Less than a month of the NBA regular season remains. And while Playoff seedings – especially at the head of each Conference – are the primary focus, the first prizes of the campaign will be decided when the 82 games are up.
Who ends up lifting the league’s Most Valuable Player honour is arguably harder to predict than the title itself – a four-thoroughbred race that could rest on whose team finishes strongest headed into the post-season.
It’s almost impossible to make a compelling argument for who comes out on top between Houston Rockets reborn guard James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder’s triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, the improbably-under-rated LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the impossibly-forgotten San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard.
All while discounting Kevin Durant who might have trumped the lot if not for the injury that curtailed his campaign two weeks back.
Harden’s emergence as 1.70 favourite was unimaginable 12 months ago. The defensive disaster zone who hogged the ball like it were going out of fashion has become the playmaker extraordinaire under Mike D’Antoni, a latter day Steve Nash but with more points on the board.
With Houston rising to third place in the West with a 47-21 record, he has the team achievements to back his case. Which may give him a critical edge over former team-mate Westbrook, the second favourite at 2.25.
That may be grossly unfair given the number the OKC dynamo is putting up in averaging 31.7 points, 10.4 assists and 10.5 rebounds – stats not seen since Oscar Robertson’s historical season 55 years ago – while keeping the post-Durant Thunder competitive. But wins and losses historically count in MVP voting. It will likely undo his cause.
James is notching 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.9 assists for a still up-and-down Cavs and it remains extraordinary that he has only been the Most Valuable four times.
But perhaps the one threat to Harden is Leonard – putting up 26.4 points and six rebounds while becoming the NBA’s defender par excellence. The Spurs might yet end up with the league’s best record and at 6.00, he’s great value to do what he so often does: catch everyone out on the blind side.
On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s fitting to look at the Boston Celtics who are hunting down Cleveland for first place in the East. Normally, you’d expect their weekend double-header against the paupers of Brooklyn (Friday) and Philadelphia (Sunday) to be like finding a leprechaun at the end of the rainbow.
But Isaiah Thomas is slated to sit out both games. The C’s first-choice line-up has gone 21-7 this term and while they’re good enough to beat both in his absence, look at a little less scoring and perhaps a lower handicap than the norm.
Best bet: Go under 105.5 total points in Brooklyn-Boston