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NBA AM: Is the MVP Race Too Close To Call?

The 2015 NBA MVP race may be too close to call, as the field of deserving players is as competitive as any in recent years.

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The MVP Race:  In a normal NBA season, there are usually two clear-cut candidates for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player of the Year award and then a couple of fringe guys that are deserving, but a notch or two below the frontrunners.

This year, not only is the field of would-be MVPs a little bigger, the divide between candidates not only becomes debatable, there may be no wrong answer in the debate.

Now before we get into each candidate and their merits, it’s important to state that the MVP award like most awards is voted on by hand-picked members of the media – often the lead newspaper voices in each market, along with a couple dozen voices picked by the NBA.

While the hope is that each voter takes their task of picking an award seriously, and most do, there isn’t a scientific process to voting, and things like visibility and exposure do play a role in things.

Here is how last year’s balloting played out, by voter. Kevin Durant was the run-away winner; however, six first places votes did go to LeBron James. But if you look at the results, Memphis’ Mike Conley got a lone fifth place MVP vote and Goran Dragic got three fifth place MVP votes too. While those kinds of votes are more symbolic in nature, it does show that the process can yield all kinds of options if enough voters see the world the same way.

This year, the voters are going to have a tough task, mainly because the top-tier candidates are all equally deserving in their own way. Here is how the field looks today.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Season: 23.6 pts – 7.8 ast – 4.4 reb – 48.3% fg – 41.9% 3pt – 27.72 PER – 25.9 Eff

Since All-Star: 23.7 pts – 7.1 ast – 2.6 reb – 49.6% fg – 53.4% 3pt

From an entire season point of view, Stephen Curry may have posted the most complete season of the MVP front-runners. Not only has Curry elevated his team to the top of the NBA standings, but he has posted some phenomenal individual games.

There are two things that are going to work against Curry as MVP: he isn’t posting freakish stats late in the season and there may be a little Golden State fatigue because of how good they have been all year.

In a normal year, Curry might walk away with the award because voters do tend to favor great players on great teams, but this year the lack of “flash” from Curry, especially late, may hurt his case.

There is no questioning that Curry is deserving, the question becomes will his season get overshadowed by the late flurry of stats others in this discussion are posting down the stretch and will Curry get penalized for being on such a deep and talented team? Some may argue that on the Warriors, he does not have to do all of the heavy lifting that others in this discussion are having to do to compete.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

Season: 27.1 pts – 7.1 ast – 5.8 reb – 44.7% fg – 33.8% 3pt – 27.05 PER – 27.5 Eff

Since All-Star: 25.6 pts – 9.0 ast – 6.7 reb – 39.9% fg – 36.2% 3pt

Harden, like Curry, has had an amazing season. Last season, Harden was the butt of a lot of jokes, especially about his defense. Harden has turned the corner completely on that, becoming one of the better defensive players this season while leading his team in virtually every way on the court.

When Rockets big man Dwight Howard went down to a knee injury, it seemed like Houston was going to fall in the Western Conference standings. However, since Howard’s injury, the Rockets have won 14 of 19 games and Harden has been the driving force behind all of them.

There is no doubting that Harden is Houston’s Most Valuable Player, the question is will voters recognize his improvements this season and how special of a season he is posting both individually and for his team?

The fact that Houston hasn’t had as much exposure as, say, Golden State has throughout this year, will voters really acknowledge how good Harden has been?

It’s hard to separate Curry and Harden because both are having such similar seasons in terms of being the best guy on their respective teams.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season: 27.4 pts – 8.3 ast – 7.1 reb – 43.4% fg – 28.5% 3pt – 30.15 PER – 27.4 Eff

Since All-Star: 34.4 pts – 11.6 ast – 10.9 reb – 43.5% fg – 27.3% 3pt

If the award comes down to what have you done for me lately, or how much hype and exposure you can muster before voting closes, Russell Westbrook wins in a walk.

Between the five triple-doubles in his last six games (with the lone non-triple-double being a 43-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist outing) and the fact that he missed just one game after breaking a bone in his face, Westbrook is posting video game type numbers and has been doing that since he returned from injury in late November.

Let’s put this into some perspective: The Thunder were 4-12 when Westbrook returned to the lineup. They are 35-28 today. Admittedly, Westbrook had Kevin Durant in the mix for a bunch of those games, but what he’s posted all season is remarkable.

The question facing voters is do you pass on two guys who have had more complete seasons in Curry and Harden, and whose teams have a better overall record?

The counter argument is that Westbrook in many ways has single-handedly turned the Thunder from a lottery team into a legit playoff contender in the massively tough Western Conference, and has done the bulk of it without Durant.

If the name of the game is who climbed the toughest mountain, Westbrook might have that distinction.

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season: 26.0 pts – 7.3 ast – 5.7 reb – 48.8% fg – 33.8% 3pt – 25.86 PER – 25.0 Eff

Since All-Star: 26.1 pts – 7.6 ast – 5.9 reb – 48.3% fg – 35.8% 3pt

For whatever reason, LeBron James doesn’t get nearly enough credit as an MVP candidate. Like Westbrook, his rocky start to the season and how dreadful the Cavaliers were in November may be weighing against James’ candidacy, but looking at what the Cavs have put together since December and the role James has played in that surge is remarkable.

Among the stats leaders since December 1, James ranks third in scoring and the Cavs went 30-9 with James on the floor. Only the Warriors and Hawks have posted a better record.

James may get dinged a little in the voting process because he is not posting the insane numbers he has earlier in his career. On the season, James is averaging 26 points per game – the second-worst output of his career, second only to his rookie year – even if you back out a dreadful November.

Like Westbrook, if the award is what have you done for me lately or who climbed the biggest obstacle, James moves to the front of the pack in many regards.

The fact that James isn’t talked about more as a MVP candidate seems a little out of place since when you look at the accomplishments since December, he should be right there is the discussion. It’s also possible voters are tired of selecting James as the NBA’s MVP, as he has won the award four out of five years between 2009 and 2013. Because his numbers are down and other players have performed at a high level, the voters can justify giving it to someone else and mixing it up (as they did last year with Kevin Durant).

It will be interesting to see how voters view his season and the surge he’s powered the Cavaliers through.

While the four players listed above are likely to dominate the voting process, there are a few players posting seasons worth talking about in this context.

New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is having an amazing season. His raw stats put him in the discussion all by themselves. However, the fact that his team is barely in the playoff discussion (one game out as of today) makes his candidacy for MVP less likely.

Like many of the younger players that have won MVP, if Davis continues to post numbers like he has this season and his team grows and progresses, it’s hard not to a see a MVP award in his future. He is becoming a pretty special player.

Sacramento Kings big man DeMarcus Cousins is also having a crazy season statistically. The fact that his team is so far out of the discussion means Cousins isn’t a viable MVP candidate this year. But like Davis, if the Kings can start to turn the corner as Cousins continues to grow as a player, he too enters the likely MVP discussion down the road.

The final candidate worth talking about is Portland Trail Blazers big man LaMarcus Aldridge, whose raw numbers are solid – 23.8 points per game, 45.3 percent field goal shooting, 37.1 percent three-point shooting, 11.5 rebounds per game. The Blazers are 38-16 when Aldridge is on the floor. Those are solid and respectable numbers.

Unfortunately for Aldridge, he plays in a market that’s often overlooked. His team isn’t blowing teams away and his stats are not as gaudy as others in this discussion. Aldridge likely doesn’t get very many first, second or third place votes, but don’t be surprised if Aldridge collects more than a view nods in his direction. He’s posting a solid season.

The NBA typically hands out the MVP award in early May and with 37 days left in the NBA season, there is still time for things to get interesting.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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