While the rest of us continue to debate the merits of each candidate until the final night of this NBA regular season, folks in Houston have already made up their minds.
James Harden’s teammates are united in their support for their guy. And they don’t think it’s worth much of a debate. And they also don’t care how many triple-doubles Russell Westbrook racks up or how many times someone reminds us all that LeBron James is universally recognized as the best player on the planet.
As far as this season is concerned, they insist no great debate is needed. It should be Harden in a close race.
“The numbers are very close,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon told ESPN.com. “Westbrook might average two points more or two rebounds more. That’s not really much. Both having fantastic years. No way, I don’t believe, there’s no way [Harden] would straight up lose it.”
Gordon’s first season with the Rockets is one of the stronger components in the argument for Harden, who has elevated his game and those of his teammates, during this surprising campaign for a team many thought to be an afterthought in the Western Conference coming into the year.
When a player generates the sort of collective improvement the Rockets have experienced this season, it’s hard for those involved to see anyone else topping that in a contest that rewards the player having the best season in the league.
“There’s no way he can’t get it,” Gordon told ESPN.com of Harden. “It’s just absolutely no way. You look at history, when you have a guy almost averaging a triple-double and winning games, you can’t take that away from him. Yeah, Westbrook is averaging a triple-double — that is a crazy stat. [But] there is definitely no way [Harden] won’t be on that MVP.”
With just days left in this NBA season, Harden will have his chance to cement his status. And if the playoff standings hold, he and Westbrook might get a chance to litigate the matter again in a first-round playoff matchup that will only add fuel to the fire of this debate, in one way or another.
But in the minds of those closest to Harden, guys like Gordon, the debate is already over.
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IMPORTANT NOTE: Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry are not on this list due to long-term injury issues that kept them out of their teams’ lineups for several weeks.
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Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 1
Forget the triple-double chase, if you can, and focus for a minute on the fact that Westbrook’s last two games he led the Thunder to wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Memphis Grizzlies. Quality wins that included triple-doubles (and near triple-doubles) down the stretch of this season have solidified his hold on the top spot (37.2 points, 12.6 rebounds, 11.2 assists in his last five games).
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 2
That wrist injury seems to be a thing of the past for Harden, who needed every second of the four day rest he enjoyed earlier this week. Might it have cost him precious ground in this MVP race? Perhaps. But a healthy Harden is much more important to the Rockets right now than anything else (20.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists in his last five games).
3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Last week: No. 3
We know who doesn’t care about pushing his guy to the limit in the name of the MVP race. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is sitting Leonard for tonight’s game against the Dallas Mavericks to make sure his two-ways star gets the rest needed for the upcoming playoff grind (23.0 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists in his last five games).
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 4
Concerns about Cleveland’s chances of rolling through the Eastern Conference playoff field seemed to have evaporated with four straight wins and LeBron shifting into playoff mode. The closer he gets to mid-April, the more focused he always seems to be on the immediate matters at hand (31.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.4 assists in his last five games).
5. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 6
It’s been fun watching the two-time Kia MVP Steph rear his competitive head while Kevin Durant was out with injury. And now that Durant is on his way back to the lineup Saturday, you have to wonder if Steph will stay on his current grind. The Warriors need him to keep his foot on the gas with or without Durant in the lineup (31.2 points, 8.8 assists, 4.0 rebounds in his last five games).
6. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Last week: No. 5
Thomas is still looking for someone on the roster to match his competitive fire and superstar-level production. That was evident this week in losses to Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks, when the Celtics were exposed a bit in defeat. Thomas is riled up and ready for a fight in the playoffs. But who’s riding with him? (29.4 points, 5.4 assists, 3.8 rebounds in his last five games).
7. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Last week: No. 7
Wall needs to save some of his recent hot-shooting from deep (7-of-9 from beyond the 3-point line in his past two games) for the playoffs. The Wizards will need him to be at his all-around best next weekend, so Wizards coach Scott Brooks would be wise to be mindful of Wall’s workload between now and then (23.8 points, 9.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds in his last five games).
8. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Last week: No. 8
Hayward reminded everyone just how dangerous he can be as a scorer with a 30-point effort in a win over Portland this week. But the Jazz will need more than just scoring from him in the playoffs. Hayward’s ability to make an impact across the board is critical to Utah’s hope of making a deep playoff run (21.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists in his last five games).
9. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
Last week: 9
As well as he played while he was out, no one is happier than DeRozan to see Kyle Lowry back in the flow and making an impact. With the playoffs around the corner, the Raptors need to know if they have what it takes to make another run at the conference finals. Their two All-Stars certainly seem to be up for the challenge (24.8 points, 6.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds in his last five games).
10. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Last week: No. 10
Despite a brutal shooting night (including a 1-of-9 showing from deep), Lillard chased a triple-double of his own in a must-win over the Minnesota Timberwolves Thursday night. The Trail Blazers are in win-by-any-means-necessary mode right now, which brings out the best in Lillard (25.0 points, 7.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
An inside look from an Eastern Conference advance scout at Aaron Gordon:
“I don’t know what took them so long to realize that they [had] him playing totally out of his element at small forward, but it’s a good thing they did. He’s really found his game since the All-Star break. And I still believe, no matter how many hiccups and restarts there have been, Aaron Gordon has a chance to be special player in this league. There are just too many of the physical tools needed already there. He just needs some consistency in terms of what’s being asked of him, and he needs coaches and really an organization that believes in him.
“People forget he’s just 21 and he’s got all of tools you want to work with in a young power forward. The most crucial element for him now is the right player-development program. I don’t know if the Magic have it in place, because they haven’t exactly been churning them out in the past few years. The big concern right now is his shooting, his inability to space or stretch the floor with his shot. And that’s a legitimate concern … but that goes for any player who didn’t enter the league as a knockdown shooter. A more important thing to me is his ability to work off the dribble and create scoring opportunities for himself on the move. I think he takes a ton of pressure off of his shooting touch if he’s able to control the ball underneath him and maneuver in that space. It’s a process for Gordon. You don’t need to or expect to figure it all out overnight. But he appears to finally be on the right path.”
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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