By Jonathan Dumas
Before the dawning of the 2016-17 NBA season, fans of the sport were eagerly anticipating the performance of some of the greatest athletes on earth. Two of whom began as the early season
favorites for the MVP award; James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
James Harden, formerly a shooting guard, tasked the Houston franchise to trust him as the team’s point guard in the hopes of having ultimate control over the basketball. Any doubts about the change in position were quickly put to rest in the first week of the season. From the start of the season all the way up until the All-Star game, Harden has put up stellar numbers and has led the team to third in the West with a record of 40-18. James Harden leads the NBA in Assists per game with 11.3 and is third in the NBA in scoring with an impressive 29.2 points per game. According to Fox Sports, his usage rate is at a relatively low 34.4 percent for a player with his numbers; meaning that he is able to do more offensively with the basketball while having less possessions than someone with similar statistics.
Unfortunately, Harden’s strengths do not come without their weaknesses as well. James Harden is notorious for his defensive instability. He has been scrutinized in the past few years for being quite lackadaisical on the other side of the ball, and has been humiliated on social media for all his defensive gaffes. At certain points in the game, it may seem as if James Harden wants the other team to shoot the ball in order to get another possession out of it. However, this season, Harden has shown some improvement on the defensive end. He has come up with great defensive stops periodically this season, but in order to be a lock-in for MVP, he needs to be more consistent on this end of the floor.
Second in the running for the MVP trophy is Oklahoma City guard, Russell Westbrook. With the cities devastating loss of nine-year veteran and former NBA MVP Kevin Durant, Westbrook has been playing with a chip on his shoulder all year. With the feeling of betrayal stirring over his friend and former teammate, Westbrook is determined to prove to Oklahoma City that he was the true star of the team. He may even be overperforming compared to his own expectation this season with the numbers he has been posting. Seeing as Westbrook is averaging a triple double thus far and bolstering 27 triple doubles on the season, he may be on course for a performance not seen since the 1961-62 season by Oscar Robertson. With a league leading 31.1 points per game and a third best performance in assists with 10.1 per game, Westbrook is proving to OKC his importance and potential for all-time greatness. He is seemingly solid on both ends of the floor as well, as opposed to MVP candidate James Harden.
However, a case can be made as to why Westbrook does not deserve to hoist the MVP trophy. Although Westbrook is shooting a career high 34 percent from 3-point range, his field goal percentage is a staggeringly low 42.2 percent; third worst for his career. His extremely high usage rate of 41.8 percent is one of the highest the NBA has seen for a single player. That means that the ball is in his hands over two-fifths of the time during the course of a game. With an output similar to James Harden but a much higher intake of the ball, this just proves that he cannot generate the same efficiency as James Harden given each possession of the ball. Aside from the minimal downfalls of Westbrook this season, that should not take away from the fact that he is one player that no NBA team seems to have any solution for containing him.
There may be a third MVP candidate that has risen up and has only grown as the season carries on. The point-guard for the Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas is the driving force behind this surging Celtics team. He has emerged as the clear leader and driving force of the string of victories Boston has been celebrating recently. With many anticipating this level of play from newly acquired Al Horford, Thomas has continued to prove that he is the leader of this team. According to ESPN, Thomas is listed at a mere 5’9”. Playing in a league dominated by men much larger than himself, he has proven that with a pure heart and passion for the game, anybody can play at an exceptional level. He’s second in the NBA in scoring, however, it is the record of 37-20 the Celtics have generated which makes the case for Thomas.
Each candidate have been the clear best performers in the NBA thus far. One can make a case for any one of these all-stars. Whether it comes down to who the best player is, or who is most valuable to their team, these athletes have outperformed all expectations this season. Until game 82 of the NBA season ends, the question will remain: Who is the Real MVP?