2017 NBA Awards, part 2: Who's the MVP?

Up for consideration: Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James

This was tough. I went back and forth. Each candidate received my full attention. I’ll present some points for and against each candidate, which I hope will be effective in 1) showing how I came to my decision and 2) paving a reasonable path that could lead somebody else to making the same decision.

For LeBron

The dude is their best everything. He’s their best playmaker, their best scorer, their best perimeter defender, their best post scorer, their best interior defender. We talk sometimes about defining value. In that context, James’ value rings clear above anybody else. LeBron has put together another masterful regular season as he carries the burden of appearing in six straight Finals, aiming for a seventh and another rematch with the Warriors. Kyrie Irving still isn’t at a point where he can just carry the team to wins for a short stretch. Love missed a decent chunk of the year. Cleveland’s big three is supremely talented, but only one of those guys is a prime time defender.

For Westbrook

He had to be their engine. The team defense helped, as did the midseason trade. People not voting for Westbrook seem to often discount him for his historic usage rate. I don’t see it that way. I believe Westbrook’s season got this OKC roster to its regular season ceiling. From a pure entertainment standpoint, nobody did more for the league this season. So many moments from one triple double after another kept fans coming back for more. He was the perfect face for the team to move on from Kevin Durant’s devastating decision to move on. He answered his critics and then some, proving he belongs as one of the five best players in the league as the lead guy.

For Kawhi

Spurs gonna Spur. People are going to say it. Replace Kawhi Leonard with an average starting wing. Where do they top out? 44-47 wins? I think so. Sadly, I have no idea whether this helps or hurts his case. I know this much: 61 wins cannot just be brushed off with a shrugging of the shoulders.

After looking at all the on/off defensive numbers people have been chirping about all season and sitting with it all for a while, I’m writing it off. It’s nothing more than a combination of bad noise, a reminder that the ways in which we measure defense are far from perfect and a hint of common sense.

To that last point: LaMarcus Aldridge cannot carry them with Kawhi off the floor (99.7 ORtg in ~400 minutes). Also, Kawhi played almost half his minutes without Danny Green - a worthy candidate to make an All-Defense team. And aside from Dewayne Dedmon, the Spurs bigs are all pretty limited defensively. The defense has been a tick better. People smarter than me have already pointed out the holes in those numbers. With Kawhi on the floor, their offense truly sings. There’s also got to be a small sentiment within that team to really hone in on getting stops with Kawhi resting, too.

For Harden

Harden still gets beat up for things that all star players do. On top of that, Westbrook rarely gets flak for any of it anymore because he has the benefit of being mischaracterized by the media. We sympathize with Westbrook as a victim because Durant ‘stabbed him in the back’. Yes, James Harden panders to the referees for brutal foul calls. All stars do it. A few mixtapes of his inattentiveness on defense a little while back went viral. LeBron and Westbrook don’t exactly compete on that end in full playoff mode for all 82.

And this one’s the worst of all: James Harden is a ball hog? I’ll be sure he goes out of his way to apologize to you for his style of play. His GM only went out and signed several guys that are above average in exactly on area: canning open threes. Somebody’s got to create those looks for them. Harden and Westbrook both have full control of their respective offense. Leonard and James and several other players not in the MVP discussion are just as crucial to their own team’s success on that end.

I’m realizing that my ‘for’ section for Harden is more of an ‘against’ section for all the other candidates. This shouldn’t reflect poorly on Harden. He has had some bad stretches; his leadership has been rightfully been under the microscope already during his stint in Houston. But the lens of the bad narrative against him in this race is still too wide and most of the points made against him just aren’t true. All that cumulative noise pumping up Westbrook had lots of people leaning his way months ago. Trey Kerby pointed out wisely on a near weekly basis that that it all eventually drowned out the Harden noise. Oh, Beard went for 43/6/12? Well, Russ had ANOTHER TRIPLE DOUBLE.

Now this is where people get upset. Time for the cases against. Let’s go snake style to shake things up.

Against Harden

This coverage is general has been to sensationalized. That’s colored by my personal preference and views of how the media should serve fans, but I’ll try to get more specific. Basketball fans knew Harden could serve as this master conductor. In a way, more of the praise aimed directly at Harden needs to be redirected to Daryl Morey. They nailed it in bringing in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Trevor Ariza is still underappreciated. And you couldn’t name five guys that would be better as the team’s nominal point guard than Patrick Beverley. There are the little things on the fringes, too. We’ve seen that Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker can be helpful role players. Drafting Clint Capela was an excellent decision and Nene has been quite the steal.

Houston’s biggest MVP has been health. They really drew a good hand this year from Gordon, Anderson and Nene in particular. Even so, Harden should be expected to do this if the Rockets are going to take this direction with personnel and hire Mike D’Antoni.

Against Kawhi

Would he even be more of a shock to the system than LeBron, were he to win it? The respect for the Spurs seems to be more universal, or at least the individual hatred just isn’t there for Kawhi. Narrative has already shaped this race a great deal. We were hit over the head on a daily basis with Westbrook stats and highlights and postgame quotes.

Sadly, I don’t think the storyline is there for Kawhi to be at the front of enough people’s minds with the way the league is covered now. The Spurs don’t gas their own guys up. They just chug along. For most people, this season is so much about numbers. Kawhi’s are fantastic, but some of the counting stats just don’t quite stack up to Westbrook or Harden.

Against Westbrook

This dude’s candidacy was already being trumpeted before the season began. Where LeBron is expected to win a title every year, Harden is seated in basketball purgatory for some lazy defense and fairly typical star behavior, Kawhi is politely appreciated yet largely ignored, and Russ, is… well… what, exactly? What standard are fans holding him to? This season was a perfect wave. It was about him being mad, being the victim, being mad some more, and going on this reckless quest for the MVP to prove everybody wrong because he’s mad.

We’re back to the media narrative, the mischaracterization of his on court persona, the season of sympathy, the choice to chastise other stars for star behavior while issuing him a hall pass. People have been posing this question quite a bit in some form: “Are we really going to look back one day and realize that we didn’t give Westbrook the MVP after he AVERAGED A TRIPLE DOUBLE?”

My response (sometime between 2019 and 2023) is this: “Hey, remember when we lost our minds in 2017 and gave Westbrook the MVP for getting the Thunder the 6 seed? Elfrid Payton is averaging a triple double now! What were we thinking?”

Honestly, I understand that people are sick of the old notion that the MVP must go to one of the top seeds. We couldn’t prepare for this situation. Steph Curry would probably be a shoe-in for a three-peat had a future Hall of Famer not signed on in July. But I just don’t see it. The Westbrook moments have been abundant and memorable. But this is a 47 win team. Paul George dragged a completely lethargic Indiana team to 42 wins. Jimmy Butler dragged the Bulls to 41. I bet those guys would beg to differ with the people downplaying Westbrook’s supporting cast.

Downplaying the value of Westbrook’s teammates has really irked me. It’s as if people have forgotten that Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo will be making a combined $61 million next season. 60% of the projected cap is going to those guys, and all three can’t even be on the floor together in a playoff game for more than 6-8 minutes!

All the way back in December, Westbrook said to the media that he doesn’t care about the attention for the triple doubles: “I don’t care, honestly. A championship is always the most important thing to me.” I get that I’m the corny one here. I take the man at his word on things he says over and over in a public setting. While we’re on this, remember what he said to GQ before the season?

But what does it feel like to know that's how people perceive him, even if he doesn't perceive himself that way? “I just don't care. A lot of people don't really know me. All they know is what they see on TV. So I don't mind it. Because I play basketball different than how I am off the court. When I'm on the court, everybody thinks I'm angry and I'm mad. I'm fine with that. But that's why I think some people are confused until they see me off the court. They'll run into me and be like: ‘Oh, I thought you were gonna be mad.’ But why would I be mad?” Does the characterization wear on him? “For me, I feel like, if they're talking about you, then you're doing something right. When they stop talking about you, that's when you should worry.” - Russell Westbrook to GQ's Daniel Riley

Yeah. I don’t think very many people read that full interview. But Westbrook has said similar things in the past. But 10 years from now, I won’t feel bad for not thinking he was the MVP because of the triple double and the furious late game comebacks. I also won’t care about all the hurt feelings of fans over Kevin Durant choosing to sign with the Warriors.

People really wrestle with the title of this award. It’s tough. I’ve spent hours writing this piece and my vote doesn’t even matter. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be an actual voter. The definition, though, is pretty clear and easy to comprehend to me. MVP voting isn’t about chasing a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s what a majority of people are doing with Westbrook. Those people made their minds up before the season had even begun.

No, I’m not claiming to have predicted the triple double. I know that I downplayed Harden’s monster numbers a tad earlier on. But some of the top guys in the league today dominate the ball. They are going to get numbers. Elfrid Payton has as many triple doubles this year as Draymond Green! Julius Randle has as many as Giannis Antetokounmpo! Some of these historical seasons are worthy of praise, but they aren’t the main criteria to look at in choosing an MVP.

Against LeBron

People are disappointed in Cleveland. I’ve heard the exact words from the mouths of people paid to talk about the NBA. Cleveland’s aim isn’t to please us. Their aim wasn’t even ever wholly fixed on getting the one seed. They’re looking to repeat. What’s the main goal for a team hoping to repeat? Be healthy going into the playoffs.

JR Smith has missed half the season. Kevin Love missed a quarter of it. There’s a lot we don’t seem to know about why LeBron is playing so many minutes. And then there is Ty Lue’s mysterious alluding to the uptick we can expect in their team defense, which has cost them games this season.

I mentioned my main criteria in choosing an MVP. It really comes down to one thing for me. The award usually goes to a top seed because this league is about winning championships, plural. If you don’t ever get one, you’ll be scorned. Marked with an asterisk. Heck, I’ve always been low on Carmelo Anthony, but we really need to give it a rest already in beating that guy down! Sorry, that’s a whole separate column.

When I size up the MVP candidates, I think about what those guys have done with the current body of work to show fans, media, opponents and voters that they are ready to lead their team to the Finals.

No, LeBron James has not been a perfect candidate. There never is one. To this day, people look back on the 90s and laugh at voter fatigue’s effect on Michael Jordan. I don’t want to go back and dispute those MVP awards. But I don’t think enough people are recognizing their own fatigue clouding their perception of LeBron.

The man logged more minutes per game than any of his opponents in this race. His state line is equally absurd at 26.4/8.6/8.7. He shot 54.8% from the floor on an amount of attempts pretty stinking close to Harden and Kawhi. He bounced back after last season’s long range struggles to finish at 36.3% on 4.6 attempts per game. His assist percentage (41.3) ain’t over 50 like Russ or Harden, but his team is better on offense than either of theirs with him on the floor.

Even those that truly view this Cavs regular season as a disappointment are asking the same question as the rest of us: “Can LeBron flip the switch again to really run this thing back?” With these other candidates, we’re asking if they have the capacity to do this on the biggest stage to possibly compete with the Warriors.

We’ve already seen LeBron do it. And with his own conference, we aren’t sizing up their demise. Rather, the most common question seems to be, “If ONE of these teams can even challenge Cleveland, who will it be?”

Doesn’t all of that stuff matter? I may not have cited a ton of them here, but I’ve seen the numbers. The stuff I’ve hit on matters more to me anyways. Heck, Westbrook seems to be the front-runner at this point and his angriest supporters don’t seem to care much even for his numbers. So I won’t go too deep with stats on the other three guys.

LeBron James is still the king on the chess board. That has not changed. Worst of all, this whole thing feels so flawed because of Durant’s injury. There’s a gigantic title favorite, but the MVP conversation is centered on four guys some people think don’t even have enough juice to give them a good run.

My 2017 NBA MVP is LeBron James.

There are other stars in the league worth of our attention. We all know who we’re really waiting on. We know who has the most to say with his play. We invent more and more titles by the day to anoint somebody as the best at something. ‘Best Player in the World’ still hasn’t changed hands. We have a few months to see if it will.

Final aside: We do not need more awards. There does not need to be an Offensive POY paired with the MVP or, even worse, a Most Outstanding Player award. It’s just as vague and subjective. And I’m 100% with Kevin Durant that tradition needs to still count for something. He said that to Bill Simmons on 82 games, but I’m applying that same sentiment here to bolster my point. The heated debate wouldn't ever stop. Why do some people feel such guilt? Only one person can be MVP! Only 12 guys make a conference’s All Star team! PS: Please don’t change the logo, either.

I have nothing but love and appreciation for whoever wins this thing. Now that I’ve stated my case, I’ll kick back, enjoy the playoffs, and dream of Woj submarining this silly postseason awards show with one tweet, spilling the beans early on the MVP.