The NBA playoffs kicked off last week, which means MVP voting has drawn to a close. The results are already set in stone, but here are my thoughts on the four front-runners to win the 2016-17 MVP award.

 

Lebron James – Cleveland Cavaliers:

 

In the midst of an underachieving year for the Cavaliers, Lebron is actually having one of the best statistical seasons of his career. His field goal percentage (55%) is substantially higher than that of Harden or Westbrook, and so is his 3-point percentage (36%), which is typically seen as a weakness in his game. Also, Lebron is averaging career highs in rebounds and assists per game, unprecedented for a 32-year-old. James is unanimously considered the greatest current basketball player, and he is putting up some of the best numbers since he entered the league. So why is his performance flying under the radar? Well, the Cavaliers have slumped since the all-star break, playing abysmal defense and blowing huge late-game leads. Lebron’s decision to sit out several games this year has also drawn attention away from his playing.

 

Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs:

 

Leonard has had his best offensive season to date, despite being known for his defensive prowess. However, his increased effort on offense has led to a decline in his defensive capabilities; the Spurs actually allow fewer points when Leonard is on the bench than when he is on the floor. By no means does this suggest that Leonard is a defensive liability to his team, but his capability to shut down superstar opponents may be slipping as he takes on a larger burden on offense. Leonard has shot exceptionally well this season, with the highest 3-point and free throw percentages on this list, but he still underperforms on the glass and rarely tallies any assists. Leonard may have had the best offensive season of his career, but it pales in comparison to the production of the other players on this list. At age 25, Leonard has most likely not hit his prime, so expect to hear his name in the MVP conversation in years to come.

 

James Harden – Houston Rockets:

 

The Rockets have bounced back from a season in which they barely made the playoffs to claim the third seed in the West and become a serious title contender. Most of this success is thanks to Harden, who is the only player on the team to ever be an all-star. Proponents of Westbrook argue that he has single-handedly led his team to a playoff berth; even if that is true, the same applies to Harden. And the Rockets had 9 more wins in the regular season than the Thunder. In my view, Harden is a more efficient, less flashy version of Westbrook. His assist to turnover ratio, a crucial statistic for point guards, exceeds Westbrook’s, as do his field goal, free throw, and 3-point shooting percentages. Also, this year’s Rockets team was one of the ten most efficient offensive groups in NBA history.

 

Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder:

 

He averaged a triple-double. End of discussion, right? Not by a long shot. Other than Westbrook’s absurd productivity and flashy highlights, he does not have much going for him. His shooting percentages are sub-par and he is averaging over 5 turnovers a game. The Thunder have not had a great season, and you cannot put all of the blame on Westbrook’s teammates. Although it is easy to poke holes in Westbrook’s resume, he truly did have an outstanding season. He performed one of the most impressive feats in NBA history after having his dreams of winning a title dashed due to the departure of Kevin Durant.

 

In my opinion, Lebron James was the most valuable player in the NBA this year, and has been each year for the last decade. Place him on any team in the Eastern Conference and they are immediately the favorite to reach the Finals. But the connotations of “MVP” have changed over the years: now the award goes to the player who had the best season. James Harden achieved more than Westbrook with a similar supporting cast, and had a more efficient season. At face value, Westbrook’s prolific stat line warrants victory, but Harden played more consistently and has given the Rockets a legitimate chance of winning a title.