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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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NBA

NBA Daily: The Grizzlies Are Stuck

The Grizzlies’ struggles of late would usually signal a rebuild, but Matt John believes that’s going to be harder than people think.

Matt John

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Grit-and-Grind is unfolding, and it’s unfolding fast.

After a blistering 12-5 start to the season, the Grizzlies are falling hard in the standings. The team has only won seven of its last 27 games – good for a record of 19-25 – which has them placed currently 14th in the bloodbath that is the Western Conference playoff race.

For a team that’s gone through pretty much nothing but turmoil over the past couple of seasons, it’s been more of the same this year. They butchered a trade over name confusion, a few of their core guys are out awhile – including one for the season – and they’ve even had a scuffle in the locker room.

It’s only going to get worse from here. The Grizz have lost nine of their last 10 games, and over their next several games, they’ll be facing the Celtics, Raptors, Pacers and Nuggets, five of arguably the best ten teams in the league. They’ll also be facing the Timberwolves, the Hornets and the Pelicans in that time, which won’t be a cakewalk either.

Memphis is currently five games in back of Utah for the eighth seed, and of all the teams vying for a playoff spot in the West, they have the lowest point differential with minus-2.2, which is fairly lower than the team that comes after them – Sacramento – with minus-0.8.

It’s not fun to watch a franchise’s most glorious era end so anti-climactically, but with everything that’s gone wrong for Memphis, it’s time for them to consider rebuilding. What’s unfortunate for them is that if they go for that route, things are going to get complicated.

Let’s start with what they owe Boston. Thanks to the Jeff Green trade back in 2015, the Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight protected pick this season. If that rolls over to next year, it becomes a top-six protected pick. If it rolls over to the year after that, it becomes completely unprotected.

Zach Lowe stated in a recent podcast with Bill Simmons that the Grizzlies would prefer to fork over their pick to the Celtics now instead of potentially giving them another golden lottery pick as Brooklyn did. That makes sense if a rebuild is in their immediate future. However, if they continue to slump the way they have, giving Boston that pick might be even harder.

Besides the fact that none of their competitors in the West look to be slowing down, the playoff hopefuls in the East are also going to give it their all to make the playoffs. As it stands, Washington, Orlando and Detroit, who all have nearly identical records with Memphis, are all much closer to Charlotte for the eighth spot in the playoff race than they are to Atlanta for the 12th spot. In layman’s terms, they’re not in a position to tank, so don’t expect them to.

The only teams that are most definitely out of the playoff race are Phoenix, Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and New York. Memphis finishing right after those teams could definitely be in play, which would mean they keep the pick, and Boston gets a chance at an even better one next year.

That might not be the best thing for the Grizzlies since Marc Gasol and Mike Conley aren’t getting any younger. Regardless of the Boston pick, it may be in Memphis’ best interests to trade both of them with how things have gone. If Marc Stein’s most recent reporting involving Gasol is correct, then that should be the case.

Trading Conley would not be hard. Now that he’s past his injury issues, he’s put up his usual numbers, has a manageable contract (relatively speaking) and could legitimately help someone’s playoff hopes. In Gasol’s case, not so much.

Gasol’s age appears to now be catching up to him. Like the Grizzlies themselves, he started the season on a tear. Over the first month and a half of the season, the 33-year-old looked as good as he’s ever been, averaging 18.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, four assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.4 steals. He did this all while shooting 48 percent from the field, including 41.7 percent from three on 4.6 attempts a game.

Since then, he’s looked alarmingly average. Since the start of December, Gasol’s averaged 12.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, five assists, 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks. His shooting percentages in that timespan are jaw-dropping, shooting only 39.6 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from three.

Gasol’s decline happening at the same time as Memphis as a team is not a coincidence. He is one of the two undisputed leaders of Grit-and-Grind. When a leader starts to slow down, the rest of the team follows suit.

That’s what makes trading for him, his $24+ million contract and his player option for next season a catch-22 for interested parties. If Gasol plays like he did during the first month-and-a-half of the season, odds are that he’ll opt out and look for his next payday on the market. If Gasol continues to play as he has from December up until now, odds are he’ll opt-in for next year for financial security.

Are teams going to give up that much for a half-season rental of a star or for a player who is past his prime who will be paid over $20 million?

There are teams who could definitely use a big like Gasol. The price tag and/or their cap situation may scare them out of trying to acquire him.

The Lakers, who have the contracts and young talent to make a trade for Gasol, could use an upgrade at center, but they’re probably not going to take their chances of letting Gasol eat up their cap space since they hope to bring in another star this summer via free agency.

The Raptors, who have similar assets as LA, could use Gasol as a potential upgrade over either Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas, but it’s very risky to mess with what’s working this far into the season for someone who is showing more and more signs of decline.

If Gasol really goes on the trading block, Memphis cannot expect much in return for him given his recent play. That’s not their fault. They came into this season hoping to keep Grit-and-Grind alive for as long as they could. If they had struggled despite Gasol’s All-Star level play at the start of the season, he probably would have been traded a while ago. If he and the team continued playing excellent basketball throughout the season, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. This all really is just a timeline of unfortunate and unforeseen circumstances culminating into an unwinnable situation.

Now, the Grizzlies could ride this out and not change a thing. Let what’s left of the Grit-and-Grind era fade into the sunset. By doing so, they’re risking letting Gasol walk for nothing this summer as well as giving Boston a better chance at a top pick. That pick they owe Boston could really go either way regardless of what Memphis does. The alternatives aren’t really that much better regardless.

No matter where they go from here, there’s one thing Memphis knows for sure.

Thank heavens for Jaren Jackson Jr.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Lee Awaiting Opportunity, Staying Positive With Knicks

Drew Maresca has a chat with Courtney Lee about his situation with the New York Knicks and staying ready for when an opportunity comes his way.

Drew Maresca

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Drew Maresca caught up with Knicks guard Courtney Lee about the team's rotation and how he approaches his work despite not receiving playing time.

Basketball if a fun sport that’s grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It brings people of all ages great joy, employs thousands and allows millions of fans to remove themselves from their daily lives and immerse themselves in the sport of their choice.

But there is a colder side to the sport, one in which ability is overlooked in favor of intangibles. The NBA is, after all, a business. And like any business, office politics play a role. This is a side that we’re all at least marginally familiar with. We’ve all seen players traded or cut because they do not fit the team’s timeline or because they were brought in or drafted by the previous management team.

This is not to infer that there’s anything insidious about the business of basketball, but players are people with families and bills and routines just like the rest of us. Of course, teams have the right to operate as they see fit – after all, we’re talking about individual contracts worth between $385,000 and $37.5 million per year that add up to payrolls exceeding $100 million annually.

But often times, players are reduced to their contracts and cap holds rather than being valued for their contributions on – and off – the court. Players understand the business they’re in, but there’s something that feels wrong about the league’s politics when it supersedes the natural order – when effective players sit in favor of less qualified ones. This is probably most prevalent when a team fast tracks a rebuild.

And for the first time in what feels like forever, this issue is front and center in New York. To the delight of Knicks fans, the team has finally embraced the concept of bottoming out. Tanking is a notion the Knicks have toyed with and ultimately either balked at or botched nearly every season since 2001. They’ve instead chosen to side with short-term fixes over long-term solutions.

With Scott Perry at the helm this season as general manager, the Knicks are making smart, calculated decisions. They are playing their young guys, which allows for them to develop valuable experience that can’t be learned from the bench or in practice. It also has the residual payoff of more losses, which means better odds come the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery.

But losing is tough. It can cause fatigue within a fanbase, a roster and an organization. Dennis Schroder, backup point guard for the Thunder, recently spoke about his experience with the Hawks regarding this very topic with The Oklahoman.

“I wanted to be in a winning organization,” Schroder said. “You just can’t go out there and try to lose.”

Back in New York, no one on the Knicks sympathizes more strongly with what Schroder went through than Courtney Lee. Lee is in an unusual position. He is too good to get on the court for his team because playing him would result in more wins and less playing time for younger guys. But he’s relatively expensive for his age, counting for $12 million against the salary cap this season and he’s owed nearly $13 million for 2019-20.

Lee is 33 years old, but has played some of his best basketball in recent seasons. In fact, he averaged a career high 12 points per game just last season. Furthermore, he is a career 38.9 percent shooter from deep, and he is viewed as a capable defender, a good teammate and someone who doesn’t need touches to impact the game. And yet, he’s received nine consecutive DNP-Coach’s Decisions (including Thursday’s game against the Wizards in London).

Theoretically, the Knicks can point to the neck injury Lee suffered in training camp. There’s an element of plausible deniability there – he was hurt so he could still be hurt.

But Lee upended any such excuse following the 76ers game on January 13.

“I feel good,” Lee told Basketball Insiders. “It happened back in training camp. I feel 100% now.”

Lee understands the business side of the NBA. He has played for seven NBA franchises in his 11 professional seasons.

“It’s not the first one,” Lee said with a chuckle regarding the DNPs. “I’ve been dealing with it, man. At this point you just understand what’s going on – the thought process behind it. The best thing I can do is just stay positive, keep cheering my teammates on and be ready for whatever happens.

“If it’s here getting in the game or getting traded somewhere, just making sure I’m staying in shape and ready to contribute. I just have to live in the moment. Have to tell myself to stay ready, stay prepared, stay in shape because there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – that’s my mindset.”

And fortunately for Lee, he could reach the end of the tunnel sooner than later. The NBA Trade Deadline is less than a month away, and the Knicks would like to double down on their youth movement. Moving Lee, Enes Kanter and/or Tim Hardaway Jr. would help the team open up the requisite cap space to offer a free agent a max deal this coming offseason.

Lee could easily find himself on a team competing for a playoff spot in the very near future. He would almost certainly help the Rockets, the Nuggets and the 76ers, as well as a number of other teams. But in the NBA, it’s never that straight forward. Teams must not only see the benefit of adding the player in question, but also feel compelled to deal with the other team’s front office. And teams know the Knicks want to go shopping this summer, so nothing is guaranteed for Lee.

One thing Lee has going for him that is far from guaranteed is transparency, which he receives from New York’s coaching staff daily.

“Coach Fizdale communicates a lot,” Lee said. “He’ll talk to me before the game (about the potential for DNPs) or he’ll touch base during the game. He does a good job with that.”

Fizdale has been open about his feelings toward Lee and the position he’s in.

“Courtney has been an incredible pro,” Fizdale said in an interview with NorthJersey.com. “I mean, he’s been like a big brother to all of these guys. They love him. They love being around him. He doesn’t do things like, you see times when veterans aren’t playing, they take young guys down in certain ways. Courtney’s been the guy that’s like no, go play. And like he tells me every day ‘Coach you need me, I’m here. I’m ready.’”

Lee has echoed those same sentiments all season long.

He’s just waiting to be given an opportunity to prove it.

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G-League

NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong

Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.

Jordan Hicks

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The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.

Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.

Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).

In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.

In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.

Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.

Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.

“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”

Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.

“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.

When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.

“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”

Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.

Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.

Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”

Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.

After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.

“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”

As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.

Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.

Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.

“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”

The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.

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