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James Harden’s hold on the MVP race may be slipping

Some new polls have The Beard slipping in the MVP vote.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, we took a look at an early media poll, including some members who will be voting in the actual MVP race, and James Harden came out on top in a relatively close vote.

Now, after a three-game losing streak that featured The Bearded One struggling through a wrist injury and the Rockets losing their chance at the franchise record for wins, it appears Harden’s hold on the MVP trophy is significantly more tenuous than just 2 weeks ago.

A recent ESPN panel -- which is admittedly different than the earlier one we looked at — has Harden either tied or trailing Russell Westbrook in all three major polls.

The first part of the poll was, “Who will win the MVP trophy?” Out of the 72 total votes, it was split exactly down the middle, with Harden and Westbrook each taking 36 votes. That’s the best it got for The Beard, however.

The next question was, “Who should win the MVP award?” That one was heavily in Westbrook’s favor. He received 49 percent of the vote to Harden’s 33 percent, with Kawhi Leonard (14 percent), Lebron James (3 percent) and John Wall (1 percent) also receiving small portions.

Things got even worse for Harden in the fan portion of the vote, which Westbrook dominated at 58 percent. In fact, Harden didn’t even come in second place in that vote. He finished in third-place with 14 percent, just a hair behind Lebron James, who finished with a tally of 15 percent. Kawhi Leonard is fourth with 13 percent.

It’s just further proof that most members of the media are still looking for any reason possible to hand the award to Westbrook, that one subpar, injury-affected week from Harden can so drastically alter the MVP landscape.

I urge anyone still on the fence to take a long, hard look at what the word “valuable” really and truly means. Anyone who wants to give the award to Russ simply on the strength of a possible triple double average lacks true understanding of the word.

So what do these guys mean to their teams? Well, both teams would be jockeying for lottery balls without their respective superstar, that much is certain. So there’s no real differentiating factor there. So the next step is to look at team talent and expectations.

It’s revisionist history that Harden is playing with a more talented roster. Virtually no one (except us here at TDS) had the Rockets finishing above the Thunder in their preseason rankings. In fact, the most comprehensive, analytics-based preseason predictions came from fivethirtyeight. Here’s their criteria:

This forecast is based on 50,000 simulations of the season and accounts for team fatigue, travel distance to games, and home courts with higher altitudes. Elo ratings are a measure of team strength based on head-to-head results and quality of opponent, while our CARMELO projections estimate a player’s future performance based on the trajectory of other, similar NBA players. Our CARM-Elo ratings, which power the forecast model, blend these two metrics to measure a team's quality based on both its game results and its roster.

So where were the Thunder and Rockets in these rankings back in October? Well, fivethirtyeight had Oklahoma City as a 50-win squad and the fourth seed in the Western Conference. They had a 2 percent chance of actually finishing with the top seed in the West. In reality, the Thunder are on pace for 46 wins, a decidedly middle-of-the-road number. How “valuable” exactly has Westbrook’s season been if the Thunder have undershot the most reasonable of preseason rankings?

Don’t let the talking heads on ESPN fool you, this is a talented Thunder team. Russ, Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson — this was a high-ceiling, talented squad (albeit a young one) 6 months ago, and they’re even more talented today with the addition of Taj Gibson.

The Rockets, on the other hand, were predicted to barely make the playoffs, if at all. After the loss of Dwight Howard, many had them just talented enough to finish at .500 or slightly above, best-case scenario.

As for fivethirtyeight? They had the Rockets at 45-37 and the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. They had a less than 1 percent chance of getting the top seed. That says something about the type of season The Beard is having in order to lead the Rockets to the third seed and on pace for a 56-win season, or a full 11 games above their projection.

It’s just a little something extra to think about when deciding who’s actually meant more to their team. James Harden has led his squad above most reasonable expectations anyone had for the Rockets. While Westbrook has led his team to under-perform most preseason predictions.

Is not living up to expectations suddenly the new criteria for MVP? Apparently only when you’re competing for the award against James Harden.