The regular season is over, and the NBA playoffs have begun... but a ton of people still have the NBA MVP race on their minds. Westbrook, Harden, Leonard, James, or Isaiah? Let's try to settle it.
Russell and why averaging a triple-double might not be good enough
Statistically, Westbrook has been the beast that ESPN has made him out to be. He accomplished the virutally impossible - averaging a triple-double. You can't doubt his talent, you can't doubt his hustle. However, there is a key reason why he has only a 50/50 chance at best to win this race - he takes over a bit too much.
It's true that the Thunder are not one of the strongest teams in the West anymore, and Westbrook is certainly the best they have, but he still takes too many shots. The ball still stays in his hands a bit too long. You can plainly see Westbrook trying for the triple-double, he's smart and when he realizes that he only has 1 assist to go, he will typically give up open jump shots to grab that 1 assist. There are many MVP voters who see that, and feel like Westbrook is pandering to the stats sheet. Of course, you can't doubt his commitment to the team and to the city. He knew, entering this season, that his team would struggle in the NBA's brutal Western Conference, but he stuck with it. And guess what? The team outperformed reasonable expectations. In many ways, he proved that he was the star in OKC. However, you just need to wonder, if he trusted his teammates more, would OKC win a few more games? Probably. You see, when Westbrook does not trust his teammates (even though he knows he's the best player on the court), his teammates start to feel like they don't have value to the team. When the Thunder win, it's all Westbrook. When they lose, Westbrook's teammates suck.
Harden and the great evolution
Let's move on to Harden. James Harden crushed it this year statistically as well, and although he himself earned over 20 triple-doubles, he actually trails statistically to Westbrook. However, he trusted his teammates a bit more, and it paid off. The Rockets without Harden are a slightly better team than the Thunder without Westbrook, but not 3 seeds and a potential first-round sweep better. Harden is a little more respected around the league than Westbrook, despite the Bearded One's penchant for drawing excessive fouls. Has he been the league's best player this year? I think you would be hard-pressed to find a truly more improved player (or at least more evolved) though Giannis, the Greek Freak, has made his case. James Harden has been forced to adapt to a new role this year, and he's been surrogate point guard in the same manner that Lebron James played the role for the Heat. Harden has done fantastically well, and is the favorite odds-wise to win.
Kawhi and Isaiah
There is a clear break between the above two selections and the rest of the pack. If I had it my way, Kawhi Leonard would be the MVP. If you want to talk about team players, there's Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard, and then everyone else. Fundamentally, Kawhi's the man. He plays incredible, suffocating defense. He is a role model for your kids and for sportsmanship in general (Kawhi, please don't prove me wrong in the near future on that point). However, he lacks the pizazz of Westbrook or Harden, and with the stats the other two have thrown up, Kawhi will have to wait for another season. Isaiah has done incredibly well this year, he did the impossible with his Celtics and dethroned the Cavaliers as leaders of the East. The Celtics did all this with a team of underrated and mostly forgotten-about players, and fought off the surging Wizards in the process. Isaiah has been awesome, and again, he is poised to win a future MVP race, just not this one.
LeBron's Still Here Guys
Which brings us to King James. In terms of the NBA's version of Wins Above Replacement, LeBron is #1 in the league again - a whopping 18+ wins over a league-average replacement player. His impact cannot be understated. However, he has lost fans through his various media comments this year, from downing Charles Barkley to complaining about Cavs' franchise leadership. He is not particularly wrong about any of it, but it's easy to disagree with him and point to him as spoiled and disrespectful. LeBron, although he still enjoys a ton of fame, and respect from experts, has severely damaged his chances of nabbing one more MVP award. It could still happen, but it won't happen this year. Isaiah and Russell best him in the intensity department, Kawhi in the role model department, and Harden in the leadership department. Still, respect the king.
...And the Winner Is:
James Harden will win the MVP Award. He has the greatest blend of the other stars' attributes. He is a leader, able to accept an evolving and sometimes confusing role. He is a statistical powerhouse, and has the right mixture of selfishness and unselfishness to make him the star pupil of this class. He can't play defense? Well, he's working on it. He's improved somewhat and although there's much to be desired, the NBA MVP race rarely hinges on defensive prowess - although coaches would have you believe otherwise. Congrats Big Game James - you will be the second Thunder man to win an MVP Award.