA in assists per game. Yes, more than a Chris Paul, a John Wall, a Russell Westbrook. Not only that, but Harden chipped in with a 27.3 Player Efficiency Rating and had an outstanding 15.0 win shares, which is absolutely absurd. If that’s not enough for you, while Harden was on the floor, he assisted on over half (50.7%) of his teammate's field goals. He did all of this with a true shooting percentage of 61.3%. Harden statistically had a top-10 season of any individual in NBA history. If it weren't for a certain point guard on his former team, Harden would be claiming his first MVP award while simultaneously leading an overachieving Rockets squad to the third seed in a highly competitively Western Conference.
First Place: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 season stats (per game averages): 81 games played, 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 42.5% field goal percentage, 34.3% three-point percentage, 84.5% free throw percentage.
Yes, you read that right: Russell Westbrook deserves the MVP award. He is the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of an entire season. Many fans expected the Thunder to completely miss the playoffs after Kevin Durant chose to sign with Golden State over Oklahoma City. Instead, Westbrook arguably single-handedly lead the Thunder to the postseason as the 6th seed, facing off against James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the first round. Westbrooks insanely high usage percentage only begins to tell that tale.
Westbrook’s Player Efficiency Rating was through the roof, soaring at a career-high of 30.6. His usage percentage was 41.7, which is absurdly high for one player. Due to that usage percentage, Westbrook had 13.1 win shares on the season, a 15.5 box score plus/minus (over 100 average possessions, which is also absurd), and assisted on 57.3% of his teammate's field goals while he was on the floor. If the Oklahoma City Thunder were a Windows computer, Russell Westbrook would be the System 32. Westbrook is the be-all, end-all for the Thunder.
Without LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers still make the playoffs. Without Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs still make the playoffs. Without James Harden, the Houston Rockets likely make it in as an eight seed in the Western Conference. Without Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a top contender for #1 pick in the NBA draft. Westbrook is deserving of the Most Valuable Player award for the 2016-17 NBA season.