Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook? That’s what the talk has been regarding the MVP race in the NBA this season. Both of those guys are having huge seasons, with Curry being the best player on the best team and Westbrook single-handedly carrying the Thunder at times this season. But if you were asking me, and no one really has, I’d say that neither would get my MVP vote.
That’s because it would go to LeBron James. My apologies to all the LeBron haters out there; believe me, you truly have my sympathy. I’ve never been the biggest fan of James, and I could go on and on about my reasons for that. But I won’t lie to you. He’s the best player in the game. He’s an athletic freak. He seems to never have a serious injury. He never looks worn down in the playoffs, despite having averaged over 39 minutes per game in his 12 NBA seasons.
But none of that is to make my case for LeBron winning the MVP. Before I tackle James’ candidacy, let’s look at Curry and Westbrook.
Curry, as mentioned, is the best player on the best team in the league this season. As of this moment the Warriors are 56-13. Compare that to their 51-31 record last season, with much of the same players on the roster. Curry certainly is a transcendent player, and he’s quite possibly the best pure shooter in the league. But has he raised his game in any measurable way to make the difference between the 2014 Warriors and the 2015 Warriors?
The answer, in my opinion, is not as much as some may think. Offensively, he’s pretty much the same player. As I mentioned, he’s a fantastic shooter and scorer. His assists are down a bit this season, but he’s also only playing 32.9 minutes per game. His points per game is down from 24.0 to 23.3. His defense has improved overall, and he’s averaging a career high in 2.1 steals per game.
My opinion is that the difference falls on the positive strides that have been made by guys like Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, and Harrison Barnes. Steve Kerr has done a fantastic job in his first year as a coach, and he deserves the Coach of the Year award that he’s going to collect at the end of the season. Is Steph Curry deserving of first-team, All-NBA? Definitely. MVP? He’s definitely top three, but not number one.
Westbrook has had a sensational season, especially in the second half. Unlike Curry, Westbrook actually is putting up career numbers in just about every category. He’s leading the league in scoring average, at 27.5 per game. He’s put up a career best 7.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists, too. With Kevin Durant missing a massive portion of the season, the Thunder have relied on Westbrook to keep them alive.
But I wouldn’t vote for him for the MVP either. The Thunder are 5-10 in games that Westbrook hasn’t played, but it’s important to remember that Durant missed most of those games as well. Hypothetically, if Durant were the healthy one and Westbrook were sitting, this would still be a borderline playoff team in the West. Which, to make another point against Westbrook, is pretty much what they are right now. At 40-30, the Thunder are eighth in the West and only 2.5 games ahead of the Phoenix Suns for ninth place.
LeBron James hasn’t had his best season, by just about any measurement. It was a struggle at the start, because he essentially came to a bad, young team and tried to show them how to win and play defense. It was ugly at the start. There’s been some bickering among their players, most prominently regarding Kevin Love being pretty clearly unhappy with his role on the team. James is averaging the fewest minutes of his career, and his shooting percentages are the lowest he’s put up in six years.
But do you remember what the Cavs were before James came back home? A lottery team. Not only that, but a team that’s been bad enough to land the first pick in the draft three of the last four years. The 2015 Cavs are 2-9 when James sits out and 44-17 when he plays. By simply adding James to a bad team with a rookie coach and trading some of those young players for Kevin Love (who’s having the worst season of his career), they’ve become possibly the best team in the Eastern Conference.
James has brought out the best in Kyrie Irving, who has slowly morphed into his perfect complement on the offensive side of the court. At times, he has even acted as a player-coach this season, going as far as refusing to bail them out at the end of games and forcing them to learn from their mistakes. He’s putting up 25.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. It’s easy to scoff at the fact that those stats are down from his usual averages over the last several years, but those are still tremendous numbers.
On December 30th, LeBron sat out with injuries to his left knee and back. Since that point, the Cavs have gone 1-8 while James has been out of the lineup, but a stellar 26-7 with him on the court. They’ve taken over second place in the Eastern Conference, and while they aren’t likely to catch the Hawks for first place, Atlanta has gone just 13-9 since the start of February.
It’s safe to say, Cleveland is now the favorite in the East. It has everything to do with having the league’s most valuable player on their roster.