Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: Fantastic, frantic chase for trophy ends with photo finish

Russell Westbrook gets our nod over James Harden in a race that came down to final minutes

It wasn’t just the finish that swayed me. But it didn’t hurt.

Make no mistake, the triple-double flurry at the end of this season certainly helped Russell Westbrook’s MVP cause with plenty of voters, but he’d already built a compelling case regardless.

Nit-picking the statistical specifics of his season compared to that of the Houston Rockets’ James Harden is an exercise I suspect will last for months and perhaps years (and certainly over the course of the next four to potentially seven games in the first-round playoff series between the Rockets and Thunder).

In the end, though, Westbrook won me over with a relentlessness that saw him break Oscar Robertson’s record for triple-doubles in a season. That feat allowed him to join “The Big O” as the only players in league history to finish a season with a triple-double average. He did all of that while also lifting the Thunder into the playoffs (when it was clear that they’d have fallen woefully short of that status without him doing what he did).

Westbrook earned my vote with his play from start to finish, edging Harden, who had an equally outstanding season filled with jaw-dropping milestones and achievements we hadn’t seen since the days of “The Big O”.

It came down to the wire and the final margin was razor thin. Any first-place vote cast for Harden isn’t a rebuke of Westbrook, but a celebration of another spectacular season. And that’s the same way I feel about my vote for Russ.

We could go back and forth with the numbers forever. We’ve been doing it here on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder all season, with these two passing the top spot back and forth basically all season.

As good as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have been, as strong as their respective cases are for that first spot on a ballot might be, Westbrook and Harden have been on a different level this season.

We had a similar race at the conclusion of the 1961-62 season, when Bill Russell beat out Wilt Chamberlain and his 50-point scoring average, Robertson and his triple-double season, Elgin Baylor’s 38-point scoring average and Jerry West’s 30-point scoring average.

Fifty-five seasons later, Westbrook put together a campaign for the ages of his own.

And he punctuated his run with his 50-point triple-double in a win over Denver on Sunday. That game saw him: pass Robertson for the single-season triple-double mark, pass Chamberlain on the career triple-doubles mark (78) and set the record for career 50-point triple-doubles. He did all of that, but also drained his second game-winner of the season in the last five seconds of a game, eliminating the Nuggets from the playoffs in the process with a 3-pointer.

In a race that was otherwise too close to call, Westbrook’s finish sealed the deal.

And now, our final Kia Race to the MVP Ladder for the 2016-17 season:

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1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Last week: No. 1

The Thunder’s record when Westbrook recorded one of his NBA-record 42 triple-doubles was a sterling 33-9, so anyone complaining about him number-chasing to achieve his milestone can relax that argument. Stat-chasing happens all the time. Westbrook’s chase was genuine and helped propel a team that wouldn’t have sniffed the 6th, 7th or 8th seed in the Western Conference playoff chase without him (Season averages: 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists).

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 2

Harden’s remarkable season would MVP-worthy in any and every NBA season, past and future. Guiding the Rockets to the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference when no one saw it coming and his own impressive string of triple-doubles could push him over the top when all of the votes are tallied (Season averages: 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, 8.1 rebounds).

3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 4

LeBron says he feels confident heading into the playoffs. And we have no reason to doubt him given his recent track record (six straight seasons finishing in The Finals). But make no mistake, the Cavaliers’ spotty10-14 finish to the season cost him some ground in the MVP chase (Season averages: 26.4 points, 8.7 assists, 8.6 rebounds).

4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Last week: No. 3

Leonard’s spectacular (breakout?) season came in the wake of Tim Duncan’s retirement, meaning the passing of the baton in San Antonio was handled with a deft touch once again (like it was when David Robinson once handed the keys to the palace to Duncan). Leonard is arguably the best two-way player in the game right now, and that’s MVP-level status in itself (Season averages: 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists).

5. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Last week: No. 6

For all the wicked surprises stories around the league this season, the rise of Thomas and the Celtics should rank right up there at the top. Thomas morphed into the league’s best fourth quarter scorer and also led the Celtics to the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference. The “rebuilding” plan in Boston is way ahead of schedule (Season averages: 28.9 points, 5.9 assists, 2.7 rebounds).

6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 5

Curry’s string of Kia MVPs came to an end the moment Kevin Durant decided to join the Warriors in free agency. But that didn’t stop him from performing at a high level. It took an injury to Durant 59 games into this season for the real Steph to stand up, but the Warriors will be better in the long run after having dealt with the adversity (Season averages: 25.3 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds).

7. John Wall, Washington Wizards

Last week: No. 7

Wall helped the Wizards erase that nasty 6-12 start to this season by putting together one of his finest campaigns, statistically and otherwise, to lead his team to the Southwest Division title. He’s shown himself to be an elite, two-way player capable of not only lifting a team with his play but also with his leadership and relentless approach (Season averages: 23.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds).

8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Last week: 9

DeRozan’s ascent the past few seasons has been nothing short of spectacular for a Raptors team that has seen its fortunes rise in concert with the games of their two best players (Kyle Lowry). DeRozan’s work down the stretch of this seasons, when Lowry missed 18 games after the All-Star break recovering from wrist surgery, punctuated his performance (Season averages: 27.3 points, 5.2 assists, 3.9 rebounds).

9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Last week: No. 10

Lillard carried a Portland team that many wrote off before the All-Star break. He used the continual personal snubbing (he can’t find his way onto a Western Conference All-Star team) to fuel his and the Trail Blazers’ fire down the stretch. And his prize is a first-round series against the mighty Warriors … which is exactly what the league’s most overlooked superstar was hoping for (Season averages: 27.0 points, 5.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds).

10. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

Last week: No. 8

The timing couldn’t have been better for Hayward, who broke through as a Western Conference All-Star and led the Jazz to a playoff spot the same season he becomes a free agent. He played at another level this season on both ends of the floor, cementing his status as one of the league’s more dynamic perimeter stars (Season averages: 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists).

Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors; Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Paul George, Indiana Pacers

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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