By Michael Brice-Saddler
Tensions are peaking amid one of the most compelling MVP races in NBA history, and James Harden recently tried to bolster his case against Russell Westbrook by claiming wins should matter more than anything when determining the award’s recipient.
"I think that's the most important thing. I thought winning is what this is about -- period," Harden told ESPN on Sunday. "I'm not going to get in-depth with all that, but I thought winning was the most important thing. If you set your team up in a position to have a chance, at the ultimate goal, that's the most important thing."
The issue with Harden’s reasoning, though, is that he’s laying out the argument for a different MVP contender: Kawhi Leonard.
At first glance, Harden’s statement makes sense. He’s led the Rockets to the third-best record in the entire league. While he’s not quite averaging a triple-double, his play this season has been nothing short of incredible.
Every MVP in the past 40 years has led their team to their conference’s No. 3 seed or higher, with the majority claiming the top spot. The Thunder (46-34) will finish as the conference’s No. 6 seed.
But if wins really are the most important consideration for MVP, shouldn’t Leonard hoist the trophy?
The San Antonio Spurs (61-20) are the second-best team in the league, thanks in no small part to Leonard’s two-way dominance. While Harden and Westbrook have put up better offensive numbers than Leonard (he’s averaging 25.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists), neither has comparable impact on the defensive end.
James Harden shoots over Kawhi Leonard
It’s easy to think that Leonard’s success is a product of Gregg Popovich’s system because he lacks the eye-popping stats of Harden and Westbrook, but Kawhi doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year leads all three players in offensive and defensive rating as well defensive win shares. He’s by far the most efficient of the group — shooting nearly 49 percent from the field and 38 percent from three — and has proven he can take over games on both ends of the court when necessary (against Harden no less!):
Harden’s MVP campaign has been largely overshadowed by Westbrook’s bushels of triple-doubles, so it’s easy to see why he might be frustrated as of late.
But Leonard is a legitimate MVP contender in his own right, and he should be the favorite if wins really matter more than anything else.