The NBA MVP Race, Explained

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Many smart people have invested their time and thoughts into dissecting this year’s NBA Most Valuable Player race. Many have come to the conclusion that the award should go to either Thunder guard Russell Westbrook or Rockets guard James Harden, both of whom are having historically great seasons. And yet, several others believe that the award should go to LeBron James; many have felt that way about the MVP race every year because James is the undisputed best player on the planet.

Everyone who has a say in this discussion has at least some form of logic behind their opinion. That’s what has made this debate so great; many intelligent people have come to wildly different conclusions about the same thing. That’s not an indictment of the league; rather, it should be a celebration of just how good the players have been this season, rest or no rest.

Therefore, let’s delve into the different perspectives used to determine who should be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

For starters, there is a large subset of NBA experts who feel that the award should go to the best player in the world right now. Period. No questions asked. The question these people will ask is this: if aliens invaded Earth and we needed to pick our best player to play the aliens’ best player, who would we take? This perspective was made famous by Bill Simmons and Bob Ryan, among others, and it brings up another interesting question: should we give the Most Valuable Player award to the player who had the best season or the best player in the league? If we chose the latter, James would have more than his current four MVP awards. I would argue that LeBron has been the best player in the NBA since 2010, the year Kobe Bryant won his last NBA championship. And yes, that includes LeBron’s seemingly calamitous first year in Miami, in which I would like to humbly remind you that he led the league in win shares, a full 2.5 shares ahead of Derrick Rose, the 2010-11 league MVP.

Another perspective that voters use to choose the winner of the award is to use the definition of the word valuable in a literal sense. The logic these people use is this: if you took Player X over Team Y, how far would Team Y fall? When using this argument, in its simplest form, the candidate that best fits the description of “valuable” is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, who became just the second player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season, means more to the Thunder than any other player in the discussion. If Westbrook was taken away from Oklahoma City, it’s fair to speculate that they would be the Brooklyn Nets right now. The Thunder offense would run through Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, and the team’s starting point guard would likely be Semaj Christen. Therefore, Westbrook is the dictionary definition of the word “valuable”.

A final argument for choosing an MVP would be to take the best individual season in the league for that particular year. This argument makes the MVP award seem more like the Most Outstanding Player award and it also loosens the definition of valuable. In this case, the argument depends on who you think of as having the best season in the league. That depends equally on statistics and the eye test; it’s also largely subjective. Through that interpretation, you could go with either LeBron, Harden, or Westbrook. It’s entirely up to you.

But who should be the MVP when the dust settles?

First of all, I am going to confine my argument to who I view as the top five players in the league this season. They are:

  1. James Harden (Rockets)
  2. LeBron James (Cavaliers)
  3. Kawhi Leonard (Spurs)
  4. Isaiah Thomas (Celtics)
  5. Russell Westbrook (Thunder)

So, now that we’re clear on that, we can move forward. I don’t see anyone else as having even a legitimate chance at or claim to the award. These are the five players who should have a mathematical chance at winning the trophy this season. Just so you know: players on this list who have sat out games for rest this season (James and Leonard) will not be penalized. They had reasons for sitting out games, it’s not their fault, and it shouldn’t reflect poorly on them.

For starters, the MVP award should go to a player who helps his team at both ends of the floor. That is particularly true this year, with the particularly astounding play of the respective candidates. Out of the five I’ve chosen, Thomas has the worst defensive rating (112) and Box Plus-Minus (-3.4) on the list; both statistics are used to gauge a player’s value defensively, with the former gauging his value per 100 possessions and the latter using a positive/negative scale. Thomas is clearly the worst defensive player out of the five, and while his offensive prowess makes up for his defensive deficiencies in Boston, it doesn’t compensate for his deficit compared to the other four players. IT4, for as great as his season was, is out.

That brings us down to four. Out of the four remaining candidates, three are asked to be the primary ball-handlers and general creators of offense for themselves and their teams. The one player who does not fit this description is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has the lowest assist-per-game (3.5) and rebound-per-game (5.8) figures among the five initial contenders for the award. Part of that is how the Spurs’ culture is built; the organization and scheme are structured so that no player overtly stands out. Coach Gregg Popovich has been quoted as saying that the team looks for players who are “over themselves” and who value the team over their own accolades. While that strategy is a large part of the Spurs’ sustained success, it isn’t conducive to players looking to win MVPs (unless you’re Tim Duncan, who won the award in 2002 and 2003). Leonard falls into that same category: a player who fits perfectly into the Spurs culture. Unfortunately, Popovich’s system doesn’t allow any player, even one as good as Leonard, to have the impact necessary to win the award. This is shown in Leonard’s 31.1% usage rate (a measure of plays run for a certain player while he is on the floor). For as much of a Kawhi Leonard disciple as I am, he’s out.

That whittles this discussion down to the three players I feel are truly deserving of the award. It would be completely fine if any one of Harden, James, or Westbrook took home the trophy; that is a testament to just how good they have all been this season. Honestly, who you think should win between these three likely depends on your interpretation of the award. I’ll go through some criteria that I view as important, particularly in a tight race like this year’s.

Many believe, as do I, that the worst thing one can do with the basketball is turn it over. In this category, Russell Westbrook and James Harden take the biggest hit, as both are averaging well over five turnovers per game. If you take a deeper look, though, you realize that Harden and Westbrook are the primary creators for their respective teams, averaging double-digit assist numbers; in fact, both players assist on more than half of their teams’ baskets when they are on the floor. James’ assist percentage is slightly under 42% for the season, a full 15 points lower than Westbrook’s and eight lower than Harden’s. Also, James only has a slight advantage in assist-to-turnover ratio. These are the figures for each of the three superstars:

  1. LeBron James: 2.128
  2. James Harden: 1.947
  3. Russell Westbrook: 1.929

While LeBron obtains a clear advantage over the other two, it’s hardly disqualifying. Also, I would tend to give Westbrook and Harden a break here; their usage rates of 41.7% and 34.2%, respectively, are appreciably higher than James’ rate of 30.0%. Part of that comparatively low figure is the fact that James has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, two excellent offensive players at his disposal. However, it’s clear that the Cavaliers require slightly less out of LeBron than the Thunder out of Westbrook or the Rockets out of Harden. So, as much as it pains me to say this, LeBron James, the greatest player in the world, is eliminated from the conversation for Most Valuable Player.

Now, we’re down to just The Beard and The Brodie. Let’s take a step back and first realize that the player I don’t choose to win the award would be an MVP in just about any other season in NBA history. Both had historically great years and should be appreciated for what they’ve done to make an otherwise anticlimactic NBA season interesting. Unfortunately, only one can win my vote for league MVP. Let’s take a closer look.

Westbrook has Harden fully beat in the rebounding category, as he has accumulated 205 more rebounds in 145 fewer minutes of on-court time. Even though Harden is a better shooter than Westbrook, he is shooting only fractionally better from three-point land this season (.347 to .343). Harden does have a better offensive rating, but Westbrook has a slightly better defensive rating. Both are actually having rather similar seasons, the only major difference being that Westbrook averaged 2.6 more rebounds per game than Harden. Harden was also slightly more efficient, as he took roughly five fewer shots per game than Westbrook. I must say, it’s extremely close.

However, this is where things start to turn: Westbrook, for all intents and purposes, smashed the league’s single-season usage rate mark with his performance this season. (The stats from this year aren’t yet official on Basketball-Reference, so it’s still unofficial.) Russ’ aforementioned 41.7% figure is a league-record and three points higher than Kobe Bryant’s 38.7% rate in 2005-06. The way I interpret this is that no other team in the history of the NBA has relied on one player as much as Oklahoma City has on Westbrook. That statistic is something that most people read and pause momentarily to make sure they’re not missing something. But that’s just how reliant the Thunder are on their best player every single night of the year.

And that is why if I had an MVP vote this season, I would use it on Russell Westbrook. When the Thunder lost Kevin Durant in free agency, many assumed that the franchise would take a major hit. While the Thunder are clearly not as good as they were last season, they are still solidly in the Playoffs with 47 wins, just eight fewer from last season. And not only did they lose Durant; GM Sam Presti also dealt the team’s third-best player, Serge Ibaka, to the Magic last season for Victor Oladipo. Then again, Orlando’s old GM took a picture of a whiteboard with the team’s free agent targets this summer, so he’s not exactly one you should trust with making good deals (Hint: the picture got into the wrong hands). The Thunder lost two of their three best players from a season ago and only lost eight wins. Not bad at all.

This is the final thing: Westbrook did something this year that was only done once before in NBA history, and that is average a triple-double. Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62; it hasn’t been done since until this season. And while you may balk at Westbrook’s high turnover number, consider this: turnovers weren’t tracked during Robertson’s record-setting year. It’s entirely possible that he turned it over just as often as Westbrook; we’ll never know for sure. Forget the MVP discussion for a second; Russell Westbrook did something this season many of us have never seen before. That is historically awesome and his season is nothing anyone should soon forget.

This is also not meant to denigrate the seasons of anyone else in the MVP discussion. All players mentioned in this article have had excellent seasons and are all worthy of consideration and admiration.

When you consider the breadth of Westbrook’s accomplishments, though, he has the best case for the award. If he wins, he will be the first player to win Most Valuable Player on a sub-50 win team since Moses Malone took home the honors after the 1981-82 season; Malone’s Houston Rockets won 46 games that season. Just like this year’s Thunder, Malone single-handedly elevated his supporting cast, which consisted of an aging Elvin Hayes, a number of role players, and a future NBA coach (Mike Dunleavy). Westbrook did the same for this year’s Thunder squad, and his supporting cast may have been even worse than Malone’s.

While we can look at the numbers all we want, debate history, and, frankly, split some hairs along the way, it comes down to this: Russell Westbrook had one of the best seasons ever, one worthy of getting him to the Hall of Fame all on its own. While the others were also historically good, Westbrook had the most outstanding season of all and carried his team to places they would have never been able to dream of otherwise.

If you are reading this and you have an MVP vote: don’t take it lightly. My decision was not made without serious research and deep thought, and yours shouldn’t be, either. Ultimately, you must put the time in to make the decision you feel is best. What I’m saying is this: vote your conscience. Make your own decision.

And I’ll throw in my decision: I’m voting for Russell Westbrook.

**All statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted**

Five NBA All-Star Break Observations

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The NBA season has reached the All-Star break and there are several interesting storylines. The Warriors, replete with superstar Kevin Durant and many others, have emerged as the best team in the league, Russell Westbrook is having a season for the ages, and the Cavaliers have endured a difficult, injury-plagued season in their championship defense.

With the league at the All-Star break, now is as good a time as any to assess the state of affairs in the game and share some thoughts on players and teams. Here are five of my observations on the first half of the season.

A Unicorn Not Named Porzingis

If I were to tell you about a European, second-year big man who is a good passer, rebounder, and three-point shooter, your mind would immediately gravitate toward Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis. Actually, I’ve got something (or someone) even better for you.

At the beginning of this season, Nikola Jokic was not even starting in a crowded backcourt for the Denver Nuggets. However, after Jusuf Nurkic was benched in mid-December, Jokic has emerged as one of the best big men in the game, averaging just over 20 points and 10 rebounds since assuming his starting role. More recently, he dropped 40 points on the Knicks and put down a triple-double in a 22-point win against the Warriors. In the box plus/minus statistic, a metric used to evaluate a player’s contribution to his team, Jokic ranks fourth in the league behind Chris Paul, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Not too shabby.

Sadly, many won’t be able to appreciate Jokic’s contributions unless the Nuggets make the playoffs. Denver is currently in the eighth spot in the West, one and a half games ahead of the Kings for the final playoff spot. And going to the playoffs would likely earn the Nuggets the right to be trampled by the Warriors in the first round. But just going to the playoffs would expose many viewers to Jokic’s diverse skill set, even if his team is wiped out of the playoffs in four games.

Score one for the unicorns.

Scott Brooks, Coach of the Year

That is a phrase you may not have expected to hear after the first three weeks of the season. On November 16th, the Wizards lost at home to the 76ers and fell to 2-8. People may not have been calling for Brooks’ job just yet, but things weren’t looking up in the nation’s capital, either. And then John Wall and Bradley Beal happened.

Wall and Beal combine to average 45 points per game and both are having career years for a Washington team that currently sits in third in the Eastern Conference. Last year, the Wiz were one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA, an outcome that led to the firing of coach Randy Wittman and the hiring of Brooks. Four months into his tenure with Washington, it has become clear that Brooks is the right coach for this team, having gone 32-13 since that devastating loss to Philadelphia.

Not only is Brooks the right coach for the Wizards, he’s the first-half Coach of the Year.

The Jazz Are Taking Care of Business*

Unfortunately, the asterisk must be addressed.

The Utah Jazz are one of the most improved teams in the NBA this season; at their current pace, they would finish the season with 50 wins, a 10-win improvement over last season. But, as I was just saying, we need to take Utah’s success with a small grain of salt.

Consider this: out of their first 57 games, Utah has played 22 of them against teams at .500 or above. In those 22 games, the Jazz are just 8-14. Included in that figure are two losses against the Los Angeles Clippers, the team’s most likely first-round opponent. Granted, the team has gone 27-8 against everyone else in the league, but these struggles are concerning. The fact that the Jazz have struggled against the league’s best teams could be explained in a number of ways; for example, the Western Conference has three of the league’s top four teams record-wise (Houston, Golden State, San Antonio) and Utah is not helped by playing these three teams a combined ten times this season.

This also does not mean that I would want to play Utah in an early-round playoff series if I was in the West. The team has length to burn and Quin Snyder’s bunch also owns the league’s best points per game defense by nearly three points over the second-best team. I’m just pointing out that maybe the hype around their success is just slightly overblown.

Orlando Is Out of Magic

Earlier this week, the Magic finally conceded their disastrous season, trading forward Serge Ibaka to the Toronto Raptors for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick. The move had to be made, as any chance the Magic had of making the playoffs would have been as the seventh or eighth seed in the East. The move is likely good for both teams; Ibaka gives the Raptors some needed length and is a definite upgrade over Pascal Siakam at power forward. For the Magic, it starts Act II of the rebuilding process that began with trading Dwight Howard to the Lakers in 2012.

And really, the Magic front office has been absolutely horrendous over the past five years. Some of general manager Rob Hennigan’s greatest hits include, but are not limited to:

  • Trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Oklahoma City for 56 games of Serge Ibaka
  • Hiring Jacque Vaughn as head coach in 2012 (he was fired halfway through the 2014-15 season)
  • Hiring Scott Skiles as head coach in 2015 (he resigned after the season because he had philosophical differences and a deteriorating relationship with the front office)
  • Drafting Mario Hezonja with the fifth pick in the 2015 Draft and passing on Myles Turner, Justise Winslow, and Devin Booker, among others
  • Trading Tobias Harris to the Pistons for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings, neither of whom are still with the team
  • Trading Channing Frye to the Cavaliers for Jared Cunningham and a second-round pick; Cunningham was waived four days later
  • Signing wildly disappointing big man Bismack Biyombo to a 4-year/$70 million contract because of one good month of basketball (A.K.A the Brock Osweiler of NBA contracts)

So things aren’t going too well in Orlando. At least they still have Disney World, because their basketball franchise certainly is not a Magic Kingdom.

Russell Westbrook is the MVP

Whether you like it or not, Russell Westbrook is having one of the greatest NBA seasons ever.

At the All-Star Break, Westbrook is averaging 31 points, 10.5 rebounds, and just over 10 assists per game. At this rate, he would average a triple-double for the season. If that happens, here is the list of players in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of a full season:

  1. Oscar Robertson (1961-62)
  2. Russell Westbrook (2016-17)

That’s it. Even more impressively, Westbrook is single-handedly carrying the Thunder to a playoff berth and succeeding without very much help from his supporting cast. It is entirely possible that the Thunder would be in the position of the Los Angeles Lakers or Pheonix Suns if it were not for Westbrook’s heroics. Fun fact: the Thunder’s fifth-leading per game scorer this season is Josh Huestis, who averages exactly seven points per game. Do you want to know why he averages exactly seven points per game? Because he only played in one game this season.

So kudos to Russell Westbrook, for being so great around so much, well, less-than-great. For that alone, he should be the league’s first-half MVP. Oh, and there’s that whole thing about doing something only one person has ever done before.

Have any additional thoughts? Please leave them in the comments section!

Thank You, NBA, for Pulling Russell Westbrook’s Technical

Russell Westbrook had 54 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists last night in the Thunder’s 116-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers.  The team is fighting and tied in the standings with the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth and final playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference, and even though the Pels lost last night as well, New Orleans still owns the tiebreaker between the two teams.  Something else about Westbrook’s performance?  He received his 16th technical foul of the season for arguing with referee Ed Malloy after running over Luis Scola on a screen.  The 16th technical automatically would have resulted in a 1-game suspension for Westbrook for tonight’s all-important game against Portland.  However, the NBA announced that they reviewed the play and decided to rescind the technical today.  Westbrook is playing tonight.

What’s most important to understand about Westbrook getting to 16 technicals is that he knew that going into the game.  When Malloy gave the T to Westbrook, he seemed to almost be pleading with the referee, repeatedly pulling his uniform over his jersey and even putting his arm around Malloy at one point.  Putting Westbrook out of his team’s biggest game of their season would give Oklahoma City little to no chance to win the game, thus almost deciding the game before it was even played.  If the Thunder lose tonight and the Pelicans win, the Thunder are eliminated.  The league should not be allowing referees decide games; college basketball has shown us that the refs can be just as important as the players sometimes.  Just like referees always “swallow the whistle” at the ends of games, they should also be judicious with their technicals as games become more important.

All this being said, Westbrook is super lucky.  Had the league not rescinded his tech, he would’ve likely cost his team a chance at the playoffs.  We would all be talking about how “crazy” and “over-aggressive” he plays the game.  But with the Thunder injuries recently, they wouldn’t be in this position if he didn’t play that way.

Let’s thank the NBA for allowing him to play this way, and for letting these two teams decide their own fates.

James Harden is the NBA MVP, and Here’s Why

As the NBA season concludes, we are left to the all-important debate of who will win the NBA MVP award.  Four contenders have emerged: Stephen Curry (PG, Warriors), LeBron James (SF, Cavaliers), Russell Westbrook (PG, Thunder), and, in my opinion, the real MVP, Rockets’ SG James Harden.  There are many reasons to choose one of the other players on this list; for example, choose Curry for his electrifying display of shooting, passing and circus shots; choose James for how his team has played since he returned from myriad injuries in mid-January; or, you could choose Westbrook for his practically putting the entire OKC team on his back due to injuries to stars Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.  But Harden is the best choice here.

Harden leads the league in points per game at 27.6.  Part of this is that Harden leads the league in free throw attempts per game; this shows his aggression and ingenuity in crafting offense for his team.  Before you go ahead and make the assumption that Harden is a selfish player, the Beard is also 9th in the league in assists per game at 6.9.  Also, the supporting cast of Harden is not nearly as good as Curry’s: 3 of Curry’s four teammates in the starting lineup are having the best years of their careers, and Curry comprises only half of the league’s best backcourt, alongside Klay Thompson.  Harden’s supporting cast? Jason Terry, filling in for injured defensive presence Patrick Beverley at the point, Trevor Ariza, who has been forced to emerge as a “second option” to Harden in the offense; Trevor is much better defensively.  One of the players the Rockets depended on going into the season was Dwight Howard, but he has missed around half of the Rockets’ games this year with back injuries.  And at power forward the Rockets use both Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith, who have both stepped up this year, but largely because of the attention opposing defenses have paid to Harden.  However, Motiejunas is out for the season with a back injury.

This article is not meant to state that the Rockets will definitely win in the playoffs or that Harden will step up in those games.  Out of the teams mentioned (GS, HOU, OKC, CLE) the Cavs are best suited for playoff success in my opinion.  But Harden has displayed the best individual performance throughout this season, and I think he should be the league MVP.