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Oklahoma City Thunder views: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard, MVP finalists defined

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A closer look at the three NBA MVP finalists, and how Westbrook stacks up in the race

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© Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

What makes an NBA MVP most valuable? Briefly ponder this question.

To assist, below is the official meaning of “value” complete with synonyms.




“The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something: "Your support is of great value." synonyms:worth, usefulness, advantage, benefit, gain

The definition simple, yet, this season, divisive in NBA circles for its potential June 26 awards show translation.

While Oklahoma City Thunder triple-double maven Russell Westbrook joins fellow MVP-candidates James Harden and Kawhi Leonard amid splintered debate, this article offers a look at each players’ foremost claim to the annual award.

Kawhi Leonard: Regular-Season wins

Along with elite singular performance, accompanying team success has proven the likeliest route to MVP coronation.

Consider that during the NBA’s modern era (1985-today) the lone Most Valuable Player to compete on a team which failed to win 54 games through an 82-game ledger was Michael Jordan in 1988. Pre-dynasty Chicago made a +10 win improvement that season, but were nonetheless overpowered by road-bump Detroit 1-4 in exacting second-round playoff action.

Had this trend held, perhaps Bill Laimbeer would’ve picked MJ instead.

Now, moving back on topic.

That year, Jordan dominated regular-season play, as he led the league in scoring (35.9) and steals (3.2) while earning his only Defensive Player of the Year award.

These achievements from MJ’s inaugural MVP effort contain elements of each 2017 finalists’ boldest case for predominance: two-way efficiency, team improvement, and superior statistical averages.

And for lightning-rod Russell Westbrook, Jordan’s singular greatness as a #3 seed provides voters with justification to emblazon his historic 17’. Though, too, the outlying nature of Michael’s feat marks Kawhi Leonard as this year’s traditional front-runner.

Case in point: San Antonio’s 61 wins are in unison with the median amount of regular-season victories claimed by previous MVP winners.

NBA MVP winners team records since 1985

Further, Leonard proved himself to be the most effective two-way performer since “His Airness” while averaging 25.5 ppg, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blk, and 48/38/88 shooting as a formidable defensive force.

Though MVP votes are cast before the playoffs begin, for good measure, San Antonio rattled championship-favorite Golden State prior to Leonard’s decisive game-one Conference Finals ending injury.

Still, the pro’s in Leonard’s MVP case include:

  • San Antonio’s 61-21 regular-season record: 2nd best in NBA
  • Outstanding two-way performance
  • Career highs in points, assists, and PER
  • Highest RPM (7.0) among MVP finalists
  • 4th in overall win shares (13.6)

A recent first-team All NBA selection, Leonard enjoyed a career-year, worthy of full MVP consideration. Although, having a supporting cast greater than his fellow finalists, while lacking media magnetism, could sway voters against the stoic Kawhi.

James Harden: “The Steve Nash effect.” (Team improvement)

To other voters, franchise pillars who spearhead dramatic win/loss turnarounds: or the “Steve Nash effect” deserve majority MVP votes.

Reminisce to 2005 when a wispy 6’3 border-line All Star point guard transformed the Phoenix Suns from 29-win doormat to 62-win juggernaut.

By virtue of infusing a revolutionary offense engineered by none other than current Rockets Head Coach Mike D’Antoni, then 30-year-old Steve Nash won the first of his two-consecutive MVP awards, and stamped his Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame pass.

Now, return to 2017. As mentioned, the father of “space-and-pace” D’Antoni has resurfaced, though, this time with former shooting guard, turned transcendent floor-general, James Harden.

Written off by most entering the season, Harden proved an ideal catalyst to run D’Antoni’s prolific offense. And not coincidentally, the Rockets bolted from last year’s mediocrity (41-41) to the NBA’s third-best record (55-27).

As his team shattered previous three-point FGM numbers, Harden led the NBA with 11.2 APG, while offering 29.2 PPG, 8.7 RPG, and 22 triple-doubles.

Further, when All-League teams were announced, “The Beard” was the only player to receive all 100 first-place votes by the very panel which will decide the outcome of this year’s MVP race.

In a stalemate, that one vote could sway Harden’s MVP-bid.

Here are other factors which bolster the 27-year-old’s resume vs. Kawhi and Russell.

  • Harden led the NBA with 15.0 win shares.
  • Houston’s win total improved by +14 this season.
  • Harden was among league leaders in points, rebounds, assists, and three-pointers made.
  • Harden’s combination of overall wins, team improvement, and statistical success is most balanced among the three candidates.

Russell Westbrook: A historic campaign

And now, a new factor not defined by wins or team progression, but rather, historical output, is vying for inclusion among the aforementioned established markers.

Statistics aside, Russell Westbrook’s pursuit and eventual hurdling of Oscar Roberson’s 55-year-old triple-double mark saturated the regular-season headlines.

Also, while reaching unprecedented heights, Westbrook’s ascent produced averages of 31.6 PPG (league-best), 10.7 RPG, and 10.4 APG.

Though, the tipping point in Westbrook’s march toward MVP-finalist status could be his unrivaled usage-rate necessitated by a less-than-stellar supporting cast.

Again, similar to Jordan’s 50-win 87-88 campaign defined by 34.1% USG%, Westbrook, with an even weaker bench (no burgeoning Pippen, Grant, or Paxson) used an astronomical 41.7% of Oklahoma City’s plays to boost his unit to 47 wins.

Simply, neither Harden, Leonard, nor any other player in the league, and perhaps league history, can match Westbrook’s insatiable effort to drive a fledgling group to respectability.

Fifty years from now, when posterity remembers the game’s greats, Westbrook’s likeness will be etched among a Mount Rushmore of achievement.

It is by this virtue that Oklahoma City’s Westbrook supersedes the conventions by which those hallowed names of MVP’s past attained their legacy moment.

Come June 26, amid a heated three-way race, progressive voters may resonantly and justifiably proclaim “Why Not?”