By Jacob Murphy, Corey Tatel and Caden Kinard
It’s that time of year in the NBA. Playoffs are starting. As exciting as that is, the basketball world is still waiting to see who will be this year's MVP. See who ORANGE Sports staffers think deserve the coveted trophy.
Jacob: I can't remember the last time the race was this close. You could easily justify a number of guys, but for me, there is one that has stood out. Considering one key factor — who has done the most with less? — I have determined that James Harden of the Houston Rockets should be the MVP. There is not a player in the NBA this season that has epitomized what it means to carry a team.
Harden’s season has been a near-perfect reflection of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant’s season last year. For almost half of their respective seasons, each player had to pick up the workload because of injuries that derailed both team’s second best player. Last year, Russell Westbrook, one of this season’s MVP candidates, missed 36 games. However, in Westbrook’s absence, Durant arguably had the best season of his career. Almost by himself, he willed his team to the second seed in the Western Conference. He more than deserved the MVP Award.
Does this sound familiar? Harden has gone through virtually the exact same situation this season. Like the Thunder last year, the Rockets earned the second seed this year. His team’s second best player, Dwight Howard, missed 41 games. The Beard has had to pick up a majority of the slack at times, but in doing so, he has truly morphed into one of the league’s perennial stars.
The numbers speak for themselves. Few know it, but James Harden finished the 2014-2015 NBA season with over 2200 points, 550 assists 450 rebounds, 150 steals and 60 blocks, according to basketball-reference.com. This kind of production has not been accomplished since Michael Jordan did it way back in the 1988-1989 season.
Some of the lineups that Harden has had to play with, on paper, have been appalling. How many times did the likes of Joey Dorsey and Tarik Black start at center for the Rockets this season? Black was an undrafted rookie, and Dorsey should have never left Barcelona, his former European team. Those two started a whopping 29 games for the Rockets, and neither should even be considered a legitimate backup center in the NBA.
The only two players that have been healthy all season for Houston are Trevor Ariza, who played all 82 games, and Harden, who missed just one game for kicking LeBron James below the belt. Everyone else on the roster, besides 37-year-old Jason Terry, who will be the starting point guard for Houston throughout the playoffs, has missed at least 11 games. Most players far-exceeded that figure. This is not counting midseason acquisitions.
There is no one else in the NBA who played on a team with as many injury setbacks yet still had the success that Harden’s had. For the Rockets to hold the third-best record in the NBA, after the season they’ve had, is an amazing feat. And it can be attributed, in large part, to Harden.
Corey: Let me start this argument by clarifying one thing: This should be a two-man race between Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors and James Harden. Russell Westbrook doesn’t really belong in the conversation. Although he did carry a heavier offensive load than any player in the league and had more triple-doubles than anyone, he was not efficient, his defense disappeared at times, his turnovers increased and he missed the playoffs. In most years, I would agree that Westbrook should be a candidate for the award. In some, I’d even endorse him. But the historic seasons that Curry and Harden recorded put them head and shoulders above Westbrook.
Both Curry and Harden have had MVP-caliber seasons. This may be one of the closest races I’ve seen in my short lifetime. On one hand, Harden carried the load for his team while Dwight Howard was injured. On the other, Curry captivated the nation with his flashy style and might be the most feared player in the NBA today. I wouldn’t have an issue with either of them being named MVP, but given a vote, I’d vote for Curry.
Curry is the best player on the best team in the NBA. Anyone who knows the NBA knows there is no refuting that argument. Curry who helped the Golden State Warriors win an astounding 67 this season.
Curry also deserves MVP due to his improvement on the defensive side of the basketball. When Mark Jackson was the head coach in the Bay Area, he liked to have Klay Thompson guard the other top point guards in the NBA instead of Curry. However, when Steve Kerr was hired, he sat down with Curry and challenged him to guard the Western Conference’s top point guards because that’s what championship-caliber guards do. Curry responded to that challenge in dramatic fashion, and I believe he might be the most improved defensive player in the league. He’s no longer an offensive weapon that needs to be hidden on defense, but a two-way player who has developed into a strong on-ball defender.
Finally, as shallow as this may seem, Curry has more wow-factor than Harden. That has mattered in previous MVP races. In close races, the player with more highlight-reel plays has typically prevailed. Whether you agree with the logic or not, it’s been a trend throughout the history of the NBA MVP Award. Curry wins this category outright. When Curry is going off, he captivates the Twitter world. He’s the player that people text their friends about saying, “Did you see that?!” In a race this close, that may just be the difference.
Caden: With all due respect to Chef Curry and Chef Harden, what the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook served us this past season was extraordinary. The man went herculean the moment he realized most of his healthy teammates were outcasts from their previous teams. The MVP narrative has become being the best player on one of the best teams. But they didn’t nearly defy the limits of how much one player can possibly accomplish during a game, like Westbrook did.
His team didn’t make the playoffs — so what? He took the eighth-most shots in a game ever — so what? He tried to do everything on his own — so what?
All-time greats Larry Bird, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant were quoted talking about the ridiculousness of Westbrook’s season. Westbrook broke his face, put on a mask and people thought he was a superhero. Curry and Harden haven’t had a personal tweet about them by Kobe.
Fans weren’t checking box scores for Curry and Harden’s stats each night, but they did for Westbrook.
Westbrook had 11 triple-doubles this year. Only Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Fat Lever, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Michael Jordan have ever accomplished the statistical feat that Westbrook did. That’s five hall-of-famers and Fat Lever, who had such a terrible name he had to excel at sports to survive high school. Nobody else in the league had more than three.
Westbrook’s player efficiency rating for the season trailed only Anthony Davis. He was the NBA’s leading scorer and was also ranked fourth in assists. He averaged over seven rebounds a game, putting him as the best-rebounding guard in the league by far. For a couple months, his numbers were nearly 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per game.
I want to say he’s the NBA’s Swiss army knife since he can do it all, but that’s disrespectful to Westbrook. The gadget is too tiny and doesn’t make a statement. He’s more of an aircraft carrier loaded with fighter jets, Blackhawk helicopters and Victoria Secret models.
Nobody was more valuable to their team than Westbrook. Nobody can match his numbers. Nobody had more Vine-able plays. Nobody looked so pissed off at making $19.2 million while excelling at his job. This man deserves more than an award for turning into a nuclear weapon on the basketball court, but let’s just settle for giving him the NBA MVP.