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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
<p>FILE - In this March 5, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) smiles on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, in Dallas. Westbrook was once considered selfish and out of control. Now, he's harnessed his fury and competitive fire to become the ultimate teammate. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)</p>

FILE - In this March 5, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) smiles on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, in Dallas. Westbrook was once considered selfish and out of control. Now, he's harnessed his fury and competitive fire to become the ultimate teammate. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

Usually the NBA’s annual MVP race is fairly clear cut.

Each year, there are a handful of players who are definitely deserving. Of that batch, maybe there are two or three who really stand out.

And then there’s the frontrunner who everybody knows will win.

But not this year.

Statistically speaking, this has been one of the wildest years in league history.

Take, for instance, this example: This season, the NBA tied the record for most individual 50-point games (eight) in league history.

And that was back in January.

It’s safe to say there are a number of highly qualified players who can bring home this year’s MVP trophy, and choosing just one may prove to be one of the hardest decisions in recent memory.

Here are the likely candidates:

1. Russell Westbrook, guard, Oklahoma City Thunder

In my eyes, Westbrook is the favorite.

And it’s pretty clear why: The dude is averaging a triple-double.

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No, that wasn’t a typo. Westbrook is averaging 31.9 points, 10.4 assists and 10.6 rebounds per game. That’s completely ridiculous, even for a super-athletic professional basketball player who creates a highlight reel every time he steps out onto the court.

Westbrook is probably the biggest crowd-drawing superstar in the NBA right now, especially while leading the Thunder (43-33) to an improbable playoff berth after former All-Star teammate Kevin Durant left in free agency last summer.

If Westbrook continues on his current pace, he’ll become just the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double.

The first? Oscar Robertson during the 1961-1962 season.

He was pretty good, right?

2. James Harden, guard, Houston Rockets

Second place goes to Harden, who has had to completely reinvent himself to lead the Rockets (52-25) to a third seed in a loaded Western Conference.

Harden has always been one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers. But this season, with a new head coach and a new offensive scheme, Harden has played more at point guard, distributing the ball to his teammates and ensuring Houston’s offense runs smoothly.

And he’s proven — yet again — that he’s a legit MVP candidate.

He’s averaging 29.2 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game, a huge increase from his 7.5 assists per game last season.

Plus, he’s doing it all with a gross, bushy beard. That can’t be easy.

3. LeBron James, forward, Cleveland Cavaliers

I am of the opinion that LeBron should always be in the MVP conversation. And, in reality, he should probably win it. Every. Damn. Year.

The 6-foot-8, 249-pound three-time NBA Champion is undisputedly the best basketball player on the planet, and has won the MVP award four times. He is the sole reason the Cavaliers won the title last year, and why they’re even a lock for the playoffs this year.

I’ll just say it: Without LeBron, would the Cavs even make the playoffs? (Fight me, emailers.)

So, yes, he’s really good. He’s averaging 26.3 points, 8.7 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game this season.

But how boring would it be if LeBron won it every year?

That’s why he finishes in third.

Everyone knows how good LeBron is. And in a league where Westbrook may end the season averaging a triple-double, The King will probably have to take a back seat to the younger generation.

Also receiving votes:

Kawhi Leonard, forward, San Antonio Spurs.

Isaiah Thomas, guard, Boston Celtics.

Ian Cohen is a sports writer. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at icohen@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @icohenb.

FILE - In this March 5, 2017, file photo, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) smiles on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, in Dallas. Westbrook was once considered selfish and out of control. Now, he's harnessed his fury and competitive fire to become the ultimate teammate. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

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