LeBron James has rolled back the years to produce some phenomenal performances this season and he is in with a great chance of winning a fifth MVP title. If he can pull it off, he will become only the fourth player of all time to win five or more regular season MVP awards. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar claimed it a record six times, while Michael Jordan – widely considered the greatest player in NBA history – has just five statues to his name.
Bill Russell also has five, and James would join an elite group if he were to add to his haul of four this season. However, this is a notoriously difficult award to win, competition is fierce and one man in particular stands in his way right now.
James Harden knows just how tough it is to be named regular season MVP as he has twice finished runner-up in the past three years. Last season he looked to have the award sewn up, only for Russell Westbrook to ramp his performances up by several notches towards the end of the season and snatch the title from Harden’s grasp.
Westbrook inspired Oklahoma City to several pulsating fourth quarter comebacks and became just the second player in history to average a triple double over the course of a season, and that was enough to eventually sway voters. It was a two-horse race and Westbrook claimed it by the finest of margins.
Harden would have been a very worthy winner as he sent records tumbling in his wake and produced some stunning performances, but he was ultimately disappointed. This season, The Beard is daring voters not to give it to him.
He leads the league for points per game, and is second in assists, has the fifth highest number of steals and the most three pointers. He has the best efficiency rating in the NBA and is the best player on the team with the best record so far. He should be a shoo-in for the award this season.
But once again it looks like developing into a two-horse race and James is putting forward a compelling argument of his own. He is about to turn 33, but the great man has made a mockery of Father Time and given further fuel to the legions of fans that put him ahead of Jordan in the all-time stakes by producing some sensational performances.
He is more efficient than he has been in years, he is averaging his most points since 2009-10 and he is shooting the highest percentage of his career, from the field and beyond the arc. He has carried his injury-ravaged team to second in the east and has almost singlehandedly maintained the Cavaliers’ status as an elite team, despite losing Kyrie Irving in the summer.
He ranks second behind Harden for efficiency, but has done so in an arguably weaker team. Harden put in some great work when Chris Paul was injured, but James has had to run the show for Cleveland all season as Isaiah Thomas is a long-term absentee.
Can anyone else force themselves into contention? The Golden State Warriors have assembled the most star-studded roster in the league, but for that reason the likes of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are pretty much out of the running.
To win the MVP award you have to essentially carry a team and post extraordinary figures on a consistent basis. The Warriors share the load and share the points around the team.
They are frontrunners on Sporting Index to win their games going forwards and win the Championship again as they dazzle with their collective brilliance. But those players are unlikely to scoop awards for individual virtuosity.
Over in Oklahoma City, Westbrook now has two superstars alongside him in Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. He no longer carries the team, but OKC has underwhelmed this season and Westbrook’s stats have gone south.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek freak, led the running in the opening weeks of the season, but Harden and James have since overtaken him.
Antetokounmpo was named Most Improved Player last season and was challenged by Kobe Bryant to become an MVP, and has responded with a seven-point rise in scoring and some eye-catching performances for the Bucks.
However, his stats have mellowed over the past month and he is falling behind the frontrunners. Harden is now the even money favourite with fixed-odds betting sites, while James is the 7/2 second favourite, and Antetokounmpo is out at 7/1.
Irving could be an interesting dark horse at 10/1 as he has inspired the Boston Celtics to a huge improvement since heading east in the summer. However, while he has been consistently excellent, his figures are by no means as eye-popping as those posted by Harden and James.
It looks like developing into a straight fight between those two, and Harden has the legs to keep up his level of performance over the course of the entire season, so it is understandable that he is currently the favourite.
It feels like his turn to win it, so he could have sentimental appeal with voters after being denied last season. But James could also benefit from goodwill if voters feel he deserves to be level with Jordan and Russell in the all-time stakes.
There is a long way to go this season and the MVP race should develop into a fascinating battle, but right now Harden is in the driving seat.
Martin Green is an experienced sports writer and has been covering the NBA for many years.