Who will win the race for NBA MVP?
By PAT RALPH
College Contributor Network
With just a few days remaining in the NBA regular season, a lot still has to be decided before the playoffs kick off this weekend: playoff seeding, odds at getting the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's draft, and of course, the league's most valuable player award.
This has been probably one of the most loaded groups of MVP candidates in recent league history. Depending on who you speak to, some people have already thrown their support behind one player. Others think it is still a wide open race. And some people, like myself, believe it to be down to two guys fighting it out for the award.
The first MVP candidate who comes to my mind is Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. The 2014-15 season for Curry and the Warriors has been magical, as Golden State holds both the best record in the entire NBA and home court advantage throughout the postseason. The Warriors are having one of the best regular seasons in the history of the NBA, especially in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. As a result, the Warriors are considered the favorites by many to win the NBA title. And a big part of that is due to Mr. Curry, who hasn't even played in 17 fourth quarters because of just how dominant the Warriors have been this season.
When Curry first entered the league, he was criticized for being smaller than other guards at his position and for being just a shoot-first player. Since his arrival in 2009, Curry has become more than just an undersized point guard who shoots the leather off the basketball from downtown. Curry's ball-handling, passing, and overall offensive game have blossomed into one of the best to watch in the NBA. Rather than just settling for threes, Curry can just about hit a shot anywhere on the floor and it has made him into one of the most lethal offensive threats in the league. Not to mention, Curry's defense has drastically improved too.
This season, Curry ranks in the top 10 in scoring (24.0 PPG) and field goals made per game (8.2 FGM) while also ranking in the top five in three-point percentage (44 percent) and total field goals made (643 FGM). Curry has been arguably the best three-point shooter in the league this season, leading the NBA in three-pointers made per game (3.6) and total three-pointers made this season (281).
As it has been duly noted already, Curry's offensive repertoire is second to none in the league. But what has made Curry maybe the best point guard in the league now is his ability to get his teammates involved in the action. Much of that also has to do with new head coach Steve Kerr who will all but likely win NBA Coach of the Year honors.
The Warriors' biggest problem under former head coach Mark Jackson was the lack of offensive flow in a close game late. Rather than actually running an offense, the Warriors often times depended way too much on Curry to make big plays down the stretch. Now with Kerr, Curry and the Warriors run a more efficient, multifaceted offensive system that gets everyone involved rather than just put the onus on Curry to make shots.
Curry's assists per game (7.7) rank in the top 10 and total assists this season (604) rank in the top five of the NBA. The only three point guards who have been better than Curry at getting the ball to their teammates have been Chris Paul, John Wall, and Ty Lawson. But Curry has the best team, supporting cast, and in some ways coaching than those other three playmakers. Sorry head coach/general manager Doc Rivers.
Along with his ball-handling and passing skills, Curry's biggest improvement might be on the defensive end. By becoming one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, Curry ranks fourth in the league in steals per game (2.01 STPG) and first in total steals this season (157).
Since the title of the award is "most valuable player", it is necessary to look at the guy who is truly most valuable to his team. It's hard to argue that claim against James Harden of the Houston Rockets, who has also elevated his game to a whole new level this season. If the MVP was based on facial hair, Harden would take the title with no competition.
What has made James Harden's candidacy so strong has been his ability to keep Houston in contention for home court in the West despite center Dwight Howard missing a good portion of the season due to injury. With no Howard on the floor for much of the year, the load has fallen on Harden's shoulders and he has responded terrifically to the call. Not to mention, I'm not sure of any player that does a better job at drawing fouls in the league than James Harden.
Harden was a member of what might be one of the most significant trades and "What-If's?" in NBA history when he was dealt by Oklahoma City to Houston for financial reasons back in 2012. As a result, the Rockets reemerged as a playoff team, Harden's game took off as a full-time starter in Houston, and has become one of the best scorers and most explosive shooting guards in the NBA. Along with his ability to score the basketball effectively, Harden's passing and ball-handling skills have greatly improved this season. And of course, Harden's infamous defensive lapses have occurred much less frequently this season.
Like Curry, Harden's offensive game is elite. To truly understand how valuable he is to the Rockets, Harden has the highest wins above replacement (WAR) of any player in the NBA (19.86). He leads the league in scoring (27.5 PPG) and ranks third in total field goals made (627). He also ranks fourth in total three-pointers made this season (204) and fifth in three-pointers made per game (2.6). General manager Daryl Morey would be so proud of his star.
Because he has had to carry most of the load, Harden has done a fine job at spreading the responsibility of making plays to his teammates so that Houston's offense is not completely dependent upon him to succeed. Harden ranks in the top 10 of the league in assists per game (6.9) and total assists this season (542). Harden's passing skills have always been strong and are only getting better.
If you go on YouTube, anyone can watch some of Harden's most embarrassing defensive meltdowns. Now well-aware of his internet-famous weakness, the guard has done a great job at improving on the defensive end this season. Harden ranks fifth in the league for most steals per game (1.94) and third for total steals this season (151). Slowly but surely, Harden is hopefully becoming a dependable defensive player for Houston.
Without Harden playing in a league of his own this season while Howard has been fighting off the injury bug all year, Houston has no chance at gaining a top-four seed for the playoffs and maybe even making the playoffs. It also goes to show how much better Harden has gotten since his days in Oklahoma City playing alongside Durant and Westbrook.
While Curry and Harden are at this point the clear-cut favorites, there are many other players who have made legitimate cases this season for why they should be the MVP. The first that comes to mind is player/head coach/general manager/team owner LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sorry, I just had to do it because we all know who's really calling the shots in Northeast Ohio. Therein lies LeBron James' immense value to the franchise.
Like the other two, James is by far the most valuable player to both his team and the NBA. Take LeBron off the Cavaliers and Cleveland maybe squeaks into the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. No wait actually nevermind; the Cavaliers don't even come close to the playoffs. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers are considered favorites by many to make the NBA Finals after a magnificent performance during the second half of the season. The first half of the season in Cleveland was so much of a disaster that it ultimately pushed LeBron to take two weeks off and go to Miami. After his return from vacation and the extensive roster changes made before the trade deadline, Cleveland all of a sudden was playing like the team we all expected them to be.
The reason for Cleveland's turnaround has been because of no one else but James. While for both Curry and Harden it has been career-breakthrough seasons, LeBron is just quietly putting in another fine season at the office for the Cavaliers. Unlike the previous four seasons he has won the MVP, a fifth MVP award for James would come during a season LeBron has faced more growing pains as a veteran leader than ever before. LeBron may not be doing anything dramatically different like the other two players have this season, but the numbers that LeBron is putting up are MVP-caliber stats.
James ranks third in the NBA in scoring (25.3 PPG) and field goals made per game (9.1 FGM), as well as fifth in total field goals made this season (617). Despite mentioning how long building trust with his new teammates would take, LeBron ranks ninth in both assists per game (7.4 APG) and total assists this season (500). Finally, LeBron ranks fourth in wins above replacement (WAR) with 14.77 on the season.
Again, these numbers get you the MVP trophy just about any other year in the NBA especially when it's dealing with a team that has gone from lottery-bound to Finals favorite. But when players like Curry and Harden are having the amazing seasons they are having, per-usual stats from LeBron will get brushed under the rug.
Guys like Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans have also made legitimate cases for the MVP award by willing their teams into playoff contention despite injuries, poor coaching, and/or lack of talent surrounding them. For Davis, this is sure to be just the very first of many MVP discussions surrounding him during his promising career. If Davis had better coaching and a half-decent supporting cast, the Pelicans are easily a playoff team. And if New Orleans makes the playoffs, Anthony Davis should be given the keys to the city.
Personally, I would love to see Westbrook win it because of his "me against the world" attitude that never takes a day off. His triple-double barrage this season has been absolutely outstanding to watch while last year's MVP Kevin Durant has been beleaguered by injuries all season. With forward Serge Ibaka also being injured to, Westbrook's competitive juices have been at an all-time high and has been a one-man show this entire season. However, whether it's Westbrook's Thunder or Davis' Pelicans that claim the No. 8 seed in the West, the odd team out's best player will lose any shot at the MVP award.
In addition, point guard Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers has made a strong case by both keeping the Clippers afloat while forward Blake Griffin was injured and leading the Clippers' late charge at getting home court in the West. But at the end of the day, Curry and Harden have distinguished themselves as the cream of the crop for the award.
While both are deserving in some way or another, I'm going with Curry for MVP. Without question, Curry has been THE most exciting player to watch in the NBA this season. Would Golden State be as good had Curry been out this season due to injury? Of course not! Yes, Harden is exciting too, but the magic that Curry plays with every night for Golden State just has you sitting on the very edge of your seat. Also, Curry ranks second in WAR just behind Harden even with a fully healthy team. And with the incredibly-dominant season the Warriors are having, it is just meant to be that Curry wins MVP.
Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He covers Villanova Athletics for his school newspaper The Villanovan and school TV station VillanovaTV. He also has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles, as well as the New York Knicks. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph