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Stempak: NBA MVP race heats up

| Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Sadly, we are coming to the final months of the NBA season. The playoffs are nearly set in the West, all spots nearly secured except the eighth seed. Kevin Durant’s injury complicates the Warriors’ smooth ride to the first seed with Kawhi Leonard’s Spurs storming in close behind them.

Other than that, the Thunder pretty much have the seventh seed locked up, and the eighth seed will go to whichever team is the worst at tanking.

Out east, the situation is more complicated but less exciting. Teams are just hoping to avoid the fourth seed and a second-round matchup with the Cavaliers. The Cavs will end up cruising to the Finals.

At this point in the season, the leaders in the MVP race are separating from the pack. This year, we have quite a few players having incredible statistical seasons. I will just talk about my top five to save space, but there are eight to 10 players who are worthy of being in the conversation this year.

I lied — I will be talking about six players, but tied in fifth are Isaiah Thomas and John Wall. The top round-earth-believing guards in the Eastern Conference have carried their teams into relevancy this year, the Celtics to second place and the Wizards to third place, respectively.

Thomas is second in the league in scoring with 29.5 per game, while Wall is second in assists with 10.8 per game. Both guards are the vocal leaders as well as the go-to playmakers on their team.

In fourth I have Leonard of the Spurs. Leonard is the clear most valuable two-way player in the league, the only player in the top 15 in offensive rating, defensive rating and usage percentage. Simply put, he is in the top 15 in contributing to his team on both ends of the floor, being used very often on offense, all while staying very efficient.

“The Klaw” is the closest player we have seen to Michael Jordan since Michael Jordan himself. Players are scared to dribble around him, for good reason, and Leonard uses a combination of athletic drives, post-fade shimmies and deadly three-point shooting to tear apart opposing defenses.

Most importantly, the Spurs are right behind the Warriors at second in the West, and Leonard is the only reason they are in that position.

In third, the player I had the hardest time slotting outside the top two: Russell Westbrook. He leads the league in scoring, value over replacement player (VORP), usage percentage, player efficiency rating and field-goal attempts. This dude is the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Oh, and by the way, he is averaging a triple-double. Russ gets 31.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10 assists per game.

But, his team is in seventh place. There is a hard floor on MVP voting in the NBA — most of the time the MVP comes from a top two team in either conference. Despite Westbrook closing in on an achievement only ever before accomplished by Oscar Robinson, his “value” cannot be more than his team’s position in the standings.

Take Westbrook away, and the Thunder are at the bottom of the league. But with him there and firing on all cylinders, they are only in seventh.

Number two: LeBron James. The Cavaliers are first in the East, and looking to repeat as champions. No one in the conference looks like they can take down the giant. And that is mostly because of LeBron.

He is averaging career highs in rebounds, assists and three pointers made, with incredible shooting splits of 53.9/39.8/68.5. To put that in perspective, James is shooting a better percentage behind the arc than Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, Kevin Durant and Leonard, all while taking 4 1/2 attempts per game.

Finally, my MVP is James Harden. He has carried the Rockets to a record of 44-19, while leading the league in assists and win shares, plus ranking third in scoring. In total, between shooting and passing, Harden is responsible for 56.4 points per game.

The Rockets were 41-41 going into the playoffs as the eighth seed last year. Now they moved Harden to point guard, gave him Mike D’Antoni and a couple more shooters — and they are a top-four team in the league.

He is incredible. His go-to move is to lull his defender to sleep and drain a three in his opponent’s face. He can get anywhere he wants, and now he is one of the best passers in the league. Double team him and he will beat you with passing, don’t and he will beat you with scoring. Fear the Beard.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About R.J. Stempak

R.J. Stempak is a sophomore computer science major who enjoys basketball.

Contact R.J.