James Harden enters the final month of the NBA regular season as the clear frontrunner for Kia MVP honors. Any rational observer of the league has paid attention to what he’s done for the Houston Rockets this season has already concluded as much.
Harden has created enough separation during the Rockets’ magical run to distance himself from perhaps the deepest group of legitimate candidates in recent years. It’s a group that includes four-time MVP winner LeBron James, two-time winner Stephen Curry, 2014 winner Kevin Durant and, perhaps most notably, reigning Kia MVP Russell Westbrook.
The Oklahoma City Thunder superstar stormed to the MVP in 2016-17 on the strength of his historic season, becoming the first player since Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double.
Westbrook’s position on the edge of the debate this season, however, serves as the most compelling argument for this MVP race being one of the deepest in years.
That’s not a knock on Russ, it’s a testament to the health of the league right now. You can make rock-solid arguments for seven or eight guys right now … and the body of work would back it up.”
Eastern Conference executive, on this season’s Kia MVP contenders
He collected his 100th career triple-double Tuesday in a win against the Atlanta Hawks and is is averaging a near triple-double (25.3 points, 10.2 assists and 9.6 rebounds) for the second straight season. Yet Westbrook probably won’t finish in the top five of the MVP race this season.
“That’s not a knock on Russ, it’s a testament to the health of the league right now,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “It’s a nod to all of these guys who are having unbelievable seasons. You can make rock-solid arguments for seven or eight guys right now, legitimate arguments, and the body of work would back it up. Usually there are three or four guys who separate from the pack. But this season the group is certainly twice as large.”
The Thunder, who host the LA Clippers tonight (8 ET, NBA TV), are battling for a top-four spot in the Western Conference playoff chase and could finish with as good or better a record than their 47-35 finish last season.
And Westbrook will likely still have trouble catching the crowd at the top of the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, not that anyone who has to deal with Westbrook cares. He is every bit as difficult to deal with this season as a one-man storm, only now he has fellow All-Star Paul George and veteran Carmelo Anthony rocking with him.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer admitted as much after Westbrook worked his team over for the 32 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists that produced his 100th triple-double.
“We really wanted to show him a crowd, show him a lot of bodies,” Budenholzer said. “At times I thought we did a good job of it, I thought we were in the right spots and the right places. When Carmelo started hitting those three’s, that hurts a lot, when he starts teeing them up. Then you feel a little less hesitant to show a crowd, and Westbrook’s starting to get a little more penetration, getting more on the rim, getting to the free throw line more. That’s why they’re a good team. They start putting some shooting around him and he’s such a force. A lot of the game, I thought we did a good job, as good as you can do on Westbrook.”
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The top five in the Week 22 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
Season stats: 30.9 points, 8.7 assists, 5.2 rebounds
How did Harden and the Rockets respond to having their 17-game win streak snapped in Toronto last week? They started another one, which is up to three games after Thursday night’s win against the LA Clippers. Harden put the game away with a late jumper, finishing with 24 points, seven assists and five rebounds as the Rockets tightened their grip on the top spot in the Western Conference standings. As impressive as the Rockets’ current 20-1 run is, the 36-2 mark they have with Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela in the lineup is one of the more remarkable figures compiled in recent memory. Any concerns about the Rockets going hard now (instead of saving some of their juice for the playoffs) should be tempered by the fact their improved depth gives coach Mike D’Antoni some flexability as the season wanes. That said, Houston won’t be easing off the gas in the season’s final month.
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 2
Season stats: 27.0 points, 9.0 assists, 8.6 rebounds
If these are the final days of LeBron’s second stint with the Cavaliers, as some believe, he’s going out with a bang. Or did you miss his turn-back-the-clock, Dunk-of-the-Year posterization of Jusuf Nurkic? The Cavaliers finally knocked off a team that is .500 or better by topping Denver last Wednesday. Thursday night in Portland, however, will definitely be featured prominently on his highlight reel. Lost in all of the (deserved) hype from that moment is the Cavaliers once again came up short despite LeBron’s best efforts (35 points, 14 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and two steals). Granted, they were facing the NBA’s hottest team (the Trail Blazers own the league’s longest active win streak at 11) on their home court. Whatever the Cavaliers’ fate is this season, you can rest assured it will include some of LeBron’s finest work. And he hasn’t been shy about acknowledging as much recently, since he’s “aging like fine wine.” The Cavaliers, however, are just 7-7 since last month’s trade deadline and just 1-6 against .500 or better teams since All-Star weekend. They are struggling to the finish line of the regular season.
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 3
Season stats: 26.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists
You can add Durant’s name to the long list of walking wounded the Warriors are marching with as the regular season winds down. All-Stars Stephen Curry (ankle) and Klay Thompson (thumb) are out of the lineup and Durant is dealing with rib soreness that could sideline him tonight against the Sacramento Kings (10:30 ET, NBA League Pass). The Warriors, of course, are playing the long game. They need their stars as healthy as possible for the playoffs. This current spate of injuries is adversity they’ve dealt with before, albeit in smaller doses. But the Warriors, as coach Steve Kerr indicated after his patched-together bunch practiced Thursday, are dealing with the adversity that comes with trying to conquer the Western Conference for a fourth straight season. Having Durant available while Curry was out was a saving grace, though. And how many teams can lose a two-time Kia MVP to injury and still lean on another former MVP and Finals MVP? But things will get a bit choppy for the champs if Durant (32.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.2 blocks in his last five games), Curry and Thompson are all sitting for an extended stretch.
4. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Last week: No. 5
Season stats: 23.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.0 rebounds
DeRozan and the Raptors continue to create space between themselves and the rest of the pack in the Eastern Conference. DeRozan iced the Raptors’ conference-best 10th straight win over Indiana Thursday night with a late-game steal and dunk. He finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists, matching his combined scoring and assist output from the previous two games. The Raptors have a five-game lead over Boston for the No. 1 spot in the final month of the regular season. Their improved depth, and coach Dwane Casey’s penchant for exploiting it on a nightly basis, explains how a team can win back-to-back games with its best player suffering through subpar performances. But as much as we celebrate the Raptors’ share-the-wealth approach, those late-game situations where DeRozan or All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry have the ball in their hands serve as the perfect reminder of what awaits this team in the playoffs. The Raptors, like every other contender, will only go as far as their stars can take them.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Last week: No. 6
Season stats: 26.8 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds
Not that he needed the validation, but what LeBron James said about Lillard before the Trail Blazers whipped the Cavaliers was spot on. Lillard’s work since the All-Star break (30.5 points, 6.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds) — and Portland’s rise to the third spot in the Western Conference — should be all the confirmation anyone needs. Lillard has been brilliant and even on a night when he can’t find his shooting stroke (he was 7-for-20 overall Thursday night), he makes an impact. He dished out nine assists (against two turnovers) on a night when the Trail Blazers had a season-low seven turnovers. Portland is the real deal and the Moda Center, where the Trail Blazers are 17-1 since Dec. 28, should be a torture chamber for any playoff foe.
The next five:
6. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
7. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
8. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
9. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
10. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
And five more …: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
An inside look at Ben Simmons from an Eastern Conference advance scout:
“He’s the runaway Rookie of the Year in my book. Runaway. And I say that with a healthy appreciation for what the [Donovan] Mitchell kid is doing for Utah. He’s special, too. Simmons is just on another level. Athletically, he’s as big and physical as you could ask for from a rookie. His ball skills are outstanding and he’s clearly taken to the coaching in Philadelphia. Brett Brown has done a nice job grooming him last year when he didn’t play but traveled with the team and learned by observing how things go down in our league. Did that give him an edge over the rest of these true rookie? Absolutely. But that’s not his fault. You can’t help it if you’re injured and unable to play. What you can’t do is waste that time or squander those learning opportunities that come from studying the game, in the flesh and on film, without the normal pressures that come with that transition from college ball or international ball to the NBA.
“Simmons used his time well, because he looked like a seasoned veteran early on this season. He didn’t have that rookie deer-in-headlights look. He’s looked really comfortable running that team from the start. And he’s just scratching the surface of what he can become. I think he has chance to be one of the best in the game in the future, I really do. At his size with the ability to put up triple-doubles and overpower opponents at his position … his potential is just crazy to think about. When he gets a chance to spend an entire offseason refining his game, working on his shot and then banking all of the things he’s learned competing against the best this season, there’s no telling where his game goes from here. I’m really interested to see how he responds in the playoffs. Can he take his game up another level then? That will really be telling, because with he and the big fella [Joel Embiid] as the cornerstones of the future, we’re potentially talking about guys who could be the best at their positions one day growing together at the same time. That doesn’t happen very often in our league.”
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