James Harden deserves the MVP award over Russell Westbrook and LeBron James right now

Houston Rockets v Miami Heat

In many previous seasons, the NBA MVP award has been somewhat controversial.

While LeBron James is widely recognized as the best overall basketball player in the world, the success of the Golden State Warriors and the personal numbers of Steph Curry made it somewhat obvious that he would be crowned the MVP during each of the past two seasons.

However, few thought of Curry as the best player in the NBA. Some didn’t even view him as the best player on his own team.

Before that, Kevin Durant (2013-2014) and Derrick Rose (2010-2011) were rewarded for their outstanding individual seasons by winning the prestigious award and LeBron (2008-2009, 2009-2010, 2011-2012, 2012-2013) won four of his own.

But, over the past decade, so many outstanding players have come to the forefront of NBA discussions and debates, that there has very rarely been a clear-cut decision for the honor.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets

In 2012-2013, LeBron received 120 of 121 first-place votes.

In 2015-2016, Curry got all 131 first-place votes to become the NBA’s first unanimous MVP.

Other than those two examples, voters had differing opinions.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors

This season, that will likely be the case once again, as Russell Westbrook, LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah Thomas and James Harden are all serious candidates for the award.

Some have even mentioned Durant and Curry as potential candidates as well, despite their star-studded roster.

Westbrook is looking to average a triple-double for the entire season, which would be the first time that’s happened since Oscar Robertson accomplished the feat in 1961-1962. So far, he’s on pace, putting up 31.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.2 assists per game while leading the Thunder to a 31-24 record.

Golden State Warriors v Oklahoma City Thunder

James is performing at his usual model of consistency, averaging 25.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists per contest while leading the Cavaliers to a 37-16 record atop the Eastern Conference standings.

Leonard, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has taken his offensive game to the next level and is averaging a career-high 25.8 points with 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.8 steals per contest while assuming the leadership of the 41-13 San Antonio Spurs.

The 5’9” Thomas has been incredible for the 35-19 Celtics this year as he ranks second in the NBA in scoring with 29.8 points to go along with 6.3 assists per game on a roster that has been depleted with many injuries to start the season.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics

Durant (25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists) and Curry (25.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists) have both been stellar for the Warriors, who have the NBA’s best record at 46-8.

As you can see, these players are in the conversation.

But, what James Harden has done for the Houston Rockets this season is above and beyond what each of the superstars above have been able to accomplish.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets

If you remember back a few seasons, the general perception was that Harden was a one-dimensional player.

Not only did he seemingly not care about the defensive side of the ball, but on offense, he was regarded as selfish and as a bit of a ball hog at times.

Fast forward to now, and Harden has not only transformed his game, but he’s transformed that false perception.

Under the tutelage and guidance of first-year Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden is putting up 29.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and an NBA-leading 11.3 assists per game. Defensively, he’s averaging 1.5 steals per game as well, which is the same exact number as LeBron and just 0.3 below Leonard, who is regarded as the best defender in the NBA.

Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets

Not only has Harden led the 40-17 Rockets to one of the best records in the West, but he’s also done so incredibly efficiently.

For example, his 29.1 points per game are slightly below Westbrook’s 31.2, but Harden takes 18.9 field goal attempts per game compared to Westbrook’s 24.0.

During his first season in Houston during the 2012-2013 season, Harden averaged just 5.8 assists per game. Last year, he managed 7.5. Therefore, the jump has been incredible to where he’s currently viewed as the best distributor in the league while also being a viable 40 or 50 point scorer on any given night.

Houston Rockets v Dallas Mavericks

Due to his personal success, leadership ability and his team’s place in the standings, it seems as though Harden should be the one at the top of the MVP race.

Basketball-Reference.com’s NBA MVP Award Tracker is based on a model built using previous voting results. As of right now, the tracker’s projections align with this thinking.

Harden is given a 38.9 percent probability to win the award, followed by Durant (26.2 percent). There is a large drop-off next, with LeBron (8.9 percent), Curry (7.7 percent) ,Westbrook (6.0 percent), Leonard (5.6 percent) and Thomas (3.0 percent) following them.

Houston Rockets v Washington Wizards

While Westbrook would likely finish well above Durant in the MVP race if voting took place right now, it’s interesting to see what the model shows, given that it takes in purely historical data.

As of now, the race is likely between Harden and Westbrook. The 82-game regular season is a long, tough road, and the second half of the season will likely be as exciting as the first half.

NBA All-Star Game 2016

Not only will we be treated with epic plays, individual performances and clutch wins as we move towards the playoffs, but the MVP race will take shape.

As we have seen so far this year, that race might reach epic heights.

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