The three finalists for the 2016-17 NBA MVP award have been announced, with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard competing for the sport's highest individual honor.
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Even though Leonard was included in the list of finalists, the MVP has seemingly been a one-on-one battle between Westbrook and Harden all year.
Westbrook became the face of the franchise in Oklahoma City this season after Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors last summer.
The 28-year-old responded with a historic performance in which he led the NBA in scoring (31.6 points per game), became the second player to average a triple-double over the course of an entire season and set a new NBA record with 42 triple-doubles in a season.
Kyle Wagner of Five Thirty Eight made the case for Westbrook as NBA MVP by noting his effort during the 2016-17 season was similar to what LeBron James did in helping the Cleveland Cavaliers win two games against the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals essentially by himself:
"Russell Westbrook has done over 82 games what James did for six. He has scrambled our sense of what game-altering dominance looks like in the age of advanced stats, and he’s done it largely without the benefit of the most important tool of the modern game: reliable 3-point shooting, from himself or his team. Westbrook’s success this season has argued convincingly that top-end efficiency isn’t an absolute requirement for success in today’s NBA, so long as you can make up for a dip in quality with sheer force of quantity."
Harden didn't match Westbrook stat for stat this season, though he was brilliant in much the same way Oklahoma City's star was.
The Beard finished second to Westbrook in scoring average (29.1), led the NBA with 11.2 assists per game and averaged a career-high 8.1 rebounds per game. He did that while leading the Houston Rockets to the third-best record in the league (55-27).
Unlike Westbrook, who could deviate from brilliant to frustrating in the span of a single quarter, CBS Sports' Matt Moore noted Harden displayed a level of consistency during the regular season that should help boost his profile:
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Leonard received a groundswell of support for the award late in the season because of his all-around ability, articulated by retired former teammate Matt Bonner in an article for the Players Tribune:
"Kawhi is also top 20 in the league in true shooting percentage. And he's hitting a clean 38% of his threes — which, as long as I'm making the argument … happens to be better than both Harden and Westbrook. And he's somehow managed to put up almost six rebounds and four assists per game on top of that. Sure, those other guys might have Kawhi beat pretty handily on assists … but keep in mind that they also have about three times as many turnovers. ...
"... As any sandwich lover knows, a great sandwich lives or dies by its bread. And as any NBA fan knows, defense wins championships.
"And Kawhi is the best defender in the NBA."
For the record, Leonard's impressive stat line during the 2016-17 season included a career-high 25.5 points per game, and he finished sixth in the NBA with 4.7 defensive win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Leonard did all of that while leading the Spurs to the second-best record in the NBA during the regular season. He is certainly a worthy candidate who stacks up well next to Westbrook and Harden, but it would be an upset if the Spurs' All-Star captured the MVP award.
For the first time, the NBA will hand out the MVP award during a televised ceremony on TNT that will air June 26 from Basketball City at Pier 36 in New York.