As the NBA season reaches its climax, who’ll win the crowded MVP race?

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There are essentially two types of races in every walk of life. The first type is really not a race at all but a massacre, a dominant performance by one individual far and above ahead of all competitors. The second type is the real contest, a neck-to-neck battle between several individuals which is decided only in the final moments.

In recent years, the race to the NBA MVP has been less of a contest and more of a one-man show, with one individual ultimately stamping his dominance over the narrative of an entire regular season. Despite early competition, LeBron James always ended up with the lion’s share of the votes as MVP in four of the last six years. Kevin Durant won 95 percent of available first-place votes en route to last season’s MVP award. Even Derrick Rose’s MVP campaign four years ago was almost a thunderous sweep, as he took 113 of the possible 121 first-place votes in 2011.

But, with about a month to go to the end of the 2014-15 regular season, a curious thing is happening with the NBA: unlike past years, there has been no single alpha dog to rise on the top of the pile. Usually, the MVP race is competitive and debatable till the mid-way point of the season, after which a clear most valuable player emerges on the court and in the mind-set of the fans and media. But, even midway through March, the race this year is still a genuine neck-to-neck contest, with five legitimate challengers emerging from all over the league.

There have been various reasons for this. Until last year, the league’s best players were divided into two talents: those who were named LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and those who were not. The NBA had a lot of great players, but KD and LBJ were great on a historic level. It had seemed as if it would take several more years before someone other than these two would win the MVP award. This season, however, with LeBron starting slow in Cleveland and Durant playing less than half of the games due to injury, other, younger superstars are breaking the duopoly.

A new world order of young stars has arisen in the league, like Stephen Curry and James Harden, who have mastered the art of dominating from the perimeter in unique fashions. This is a league where more three-pointers are being attempted and made every season, and the abilities of Curry and Harden to deftly create the three-point shot for themselves and others is leading to direct success for their teams.

But LeBron James’ all-around brilliance in the last few months is proving that it is never wise to count down the four-time MVP. LeBron is shooting up the MVP charts even as his primary contender in recent years – Kevin Durant – has reeled to injuries this season. Durant’s absence has left the door open for his teammate Russell Westbrook, who has steadied the ship over in Oklahoma City with mind-blowing basketball all season.

None of the players above can afford to take a breather, because out in New Orleans, 21-year-old phenom Anthony Davis is making some history of his own and hoping to crash the future into the present.

As we get closer to the season’s end and playoff seedings become a top priority, expect the MVP contenders to up the ante even further to deliver for their teams. The next five or six weeks are going to provide a breathless race to the finish as a multitude of stars sprint the final lap to stake their claim at the Most Valuable Player award.

Here are the top five contenders, in order of whom I believe has the best claim at the throne right now. Coincidently, all five of these players rank in the top five on the NBA’s scoring list, leading their teams by example on the offensive end every night.

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James Harden: In recent years there has been so much chatter about what Harden can’t do that we have forgotten all the brilliant things that he is actually capable of. Let’s face it: Harden is a relatively poor defender and can spoil the purists of basketball aesthetics by his penchant for flaying and drawing fouls on the opposing end. Harden is averaging 27.1 points per game (second in the league), 7.1 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game, all of which are career-highs, and he has the NBA’s third-highest PIE rating (19.0). He has helped lead the Rockets to a 43-20 record, third-best in the Western Conference at this point.

It is the team success, and Harden’s responsibility for it, that is most remarkable and the strongest argument for why Harden has been more valuable than any other player in the league this season. The Rockets have won over 68 percent of their contests and have done so with Dwight Howard only playing in 32 games. Harden has the league’s best Win Shares, meaning that he has contributed more to adding a number of wins for his team than any other player in the NBA.

Stephen Curry: For the majority of the season, the Golden State Warriors (50-12) have been the NBA’s best team, although the Atlanta Hawks have been neck-to-neck lately. GSW’s success can be largely attributed to the continuing dominance of Stephen Curry, who is enjoying one of his best seasons as a pro with averages of 23.8 points (fifth-best in the league), 7.7 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game. Curry is also leading the NBA in steals (2.2 spg) and is second in free-throw percentage (90.3 %). Calculating a net rating of the difference a player makes per hundred possessions on both ends of the floor, Curry ranks atop all the players in the league – as a matter of fact, the top five in this statistic are all Warriors! Curry is also ranked fourth in Player Efficiency Rating (18.0) in the NBA.

The Warriors are loaded with talent. Klay Thompson blossomed into an All Star this season, Draymond Green is playing like a Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) candidate while Andrew Bogut mans the middle next to him. Harrison Barnes is back on a road to steady development, and their two highest-paid players – David Lee and Andre Iguodala – are coming off the bench. This team is among the NBA’s best in both defensive and offensive rating. While a lot of credit should to go to the deep pool of talent that surrounds him, Curry is the engine that makes the system run from the point position, creating for himself and others with considerable ease.

LeBron James: Around mid-January, LeBron James returned after taking off eight games, the longest stretch of games missed in all of his career. Until then, the ‘King’s’ return to Cleveland had been questionable, as the team struggled around mediocrity and LeBron looking mortal for the first time in about half a decade. But the rest was exactly the refresher James needed: since his return, James is back to his best, averaging around 27 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds per game, and leading the Cavaliers to 21 wins out of 26. With his help, the Cavs (41-25) are shooting up the East standings and are close to securing second place in the conference.

LeBron has set a high standard for his performances, and even his brilliance is starting to look regular. Through the course of this season, he’s averaging 26.0 points (third-best in the NBA), 7.3 assists, and 5.8 rebounds. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on his side, the Cavs are loaded, and the relative weaker East has given the team and LeBron time to find their rhythm. That rhythm seems to be strumming along beautifully now and LeBron will be hoping that he can stake his claim at a fifth MVP trophy.

Russell Westbrook: We may not survive to see a supernova explode close in front of our eyes, but in Russell Westbrook, we just may have the closest thing. There is nothing in the league like Westbrook, who is playing with an unmatched fierce intensity every night and keeping the Thunder in playoff contention out in the cut-throat West, even in the absence of Kevin Durant. After his career-best 49 point performance vs. the 76ers, Westbrook officially became the league’s leading scorer with a career-high 27.4 points per game. He’s also averaging 7.1 rebounds (career high), and is top five in the league in assists (8.3 apg) and steals (2.1 spg), PIE rating of 19.2%, and countless mean scowls per game. Westbrook has the NBA’s best assist percentage too, meaning he’s creating more often for his teammates than any other player in the league. After his unbelievable 49-16-10 night, he became the first player to collect four consecutive triple-doubles since Michael Jordan.

The only reason that he isn’t a clear MVP favourite is the performance of his team. The Thunder are 35-28 at this point, finding themselves eighth in the West, with the chasing Pelicans tethering right behind them. MVP awards are rarely considered for players struggling for their playoff survival, even though the team has a much better record in the games where he has played (30-18). If Westbrook can help the OKC rise further up the conference – and remain more valuable than his returning teammate Durant – he may well hijack the MVP trophy this year.

Anthony Davis: And before anyone else becomes comfortable, here come ‘The Brow’ to crash the party. It’s true, the Pelicans (36-29) are fighting for a playoff spot right now, but the only reason that this otherwise sub-standard roster finds itself in contention is the 21-year-old prodigy in the middle. Davis is enjoying a monster year, posting the league’s highest PIE rating (19.6) while posting a PER of historical greatness (31.66). He’s scoring 24.5 ppg (fourth-best in the league), leading the lead in blocks (2.8 bpg), and changing the game on both ends of the floor.

Like Westbrook, the numbers are eye-popping and the contributions to win-shares by the player are worth consideration. Unfortunately, also like Westbrook, Davis can’t be seriously considered as a front-runner with a team not in the post-season. But if the Pelicans can finish the season strong (they’ve won 9 of their last 11) and sneak into the playoffs, I believe that Davis definitely becomes a dark-horse contender to become the youngest-ever MVP in history.

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So when the votes are counted at the end of the season, who will win this wacky race? The smart money would be to bet on the players on higher-ranked teams like the Warriors (Curry), Rockets (Harden), or Cavaliers (James). But don’t count out the chances of Westbrook and Davis if they continue to post monster individual performances and help their respective squads make a dramatic late-season surge.

While the eventual outcome remains difficult to predict, one thing’s for sure: with James Harden, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis all playing at a mesmerizingly high level, nearly every night in the NBA for the remainder of the season can provide us with a heroic performance. Brace on tight for greatness!

KARAN MADHOK

[KARAN MADHOK]

Karan Madhok
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