Most Valuable Player
1. James Harden
2. LeBron James
3. Anthony Davis
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
James and Harden are neck-and-neck in almost every metric.
If given a choice between game-planning for Harden or James in a seven-game series, 30 out of 30 teams would pick Harden within five seconds of being posed the question.
We've seen Chill Mode LeBron. This was different. LeBron at times stood still instead of rotating on defense. He occasionally decided not to close out on shooters.
During Cleveland's nadir, a couple of shooters caught the ball behind the arc, looked at LeBron as if expecting him to rush out, realized he had no plans to move, shrugged, and fired. Almost every other Cav played with the same sloth. It was, frankly, astonishing.
That is a bridge too far, even if the new Cavs are better than their broken, discarded predecessors.
Harden may not be a galvanizer, either. He let his relationship with Dwight Howard a couple of years ago disintegrate amid silence and unmade passes. He wilted facing elimination last season. That is part of the reason Houston added some fire in Paul. There will be a crisis moment in the playoffs when the Rockets need Harden to galvanize them.
But they haven't needed much of it in blitzing through this regular season, and that is the period voters consider. Houston has been the league's best team wire-to-wire, and Harden its best player.
He just wrapped the greatest season of isolation basketball in league history, acting as battering ram in Houston's blunt force attack: pick-and-roll, switch, back it out, fatality.
Harden's step-back 3-pointer and shoulder-checking drives have long obscured his brilliance as a passer. Harden's style can bore, but there are few NBA moments more exciting than those eye-of-the-storm seconds in which Harden digests a switch and slides two steps back with a live dribble. His eyes dart side-to-side, the entire game in his hands.
Harden is an offense unto himself. He is never going to be a plus defender. Even a disengaged LeBron, outside those outlier winter weeks of discontent, is a more impactful defender simply through the power of reputation and size. People fear the sudden appearance of dialed-in LeBron. They avoid him.
Bottom line: This is Harden's year. Given equal statistical profiles, it is hard to reward an alpha player (LeBron) whose team -- the fourth seed entering Wednesday in the junior varsity conference -- is beset by constant, season-threatening melodrama.