NBA MVP 2018: James Harden, LeBron James Take Two-Man Race into Final Night

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 11, 2018

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 09:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers controls the ball against James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in the first half at Toyota Center on November 09, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Tim Warner/Getty Images

No two NBA MVP races are the same.

Some have a clear-cut winner. Others have a thicker competitive field with multiple deserving candidates.

The 2017-18 version could qualify as either one, depending on one's perspective of the credentials held by James Harden and LeBron James.

Some see Harden as the obvious choice, and certain numbers seem to paint him as such. He's cruising toward his first scoring title with 30.6 points per game and leading the Association's top team by record and efficiency. He's set to join Michael Jordan as the only players to average at least 30 points and eight assists with a 60-plus true shooting percentage.

Kevin Durant said it's Harden's "time to win it," per The Athletic's Anthony Slater. Stephen Curry dubbed Harden "the leader in the clubhouse," via CBS Sports' Jack Maloney. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor thinks Harden should win the vote "decisively." USA Today's Sam Amick likes Harden "because he did it from beginning to end."

Even Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor tabs Harden as the winner regardless "whether votes seek to reward the player who had the best season or the one who was truly the most valuable."

When weighed against LeBron, Harden holds the statistical edge in almost every all-encompassing categoryplayer efficiency rating (29.9 to 28.6), win shares (15.2 to 14.0), box plus/minus (10.8 to 9.7), real plus-minus (6.41 to 4.36).

As ESPN Stats & Info observed, the levels of Harden's and Houston's successes have historically earned this award:

So, does LeBron even stand a chance entering Wednesday's finale? His stats suggest he deserves one.

At 33 years old, James is on pace to play all 82 games for the first time in his career and lead the league in minutes per game for the second straight season. The four-time MVP has never averaged this many assists (9.2) or rebounds (8.7), and this is the best he's ever shot while averaging this many points (54.3 percent, 27.7 points per game).

He might be the best player the NBA has ever seen—at worst, he's on a super short list of greats—and this could be the highest level he's ever reached.

"Obviously, I've had some unbelievable seasons before, but I've said it: This is the best I can go, just from a complete basketball player standpoint," James told Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 9: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks against the New York Knicks on April 9, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or u
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

If voters equate value to a player's importance, then James can make a loud argument.

With one game to play, Cleveland has a chance to match last season's win total despite: never replacing Kyrie Irving, guessing wrong on the Isaiah Thomas experiment, losing Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson to serious injuries, revamping its roster at the deadline and being dysfunctional enough for J.R. Smith to throw soup at an assistant coach.

The Cavs are in the championship race solely because they employ James. He might not have had a wire-to-wire run of dominance, but his peaks would be at home in a mountain range. Since the All-Star break, he's been good for 30.2 points, 10 rebounds and 9.8 assists on a nightly basis.

That's worth MVP consideration.

But our crystal ball says James' recent play only makes it a stronger second-placed finish and a closer vote. Harden remains an overwhelming favorite, and it's hard to envision the season's final night changing that.

               

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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