Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard: These are great NBA players, having great NBA seasons. These are Hall of Famers in their primes. BUT …
They’re not 2015-16 Stephen Curry. They’re not 2012-13 LeBron James. They’re not 1999-00 Shaquille O’Neal. They’re not 1995-96 Michael Jordan.
For all the talk of how amazing this MVP race is, how crazy the numbers are and how unprecedented the output of the NBA’s best players has been, it’s worth taking a step back and putting it in grander context. We saw a better individual performance last year than we’ve seen this year. We’ve seen a lot of better MVP seasons than whichever one will win the MVP this year.
The MVP debate has been a lot of fun – justifiably so! – and we’re not trying to pour water on the fire. This is nowhere near the worst MVP season, either. Steve Nash’s first MVP, or Derrick Rose’s MVP, or Bill Walton’s or Wes Unseld’s – those were down years for the NBA’s biggest stars. This one has been a bit more typical. The winner will slot right into the middle of the pack in a ranking of the best MVP seasons ever, which is a fine thing.
To put it in historical perspective: Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and even LeBron James each had at least four better individual seasons than anyone has had this year. The reasons are evident every time the debate comes up. When we think of MVP, we consider four main criteria:
1. Team success.
2. Statistical prowess.
3. The ol’ eye test.
4. Story line.
Team success is probably where this year’s race takes the biggest hit. The teams of the NBA MVPs since 2000 have averaged 61.7 wins a season (per 82 games). Only Leonard’s Spurs (61 wins with two to play) will be within five of that mark. Harden’s Rockets have 54 wins, to match Nash’s second MVP season with the 54-28 Suns in 2005-06 for the lowest, but they can win their last two games to equal Allen Iverson’s 76ers, who went 56-26 in 2000-01. LeBron (51) and Westbrook (46) would fall well below the typical MVP standard for team success.
Soobum Im, USA TODAY Sports
Statistical prowess is a bizarre thing to discuss in this era of advanced metrics. You could make a solid argument for any of Harden, Westbrook or Leonard using advanced stats. Just take a peak at this phenomenal “All-in-One” metrics chart from Nylon Calculus, which shows every catch-all statistic in one place. Here are the leaders in each category:
RPM: Chris Paul (LeBron among full-season players)
DRE: Durant (Leonard)
Win Shares: Harden
Win Shares per 48 minutes: Durant (Leonard)
Value Added: Westbrook
Wins VORP: Westbrook
Westbrook leads the most categories, yes, but a deeper dive shows that his unprecedented usage rate – he’s the first player ever to use more than 40% of his team’s possessions while on the court – has jacked up some of the formulas behind several of those statistics, particularly BPM (Box Plus/Minus). Moreover, the types of people who care most about advanced metrics also tend to care most about efficiency, and Westbrook’s .555 True Shooting Percentage is well below the other three candidates’, all in the .610 range.
The eye test doesn’t make it any easier. Westbrook’s highlight reel certainly wins, but he and Harden are both minus defenders, and LeBron has not exerted himself on that end this year as much as in the past, either. Also, there’s a very good argument that Westbrook’s Thunder teammates have gone too far out of their way to support his triple-doubles, giving him rebounds usually absorbed by big men and at times firing off shots just because he was the one to pass to them.
Moreover, neither Westbrook nor Harden is the best player in the world. That title typically is handed to LeBron, the defending champion who turns into a supernova when it matters most. Last season, Curry was stealing support as BPitW – until the NBA Finals. That hasn’t been the case for anyone this year, even as James is no longer at his 2012-13 peak levels.
That leaves us with story lines, which is where this year’s MVP race looks best – and where the battle for the title ultimately may be fought, for better or worse (mostly worse, in this analyst’s eyes).
Harden has done an unbelievable job of moving to point guard for the first time in his career and becoming the most efficient offensive force in the NBA, both with his own scoring and his ability to create 3-point opportunities for all of his teammates. The Rockets have made more 3s than any team ever, and Harden is the engine that has driven that success. He’s also increased his leadership role significantly after fractures with Dwight Howard led to last year’s disappointment.
Leonard has led the Spurs into the post-Tim Duncan era with aplomb, and he’s increased his role on offense, even as he doesn’t quite carry the playmaking burden of the other candidates. And LeBron has held the Cavaliers together in a season defined by strife and injury after last year’s championship.
But Westbrook watched Durant leave him this summer and reacted by pulling all of the pins to his grenades and going for broke. The triple-doubles alone are historic and absurd. It’s been mesmerizing to watch him do it. He’s playing like no one we’ve ever seen before. He’ll probably win MVP for it.
Yet he’s not playing at the level Curry was last year, when he was hitting seemingly every legal shot in the game. He’s not playing at the level LeBron was a few years back, when he and the Heat seemingly could do no wrong. He’s not playing like O’Neal in 2000, when no one could stop him ever on either end. His MVP case has holes – efficiency, defense, wins – that those guys simply didn’t. Heck, his MVP case has holes that Harden’s and Leonard’s and LeBron’s don’t.
This MVP race is flawed all around, though. But in those flaws, there’s beauty.
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