All-star guard James Harden will be sidelined for at least two weeks with a right hamstring strain, according to ESPN. Before this injury, Harden was the frontrunner to win his first MVP award. In 35 games this season, Harden has been averaging astronomical numbers of 32.3 points, five rebounds, and 9.1 assists per game on 45 percent shooting from the field. Most people around the league had Harden as the MVP of the season so far. Now, with a grade two hamstring strain, his MVP status is in jeopardy. Also, the Rockets record can dive. Houston had lost five of six anyway. Luckily for Houston, Chris Paul is back, and he will have to pick up the slack. Then again, if Houston wins without Harden, it can hurt Harden’s MVP candidacy.
Harden’s injury is unchartered territory for Harden and Houston. Harden has never missed more than nine games in a season, and Houston relies on Harden heavily for offense. Who might take the lead in the MVP race now that is Harden out for a while?
Lebron James is the first name that comes to mind. In most people’s eyes, he is second in the race right now. Lebron is having a career year in his 15th season, averaging 27.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game. He is playing the best basketball of his life and is known for his durability. The only thing that can hurt him is the return of the Isaiah Thomas. Thomas may take some of the scoring load off of James, which may cause a dip in James’ numbers. It is still likely that James will continue putting up massive numbers despite the return of Thomas.
The other candidates to jump in front of the MVP race are Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kyrie Irving. Durant has rounded out his game this season averaging career highs in blocks and assists per game. He also gets credit for carrying the Warriors to a 9-2 record in the absence of Steph Curry. Despite that Durant will need a big second-half push to pass James and Harden. Russell Westbrook is making a big push after a slow start to the season. In December, Westbrook is averaging 27.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 10.6 assists per game. Another month like that and Westbrook will be firmly in the MVP race. It also helps that the Thunder have turned things around and have gone 12-5 in December.
Giannis Antetokumpo is still putting up monster numbers in Milwaukee but may be hurt by his team record. He is averaging 29 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game, but Milwaukee is only 19-16. Last year, Westbrook won the award with just 45 wins, but it is a lot tougher to do. He had to average a triple-double last season to pull that off. For Giannis to win, Milwaukee will likely need to improve their record. Finally, there is Kyrie Irving. Irving has led the Celtics to a 30-10 record while averaging 24.9 points and 4.9 assists per game. He has also hit several clutch shots this season. What may hurt Irving is the balance of the Celtics team. They have gotten significant contributions all over the place and haven’t solely relied on Irving.
All of these candidates have a chance now with Harden opening the door. However, Harden still has a chance to win the award himself. You can be the MVP and miss two weeks of a season. It has happened before. The worry is if Harden misses any more time than that. As I mentioned earlier, if Houston wins without Harden, it can hurt Harden’s chances. They actually might, as the schedule is favorable while Harden is out. They could also lose, and that can hurt Houston’s record, but that is less of concern to Harden and his chances of winning MVP. If Harden only missed two weeks and the Rockets are 0.500 in his absence, that is his best-case scenario.
Once he returns and puts up the same numbers he has been putting up all season, he will remain the MVP favorite. He will indeed have my vote. However, there is a lot of basketball still to be played, and for now, Harden’s injury opens the door for the other MVP candidates to make their case. The race just got a whole lot more competitive.