The MVP field has been deep all season, perhaps deeper than we've seen in recent years. Although the race might not be as wide open as it once seemed, there's no denying each top candidate has a strong case for consideration.
So who should be the MVP? We asked our writers to state the case for six stars whose value has been undeniable this season. Then, we want you to decide who most deserves the award. (Vote in the poll below.)
(Important note: The case being made by each writer does not necessarily reflect his actual MVP pick.)
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: I aim not to hedge, just for the sake of seeming more objective. Here goes: Stephen Curry is the MVP because the main case against him is hypothetical. "Curry couldn't have dragged a team such as the Rockets to more than 50 wins." That is a lame case, rooted in a fantasy scenario and built upon negative assumptions about Curry's capabilities. Also, it ignores how the past season's Warriors performed just as poorly on offense without Curry (93.8 offensive rating) as this season's Rockets did without Harden.
Before we get derailed arguing about the past season, though, let's focus on what Curry has actually done this season, as opposed to what he hypothetically couldn't do. He is scoring with ridiculous efficiency (63.8 true shooting percentage) as his team's lead playmaker. The constant threat of his shot explodes defenses (the Warriors are plus-13.7 in offensive rating when he's in). He broke his own 3-point record. His team posted the best Western Conference point differential since 1972. Golden State crushed Houston in a season series in which Curry completely outplayed Harden. Curry also leads Harden in PER, for good measure.
None of this "proves" Curry is better, but it shows why picking Harden would be a deviation from MVP norms. Curry's team leads the other guy's team by 11 games, and the other guy isn't obviously superior. Since when, in these circumstances, does the other guy get the award?
Tom Haberstroh: A season for the ages. Davis is 22, and there is plenty of evidence that he is the best player in the league already. He towers over the league in PER, with a 30.9 rating (next highest is 28.8). Want to know how good that is, historically? Only Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain have beaten the Brow. That's what happens when you average 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and an NBA-high 2.9 blocks per game while shooting 53.7 percent from the floor and over 80 percent at the charity stripe.
I get it: How can an MVP qualify with fewer than 70 games played? Here's how: Like paying back a debt, the Brow has compensated by being by far the most clutch player in the game. Because of his timely, game-winning plays, Davis has raised his team's win probability by a cumulative 9.3 wins over the course of the season, according to tracking by inpredictable.com. No other player has more than six wins.
Davis is the full package. He was without Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson for the bulk of the season, and his team is somehow in the West playoff picture. If Davis were on national television at all, he'd be an easy choice. Simply put, no player has done more with less.
Calvin Watkins: Harden is averaging 27.5 points per game, second in the league, and has done so while the Rockets have been without key players for a combined 175 games, due to injuries. That's no Dwight Howard. No Patrick Beverley. No Terrence Jones. No Donatas Motiejunas. We're talking about four projected starters who have missed time. Harden has missed just one game, due to a suspension for kicking LeBron James in the groin.
Harden has led the league with 10 40-point games and 35 30-point contests. He is second among all non-point guards in assists per game, and his combined points per game scored and points created through assists is 44.5, second in the NBA. If Harden continues to average 27.5 points, 6.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game while playing in 75-plus games, he becomes the first man to achieve that since James in 2009-10. Yes, James won MVP that season.
Harden is second in the league in offensive win shares (11.8) and tops in overall win shares (15.8). Not happy with how Harden plays defense? Stop watching YouTube and focus on his 4.0 defensive win shares (13th in the league). You just have to wonder: Where would the Rockets be without him?
Dave McMenamin: As I went into recently, understanding LeBron's case for MVP takes a macro perspective. If you focus primarily on statistics, sure, James' season can't compare to those of some of his competition. But if you try to quantify James' impact on both the franchise he left (which went from four straight Finals to the brink of playoff elimination this season) and the franchise he rejoined (which went from having the worst win percentage in the league the past four seasons to being the No. 2 seed in the East), James' value is undeniable.
It isn't about numbers, but if you had to point to one, the Cavs' 2-10 record without him this season is pretty telling. It isn't about the past, but if you want to bring history into the equation, James is at least three years older than all the other top contenders, save for Chris Paul, and he is still pushing himself to have no drop-off from his four-time MVP standard, despite his athleticism slowly starting to wane.
This is about LeBron James still being the top player in basketball and using the twilight of his prime to turn an entirely new team into winners like him. It's about the confidence he instills. It's about the mastery of the game he displays. It's about how, if you asked 10 people to choose one player to represent the best the league has to offer right now, LeBron James would invariably be chosen 10 times.
Arash Markazi: I know what you're thinking: The Clippers haven't lived up to expectations this season. But take a look at the standings. Despite Blake Griffin's missing 15 games and Jamal Crawford's being out 18 games, there the Clippers are, tied for the second best record in the West and third best in the league. That's largely because, for the first time in his career, Chris Paul is on track to play all 82 games.
He is the only player in the NBA averaging at least 19 points, 10 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game this season. He will be the only player other than Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas to sustain those averages over the course of an entire season and the only one to do so while averaging less than 35 minutes per game. He is also first in the league with a 4.38 assist-to-turnover ratio. When the Clippers had a must-win game in Portland on the second night of a back-to-back in April, Paul led his team to a win from 19 points down by doing what only three players have done since 1985-86: dropping 41 points and 17 assists.
The problem with Paul is he's quietly consistent. "We take him for granted," Doc Rivers said. Paul is third in NBA history in career assists average, behind Magic Johnson and John Stockton in a league in which the most recent highlight or scoring spree takes precedent. That's why Paul isn't as big a part of the MVP conversation as he should be.
Royce Young: If you knew before the season that the reigning MVP (Kevin Durant) would play only 27 games, Serge Ibaka would miss a month and Westbrook himself would miss a month, where would you have had the Thunder finishing? Westbrook's MVP candidacy is not just about how he has had to carry the Thunder; it's also about how he has had to do it in the Western Conference, playing with a remade roster that includes a bunch of guys under 25 and many who weren't even on the team in training camp.
It really comes down to your personal definition of the "V" in MVP. Westbrook has undoubtedly been the league's most electrifying and statistically outstanding player this season. But his team is on the fringes of the postseason and limping to the finish line as the burden noticeably wears on Westbrook. It gets tiresome lugging your team through the West like Hodor. Still, Westbrook's value should be obvious: Remove Westbrook, and where are the Thunder?
The triple-doubles are the hook, historic numbers that put Westbrook's season beside those of names such as Robertson and Jordan. But it's the sheer night-to-night competitive will that has made Westbrook truly special this season. The Thunder wouldn't let this season die because Russell Westbrook wouldn't let them.