This Moment's MVP

It’s a bad time in the NBA right now. In the month of January, the teams at the top have looked very much like they’d rather be doing anything else. The Dallas Mavericks, for instance, just beat the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers on back to back nights. Chaos and confusion reign supreme over the land, and everyone seems to be hoping for a break in February. If this sounds like I’m saying the NBA might be struggling an ongoing national tumult, that’s because I’m saying that. Head coaches Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Stan Van Gundy have all spoken out about it, decrying the actions of the new presidential administration. As the nation goes, so goes the NBA. Anything can happen, and we’re caught in the grips of a bizarre moment. What happens this season will be a record of that moment, and its impact on the league.

Consider, for instance, the number one storyline of the season so far. Who will win the MVP? The debate has not been about who the best team is (we know the answer) or who they will face in the finals (we know that answer, too, and don’t pretend you don’t). Instead what has captured our attention, in a time of data and analytics, are two players: James Harden and Russell Westbrook. James Harden has led the Houston Rockets to an unlikely third seed in the west, and despite a recent slump, they look likely to hold onto this position. If you’re reading this, you know about the abilities of mister Harden. You also likely know about the living hurricane that takes the court for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple double, which is intense. More importantly, he is averaging a one thousand in intensity. So far, this is your MVP race.

Why are these two men the front-runners? Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors is the best player on the best team. LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers is probably the second best player in history. They have the credentials. What they don’t have, however, is a tie to our moment. We live in the shadow of a political climate both momentous and frightening. The players, commentators and fans of the National Basketball Association are, broadly speaking, to the left of the average american voter. For us to move on this will need to be made clear and agreed upon. These are, by and large, people who vote Democrat, and people who are openly aghast at the last several months of our nation’s politics. For full disclosure, I share these concerns. And agree with them or not, many people share these concerns, in particular the fans, members, and coverage of the NBA.

Russell Westbrook isn’t just an amazing basketball player, he’s also a totem of the wave of emotion sweeping across the country. He is a man betrayed, rising furiously to overcome the forces he should have no chance against. We see him as a man who minces no words, gives no shits, and accepts no losses. How much this actually aligns with reality is frankly irrelevant. He says he doesn’t care about stats, or all-star selections, or the MVP award, and we accept this despite being obviously false. The Oklahoma City Thunder are bending over backwards to make sure he maintains this triple double average, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. His team is a decent but hardly great team, but the losses only serve to make his wins more impressive. He feeds from the same fount as Bernie Sanders did, achieving impossible wins in an unwinnable war, striking out against a widely-felt malaise and oppression.

Russell Westbrook is a doomed rebel, and for this, we overlook everything else.

Yet, somehow, James Harden always seems to stay one step ahead. Even as Harden and his team falter here and there, they maintain an insurmountable lead in the stat that matters most: wins. Harden’s better efficiency helps his team play better, and his team is a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. Harden is effortless, savvy, and smarter than everyone on the court. He’s also arrogant, oft-times disinterested and one of the most hated players in the game. If Westbrook is an extension of the desperate hopes pinned upon Sanders, Harden is a much-hated engine of inevitability. You can’t believe I’m going to say this and neither can I, but here we go. James Harden is the NBA Hillary Clinton.

Both players have their die-hards, but the sense of buzz around Westbrook is far greater, while there remains, somehow, a consensus that in final summary Harden should probably get the award. Consider the NBA all star ballot, in which Harden captured more votes than Westbrook, despite all the excitement. Perhaps Harden has more name recognition. Perhaps the city of Houston is simply much, much bigger (and dare I say more culturally relevant) than Oklahoma City. Perhaps people have already judged Westbrook to be a doomed malcontent, merely a funnel for our populist rage against gathering forces, while Harden is a virtuoso who takes more explanation to enjoy but whose resume is simply better. The vote has spoken, however, and these are the top two MVP candidates, at least for now.

Wait, but didn’t both Harden and Westbrook lose the vote out to someone else? And wait, if Westbrook is a Bernie-like act of outrage against perceived unfairness, who did him that wrong? If Westbrook came in third like Sanders, Harden came in second like Clinton, which player or team came in first, like President Trump? That may well remain a mystery. If there’s been an unstoppable consolidation of power in the NBA that bends the league to the breaking point, a team upon whom we can project all our dissatisfaction, I don’t know which team it is. And if I knew, I certainly wouldn’t say it.

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