Race to the MVP: In this chase, storylines may be as important as stats
Houston Rockets' James Harden reacts after being fouled during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Wicked numbers and jaw-dropping performances alone won’t do it.
Unrelenting consistency and undeniable impact bolster the case, but they don’t necessarily seal the deal.
The chase for the Kia MVP is always a complex matrix of components, but perhaps none is more important than the narrative surrounding a player’s campaign.
James Harden knows this well, having put together a worthy effort two seasons ago when he led the Houston Rockets to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference only to lose out to Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors in the first of his back-to-back MVP seasons.
Harden had the the requisite statistical ammunition working for him. But Curry had the stats and the better narrative (the didn’t-see-him-coming factor was strong). Harden won the peer vote later that summer when he was the inaugural National Basketball Players Association’s MVP pick for the 2014-15 season, after Curry bagged the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Harden believes he has a stronger case this time around, even if his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook has a more intriguing narrative with the load he’s shouldering after Kevin Durant’s departure via free agency for Golden State.
“I do, 100 percent,” he said after collecting his 17th triple-double of the season in a rout of the Los Angeles Lakers. “Two years ago the Warriors were in first place and Steph had sat out the fourth quarters of some games and what not. This year it’s almost the same way. My numbers are comparable to almost anybody in this league and then we’re third in the West when basically everybody basically counted us out. And we’re just winning. We’re having fun and no other All-Stars on my team or guys that have ever been All-Stars on my team. I don’t want to get all in depth with that. But we’re having fun and we’re winning and that’s all that matters.”
The underlying story for both Harden and Westbrook will no doubt play a role in who ultimately walks away with the hardware this season.
They’ve both put together stunning seasons, surprising even, in this year of the triple-double. Harden has reinvented himself as a point guard in his first year in coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and leads the league in assists (11.3 per game) and also being among the top three scorers in the league.
Westbrook’s putting together a season for the ages, leading the league in scoring (31.7) and ranking third in assists (10.4), while having already surpassed Wilt Chamberlain for the second-most triple-doubles in a season and chasing Oscar Robertson’s record of 41 in a season.
He picked up his fourth straight triple-double and 34th of the season Thursday night in Toronto (24 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds) in a win over the Raptors.
It’ll be difficult for the voters to overlook what Westbrook’s doing, even with the monster season Harden has produced for a Rockets team that is a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.
For what it’s worth, Curry has already endorsed Harden.
“You kind of have to reward the better team, I would think, record wise,” Curry told Dan Patrick earlier this week. “That’s just kind of going in the history of the award. So I think James will edge him out just off that.”
Westbrook, of course, could care less about the opinion of the two-time MVP or anyone else.
“I don’t care; don’t matter what he say,” Westbrook told reporters of Curry’s comments. “Who’s he?”
Again, it’s all about the narrative.
Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
T-1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder 
Westbrook is on a roll (four straight triple-doubles and four straight wins) at the perfect time for a Thunder team that needed the boost for their playoff push. They’re not only firmly entrenched, they’re sitting in the sixth spot with a chance to catch and potentially surpass the LA Clippers for No. 5 before the weekend is over, thanks in large part to the work of Mr. Triple-Double (32.6 points, 14.2 assists, 9.8 rebounds in his last five games).
T-1. James Harden, Houston Rockets 
Harden has posted back-to-back triple-doubles during the Rockets’ current three-game win streak and could pick up his third straight tonight in New Orleans against the Pelicans. The Rockets have been at their best this season when Harden is in maestro mode, creating for others as much as he creates for himself (29.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.0 assists in his last five games).
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers 
In the year of the triple-doubles around the league, LeBron has quietly racked up a career-best 10 of his own for the top team in the Eastern Conference. And now that Kevin Love and J.R. Smith are finally back from injury, LeBron has his full ensemble to work with on a nightly basis as the postseason nears (26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 9.2 assists in his last five games).
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs 
Leonard and the Spurs are locked into a late-game battle with the Golden State Warriors for the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference playoff chase, though it’s not clear how much coach Gregg Popovich will allow that to factor into his deployment of his best player as the regular season closes out (26.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists in his last five games).
5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics 
The injury bug has hit Thomas and the Celtics as well. He’ll miss Boston’s next two games (vs Brooklyn and Philadelphia) with a bone bruise in his knee. But he’s expected back for Monday’s (Tuesday, PHL time) home showdown against a Washington Wizards still bent on challenging the Celtics for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference standings. Thomas should be well rested and eager for his final crack at a Wizards team that he’s riddled for 28.7 points and 9.3 assists this season (25.4 points, 3.8 assists, 2.2 steals in his last five games).
6. John Wall, Washington Wizards 
Wall was initially questionable for tonight’s game against the Chicago Bulls, but is playing, despite still nursing that sprained left foot he suffered in Wednesday’s (Thursday, PHL time) loss to Dallas. He could probably use the rest, given the way he’s been grinding his team lately. But the Wizards have defensive slippage they need to clean up, work best handled with Wall guiding them along the way (29.4 points, 9.4 assists, 2.4 rebounds in his last five games).
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors 
The hand-wringing over Curry’s shooting struggles this season are legitimate, he’s shooting a career-low 39.2 percent from deep. Curry is going through an unusual stretch for a man considered by many the “best shooter” in league history. But he has the rest of the regular season and the playoffs to turn things around (25.8 points, 6.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds in his last five games).
8. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz 
Hayward and the Jazz battled LeBron James and the Cavaliers down to the wire in Thursday night’s (Friday, PHL time) loss at Quicken Loans Arena, the latest stop on his team’s season-long give-us-our-respect tour. Most important, though, is the continued pursuit of that top four playoff spot in the Western Conference that is well within Utah's grasp (19.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists in his last five games).
9. Paul George, Indiana Pacers 
George managed just one 30-point game in February but has already surpassed that mark three times this month, a good sign that the Pacers’ catalyst is cranking it up at just the right time. The solution to the Pacers’ maddeningly inconsistent ways could be a scoring surge down the stretch of the season from George (25.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists in his last five games).
10. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies 
The Grizzlies leaned, once again, on the two-man attack of Conley and All-Star center Marc Gasol to win their third straight game Thursday night (Friday, PHL time) in Atlanta. It’s clearly a winning formula for the Grizzlies and Conley, who has piled up 69 points and 29 assists during this three-game run (19.6 points, 7.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies, Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
An inside look from a Western Conference scout on Jusuf Nurkic:
“I know the Boogie Cousins trade was heralded as the biggest deal at and around the trade deadline this season, but the most underrated move so far, at least in my eyes, has been the Trail Blazers getting their hands on Nurkic. He’s been great for them. It goes beyond his raw numbers, even though he’s been solid all around. It’s his physical impact on that team that gives them an edge they just didn't have with Plumlee and that’s no disrespect to Plumlee, he’s a solid player. But he couldn’t lean on guys the way Nurkic can. We’re talking about a 7-footer that’s 280 pounds or more with really good ball skills. He’s a really good passer, a solid shooter and finishes around the rim with either hand. He also plays with some really nice energy for a man that size. He pushes himself to the limit. Part of that, I think, is him wanting to make the most of his opportunity with the Blazers and part of it is just who he is, how he learned to play the game. If Portland makes the playoffs, if they are able to get over that hump and get it, they’ll have done so with a huge boost from Nurkic. Ask Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum how much different life is, on both ends, with a banger like Nurkic on their side.”
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