April 23, 2018 | 7:50 am
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James Harden’s MVP race is his to lose

The NBA MVP, despite its perceived prestige, is a lot like trying to earn a gold star in third grade. Collect enough of them, and maybe, Ms. Tyler will come through with the Hall of Fame worthy pizza party she promised you.

Collect as you might, the pizza promise isn’t really a promise. In fact, when the 180th day of class ends, and the pizza party never came to fruition, those gold stars won’t mean a thing to anyone but you. And maybe your mom.

That doesn’t mean NBA MVPs are worthless, actually quite the opposite – every MVP prior to the 2000-2001 season has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. So, by all accounts, those gold stars lead to pizza parties more times than not.

But en route to doling out a gold star, NBA fans and media alike fall into the trap of debating who should win an award that is usually decided well in advance. Thus, the MVP conversation is born.

The conversation is just that; discussions about the merits of one player over another, whether one season’s worth of accomplishments outweighs another. The 2017 MVP ballot was an exceptional example. In one camp you had Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double, while the other had James Harden with a near triple-double season himself. The voting came down to whether Westbrook’s historic season is worth more than Harden’s 55 wins on the Houston Rockets, and unsurprisingly, history won out.

Not to diminish Harden’s successful campaign, but the 2017 award was in the books long before its reveal at the first NBA Awards Show. Westbrook’s production was the unparalleled story of year, even if the Oklahoma City Thunder suffered a first-round playoff exit to… Harden’s Rockets.

The voting results also echoed who in the conversation was heard the loudest. Winning by 47 first-place votes and 133 total points, Westbrook wasn’t in any danger of falling to Harden for the year’s most hyped award.

In the 18 seasons since the turn of the century the story is much the same. Only the 2002, 2003 and 2005 MVPs were decided by fewer than 100 points, suggesting the decision to select the regular season champ is relatively cut and dry.

Which is why the MVP “conversation” is meaningless.

This season, the conversation has taken turns and been extrapolated to a number of players – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant and LeBron James all come to mind. Antetokounmpo lit up the start of the year and Durant’s improved defense deserved second looks. And of course, James makes a case for MVP each and every season.

The most recent participant in the conversation drives home just how empty the talk is. Anthony Davis, who is leading the DeMarcus Cousins-less New Orleans Pelicans towards a playoff berth has drawn a discerning eye. Over a seven-game winning streak, Davis averaged 36.3 points while shooting 54 percent from the floor. While a playoff appearance would be the Pelicans first since 2015 and a career milestone for Davis, not even he should standout once the MVP ballots are tallied.

Basketball is a game of runs, and plenty of players string together stellar series of game. The NBA even recognizes such feats with Player of the Week/Month designations. But consistency and individual impact is the mark of an MVP, and only Harden has curried favor in both categories.

Spearheading a 49-13 record and holding a 15-game win streak, Harden’s energy is felt night after night. Leading the NBA in win shares with 12.3 and PER with 30.4, Harden commands attention from every team, every night, thereby making his teammates’ jobs easier.

To start the game last Saturday against the Boston Celtics, Harden ran a particularly uneventful dribble handoff with Clint Capella. Drawing Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Aron Baynes, Capella cruises to the hoop, giving Harden one of his 10 assists on the night. As the first play of the game, Harden wasn’t yet on a hot shooting streak or in any sort of rhythm to necessitate a double team. Rather, his hot streak exists game after game, and teams are forced to pressure him accordingly.

Otherwise he does that.

Or this.

Or some of this.

Even honest defense is relatively uneventful for Harden, whose willingness to shoot contested jumpers gives him opportunities to attack the rim and head to the free throw line. Harden is the only player to average at least 10 trips to the charity stripe this season and has led the league since the 2014-15 season.

Leading the Rockets to a league best 15.5 made threes per game, anyone else taking home the gold star this season would demean the award. Harden’s play means more than building the foundation for a deep Houston playoff run; he’s also redefining the spirit of competition in the Western Conference once subjugated by the Golden State Warriors.

Barring injury or other freak occurrence, James Harden has punctuated this season’s MVP conversation. The rest of the league can leave their appeals at the door.

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