MVP Race

This has been a fantastic NBA season. When I created this blog, I had a James-Harden-for-MVP post on my shortlist. With LeBron’s surge proving to be a long-term phenomenon and the Cavs looking legitimately like the best team in the East—sorry Atlanta, it’s true—the dynamic of that post had to change. Now that Russell Westbrook is playing a different game than the rest of the NBA, the MVP race has become as muddled as I can remember in recent history. And I haven’t even mentioned Steph Curry doing Steph Curry things while carrying the Warriors to the #1 seed in the unbelievably tough Western Conference! I mean, Anthony Davis won’t even make the playoffs! Absolute shame (and the reason he’s not in my MVP race, despite his almost record-breaking 31.6 PER). Let’s break down each of these players’ case for the award:

James Harden

After the Rockets whiffed on bringing in Chris Bosh to create a Big Three in Houston, the burden was left on Harden and Dwight Howard to carry the load without another elite player. Obviously not an insurmountable task, as Houston already had the best 2-guard in the league and a premier defensive center (when healthy and motivated), but I thought both parties missed out on a chance for greatness. Bosh opted to return to Miami to play for a middling squad that thought Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng could replace the greatest basketball player of this generation, just to get the extra year on his max deal. Houston lost out on a veteran leader who has been to four championships—and even won a couple—still in his prime at their greatest position of need, a guy that would fit their playing style perfectly and become a great presence in the locker room. Terrence Jones is not a bad player by any means, but with Chris Bosh, that team would have been special.

Enough with that outdated rant—especially because for about an hour after the Dragic trade, Miami’s starting five looked formidable, and I looked like a fool (but now we all need to ignore basketball and pray for Chris Bosh to recover fully)—not having Chris Bosh is not a factor in Harden’s race for MVP. However, not having Dwight is very much a factor. The is-he-or-isn’t-he-great center is still a significant presence on the defensive-side of the court. As this defensive shot chart (created by Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry) shows, Dwight was dominant in the post last season. Opponents rarely even dared to shoot in the lane when Superman was guarding them, and when they did, they shot greatly below average.

I mention this because Harden has been forced to actually play defense this year with Howard being sidelined so long (31 games so far, or half of the season). This is new territory for him. But like Damian Lillard, he has transformed from a being turnstile into a mediocre defender this season. And when you play offense at the level that James Harden plays, even mediocre defense makes him one of the best players in the league. While counting stats are not the biggest improvement evident in his game on that side of the court, he is experiencing a career high in steals and blocks—both per game and per 36 minutes—and is actually 4th in steals in the NBA, and 13 behind Steph Curry for 1st. Advanced stats also favor Harden’s defense (relative to earlier in his career). He has career highs in Defensive Win Shares (3.5), and Defensive Box Plus/Minus—where he has a positive number (1.3) for just the third time in his career and his highest since 0.3 in his rookie season.

But let’s be real, while average defensive play has some impact on Harden’s MVP votes, it’s all about what he’s managed to do on the offensive side of the ball. And he has been PHENOMENAL with the ball in his hand. Harden is at the top, or near the top at almost every major offensive counting stat list: 1st in Minutes Played, 2nd in Field Goals Made (just 1 behind Curry for 1st), 1st in Field Goals Attempted, 5th in 3pt Field Goals Made, 6th in 3pt Field Goals Attempted, 1st in Free Throws Made (by 143!!!!), 1st in Free Throws Attempted (by 149), and 5th in Assists. All these number add up to Harden scoring the most points in the NBA this season, leading Steph Curry by 229 points. It would take Curry 10 games at his current rate to pass Harden’s point total—assuming The Beard is okay sitting idly by and watching Curry surpass him. Harden is also #1 in Offensive Win Shares, Total Win Shares, and Value Over Replacement Player.

But even a stat-head like me will acknowledge that the above paragraph is a little intense—and I’m sure most of you skimmed through it anyways—so here’s the gist of it: Harden scores. A LOT. He’s one of the best scorers in the world, and great at finding the open man. He routinely beats his man and leaves both his defender and the helping big scrambling to alter his shot, which usually results in a foul (hence the free throw attempts). And if he’s not putting up a layup on these drives, he seems to always be finding an open shooter on the 3-point line. Per Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, as of January 4th, Harden had assisted on an NBA-leading 113 3-pointers (2nd: 105), and 58 corner threes (2nd: 40). Add that to his 3-point proficiency, Harden was responsible for 195 threes, 25 more than second-place Damian Lillard.

Also the term “most valuable” comes into play here. The three things GM Daryl Morey desires most in a player—3-pointers, free throws, and lay-ups/dunks—are Harden’s best attributes. And if Harden didn’t play another game this season, this team would absolutely fall apart. There’s not another cog they can use to replace him—unlike Joey Dorsey filling in adequately for Dwight.

Bottom line: Harden is a dynamic playmaker. He gets to the rim, scores when he’s there (or draws the foul), is a great distributor, a serviceable defender, and EXTREMELY valuable.

LeBron James

Honestly, the biggest thing LeBron James has going for him in his case for MVP is his name. Everyone knows he’s been the best player of the last 20-30 years, so if he’s the “best” why would he not also be the “most valuable”? But name recognition should not be the driving factor in the voting. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Being such, LeBron is in the thick of the MVP mix.

The first paragraph might have been a touch unfair; LeBron has been key to the Cavaliers coming together the last couple months and is once again playing at an All-World level. Cleveland has the second most wins in the East, despite being 2-9 without King James. LeBron was clearly not as explosive as he has been in years past, so he wisely has adjusted his game. He has always had amazing court vision, and this year is averaging 7.3 assists/game—the second highest total of his career and 7th in the league—despite playing a career-low 36.3 minutes/game. But it’s not like LeBron has been hanging out on the bench all game and is still putting up terrific numbers; 36 minutes is still good for 5th highest in the NBA. And in that time he is averaging “only” 26.0 points, which is his lowest mark since his rookie season, yet still 3rd in the NBA. LeBron’s 25.8 PER is his lowest in seven seasons, but 5th in the NBA.

That give-and-take on the previous paragraph amazes me. For the stat-skimmers, what I basically wrote is “LeBron is having a down year, yet near the top of the league on a lot of per-game metrics.” It doesn’t take a genius to write that last paragraph, or the summary—as I just showed—but the eye test backs up LeBron. When he is truly motivated, everything looks so good. The passes he makes are Rubio-esque, he is still capable of locking down literally any player in the NBA for important stretches, and when he decides he’s going to get to hoop, good luck stopping him.

One more thing to think on: he’s played great since his two week hiatus, but the team has also moved a couple first round picks to help his supporting class. Mozgov, Shump, and J.R. are no slouches and are significantly helping this team reach the level they’ve been gunning for since the offseason. So even though he is still producing at a superstar level, I will be disappointed if the voters play it safe and award the MVP to LeBron. (Wait. Wasn’t I supposed to make the case for his candidacy this paragraph? Oops!)

Steph Curry

The Other Guy from Akron is putting up a very impressive season. He’s playing so consistently well that it’s almost not fun to discuss his MVP chances. To put his season in perspective, Curry is jacking up the most 3-pointers in the NBA (490) while making an NBA-best 207 of them, which is good for an incredible 42.2%. Although that’s only 7th in the NBA, as the team’s primary ball handler, Curry shoots a much higher percentage of his shots off the dribble than those ahead of him. For example, Kyle Korver leads the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage. (Obviously. Dude’s hitting nearly 50% of them!) But per NBA’s SportVU he makes 2.7 threes/game on catch-and-shoots, .5 more than 2nd place Wesley Matthews and 1.2 more than Steph. Meanwhile, Curry leads the league in Pull Up 3-pointers made per game at 1.9, with an EFG of 58.0% on his Pull Ups! I mean look at these two plays, one off the dribble and one on a catch and shoot:

That’s just fun to watch. And shouldn’t fun be a factor in an MVP race?

Now watch the first one again—which is about the 125th time if you’re like me—he literally has three guys trying to contest the shot. When he isn’t heat-checking like he does here (wouldn’t you if you could shoot like that?) he’s distributing to his teammates: Curry has posted the second-most assists/game of his career (7.7), which is good for 6th in the NBA. And he plays defense! He’s currently leading the league in steals/game (2.2). Add all of this together, and Steph Curry has put up a 27.9 PER this season (3rd in the NBA), which is a per-minute statistic. That’s good for Curry because he’s done all of this while not cracking the top-20 in minutes/game. That’s how good he and the Warriors are playing: he doesn’t even need to be out there to close out games. And that’s saying a lot, because the Dubs are 16.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Curry on the bench than they are when he’s playing. You need to build quite the lead to withstand that barrage night in and night out. (Granted that number is overly skewed because their big leads lead to irrelevant 4th quarters, but that kind of proves my point.) Even though they have one fewer win than the Hawks, the Warriors have been the best team in the NBA so far. And it’s not very close. That doesn’t mean Golden State is my hands down Championship favorite, but the MVP is a regular season award, and they’ve been spectacular this regular season. And even though they are far from a one-man show, Curry is undoubtedly the best player on the team. And being the best player on the best team carries a lot of weight in MVP voting.

Although Curry is not quite in the 50-40-90 club (current split: 48.5-42-90), his 3-point volume and proficiency has made his season one of the best shooting years of all time. His true shooting percentage of 63.1% is currently 5th best of all time (minimum splits of 48% FG, 40% 3-pt, 90% FT, 800 FGA, in order to grade shooters and not big men). And like I mentioned earlier, he’s not simply doing this on catch-and-shoots; he’s amazing in every way possible.

Russell Westbrook

If you read the previous 2,000 words, bravo to you! But with each passing game, Westbrook is turning the rest of the contenders of this exciting MVP race into a list of also-rans. As of writing this, Russ has put up triple doubles in five of his last six games, and seven overall (including one where he dropped a career-high 49 points with a hole in his face!). And I use that qualifier because he’s probably put up another one—or six—since then. And because 10 is an arbitrary number to judge a player’s success, here are a few more splits #0 has put up this season: 21-17-8, 22-11-9, 48-11-9, 33-10-7, 18-9-9, 22-7-11, 40-6-10, 43-7-8, 45-6-6 (pts-ast-reb). He’s playing on another level right now. Per 100 possessions, Westbrook is averaging 41.4 points, 12.6 assists, and 10.7 rebounds. To put that in perspective, LeBron (in 2008-09) is the only player in NBA history to average a 40-10-10 per 100 over an entire season. As long as Russ keeps grabbing boards for the next 19 games, he’ll join LeBron on that list.

Since the All-Star break (when Durant has played only one game), Westbrook is averaging 34.3ppg, 11.4apg, and 10.2rpg, and leading his team into the West’s final playoff spot. If that’s not coming up big when you’re team really needs it, I don’t know what is.

Yes, Westbrook has been hurt this year. But he’s only missed 15 games. And the way he has played in the other 48 more than compensate for that in my opinion. No MVP has missed more than 24 games in his award-winning season (Bill Walton in 1977-78, as per ESPN’s Royce Young), so barring another injury Westbrook will fall considerably short of that. I do not believe his absence should overstate his dominance in the games he has played. After all, he’s still 2nd in total FTM and FTA, 11th FGM, 6th in FGA, 5th in points, and 10th in assists. And like I said, that’s all with 15 games missed! On a per-game basis, to say Westbrook has been stellar, would be a wild understatement: 1st in points, 4th in assists, 2nd in steals (0.1 behind Curry), 2nd in PER, 1st in assist%, 4th in steal%, 5th in win shares/48, 1st in box plus/minus (by a wide margin). Even though he has an unbelievably high 38.5 usage rate (nearly 4% higher than any other player, the show he’s putting on has a wild one. I strongly recommend catching a Thunder game while my Westbrook is still on this tear. His complete domination these last few weeks has pushed him over the top for this year’s MVP, in my opinion. If he plays at 70-80% of this level to end the season, I think he and Durant will be the first teammates to take home back-to-back MVPs since Bob Cousy and Bill Russell did it in 1957 and 1958.

My Ballot

1. Russell Westbrook
2. James Harden
3. Stephen Curry
4. Anthony Davis
5. LeBron James

**All stats/salary/research from Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted**

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