One of the many fascinating aspects of the 2014-15 NBA season has been the ascension of a number of stars to the league’s true upper echelons.
Cornering a market
LeBron James has cast quite a shadow over the NBA MVP race in recent years, winning four of the last six awards. The only other players to win the award since 2008 are Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, who have both struggled to make an impact this year through multiple injuries.
Far from allowing LeBron a clear run at his fifth Maurice Podoloff Trophy, Durant’s absence from this year’s race has given a current teammate and a former teammate the opportunity to shine brighter.
And LeBron’s own moves have weakened his candidacy. He left a strong Miami team to start a new project in Cleveland, and the first year of such projects rarely goes smoothly.
His team has improved as the season has gone on, and the Cavaliers are starting to look imperious as LeBron chases a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. But there were struggles at the start of the season, and the upswing has only come since LeBron took two weeks off in January.
Whatever your opinion is James, there’s certainly been a lot of noise regarding his mid-season absence, with plenty of voters within the media saying that what amounts to a “player of the season” award can’t be given to a guy who gives himself a two-week vacation during the season, even if he has once again looked like the world’s best player since his return.
Who else is in the running? The easy answers are often to be found by a quick look through the league’s statistical leaders, as well as a browse of the standings, identifying the integral players on the league’s strongest squads.
James Harden currently sits second in the scoring ranks, averaging a full point per game more than third-placed LeBron. He has been an absolute machine on a Houston squad that has won two-thirds of its games so far, and his lack of support (Dwight Howard’s injury woes in particular) adds weight to his case.
Harden has spent most of the season atop the scoring rankings, but he has recently been usurped by a rampaging Russell Westbrook. At the start of the season, with Durant expected to be out for a few weeks, there were some giddy expectations for a surge from Westbrook, freed from the supposed shackles of sometimes having to defer to his incredibly talented teammate.
Unfortunately, Westbrook suffered a fracture to his hand in the second game of the season, missing a month of action. But in recent weeks, we have really started to see the Westbrook that pundits were anticipating at the start of the year as he has reeled off a string of mesmerizing box-scores, including a run of consecutive triple-doubles.
Three of the league’s current top five scorers can be found in the middle of the Western Conference. DeMarcus Cousins’ nightly averages of 24 and 12 might force him into the conversation if his team was able to contend for a playoff berth, but the race for eighth is wild in the West, and Sacramento is too far back.
Instead it is left for rising superstar Anthony Davis to go toe-to-toe with Westbrook. Whichever teams loses out in the playoff race, it will likely damage the relevant star’s case too much for him to be a viable MVP winner.
Davis has had his fair share of injury issues during the season too, but he has displayed his incredible talents when he has been on the court. As well as nearly 25 points per game, he adds almost three blocks every night, leading the league in that category.
Westbrook adds nearly nine assists per game to his league-high scoring average, ranking fourth in a category which LA Clippers point guard Chris Paul leads. Paul is the only player averaging more than 10 dishes per game, though it is marginal – he has only 15 more assists over 71 games than Washington’s young star John Wall.
Paul has done a masterful job of leading the Clippers while Blake Griffin has been sidelined, but his MVP campaign lacks the eye-catching individual play of Harden, Davis or Westbrook, and his team won’t have a top seed.
On the other hand, Atlanta has stamped their authority all over the Eastern Conference, but it is hard to identify a true MVP candidate within the Hawks squad. Maybe if Atlanta has a strong playoffs and repeats its showing next year, Al Horford or Jeff Teague will be in the running.
But by this point, fans across Warrior Nation must be shouting at their screens – where’s Stephen Curry in this discussion? Golden State has had the league’s best record throughout the season, and although Klay Thompson has risen to an elite level, there’s no doubting that Curry is the heartbeat of the team. He is one of the league’s elite shooters and ball-handlers, and he will provide Golden State with a deadly weapon in the postseason.
A strong final month could sway the final vote. If Curry’s squad cruises dominantly to the top overall seed, it may be enough, but Houston is making a run at finishing third, which would be a very impressive result and may tip the balance Harden’s way. Westbrook and Davis have the potential to put together a run of outstanding performances and lift their squads into the postseason. A grandstand finish awaits as we enter the home straight of the MVP race.