With reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Kevin Durant out of the running for a repeat due to injuries, the race for the 2014-15 Maurice Podoloff Trophy has been fascinatingly wide-open, with as many as a half-dozen players staking claim to consideration over the course of the season. As the playoffs near, though, that distinguished half-dozen — featuring the likes of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and Chris Paul, all of whom have done remarkable work in carrying their teams to postseason and/or championship contention — seems to have been whittled down to two top contenders.
One half of that twosome — Houston Rockets All-Star James Harden — made his feelings on the award race crystal clear in an expansive interview with NBA.com's Fran Blinebury:
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"I feel as though I am the MVP," Harden said. "I think the MVP is the most valuable player to your team. Obviously you have to be winning and be one of the top teams in this league and we are.
"I'm not taking credit away from anybody else in the league. But I've been consistent all year. I've just been doing the right things to put my team in situations to win, considering all of the different circumstances we've had to deal with."
The choice is more, he believes, than simply choosing his league-best 27.6 points per game over Stephen Curry leading the [Golden State] Warriors to an NBA-best  wins.
"I'm looking at all those things put together," Harden said. "Like I said, not taking away from Steph or that team. It's an unbelievable season that they're having. But we're having a pretty good season as well with all the injuries and all that we've been going through this season.
"Look, I understand that people can go either way with it. But for the most valuable player, I think I would have the edge."
Harden's position is absolutely defensible. An argument can be made that Harden's presence and individual abilities mean more to Houston's capacity to score than Curry's do for Golden State's:
The Warriors' and Rockets' offensive ratings, with and without Stephen Curry and James Harden pic.twitter.com/ZPmYnOLjqw
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 10, 2015
The sheer burden Harden bears in generating offense for a Rockets team without even a capable secondary facilitator, let alone an All-Star-level shot-creating running mate, led me to pick him back as my MVP back at the All-Star break. (At least one unibrowed NBA observer agrees.)
And while Curry's been even more insane than usual since the break — 24.5 points and 7.5 assists per game, shooting just under 50 percent from the field, a nuclear 52 percent from 3-point range (on 8.5 attempts per game) and 95 percent from the charity stripe — it's not like Harden's been slumping, putting up 28.1 points and 7.2 assists per game since the break and getting to the foul line an absurd 12.2 times per contest, continuing to grind out points for a Rockets club that's remained wrecked by injuries.
First without Terrence Jones, then without Dwight Howard, then without Patrick Beverley and now without Donatas Motiejunas, Harden has remained one of few constants on a Rockets team that sits just outside the top-10 in points scored per possession while also boasting a top-10 defense all season long (and, for much of the year, a top-five unit). After putting himself squarely in NBA pundits' crosshairs this summer by unashamedly declaring his belief that he is the best all-around basketball player in the world, Harden has done just about everything within his power to validate that seemingly outsized claim. By virtue of his peerless ability to sustain offensive life at the rim, at the line and at the arc, the Rockets have remained one of the league's best teams.
The issue, though, is that the Warriors have been the very best team, by a sizable margin. Moreover, while Harden's set about the nightly drudgework of dragging the Rockets drive-by-drive, foul-by-foul, to 53 wins, Curry has seemed to be soaring since the ball went up in October.
Blinebury's story was published about 20 minutes before tipoff in the Warriors' Thursday game against the Portland Trail Blazers, in which Curry broke his own NBA record for made 3-pointers in a single season en route to a monster 45-point performance in which he shot 17-for-23 from the floor and 8-for-13 from 3-point range. Curry also dished 10 assists against four turnovers in 35 minutes of work.
Curry scored 19 of those points in the fourth quarter, making every single shot he put up — 7-for-7 from the field, 2-for-2 from deep, 3-for-3 from the foul line — to lead Golden State to a 116-105 win. The Warriors point guard outscored the Blazers by himself in over the final 12 minutes, delighting the raucous Oracle Arena crowd and captivating a national TV audience on TNT to deliver the kind of signature moment that tends to serve as a debate-ender and leave everybody else playing for second.
That Curry so forcefully put away a Western playoff team in the fourth quarter seemed an especially pointed refutation of one of the most frequently cited arguments against Curry's candidacy: that he's played just 411 fourth-quarter minutes this season, 138th among 489 NBA players and nearly 100 fewer than Harden (505), and has not seen a second of fourth-quarter time in 18 of his 77 appearances.
It's almost like Curry was saying, "Never mind that I'm still ninth in the NBA in total fourth-quarter scoring despite the low-minute total, averaging about 31.2 points per 36 minutes of fourth-quarter time on 46.5/42.5/90.7 shooting splits, that I've only got five fewer fourth-quarter assists than Harden, and that I've also committed 19 fewer turnovers. Or that maybe the reason I don't have a ton of especially memorable fourth-quarter moments because I'm steamrolling chumps before the third quarter ends. Never mind all that. You want to see me do it in the fourth? Here you go. Say something now."
It led Curry's coach to say something he'd deliberately avoided thus far, according to ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss:
It took a little while, but Stephen Curry finally cracked Steve Kerr. After chiding Daryl Morey for vocally running James Harden's MVP campaign, after steadfastly avoiding a similar campaign on Curry's behalf, Curry's 45-point performance Thursday forced the words right out of the mouth of Golden State's coach.
"There's nothing left to say. Except that he's the MVP."
Kerr was asked, "That counts as campaigning?"
A grin spread across the coach's face. "Yes." Curry was incendiary enough to melt any pretenses. [...]
"He was, he was just -- I don't even know how to describe what I watched tonight," Kerr said before arriving on, "Scintillating. Every move, every shot, just amazing skill. I have never seen a player with this skill set."
(Pardon us while we recover from the shock of Steph's current coach taking a different tack than his former coach.)
Those inclined to do so will argue the merits of Curry vs. Harden right up until the announcement of the voting results and, in all likelihood, well after, too. There's no one hard and firm definition of "Most Valuable Player," so you can craft your own using all sorts of different measuring sticks. As Tim Kawakami of the Bay Area News Group notes, you might come away with a handful of different winners based on whether you consider "best overall player," "best player on the best team," "most important to the team" or "best overall season" as the determining criterion.
Harden's case has merit, and his confidence in it is not misplaced. Nor is Kerr off-base when he effusively praises the unprecedented nature of Curry's play and the remarkable individual season he's crafted in the context of larger team success. This might be a question with multiple correct responses and no absolute wrong ones.
That's what makes it so fun to ask, and attempt to answer, and what ought to make watching what comes next — like, say, for example, Harden's chance to return Curry's serve and get a measure of vengeance on the San Antonio Spurs in a Friday night contest with massive playoff implications — so fun to watch right through the end of this season.
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