Rest easy, NBA media folks.
We aren’t the only ones who can’t seem to agree on this MVP race.
The front office experts – guys who build rosters, run teams and scout talent for a living – are just as split as those of us who will ultimately decide the winner.
One night it’s Russell Westbrook who looks deserving, the Oklahoma City Thunder star who's attempting to join Oscar Robertson as the only other player to average a triple-double for an entire season. The next it’s James Harden, whose devastating combination of scoring and playmaking has his Houston Rockets looking like title contenders.
Kawhi Leonard has his own compelling case, as the San Antonio Spurs small forward is a supreme defender, a dynamic offensive talent, and the best player on a team that could finish with the league’s best record. Last but never least? The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, who is having one of the best individual seasons of his storied career and would become just the fourth player to win at least five MVP honors if he was selected. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had six, while Bill Russell and Michael Jordan had five.)
With no disrespect to the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas and the Washington Wizards’ John Wall, most agree that this is a four-player race. Yet as was revealed in a survey by USA TODAY Sports of 32 league executives, this race is as unclear as it is compelling.
The executives requested anonymity because of competitive reasons, and participants did not include members of the Thunder, Rockets, Spurs and Cavs because, well, objectivity might be tough to come by from those teams on this particular topic. The Los Angeles Lakers’ new general manager, Rob Pelinka, was also not polled because he was Harden’s agent until a few weeks ago.
The results were gathered throughout Sunday and Monday. Of the 32 executives who took part, 20 are general managers or front-office heads, and their vote totals are in parentheses.
1) Harden: 12 (seven among front office heads)
2) Westbrook: eight (six)
3) Leonard: seven (six)
4) James: five (one)
So that settles…absolutely nothing.
This exercise was the latest reminder that – following Stephen Curry’s unprecedented unanimous victory last season with the Golden State Warriors – this MVP race is expected to go down to the wire. The USA TODAY Sports weekly survey has Harden out front as well followed by Westbrook, James, Leonard, and Thomas.
When the individual MVP cases are so close, making one wonder if they shouldn’t just slice the Maurice Podoloff trophy into a gold-plated pie, the consensus from the executives who took part is that MVP moments matter even more.
So when Harden drops a triple-double on the defending champion Cavs like he did Sunday night, finishing with 38 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds to James’ 30 points, seven assists and five rebounds, it matters. Or when Leonard (39 points, six rebounds, five assists) outplays Harden (39 points, 12 assists, seven turnovers) like he did on March 6, when the Spurs won 112-110 in large part because of the Spurs star's transcendent two-way stretch in those finals seconds, that matters too. Westbrook had his own special time on that stage recently, too, as he outplayed Leonard in Oklahoma City on Thursday when the Thunder downed the Spurs 102-92 (Westbrook had 23 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists, while Leonard had 19 points, two rebounds and two assists). James, meanwhile, couldn’t be blamed for wondering what more he has to do to move up the ranks.
In the conversations with league executives, there was widespread deference to his dominance, a belief among many that he remains the best player in the league. Even by James’ elevated standards, he’s having a tremendous year (including a career-high in assists) for a Cavs team that has been plagued with serious injuries to numerous starters yet remains atop the Eastern Conference.
Like so many media members, many executives said the Thunder’s overall record might, hypothetically, preclude them from voting for him. While Oklahoma City (37-29, sixth in the West) is certainly better than expected after losing Kevin Durant in free agency, a vote for Westbrook would mark a departure from the league’s history. Since 1976, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the award despite his Los Angeles Lakers finishing sixth in the Western Conference while missing the playoffs, every MVP has come from a team that finished with at least the fourth-best record in its respective conference.
There was widespread amazement at Leonard’s defense, too, executives marveling at how he could be so elite at both ends of the court. Harden, who is having his best season in concert with first-year Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, clearly has no shortage of front office admirers as well. He is first in the league in assists and third in scoring for a team that few envisioned would be this good.
May the best man win, in other words. And good luck figuring out who that might be.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.