By Matt Citak
With the 2017-18 NBA regular season nearing its end, one of the biggest questions that remains is who will take home the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.
There are numerous players that are worthy of being in the conversation for the coveted award. Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is having a career-year, averaging 26.7 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game while likely leading Portland to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan looks like a man on a mission, as his 23.4 points, 5.2 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game have helped guide Toronto to the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed. Meanwhile, Pelicans forward Anthony Davis is playing phenomenal basketball, averaging a whopping 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting over 53 percent from the field as New Orleans fights for a spot in the postseason.
Despite these players enjoying great seasons, the MVP Award is truly a two-man race between Cavaliers forward LeBron James and Rockets guard James Harden.
Before we dive in, let me start by saying that if either player weren’t performing at the level that these two men have been all season, the other one would be the unanimous MVP. While Lillard, DeRozan, and Davis have all played well, both James and Harden have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack by a significant margin.
First let’s start with The King. What LeBron James has been able to accomplish this season, at the age of 33, is nothing short of amazing. James is averaging 27.4 points on 54.2 percent shooting from the field and 36.6 percent shooting from the three-point line this season. That alone would be impressive enough, but when you combine that with the fact that he’s averaging career-highs in both assists (9.1) and rebounds (8.7) too, you realize just how special of a season he’s having.
James endured a difficult offseason last year with Kyrie Irving’s trade request being made public. He then had to deal with playing without the main player the Cavaliers got in return for Irving (Isaiah Thomas) for the first few months of the season. Soon after Thomas returned, Kevin Love, Cleveland’s second-best player, broke his hand, forcing him to miss nearly two months. During Love’s absence, the Cavaliers went through a roster transformation, as numerous trades brought several new faces to the team while shipping out some familiar ones.
Throughout all of this turbulence, James continued to play at an otherworldly level. Possibly the most impressive aspect of James’ season is the fact that, despite his age, the superstar forward is projected to play in all 82 games for the first time in his career. Not bad for an old man.
Now we move to The Beard. James Harden has put together a rather special season himself. Harden is averaging an incredible 30.7 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game, all while shooting 44.9 percent from the field and a cool 36.5 percent from downtown. He’s seen his turnovers per game drop from 5.7 in 2016-17 to 4.3 this season, showing that he’s being much smarter with the basketball this year.
Harden did not have to deal with the same scrutiny that James did during the offseason, but he was forced to jump over a few small hurdles as well. The Rockets made a significant splash last summer when they acquired All-Star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. As soon as training camp began, Harden made it his responsibility to make sure Paul, along with Houston’s other new players, were properly integrated into the Rockets’ lineup. He was able to do this all while not sacrificing any of the things that made him an MVP candidate last season.
The result? Houston has already locked up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, as the Rockets hold a six-game lead over the Golden State Warriors with just four games remaining, and will finish the season with the league’s best record. This is a big accomplishment considering how dominant the Warriors have been over the last few years. But Houston’s success goes beyond the standings. The Rockets have a +9.1 average point differential, which is 1.5 points better than the next-best team (Toronto) and 2.2 points higher than the Warriors, and feature an offense that has been one of the most productive in recent memory.
The race for this year’s MVP Award will be close, but with the level that the Houston Rockets have been playing at all season, it would be shocking if James Harden was not the recipient of the 2017-18 Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
And after coming so close to winning last season, Harden is more than worthy of taking home the award this time around.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.