“Most valuable” is an interesting term to define.
Does it really mean “most outstanding?” Or “most entertaining?” Or “best player on the best team?”
The NBA’s race for Most Valuable Player is fascinating this season, in that so many players have the goods. Under the NBA voting system, you rank the five most deserving candidates. You don’t just pick one player, and that’s a good way to do this, so that each voter provides a complete picture of his preferences.
When it’s close – and that certainly will be the case this spring – I break ties this way: Which player would be hardest to replace? If, say, Houston Rockets guard James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James all dropped off the face of the earth, which team would be most hurting?
If I had to make a call today on the NBA’s MVP, I’d pick Harden, who makes his one Charlotte appearance this season against the Hornets Thursday night.
I’d pick Harden narrowly over Westbrook. That could easily change between now and April. There is no one right answer to this question. The options are so attractive, you could justify plenty of different responses.
Making the case on six worthy MVP candidates:
The numbers: 28.9 ppg., 8.2 rpg., 11.4 apg. 44 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range.
Analysis: The Rockets have the third-best record in the Western Conference at 38-17. The other parts are pretty good: Eric Gordon deserves consideration for the Sixth Man award, but I think Harden is as irreplaceable this season as any player.
Coach Mike D’Antoni told Harden to play point guard and he’s taken to it based on the assist numbers. The Rockets are thriving in the post-Dwight Howard era, and Harden is the overwhelming reason why.
The numbers: 30.9 ppg., 10.5 rpg., 10.2 apg., 42 percent from the field, 36 percent from 3-point range.
Analysis: If Westbrook finishes the regular season averaging a triple-double, it’s a feat that likely won’t be repeated anytime soon. I’d have no problem with him winning the MVP vote.
But Oklahoma City being just seventh in the Western Conference standings doesn’t help his case for impact. The Thunder losing Kevin Durant in free agency was a huge blow, but OKC still has talent in big men Steven Adams and currently-injured Enes Kanter.
The numbers: 25.9 ppg., 7.9 rpg., 8.8 apg. 53 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range.
Analysis: Is there ever a season when James isn’t MVP-worthy? I’ve often said when a player is simultaneously his team’s best playmaker offensively and power forward defensively, that is a unique combination of size, strength and skill.
If the Cavaliers finish the regular season with the East’s best record, that should work in James’ favor. But perhaps voters take that for granted in the weaker of the two conferences. And James has plenty of help in All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
The numbers: 25.8 ppg., 8.4 rpg., 4.8 apg. 54 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point range.
Analysis: The Warriors are having the best regular season in the NBA, but that was also true last season before Durant changed teams. Durant has done a good job of fitting in to a new environment and Stephen Curry and other teammates have worked hard to make him comfortable and impactful.
My question: It’s hard to distinguish whether Durant or Curry is the most important Warriors player this season. Will these teammates chip away from each other’s MVP candidacy?
The numbers: 25.6 ppg., 6.3 apg., 4.3 rpg. 48 percent from the field, and 42 percent from 3-point range.
Analysis: To his credit, Curry worked hard early this season to integrate Durant’s game into the Warriors’ mix. As his coach, Steve Kerr, said recently, that was Curry’s job as the point guard - to figure out how to get his numbers, but also to make the best of others’ skills.
Curry has thrived the past couple of weeks, playing as well as he did in previous MVP seasons. But the bar has been raised this season on picking the NBA’s best individual season.
The numbers: 29.9 ppg., 6.4 apg., 2.7 rpg. 48 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point range.
Analysis: Thomas is just about unguardable as a pick-and-roll scorer, particularly in the fourth quarter. He’s as good a closer as there is in the NBA this season.
Take him off the Celtics and I could see them dropping from second-best record in the East to perhaps fifth or sixth. That’s how central he is to Boston’s success.