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2018 NBA MVP Race: James Harden vs. LeBron James

LeBron James contends that he should be the 2017-18 NBA MVP, but can he measure up to James Harden?

Mike Yaffe

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The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James recently made headlines when he boldly contended that he would vote for himself in this season’s MVP race. Even though the honor has been bestowed upon him four times already (twice in consecutive years), the most recent was in 2012-13 when the Miami HEAT won the last of their championships during his tenure.

All James has done since then is lead the HEAT to a rematch with the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals the following year, carry the Cleveland Cavaliers on his back to the Finals with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the shelf and defeat the Golden State Warriors in the Finals (with Irving’s help that time); yet he has somehow become an afterthought in the MVP discussion during that period.

This season James has exceeded his career averages of points, rebounds and assists per game at the ripe age of 33. He has accomplished this feat amidst injuries to key teammates and a roster overhaul at the trade deadline. The Cavs were coming off a 33-49 season prior to their reunion with James, and at 48-30 they are likely to have eclipsed the 50-win plateau annually since his return.

The NBA MVP isn’t determined by post-season heroics. That’s a good thing for the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, as his lone trip to the Finals came as the sixth man on the Oklahoma City Thunder team that fell to James’ HEAT in early 2012. In that off-season, Harden forced a trade to the Houston Rockets, thereby creating a new balance of power in the West.

The 2011-12 Houston Rockets managed a 34-32 record in that strike-shortened season, and their most recent playoff appearance beforehand was in 2008-09. The team has been a post-season participant every year since Harden’s arrival. Despite three first-round exits among those five appearances, that trend still constitutes improvement.

At 63-15, the Rockets have already set a franchise high in regular season wins, eclipsing the 58-24 team from 1993-94. Much like erstwhile coach Rudy Tomjanovich’s teams, the current roster has embraced an inside-out scheme; however, lacking the presence of Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe underneath, their modern version has emphasized guard-play from the elite backcourt of Harden and newcomer Chris Paul.

So, how do we differentiate between the individual performances of the two superstars?

The Eye Test

A comparison of per-game averages shows that Harden leads James in points per game (30.7 to 27.4) by over 10 percent, and in season totals Harden has made nearly double the three-pointers and sunk over 200 more free throws while playing in nine fewer games. While James has a slight edge in assists per game and he is the far better rebounder (no surprise there), Harden’s production of historic offensive numbers this season cannot be overshadowed.

Winner: Harden

Advanced Statistics

For players who have the ball in their hands the majority of the time, Player Impact Estimate (PIE) can be a useful metric. Simply put, PIE tells us how well a player stuffs the stat sheet while they’re on the court relative to the other participants. Aside from a two-game outlier by the Memphis Grizzlies’ MarShon Brooks, Harden leads the league in Player Impact Estimate at an impressive 19.5 (percentages above 20 are rare). King James is second at 19.1.

Harden also holds a significant edge in both offensive rating (115.0 vs.112.2) and defensive rating (105.0 vs.111.1). Although LBJ holds a slight lead over Harden in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) at 8.6 to 8.1 (top-two in the league), that’s not enough to tip the scales in his favor.

Winner: Harden

Intangibles

No one can deny how important LeBron James is to his team’s success. But what makes this campaign different is that he required a mid-season revamp to produce a squad that is capable of winning consistently. While the initial roster might’ve had poor chemistry, James has shown the ability in the past to carry teams to the NBA Finals that had no business advancing in the post-season without his presence.

Meanwhile, James Harden is enjoying a career year in a “Beard-friendly” offense that allows him to chuck threes at will while continuing to draw fouls in the paint. There was no question that Russell Westbrook was deserving of last season’s MVP award, but with Harden finishing second there could be sentiment among voters that his time has come.

Winner: Harden

Conclusion

James Harden has taken yet another step forward this season and his team has reaped the benefits. Despite being a storied franchise, the Houston Rockets have never won 60 games until now and they are 57-12 (.826) in Harden’s starts compared to 6-3 (.667) without him. Both statistics and non-quantifiable factors support his claim to the NBA MVP award this season.

Although this comparison resulted in a clean sweep for Harden, LeBron James still merits being listed among the finalists for this season’s award, and his contributions shouldn’t be overlooked at this stage of his illustrious career.

Mike Yaffe is a staff writer for basketballinsiders.com. Although his jumper is flat, he makes up for it with moxie in the paint.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Jason

    April 5, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    Thank you, Mike. Harden is averaging 30/9/5 on probable 65 win team. If LeBron was doing that there wouldn’t even be a conversation on who the MVP is. It’s tiring to see the lengths people will go through to give it to anyone but Harden.

    • Mike Yaffe

      Mike Yaffe

      April 6, 2018 at 9:32 am

      Right, Steve Nash set the precedent(s) for winning the MVP award running essentially the same offense for consecutive years.

      • chris grogan

        April 13, 2018 at 6:10 pm

        im okay with harden winning MVP, but lebron definitely wins both eye test and intangibles.

  2. Kyle Ryan

    April 6, 2018 at 5:26 am

    This sounds very biased. if you’re basing it off the eye test how can someone in there right mind think that James Harden looks like a better player on the court then Lebron James? You also stated that Lebron has a VORP higher than Harden’s… and i’m pretty sure the MVP award stands for the most ‘Most Valuable Player’. Lebron’s 4 inches taller and 30-40 pounds heavier but thats not something you can hold against a player to create an argument for another!

    • Mike Yaffe

      Mike Yaffe

      April 6, 2018 at 9:26 am

      I get what you’re saying, but aside from a slight disparity in VORP Harden dominates in most of the other statistical areas. In particular, James’ d-rating has been atrocious this season.

    • Roddrick Sweeney, Sr.

      April 7, 2018 at 9:01 am

      My point exactly! Harden over James in regards to the “eye test?” No way is that true. Harden is a phenomenal player and is having a great year. However, what LeBron is doing this year is absolutely incredible. Forget about this being his 15th season; I’m taking specifically about how he’s kept his team relevant despite all of the injuries, turnover, and drama they’ve experienced throughout the entire season. He’s unbelievable and people take him for granted. Have them switch teams and check the results. Better yet, take each away from their teams and the Rockets would still be competitive. Cleveland….not so much. LeBron is the MVP.

  3. Aaron F

    April 6, 2018 at 10:26 am

    I definitely understand where you’re coming from, but you also didn’t mention LeBron is shooting 10% better from the field, and has a better fg% from 3. For a scorer like James Harden thats gotta be a factor. In terms of value, Houston would be a playoff team without Harden, Cleveland wouldn’t win 35 games without LeBron. I think James Harden has done everything he can to win the MVP this year, and he probably deserves it. But at this point I feel like everyone is looking to give it to anyone but LeBron every year. He got snubbed losing to Derek Rose, and now he’s having one of his best seasons ever and everyone wants to count him out because someone else is having a great year. Harden is by no means a clear favorite in every category listed above, and no one even talks about a huge game or streak from LeBron anymore because its an expectation. He’s been the best player in the league every year since his third or fourth year and its sad for me to see him get no little to no credit for posting historic numbers on a hobbled and less than average team at 33 years old. Really, I agree that its probably Harden this year, I just wish the media and general public gave LeBron the respect he deserves, or at least didn’t write him off the minute someone else starts having a really good year.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Daily: The Winners Of The NBA Draft

David Yapkowitz breaks down the winners from Thursday’s 2018 NBA Draft.

Simon Hannig

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The 2018 NBA Draft has come and gone, and now it is time to pick the losers of the NBA Draft.

5.) Phoenix Suns

The Suns made a couple of splashes in the draft. They selected Deandre Ayton number one overall. The Suns then drafted Zhaire Smith, but traded his rights to the Sixers for Mikal Bridges. The Suns in the second round selected Elie Okobo from France and then drafted George King from Colorado. The Suns did a great job by getting two players that will be able to contribute right away. Ayton should be the starting center come opening night and Bridges could also start for the team. Ff not, Bridges will be a valuable weapon coming off the bench for a team who is trying to win games and get back into the playoffs.

4.) Orlando Magic

The Magic got a stud in Mo Bamba and also drafted Melvin Frazier from Tulane in the second round. The Magic got a steal here, and I am surprised he fell to Orlando. The Magic got a player who can contribute right away and start as well. He is a great rebounder and a great defensive player. He will be changing the Magic defense just himself. The Magic now have two young core pieces they can build around in Jonathan Isaac and Bamba. This team can be very scary on the defensive end. The offensive end is still a work in progress, but they are in great shape with the defensive end of the floor. I am very excited to see what Bamba can do at the next level and if he can carry this Magic team to the next level that they need to be at.

3.) Atlanta Hawks

Despite the Hawks trading Luka Doncic, the Hawk drafted players that can help and contribute right away, plus Quavo from the Migos got his wish of Trae Young being selected. With their second first round pick, the Hawks took sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from Maryland and they took Omari Spellman from Villanova with their third pick in the first round. The Hawks are starting to build themselves like the Warriors, getting sharpshooters in Young and Huerter. It is no surprise they are doing this as their current general manager, Travis Schlenk, worked with the Golden State Warriors before taking the job with the Hawks. They have the core for their future and I am really excited to see what Young can do in the NBA.

2.) Boston Celtics

The Celtics once again got a steal in Robert Williams from Texas A&M. They get another athletic big man who plays great defense and rebounds the ball very well. I am pretty surprised he fell this far. He is another rim protector the Celtics can use. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game in college. He will also provide second chance opportunities for the team. Williams averaged 3.0 offensive rebounds per game in college. He is just a monster on the defensive end of the floor and on the boards. He would have been a lottery pick in last years draft, but he decided to stay in school another year, and I am sure the Celtics are happy about that.

1.) Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks have the best young backcourt duo in the NBA now in Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. They also drafted Jalen Brunson from Villanova, acquired Ray Spalding from Louisville in a trade with the Sixers and drafted Kostas Antetokounmpo, Giannis’ younger brother, in the second round. I love the Mavs’ backcourt a lot. It is going to be very scary in a couple of years. It will take time and patience to develop them, but it will be worth it. This is going to be a dynamic duo for years to come for the Mavs. The Mavs have set themselves up not only for the future, but also to compete and to try to get into the playoffs. It also depends if they can bring in a max player in free agency, but I love the core the Mavs are building. The Mavs should be a better defensive team next season, and will be a better offensive team next season with the weapons they have added to the team.

The Mavs are the clear cut winners of the 2018 NBA Draft.

 

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Draft Night Trades

David Yapkowitz breaks down the trades that took place during the 2018 NBA Draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Another NBA Draft has come and gone. With rumors swirling all week about possible pick/player movement, the night remained relatively uneventful. There were a few trades that occurred, however. Here’s a quick breakdown of the movement that happened on draft night.

1. Atlanta Hawks/Dallas Mavericks

The Hawks and Mavericks completed the first trade of the night early on in the draft. Leading up to the draft, there were questions about how high Luka Doncic was going to be drafted. It was widely assumed that he wouldn’t slip past Dallas at No. 5. The Mavericks weren’t going to take that chance as the Hawks drafted Doncic with the intention of trading him to Dallas for Trae Young.

Both teams ultimately get what they need. It’s been reported that the Hawks might move on from Dennis Schroder this summer and they’ll need a point guard to replace him. Young is an explosive scorer who will fit in nicely with Atlanta’s rebuild. He can score from anywhere on the court and he’s a great playmaker as well.

For the Mavericks, they get a guy to add to their own young core with Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes. Doncic has the size to play next to Smith in the backcourt. He’s quite possibly the best playmaker in the draft with a solid offensive game as well.

2. Charlotte Hornets/Los Angeles Clippers

The Hornets and Clippers consummated the second move the night by swapping their own draft picks. The Hornets took Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with the 11th pick and then immediately traded him to the Clippers for Miles Bridges, whom Los Angeles selected at No. 12.

For the Hornets, they get a guy who can play both forward positions. Bridges is more of a small forward but in small ball lineups, he can slide over to the four. Offensively he is at his best when he puts the ball on the floor and attacks the rim. He’s a decent shooter too.

The Clippers get a point guard who was rumored to climbing up many draft boards as the night approached. Gilgeous-Alexander is a solid pick for them provided both Patrick Beverly and Milos Teodosic’ injury history. He can also play off the ball if need be. He’s got the physical tools to be a very good defender at the NBA level. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine him as the future long-term starting point guard for the Clippers.

The Hornets also got two future second-round picks from the Clippers.

3. Philadelphia 76ers/Phoenix Suns

The Sixers and the Suns had the next move of draft night, also swapping their picks. The Sixers selected hometown hero Mikal Bridges with the No. 10 pick and later traded him to the Suns for the No. 16 pick, Zhaire Smith.

Bridges made a lot of sense for the Sixers. Not only is he a local guy, but his mother works for the team as well. He was a talented player who fit their team. He gave a post-draft press conference raving about being a Sixer all the while he had been traded already. But such is life in the NBA. Instead, Phoenix gets a guy that’s ready to contribute in the NBA right away. He’s the prototypical 3&D type guy.

For the Sixers, Zhaire Smith is another guy who was steadily climbing the boards in the days leading up to the draft. He’s a very athletic prospect with good defensive instincts. He probably won’t play much right away, but he does have the potential to end up being one of the better rotation players in this draft.

The Sixers also get a 2021 first-round pick from the Suns via the Miami Heat. It’s highly likely this ends up being a lottery pick and thus giving the Sixers the chance to add a high-end talent to an already potent group.

4. Second-Round moves

There are a few second-round moves that were made as well.

For one, the Hawks selected Devonte Graham with the 34th pick and traded him to the Hornets for two future second-round picks. Graham is another NBA ready guy who can come in and immediately contend for backup point guard minutes behind Kemba Walker.

The Sixers were involved in another deal sending the No. 38 pick Khyri Thomas to the Detroit Pistons for two future second-round picks. Thomas is a player that many projected to go in the first round. For a team that didn’t have a first-round pick coming into the night, the Pistons essentially picked one up. It’s possible he turns out better than Detroit’s most recent first-rounders Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard.

The Sacramento Kings drafted Gary Trent Jr. with the 37th pick only to trade him to the Portland Trail Blazers for two future second-round picks. Trent was one of the better shooters in the draft and that’s what he projects to the be in the NBA. He’s probably a few years away from earning a spot in the rotation but he was also a possible first-round pick. He’s more NBA ready than Anfernee Simons who the Blazers took in the first-round.

The Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets swapped second-round picks with the Magic sending the No. 41 pick Jarred Vanderbilt to the Nuggets for the No. 43 pick Justin Jackson and a future second-round pick. Vanderbilt is a project in every sense of the word. He’s extremely raw and probably needed more time in college. But he’s got long-term potential and could pay off in the future. Jackson, on the other hand, was possibly a first-round talent had he entered the draft last year. He’s going to have to make the roster but could be a 3&D guy.

In the final move of the night, the Hornets traded the No. 45 pick Hamidou Diallo to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Diallo is a guy that had he come out last year, probably would’ve been a first-round guy. In any case, he is also very raw and will need seasoning in the G-League. He’s got all the physical tools and skill to be a good rotation NBA player.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#28 – Jacob Evans – Golden State Warriors

Jesse Blancarte

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With the 28th overall pick, the Golden State Warriors selected Cincinnati Junior Jacob Evans.

Evans represents a solid pick for nearly any NBA team. Evans fits in the mold of a potential 3-and-D role player. Evans improved in his time at Cincinnati, culminating in his junior year, where he scored 13 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Evans spent three seasons at Cincinnati and rounded himself into a versatile two-way player who can bring a lot of value at the NBA level.

Evans is a very cognitive player, especially on the defensive end. He has a better grasp of his limitations than most players at this stage of their respective careers and is able to maximize his individual defensive ability within a team concept. Evans generally makes the right rotations, double-teams at the right times and funnels his opponents to where his teammates are when he cannot contain the ball-handler on his own. With the right coaching, he could become a valuable defensive wing in an NBA rotation sooner than some anticipate.

Additionally, Evans is more than just a shooter. He led his team in assists last season and has some skill as a playmaker. Evans will be more of a shooter and finisher in the NBA, but the ability to make the right pass, swing the ball when he isn’t open and take the ball off the dribble when necessary make him an intriguing prospect. This is especially true when you consider how valuable a player like Khris Middleton has become over the years, adding layers to his 3-and-D skill set each season.

The Warriors aren’t in need of an influx of talent but are happy to add Evans regardless.

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