-- The hours we spent debating who was the NBA's 2016-17 MVP felt like something of a waste when the top two finishers, winner Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder and runner-up James Harden of the Houston Rockets, both saw their teams eliminated from the playoffs by the time the conference finals began.
While there's an important role for recognizing regular-season success, as contending teams have placed less value on 82 games than the 16 they need in the playoffs to win a championship, a chasm has grown between the league's most valuable players from October through April and those who have the most impact in April, May and June.
To recognize both regular-season and playoff performance, in 2014 I created the ESPN Insider Golden Basketball award -- our version of FIFA's Ballon d'Or, which is handed out to soccer players based on their efforts over the previous calendar year.
Nobody has benefited from this change in view more than LeBron James. While James has yet to win an MVP during that four-year span, this is his third Golden Basketball award (he won previously in? 2014 and 2016, with Stephen Curry interrupting his reign in 2015), recognizing that James' dominance goes far beyond the 82 games of the regular season.
1. LeBron James
2016 rank:?No. 1
R?sum?:?All-NBA First Team
Though his Cavaliers couldn't beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, James was the league's best player over the course of the playoffs, leading Cleveland to a 12-1 romp through the Eastern Conference with a less balanced attack than the Warriors boasted with both Curry and Kevin Durant.
James has picked up where he left off in the 2017-18 regular season. In contrast to his usual tendency to play his weakest basketball in the first two months of the season before throttling up in anticipation of the playoffs, James leads the league in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric so far in 2017-18. That means this could be the first time in five years that James adds another MVP to his five Golden Basketball awards (including two awarded retroactively, for 2012 and 2013).
2. Kevin Durant
Golden State Warriors
2016 rank:?No. 3
R?sum?: NBA Finals MVP
The choice between Curry and Durant hinges on how much value you put on the six games of the 2017 NBA Finals. There's no question that Durant was the most important player in the Finals, winning MVP on the strength of his 35.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game in the series (plus the winning shot in the only close finish, Game 3).
The rest of the way, Curry has probably been the more important Warriors star, as evidenced by Golden State going 15-4 during the 19 games Durant missed in the regular season with an MCL sprain and winning a pair of playoff games without him. But Durant has proven he too can excel without his fellow MVP over the past two weeks, leading the Warriors to an 8-1 record since Curry sprained his ankle.
3. Stephen Curry
Golden State Warriors
2016 rank:?No. 2
R?sum?: NBA champion
If Durant is No. 2 on this list, Curry is 2A. After some early growing pains as he deferred to Durant in the first two months of their partnership, Curry found the right balance between setting up teammates and looking for his own shot. Though he'll likely never again be as dominant as 2015, when he was an easy Golden Basketball choice, Curry could win again if he plays the leading role in another Warriors championship.
If we were looking strictly at regular-season performance in calendar 2017, Harden would probably be the choice. A close second to Westbrook in MVP voting last season, Harden has established himself as the early favorite for 2017-18, leading the Rockets to what was the league's best record until they hit a recent rough patch without Chris Paul. Even in those games, Harden topped 50 points twice. With elite shooting around him, Harden has become virtually impossible to stop.
Still, it's hard to ignore the memory of how Houston crashed out of the playoffs with a 39-point loss at home to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of their series with Harden shooting 2-for-11 and committing six turnovers in a listless performance. To win a Golden Basketball, Harden will have to put together his best postseason.
5. Russell Westbrook
Oklahoma City Thunder
2016 rank: No. 4
The first four months of 2017 belonged to Westbrook, who became the first player in more than five decades to average a triple-double for an entire season. He was a deserving MVP. Yet when the playoffs rolled around, the clock struck midnight on Westbrook's dominance; his effective shooting percentage was 43.1 in the Thunder's five-game loss to the Rockets. The first two-plus months of 2017-18 haven't gone much better for Westbrook, who has been less efficient than last season and also struggled to incorporate his more accomplished new teammates?-- though he's starting to play a lot more like an MVP.
6. Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs
2016 rank: No. 7
R?sum?: All-NBA First Team
Injuries cost Leonard a chance to make a run at the Golden Basketball award. First was the sprained ankle that knocked Leonard out of the Western Conference finals during Game 1 against Golden State. Then quadriceps tendinopathy sidelined him for the first 27 games of the 2017-18 regular season, preventing him from making the same impact he did in emerging as an MVP candidate last season.
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2016 rank: N/a
R?sum?:?All-NBA Second Team
After a breakthrough 2016, Antetokounmpo made another leap into the ranks of the NBA's top 10 players in 2017. The league's Most Improved Player in 2016-17, Antetokounmpo ranks third in WARP this season behind James and Harden. A deep playoff run could make Antetokounmpo a finalist in 2018.
8. Draymond Green
Golden State Warriors
2016 rank: No. 9
R?sum?: NBA champion, Defensive Player of the Year
While Durant's arrival pushed Green down a spot in the Warriors' pecking order, 2017 saw him win Defensive Player of the Year for the first time and add a second championship. Green also submitted perhaps the most incredible stat line in a year full of them. In a February win at Memphis, Green recorded a triple-double while scoring four points: 11 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals.
9. Kyrie Irving
Cleveland Cavaliers/ Boston Celtics
2016 rank:?No. 8
From a flat-earth controversy at the All-Star Game to his trade request, nobody besides LaVar Ball made more headlines than Irving in 2017. He has backed up his decision to leave the three-time Eastern Conference champions by using late-game heroics to lead the Gordon Hayward-less Celtics to the Eastern Conference's best record so far.
10. Goran Dragic
R?sum?: MVP of EuroBasket 2017
While there was no major intercontinental tournament this year, Europe's top teams competed this summer in EuroBasket, won in an enormous upset by Slovenia. With due respect to Luka Doncic and Anthony Randolph, Dragic was the driving force in Slovenia's success, earning MVP honors and a spot on this list.