Harden has 37 points, Rockets rout Thunder, Westbrook 118-87

Steven Adams ended the season in a rut, converting just 46.2 percent of his shots from the field in April. The other top MVP contenders play on teams that may have still made the postseason without them, but Westbrook carried a team that seemed destined for the draft lottery into a comfortable playoff position with almost a month to spare in the season.

Aside from their struggles against the Golden State Warriors, the Thunder have played competitively against the NBA's top teams.

Westbrook was outstanding, but didn't play with as much of a rag-tag group that many made Oklahoma City out to be. For those who will be voting, they will have a lot of freedom to choose a candidate. Each has done plenty to solidify themselves at the top of many analysts lists, and they are nearly equally likely to win.

We had a similar race at the conclusion of the 1961-62 season, when Bill Russell beat out Wilt Chamberlain and his 50-point scoring average, Robertson and his triple-double season, Elgin Baylor's 38-point scoring average and Jerry West's 30-point scoring average. There's no question that each player is going to be the difference between an early exit or a sustained playoff run but the Rockets taking on the Thunder figures to be the most compelling first-round series in the postseason thanks to each team's style matching up well with the other. Oscar Robertson, the only player to average a triple-double for a full season prior to Westbrook, finished third in the MVP vote in the year of his achievement. He changed positions (from shooting guard to point guard), led the league in assists, and led a Rockets team many thought would miss the playoffs to the 3rd-best record in the league.

Harden added the most value, in terms of winning basketball games, of the four major candidates this season.

Led by Mike D'Antoni, the Rockets space the floor and shoot a league-high 40.3 3-pointers a game while making 14.4 of those attempts.

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But as Lowe himself admits in the excerpt above, Leonard has the luxury of playing within a brilliant system, whereas Harden and Westbrook are tasked with engineering wins through their own individual brilliance every night.

The Thunder went on to lose in five games to the Grizzlies in the second round.

Westbrook will be defended by his arch-enemy, Patrick Beverley, while Harden will be matched up against Andre Roberson. Westbrook is the favorite to win this year's MVP award, but his downfall could be his teams' only slightly above average record. With only one game left to play, Harden at 54-37 could fall short of that bench mark.

Anyone who watches even the slightest bit of NBA basketball should have caught wind of the season Russell Westbrook is having. The first-round matchup between the number three seed Rockets and sixth-seeded Thunder will have no bearing on the MVP trophy but will be yet another talking point in the raging discussion. And, despite being a 7-foot, 255-pound center, Adams is surprisingly unproductive in the post (0.83 of a point per possession) or on putbacks off offensive rebounds (2.6 second-chance points per game).

MVP debates are one of those fun sports arguments. LeBron James is deserving. Depending on what the panel bases their vote off of, James could easily be squeezed into the MVP conversation. But there's no denying the incredible, historic season Westbrook has turned in. James didn't put up the stats that either of them did, nor did he contribute to his team's victories as much as either of them did due to the Cavaliers strong supporting staff, regardless of the injuries they underwent. Leonard isn't the best player, or the most dominant scorer. If James were traded to another team, his new team would become an immediate championship contender. If Kawhi's on their best player, suddenly that guy's standing around on the weak side, barely part of any play. It has to be done over the duration of a season and also take into account the inevitable lulls that all players and teams go through.