Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There is one month and two days remaining in the 2014-15 NBA regular season. That much we know.
What we don't know is who will win the MVP.
That's a great thing. Prognosticating and arguing about who deserves what leads to tremendous fun, and, if mixed with alcohol, hilarious fights. Parity is also good for competitive balance, even among individuals.
In recent seasons, this baby has been won by now, but the 2014-15 campaign is different. There is no clear-cut choice and that makes the last month intriguing. We haven't had a genuine MVP battle since the 2004-05 season when Steve Nash beat Shaquille O'Neal by 34 votes (I still disagree with that outcome, but I've fought that fight too often).
Individual performance does not trump all. No one is naive enough to think that, including most speculating on the victor. Golden State's Steph Curry is still the favorite. His accomplishments are strong with 23.6 points, 7.8 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game, and 42 percent shooting from beyond the 3-point line.
Curry is fifth in scoring, sixth in assists and eighth in 3-point shooting percentage. Plus, Curry's defense improved. That's MVP-caliber stuff, but the biggest factor championing Curry's cause is the Warriors' record. They have owned the league's best mark for most of the season, and when they haven't, it's been very close.
Without an obvious choice, it's easy to tab the best player from the best team. A vote for Curry would fall into such category, but that's not to suggest his season doesn't warrant MVP consideration if the Warriors were the fourth seed in the West. It would, but his biggest asset in this debate is his team's record.
Standings matter. To be an MVP without supreme team success requires a special statistical season. That's where Russell Westbrook, and, to a smaller extent, Anthony Davis, emerge. The Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans are duking it out for the eighth playoff seed in the West.
Westbrook is close to achieving that special kind of statistical season that merits attention. He leads the NBA in scoring at 27.8 ppg and is fourth in assists at 8.3 per game. Westbrook is a under-appreciated defender and with reigning MVP Kevin Durant out of the lineup so frequently, the Thunder's success, any of it, should be directly attributed to Westbrook.
Davis is in a similar position. He is fourth in the league in scoring (24.5), 10th in rebounding (10.3), seventh in field-goal percentage (54.5) and first in blocked shots (2.8).
If we want to get analytical, Davis leads the league in player efficiency. Westbrook is second and Curry is third. Davis is fourth in win shares, Curry is third and Westbrook is 13th. That hurts Westbrook's cause, which seems to be diminishing anyway. Davis, and Westbrook for that matter, has missed time with injury. New Orleans improved its standing in his absence.
Westbrook and Davis just don't have the monstrous numbers supporting a case to unseat Curry, or two unnamed candidates you'll see in moments.
LeBron James is a freak. His numbers remain freakish and the Cleveland Cavaliers are turning into freaks. If Cleveland stays at No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, James is hard to ignore.
James should be hard to ignore. When Nash won his first MVP, the Suns improved 33 games in the win column (maybe I should be more lenient, that's a big number). The Cavs are already nine better than last season with 15 to go. Isn't the kind of improvement Cleveland is displaying this season exactly what defines James' value?
That leaves us to our final contender, James Harden of the Houston Rockets. A loyal reader will know, I'm pro-beard, not just as a facial identifier, but as the MVP.
Harden is second in scoring at 26.8 ppg. He's ninth in assists at 7.1, one of only two non-point guards in the top 10, although considering James is the other and he's ahead, that doesn't strengthen my argument. Harden has attempted 154 more free throws than anyone else. Re-read that.
If we talk about Curry's improved defense as a plus, it's hard to ignore Harden on that front. After YouTube videos were created to show his disinterest in that side of the ball, Harden is now sixth in defensive win shares.
What gives Harden the edge for me over Curry, sadly, has nothing really to do with Curry. The Houston Rockets have been without Dwight Howard for two huge stretches during this season. Houston is 21-11 without Howard. That's a testament to how great Harden has been to lead this team without its other superstar.
The Rockets are a half-game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for third in the Western Conference, which has been a brutal, five-month trip to the octagon. Do you realize how easy it would have been for the Rockets to falter without Howard, who isn't what he used to be but is still an elite center in today's NBA?
The Warriors missed Andrew Bogut for a brief period of time, but otherwise have remained healthy. That shouldn't be a negative against Curry, but Houston's success without Howard is definitely a positive in Harden's favor.
I think it's still enough to give Harden the nod. It is an individual award, after all.
- I believe the other awards are tightening a bit as well. Coach of the Year was always a battle between Golden State's Steve Kerr and Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer. I still go for Kerr because the changes he implemented (Green/Barnes for Iguodala/Lee) led more directly to success than Budenholzer, who got back an All-Star big man.
- Defensive Player of the Year is still Draymond Green's in my mind, but DeAndre Jordan has backers. Jordan's rebounding numbers stop traffic. The Clippers are 19th in opponents' scoring and 12th in opponents' field-goal percentage. Eh. Green's Warriors lead in opponents' field-goal percentage and are 14th in opponents' scoring, and his versatility in switching and covering multiple positions made it so.
- Andrew Wiggins will be Rookie of the Year, but Nerlens Noel deserves far more attention than he's getting. The only player in the NBA with 100-plus steals and 100-plus blocks is Noel, who is sixth in blocks and eighth in steals. Noel is emerging already as a defensive force and his scoring is up since the All-Star break. Wiggins deserves it, but I hope Noel finishes high up. Nikola Mirotic of the Chicago Bulls also has stepped up recently since most of the Bulls' roster is injured.
- No clue on Sixth Man. It actually makes me sad thinking about it. I guess Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics.
- Most Improved Player is interesting. Jimmy Butler's numbers warrant the award, but Green is a fringe All-Star and probably the Defensive Player of the Year. And Rudy Gobert, holy Moses. He made Enes Kanter expendable and defensively might be the most dominating force in waiting.
- Speaking of the Jazz, they are 9-2 since the All-Star break. This is a group that should be winning games instead of tanking. They can gather momentum heading into next season. True, Utah needs a star, but maybe Gobert or Dante Exum becomes that.
- Sam Presti is absolutely correct about not trading Durant. You could never get fair value for him and his importance to a company is difficult to measure. Saying the city will name streets after him was a bit much.
- Starting to wonder if Kevin Love does return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. He'll get paid if he stays or leaves, so no tears, but does Love really want to sit out fourth quarters of close games? Its an age-old debate about winning a title versus personal glory, but in this case, Love may feel he's wasting his talent in Cleveland. Interesting story for the summer, although I've felt there's a wink-wink deal for him to stay.
- I agree with Phil Jackson to an extent in his assertion that the Knicks will be rebuilt through free agency. The draft is very important. Look at the Golden State Warriors. But the Knicks have money, and not all of their draft picks, so common sense dictates free agency as the direction.
- The "smoothing" issue was never going to fly with the union. They want that salary cap to doom at once. It makes the most sense for the union and that group would not acquiesce to ownership on the color of a pumpkin at this point.
- KYRIE! Watching how Irving and James have figured out how to play together has been beautiful.
- Movie moment - Watched "Say It Isn't So" this week. Oof. Has there been a worse, less-talented pairing in movie history than Chris Klein and Heather Graham? I can't think of one.
- TV moment - When "Glee" leaves the television airwaves, I will have no reaction.