Around seven weeks into the 2017-2018 NBA season, the MVP race is heating up and already looking to be extremely competitive. The mighty Western Conference will have no shortages of potential candidates, and although I wasn’t expecting them to perform as well as they have, the Eastern Conference will certainly have their own talent to add to the mix.
Let me start by saying that I refuse to include any candidates from the Golden State Warriors. I hate what they’ve done in compiling their super team, leading the way for others to assemble massive conglomerates of ringers. I realize LeBron James was the first to do it with the Heat, but the Warriors have taken it to an entirely different level. Rant over.
First in my MVP race for 2017-2018 is James Harden, and I actually can’t believe the words before my eyes as I’m typing them. I’ve been somewhat of a harsh critic of Harden in the past. I was annoyed by his reluctance to play defense, and even more annoyed at how he seemed to throw a fit getting his coaches in trouble or worse when they expected him to play a complete game. However, Harden has matured in his career and adding Chris Paul to the roster has allowed the Rockets to be a more balanced complete team. Harden is an incredibly skilled passer, and while he averages 9.1 assists per game his strengths are best suited in a scoring role.
He did his best to facilitate before Paul arrived on scene, but even though he put forth a valiant effort he was unable to accomplish the things he wanted because the burden was resting squarely on his shoulders. Sure, the NBA has their standout players, but basketball is a team sport–five players working together toward a common goal. So Harden can play his heart out every night, but without at least one other person to share the leadership burden his efforts were all for naught. Paul has magnified Harden’s skills and we are seeing impressive numbers from him night in and night out. Harden’s average of 31 points per game is a force to be reckoned with and it’s paying off. The Rockets have captured the lead from the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference standings pulling ahead by a couple of games. I will cheer on anyone who is willing to step up and defeat the Warriors this season, and if Harden is the man for the job he’s got my support.
The ECF candidates stand out a little more this year simply because there is much more of a talent disparity between the 1st and 2nd seeds, and well, everyone else. However, I don’t want that to take away from the efforts the MVP hopefuls are putting in.
I have to be honest and admit that I was fairly skeptical about my first ECF nominee this season. I’m typically not a fan of public displays of divisive behavior, and at first I interpreted Kyrie Irving’s decision to leave his championship team as a very immature move. However, I will admit that I was wrong about this one and I’m truly impressed with the success Irving is having with the Boston Celtics this season. Irving made his feelings about playing with LeBron James known in a very public fashion, and while I’m still not impressed with his style in communicating that message, I understand why he wanted to break out on his own. It can’t be easy playing in the shadow of King James, and Irving knew his value given that he’s at the peak of his career. I imagine he didn’t want his success tainted by those who might say he was only a champion because James took him there.
Irving and the Celtics are virtually unstoppable right now even without the assistance of Gordon Hayward. They comfortably lead the Eastern Conference standings ahead of the Cavaliers, and their defense has been ranked as the best in the league. Irving is averaging 24.2 points, 4.9 assists, and 3 rebounds per game, and he’s proving to be a solid leader as the Celtics have gone 7-3 in their last 10 games. The Celtics have only lost 3 games at home so far, and they fare almost equally on the road. I fully expect we will see another showdown between the Celtics and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and I will clear my calendar to see that match up given how James is playing this season.
Speaking of James, he’s elevated to an entirely new level of play this year. It took the Cavaliers a while to get into their groove. However, with that groove firmly in place there is an ominous energy coming out of the Cavs’ camp that should have the Celtics paying attention. Cleveland has worked their way back from a tough start, and they’re within a handful of games from catching the Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings. But, standings don’t really matter in the long run as the Cavs and Celtics both will likely make their way to the ECF to battle for a NBA Finals position. James is working with his old partner in crime, Dwyane Wade, and although the two are both much older they’ve still got the fire they had when they dominated the NBA with the Miami Heat.
Wade is serving his role with James as a leader, and he’s done a good job of taking the facilitation pressure off of James so he can shine where he’s meant to–muscling his way into the paint and scoring. Bron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.1 assists, and 8.4 rebounds per game so it’s safe to say that he remains as effective as ever. James has visibly leveled up on his ability to lead and compete. He knows how to win and given that he’s still working with his strength and athleticism we could see a whole new side of him emerge as the playoffs approach. I hate to talk about him as a legend given that he’s still very much an active part of the game, but I’ve grown to respect the athlete he is more than any other I’ve seen.
If James fights his way to the Finals this year, I will certainly say he’s most deserving of the coveted MVP award even though he’s won it before and it’s likely the last thing on his mind. In my eyes, it will almost be as if the award is going to another player entirely with how much he’s developed over the years.
It’s still early on but the clear leaders have emerged and I don’t think they’re going anywhere anytime soon. I think the MVP needs to come from the East this season. It doesn’t matter if it’s Irving or James, they’re both showing to be deserving of the prize.