DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And the NBA Playoffs have begun. They are long playoffs. When this is finally over in about two months, we will know which NBA team is the best team in professional basketball. But Mike Pesca, host of the Slate podcast "The Gist," says that for fans, there is another question that's not really easy to answer.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Who is the best basketball player in the world? It is an intriguing ponderable made tangible by the - OK, it's LeBron James. I mean, who are we kidding? It's LeBron James. However, who is the most valuable player in the league this year? LeBron's great, but he won't win.
Steph Curry is also a great player. He won't win this year. Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, also a great player, also won't win. Saying Kawhi Leonard is the NBA MVP is like saying George Harrison was the greatest Beatle. I know. I know. He's adept. He keeps the group together. He wrote "Here Comes The Sun," George, not Kawhi. We're not saying he's not great. But the question isn't great. It's the greatest. There are a couple of guys named Paul and John out there, just like there are a couple of guys named James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook inherited an Oklahoma City team devoid of departed superstar Kevin Durant and carried them into the playoffs. They are, however, losing in those playoffs to Houston, a team that, largely due to James Harden, was one of the top 10 offenses in NBA history. This season, Westbrook became only the second player ever to average a triple double over an entire season - double digits points, assists, rebounds.
Triple doubles are like number-one singles in pop music. You could be great without getting one, but even Hall of Fam´ers can only hope for a few during their careers. Except this year, Russell Westbrook tallied a triple double more often than he didn't. Based on not just the stat but the excellence that the stat conveys, Westbrook seems likely to win the award. SB Nation has been surveying voters, and that's where the vote is headed. And that's why I think James Harden should be the most valuable player.
Harden had a tremendous, impactful season that at least rivals Westbrook's. His candidacy might not enjoy the catchy slogan of a triple double in every pot, but it was scintillating and deserving of MVP. So if he wins the award, in the next breath, for years to come, will be the statement, and to give you some idea of how great James Harden's season was, he won the MVP the same year Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double.
Sometimes history is served by means other than the official. Two examples - in 1941, Joe DiMaggio won the American League MVP. That was the same year Ted Williams hit .406. And that's what we always say about 1941 - the same year that Ted Williams hit .406. And now everyone's honored. In the 141 history of baseball, 23 pitchers have thrown perfect games. Armando Galarraga was not one of them. But he would have been had the first-base umpire not blown a call on the last out. And yet, more people remember that and will speak of Galarraga's accomplishment and class and comportment then will remember if he were actually on that exclusive list.
In sports, we often conflate going down in the record books with going down in the history books. Russell Westbrook set a record. Let James Harden have the MVP trophy, and both will go down in the real history, which is the story we all remember about an amazing season.
GREENE: And that is the amazing Mike Pesca, who is host of the Slate podcast, "The Gist."
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, Mike Pesca said that Russell Westbrook averaged double digits this season in points, steals and rebounds. Westbrook did not average double digits in steals. His triple-double was for double-digit averages in points, assists and rebounds.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.