As the NBA season enters its final days, award season gets into full swing with an intense Most Valuable Player debate sure to dominate headlines. This week at Basketball Insiders, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the numbers that shape those awards debates, starting with a look at six candidates for MVP.
6. Isaiah Thomas
Isaiah Thomas is only the sixth Boston Celtic to score 2,000 points in a season. Only Kyle Korver (.635) has a higher true shooting percentage among NBA guards than Thomas’ .627. He has dominated fourth quarters and could still lead the Celtics to an improbable ascent to the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed. It’s been a remarkable season for Thomas, and in any other year, you could make a strong case for his MVP candidacy.
But this is the year of Russell Westbrook and James Harden. With Westbrook making history and Harden not far behind, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Thomas ranks dead last in defensive Real Plus-Minus by a wide margin. The Celtics allow 108.9 points per 100 possessions to opponents with Thomas on the court, but only 99.7 when he’s on the bench. You simply can’t make an MVP case for a player the Celtics constantly have to hide on defense when the players at the top of this list have been so great. One could easily make an argument that Kevin Durant deserves to be higher on this list than Thomas.
5. Steph Curry
Speaking of Durant, you can’t discount the value of two-time defending and unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, who sacrificed shots this season to welcome Durant into the fold and incorporate him in Golden State’s league-leading attack. Curry is third in overall RPM this season, trailing only Chris Paul and LeBron James. However, it’s the very addition of former MVP Durant that weakens Curry’s case.
Simply put, it was easier to attribute more of Golden State’s success to a single player before the Warriors added a fourth All-Star. The Warriors remain the odds-on favorite to win the NBA title this season, but one obvious byproduct of the NBA superteam is the dilution of credit, something that will prevent Curry from getting serious consideration for a third consecutive MVP award.
4. Kawhi Leonard
In contrast to Curry, Kawhi Leonard is obviously the biggest contributor to San Antonio’s third 60-plus win season in the last four years. With Tim Duncan retired, Leonard has stepped right into his shoes as San Antonio’s quiet, unassuming leader. His 25.8 points and 3.6 assists are easily career-highs, while his 5.9 rebounds are well off the 7.2 he posted in 2014-15.
Strangely, Leonard will get serious consideration for a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award despite the fact that the Spurs’ defense performs better on a per 100 possessions basis with Leonard on the bench than any other player. Normally when debating MVP candidates, a team’s record is a big factor. With credit divided among so many stars for the Warriors and the Spurs holding the league’s second-best record, Leonard’s candidacy would be stronger in any other year.
3. LeBron James
If the standard for MVP is “which player improves his team the most,” you could pretty much give the award to LeBron James every year. The defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers would struggle to make the playoffs without James. On top of that, James is having one of the best individual seasons of his storied career, with career-highs in rebounds (8.6) and assists (8.7) to go along with 26.4 points per game.
However, James’ individual brilliance isn’t enough to make MVP voters overlook the way Cleveland has stumbled in the second half of the season. The Cavaliers hold the tiebreak over Boston, but must win out to control their own destiny. That could come back to haunt the Cavaliers, a team that should be resting James after he’s led the league in minutes per game this season (37.8). As unquestionably-great as James is, he will undoubtedly be penalized by voters for the fact that Cleveland’s defense ranks in the bottom third of the league, and a staggering 28th since the All-Star break.
2. Russell Westbrook
Wait, WHAT? With Russell Westbrook eclipsing Oscar Robertson’s record with his 42nd triple-double against the Nuggets while pouring in 50 points and a dramatic buzzer-beater, Twitter exploded with claims that the MVP discussion is now an open-and-shut case. There’s just one problem: Are regular season accomplishments more important than a team’s potential to reach the ultimate goal, an NBA championship? Are the Golden State Warriors satisfied with their accomplishments last season after winning a record 73 games but falling short in the NBA Finals?
That’s not to say that James Harden has a better case for MVP because the Houston Rockets have a realistic shot at winning the title this year. They don’t, not with the way the Warriors are playing and Durant back from injury. But the Rockets have exceeded expectations to a greater extent than Oklahoma City. If chasing regular season accomplishments is the true definition of value, that’s fine, but consider this: No NBA player with at least 15 minutes per game has ever used more than the astronomical 41.8 percent of the Thunder’s possessions that Westbrook has used while on court this season.
Prior to Harden’s departure from OKC, there was a realistic expectation that the Thunder would win multiple championships. Had the Thunder retained Harden, it would have had three of the NBA’s top 10 players under contract. Instead, Harden complained about touches after taking only six shots in Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals and OKC’s chemistry was fractured. The story coming out of the Thunder’s front office was that the Harden trade was driven by economics, but that sounds like revisionist history. Westbrook’s failed efforts at hero ball in the playoffs led to the exodus of two superstars, and now OKC may never win a championship during his career. Is that what counts as value?
1. James Harden
What makes the case for James Harden for MVP is the fact that the Rockets have exceeded expectations more than any NBA team this season. As Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes noted, only two MVPs since 1985 (Michael Jordan in 1988 and Karl Malone in 1999) have won the award while their team finished lower than second in its conference standings. Both of those teams finished third, so there hasn’t been a team since 1985 that finished lower than third and produced an MVP. Westbrook’s brilliance legitimately opens up the debate despite the Thunder’s mediocre performance in the standings, but Houston’s overachievement makes it easier to make that argument in favor of Harden.
As noted by Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, oddsmakers at Bovada set a similar over/under for wins entering the season for the Rockets (44) and Thunder (43.5). At the time of the article’s publication, the Rockets were on pace to exceed that projection by 13 wins, making Houston easily the NBA’s biggest overachievers. The Thunder, meanwhile, were only on pace to exceed their projection by three wins.
Golliver also notes that while Westbrook leads MVP candidates in the three-point era in the combination of points, rebounds, and assists per game, Harden is second on that list ahead of previous MVPs. Thus, Harden’s season has also been historic while pushing his team significantly closer to contention than the Thunder.
Westbrook may win the award on the strength of the narrative created when he surmounted a triple-double record many observers thought would never be challenged. But if we’re talking about which candidate has pushed his team to the most unexpected heights and placed it in the closest proximity to title contention, Harden wins this MVP going away.
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