The NBA announced Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets point guard James Harden and San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard as the finalists for the 2016-17 NBA Most Valuable Player Award on Friday.
The league also confirmed the final contenders for the Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man Award, Most Improved Player and Coach of the Year honors on TNT ahead of Eastern Conference Finals Game 2 clash between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics at TD Garden.
Let's check out a complete list of finalists for the six coveted individual honors. The winners, chosen by sportswriters and broadcasters, will be announced as part of the first-ever NBA Awards telecast June 26 on TNT from Basketball City in New York City.
2016-17 NBA Award Finalists
Most Valuable Player
Russell Westbrook (OKC)
James Harden (HOU)
Kawhi Leonard (SAS)
Rookie of the Year
Dario Saric (PHI)
Joel Embiid (PHI)
Malcolm Brogdon (MIL)
Defensive Player of the Year
Kawhi Leonard (SAS)
Rudy Gobert (UTA)
Draymond Green (GSW)
Sixth Man Award
Eric Gordon (HOU)
Andre Iguodala (GSW)
Lou Williams (HOU)
Most Improved Player
Rudy Gobert (UTA)
Nikola Jokic (DEN)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL)
Coach of the Year
Erik Spoelstra (MIA)
Mike D'Antoni (HOU)
Gregg Popovich (SAS)
Handicapping MVP Race
Favorite: Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Westbrook took on a remarkable burden in Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant opted to bolt for the Golden State Warriors last offseason. The 28-year-old responded with one of the most impressive statistical seasons in decades.
He put up 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game to become the first player to average a triple-double for an entire campaign since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. His scoring total was also enough to lead the NBA by 2.5 points per game over Harden.
The advanced numbers tell a similar tale. He ranked first in the league in both player efficiency rating and value added, according to ESPN.com.
Westbrook's nightly dominance allowed OKC to remain competitive in the Western Conference en route to a 47-35 record and a playoff berth as a No. 6 seed. In addition, he never seemed to wear down despite the ridiculous workload, thanks in part to a mindset he discussed with DJ Gallo of the Guardian.
"Why not? That's my motto," he said. "That's what I believe. Some people may play with it and laugh with it, but that's how I really think, what I really believe. I never know what's possible or what's not possible, what people can or can't do. I don't limit myself. I just say 'why not' and continue to play, and that's my motto, and I stand behind it."
While every MVP finalist features a strong case for the award, the others weren't leaned on as heavily as Westbrook, who also led the league in usage rate by a substantial margin. The Thunder needed him to produce an otherworldly season, and he delivered.
Biggest Threat: James Harden (Houston Rockets)
It felt like a gimmick when the Rockets decided to put Harden, a longtime shooting guard, in charge of the offense as their new starter at the point. Instead, he proved the doubters wrong by leading the NBA in assists per game (11.2) while ranking second in the league in scoring.
Like Westbrook, his team asked him to handle an inordinate amount of the offensive tasks. That's the main reason the pair of guards pretty much turned the MVP conversation into a two-horse race. They had less surrounding talent than Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James or the Golden State Warriors' superstars.
The standings are where Harden held an edge over his OKC counterpart. The Rockets finished 55-27, eight games better than the Thunder, to earn the third seed in the West. He also won the head-to-head playoff series, though the postseason is not a consideration in the MVP debate.
"You kind of have to reward the better team, I would think, record-wise," Curry said on The Dan Patrick Show in March. "That's just kind of going in the history of the MVP award. So, I think James will probably edge him out just off of that."
Both Harden and Westbrook produced resumes worthy of taking home the MVP trophy, so there isn't a wrong choice. That said, the triple-double pursuit brought the Thunder star more headlines and probably gives him the edge.
Long Shot: Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs)
There may not be a better match between player and team in all of sports than Leonard and the Spurs. It's a marriage in the same vein as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots or Lionel Messi and Barcelona. He's a quiet, amusing star for a franchise that's captured five titles since 1999.
His development since San Antonio acquired him from the Indiana Pacers in a draft-night trade involving George Hill in 2011 is astonishing. He's now an efficient scorer and a lockdown defender, putting him in the conversation with James as the best two-way player in the NBA.
One thing the Spurs never spend much time talking about is individual honors, though. Fran Blinebury of NBA.com pointed out Leonard maintained that stance when asked about the MVP race in March.
"I don't know how they pick or choose it," he said. "I'm just playing basketball."
His value has been on full display since his injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. San Antonio, which led by 25 points in the second half before he left, has been getting obliterated since. Golden State grabbed a commanding 2-0 series lead Tuesday with a 36-point victory at Oracle Arena.
Quick Picks for Other Awards
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)
Sixth Man Award: Andre Iguodala (Golden State Warriors)
Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs)