Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Russell Westbrook stands out most as new MVP chase begins

In a league filled with talented guards, Oklahoma City's superstar has made the biggest early impression

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Houston Rockets point guard (yes, point guard) James Harden says he’s the best player in the game.

Portland Trail Blazers’ star (and fellow point guard) Damian Lillard has already spoken candidly about his desire to claim that No. 1 spot as the NBA’s Kia MVP.

Kawhi Leonard is letting his play do the talking for the San Antonio Spurs, much like Russell Westbrook is doing for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

There are past winners in Oakland (Kevin Durant and reigning two-time KIA MVP Stephen Curry) and Cleveland (four-time winner LeBron James) who can make compelling cases for the crown.

We are toe-deep into the 2016-17 NBA season and the MVP chatter is already at a fever pitch. And you thought campaign season was over. It’s just getting started around here, with one of the deepest and most talented fields of legitimate candidates we’ve seen in years.

Where else could impact players as talented and Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George be on the outside looking in at the top 10 players?

“This is the first year I can remember being comfortable saying that it’s literally a wide-open race,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “With the way guys have moved around the past few years and with guys on the same teams having to suppress certain parts of their games for the greater good, maybe this is the season when someone comes out of nowhere, relatively speaking, and knocks off one of the favorites.”

Westbrook, a one-man wrecking crew for the Thunder this season with Durant gone to Golden State, starts the season atop the first KIA Race to the MVP Ladder.

He doesn’t need, and probably would not allow any coordinated effort, to campaign openly for an award that has to be earned as much as it is won.

And with the load he’ll have to carry for the Thunder this season, Westbrook’s production will do all the talking for him anyway.

Where things will get really interesting is for Curry and Durant, winners of the past three KIA MVP awards. They’re going to produce MVP-caliber numbers in their own right, but will do so as teammates (much like Durant and Westbrook did for many seasons).

Curry and Durant might split votes, allowing someone else — someone like Harden — to slide into the pole position of a race that could drag on into the final weeks of this season.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni knows a little something about guiding a point guard to the next level, having coached two-time KIA MVP Steve Nash in Phoenix.

When asked earlier this week by Michael Lee of The Vertical who was the league’s best player at his new position, Harden didn’t hold back.

“Best point guard or best player?” Harden responded when asked.

Either one.

“I am,” Harden told The Vertical.

Harden’s best case, however, will be made with his play.

He’s averaging 30.6 points, 13 assists and 7.6 rebounds per game — the last time a player averaged 30 and 10 for an entire season was Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1972-73 — and could chase numbers we haven’t seen since Oscar Robertson.

“I just want to win. I don’t really think about doing all that other stuff,” Harden told The Vertical. “Being runner-up for MVP [in 2014-15] and having just a not-so-good last year, it was good for me. It was a growth year for me. I learned a lot of things and got better and just have a different mentality coming into this year.”

Let the campaign rage on.

Now, to this week’s rankings …

1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Westbrook knew he’d have to do it all for the Thunder (31.1 points, 9.5 assists, 8.3 rebounds) and has done exactly that in his first season without Kevin Durant. The question is: can he keep up this wicked pace all season?

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

So far, Mike D’Antoni’s point guard experiment has been a smashing success. Harden is averaging 30.6 points, 13 assists and 7.6 rebounds and collected his 10th career triple-double (24 points, 15 assists, 12 rebounds) in Wednesday’s win over the Spurs.

3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

All this talk of someone averaging a triple-double for the entire season and no one is talking about LeBron (22.9 points, 9.9 assists and 8.9 rebounds) doing it? He’s on a career-high pace in rebounds and assists.

4. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

Griffin has bounced back brilliantly from a disastrous and injury-plagued 2015-16 season to help fuel the best team in the Western Conference. He’s doing it all for the Clippers (19.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists) in just 30 minutes a night.

5. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Durant in an ensemble cast looks a lot like the Durant we saw as part of a dynamic duo with Westbrook: unstoppable. He’s shooting a far and away career-best 57.3 percent and 40.5 percent from deep.

6. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

He’s always been a problem on defense, but his growth and development on the offensive end is startling. He’s averaging a career-best 27.4 points per game and remains the league’s best defender.

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

That ankle scare Wednesday didn’t bother Curry one bit as he bounced back with another monster effort (33 points, seven assists, five rebounds) in a win over Denver. He’s shooting a blistering 63 percent on 3-pointers over his last three games.

8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

DeRozan is riding the wave of that Olympic year bounce to the top of the scoring chart (34.1 ppg on 53.3 percent shooting). The fact that he’s doing it without significant production from beyond the 3-point line (1.7 attempts) is what’s truly remarkable.

9. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

Walker is the best player on perhaps the most surprising team in the league in the early going (check the standings). Walker is averaging career-highs in points (23.9), field goal percentage (46.6) and 3-point shooting (43.3).

10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Lillard’s MVP ambitions are well documented. And he’s backing it up on the floor this season (30.0 points on 48 percent shooting and 36.5 from distance, 5.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists).

Next five (listed alphabetically): DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets; Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

Next up?

An inside look from a Western Conference scout at … Karl Anthony Towns:

“As talented as he is — and I think he, and not Anthony Davis, is the most talented young big man in the league — he’s not ready for that MVP conversation. Not yet. I have no doubt he will play his way into that conversation in the coming years. But he is just now getting dipped into the fire with Thibs (Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau). Once he learns the nuances of defending at an elite level, you combine that with the full arsenal of what he can do offensively, and then we’re talking about a guy who belongs in that conversation. He’ll have the supporting cast, the structure from Thibs and the framework to become a legitimate MVP candidate. And I’m talking as early as next season.”

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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