Harden and Westbrook have to share the MVP spotlight with Kawhi Leonard on Stein's ballot

Soobum Im/USA Today Sports

Russell Westbrook.

Or James Harden.

Most NBA award voters would tell you that the Most Valuable Player race in this league is going to come down to those two offensive dynamos when ballots are cast in mid-April.

Barring a stretch-run groundswell of support for LeBron James in one of his strongest overall campaigns, or Stephen Curry shifting into flamethrower made to compensate for the sudden loss of Kevin Durant, I certainly expect the same.

We don't have to decide that now, though.

Harden has the slight edge with us here entering the season's final 20 (or so) regular-season games, undoubtedly helped by Oklahoma City's slip to seventh in the West despite all of Trimester 1 MVP Westbrook's triple-double brilliance. But the time to truly put their respective cases under the microscope is about a month from now.

We're here today to pay tribute to the perennially overlooked excellence that emanates from San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, whose résumé for the season's middle third can live up to anyone's you wish to submit.

West or East.

Across the season's second Trimester, Leonard averaged 27.3 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, while also chipping in 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game.

He also happened to string together the four highest-scoring games of his career during that slice of schedule: 41 points, 38 points and two 36-point outings. Prior to Trimester 2, Leonard had never scored more than 35 points in an NBA game.

Dig even deeper and you'll find that Leonard, over a 16-game stretch starting Jan. 10 and leading into All-Star Weekend, reached the 30-point plateau 11 times. He had registered only 12 30-point games in his career before that hot streak.

The NBA's two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, in other words, has officially transformed himself into an elite scorer.

Instinct nonetheless tells me Leonard shouldn't expect to finish higher than fourth in real-life MVP balloting. Not with the seasons Harden, Westbrook and James are having.

Interesting question to ponder: What happens if San Antonio takes advantage of Durant's knee injuries to swipe the No. 1 seed in the West from the mighty Warriors?

While you let that one marinate, please at least join us in anointing Leonard as the West's best for the Trimester that just finished. The Spurs, after all, are suddenly just two games behind Golden State in the race for the top seed in the conference after Saturday night's overtime win over Minnesota, even though LaMarcus Aldridge is carrying his lowest scoring average (17.3 PPG) since his rookie season ... and despite the fact Pau Gasol really hasn't come close to filling the Tim Duncan void ... and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, like it or not, making less of a mark than they ever have.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kawhi is one of only three players leaguewide who has managed to increase his scoring average for five successive seasons, alongside fellow All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler. But in Leonard's case, that jump is from 21.2 points per game last season to a heady 25.9 PPG this season, good for No. 8 overall when you click to the league leaders.

A season that was supposed to be a seismic shock to everyone's system in the Alamo City looks as Spurs-y as usual. Franchise patriarch Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford certainly deserve their slice of the credit for that, but they'd surely also be the first to say that no one is more responsible than Kawhi.

Getting the Trimester 2 hardware here, then, seems like the least Leonard deserves.