The 2017 NBA MVP race has been one for the ages. It only took a few months into the 2016-17 season for Russell Westbrook and James Harden to emerge as the leading contenders for the MVP award.
This year’s race was unique in many ways. The NBA announced early in the season the MVP along with all the other NBA awards would all be announced on Monday, June 26 at an awards ceremony. This pushed the MVP award date back from right after the regular season to the new June 26 date.
While the announcement was pushed back, voters were not able to consider the playoffs as part of their decision. Voters were required to submit their vote by April 14.
The league could not have predicted it was about to see one of the most interesting MVP battles in recent memory. Westbrook averaged a triple-double, a feat that had not happened in over 50 years. Harden led the Rockets to one of the best team turnarounds this season.
The two players were former teammates with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The two players along with Kevin Durant formed one of the most dynamic trios in the league for three seasons (2009-12). Harden would be traded to the Rockets, and developed into a superstar player for Houston. The former teammates not only competed in the 2017 playoffs, but for the MVP award.
It is an MVP race that has sparked great debates on how success should be measured for an NBA player. At the risk of oversimplifying both arguments, Westbrook’s supporters have pointed to his triple-double season as to why he should win the award. Those who argued for Harden liked the success he brought to the entire team, as the Rockets landed the third seed in the West.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2017 NBA MVP race.
1. Westbrook Led Harden in an Unofficial Survey of Voters Prior to the June 26 Announcement
There are 100 people who vote on NBA MVP. SB Nation’s Dream Shake was able to get the first place voting results from 72 of these 100 voters. Some voters announced on Twitter who they voted for, while SB Nation reached out to others to see if they would reveal their vote.
The site was then able to conduct an unofficial vote tally based on these results. Based on these results, Westbrook is a heavy favorite to win the award. According to SB Nation’s research, Westbrook had 48 first-place votes while Harden had 18 first-place votes. Harden did have 29 second-place votes compared to 11 for Westbrook.
Based on their results, SB Nation projected Westbrook as the MVP winner.
2. Westbrook Is a Heavy Favorite to Win the NBA MVP in the Vegas Odds
Not only does the research show Westbrook is likely to win the award, the Vegas oddsmakers like him as well. According to OddsShark, Westbrook is the favorite to win at -1400. Harden is next in line at +700. Kawhi Leonard is a distant third in the odds at +2500.
While Leonard is listed in the odds, the MVP has been a two-player race for most of the season. According to SB Nation’s research, Leonard only received five first-place votes out of the 72 voters who publicized their voting decisions.
3. Westbrook Was the First Player Since Oscar Robertson to Average a Triple-Double
Prior to Westbrook’s outlandish season, Oscar Robertson was the last player to average a triple-double during the 1961-62 season. Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists.
“I could never say in a million years that I would ever think that [averaging a triple-double] was even possible,” Westbrook told ESPN. “For me to do it, it’s extremely a blessing. It’s something that I’m honored to be able to do, especially in this game today, at the highest level. It’s a blessing. I’m just very thankful and happy to be able to do it.”
4. Harden Led the Rockets to 55 Wins & the No. 3 Seed in the West
Harden’s MVP supporters have pointed to the difference he made in improving the Rockets. Houston went from 41 wins in the 2015-16 season to 55 wins for the 2016-17 season. The Rockets ended up losing to the Spurs in the the Western Conference semifinals. While Harden did not average a triple-double, he put up impressive numbers this past season.
Harden averaged 29 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds. What is particularly notable is Harden went from averaging 7.5 assists to 11.2 assists during the 2016-17 season.
People like The Ringer’s Bill Simmons have noted the triple-double statistic is a bit of an arbitrary measurement. Harden’s numbers are comparable despite not averaging double-digit rebounding numbers. Simmons wrote about why Harden received his vote.
And look, there’s barely any difference between Westbrook’s 32–11–10 and Harden’s 29–11–8. (I’d rather have the 29–11–8 and 400 more shots going to everyone else…the Rockets were pegged as a fringe playoff team with only one All-Star and even lower expectations than OKC. And we didn’t know what to expect with Harden. After he finished second in the 2015 MVP voting, the Dwightbola virus turned him into a smoke-and-mirrors superstar last season. Why didn’t it seem like he cared? Was he turning into a glorified DH? This year, a rejuvenated Harden grabbed the point guard reins (why doesn’t he get more credit for switching positions, by the way?), made a bunch of role players better and transformed the Rockets into the league’s second-best offense. And not just that — they finished with one of the TEN BEST REGULAR-SEASON OFFENSES OF All TIME.
5. Westbrook & Harden Squared Off in the First Round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs
In years past, the Thunder-Rockets series would have served as a payback opportunity for either Westbrook or Harden. The NBA previously announced the award after the regular season ended. If that tradition had continued this past season, the player that came in second would have had something extra to play for in the series.
The Rockets made short work of the Thunder, winning the series 4-1. Harden averaged 33.2 points, seven assists and 6.4 rebounds in the five games against Westbrook. Westbrook continued putting up eye-popping numbers. He averaged 37.4 points, 11.6 rebounds and 10.8 assists in the series.
In addition to winning the playoff series, Harden led the Rockets to eight more victories than Westbrook’s Thunder in the regular season. Harden has been vocal about his feelings that team record should be the most important factor when voting for MVP.
“I think [team record is] the most important thing. I thought winning is what this is about — period,” Harden told CBS Sports. “I’m not going to get in-depth with all that, but I thought winning was the most important thing. If you set your team up in a position to have a chance, at the ultimate goal, that’s the most important thing.”
Despite the success the Rockets had this season, it looks like the voters sided with Westbrook’s historic season.