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Making The Case: MVP Edition
By Kyle Howard Posted in NBA on March 23, 2017 One Comment
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Back in 2012, Bill Simmons suggested altering the size of the NBA MVP trophy based on the quality of the MVP race and the “transcendence of the MVP’s season itself.” If that idea had ever been adopted, right now we’d be in the midst of a 25-pound race that’s going to come right down to the finish. With about a month left in the season, there is still no clear-cut favorite. The winner could very well come down to these last 15 games or so, and even after the winner is chosen, I’m sure there will be arguments about the 2016-2017 MVP raging on in internet forums and barber shops for years to come.

At the moment, there are five players whose names get brought up more often than not when discussing potential winners. The main candidates, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, have put up numbers so otherworldly that they have often made us rethink all we know about the sport of basketball.  Then there’s Kawhi Leonard and Lebron James. One is the best two-way player in the game, equally as likely to take over a game on offense as he is to lock down the entire side of a court on defense. The other is James. While his nickname “The King” is fitting, James operates more like a queen on the chessboard that is an NBA court. Every move he makes is done with the purpose of freeing up a teammate for one of his pinpoint passes or opening up a lane to the rim for one of his thunderous drives. In the distant rearview sits Isaiah Thomas, currently second in the league in scoring. His fourth-quarter outbursts have, at the least, made him a periphery figure in the MVP conversation this season.

An argument can be made for each of these players, and their respective fans will swear by each of them. So, who exactly has the strongest claim to the hardware? That’s what I’ll aim to break down here. Since Thomas is on the outside looking in, we’ll start with him. 

The Case For Isaiah

If you’re looking for the moment when Thomas threw his hat into the MVP race, look no further than the 25-game stretch spanning from December 16th to February 6th. Over that stretch, Thomas averaged 33.2 points and 6.5 assists while shooting 50.5% from the field, 42.1% from deep, and 94.3% from the free throw line. The “King in the Fourth” moniker was also coined during this time, as he averaged 13.1 points in the final frame for nearly two months, including a 29-point fourth-quarter outburst against the Miami Heat.

Thomas has cooled off a bit since then, as defenses have adjusted, but his offensive numbers remain fantastic. It is true that his defensive metrics are concerning, and they form the crux of the argument against his candidacy, but if you are going to subscribe to numbers that paint him as one of the worst (if not the worst) defender in basketball, you also have to concede that he is one of the five best players in the league on the offensive end.

Currently, he ranks fourth in the league in offensive real plus-minus, tied for second in offensive box plus-minus, and second in offensive win-shares. Furthermore, the Celtics have a blistering 113.2 offensive rating when Thomas is on the court. That’s better than the league’s best offense, and not far off the mark the Rockets put up with Harden, and the Cavaliers with James. 

That last number is a little more staggering when considering how inept the Celtics are offensively without him. The Celtics offensive rating drops over 14 points per 100 possessions when Isaiah is not on the court. That is a steepest decline among the five major candidates. 

Offensive Efficiency

Thomas, in a season where the Celtics have been riddled with injuries, has often represented the first, second, and third option for a team that lacks refined offensive players, and he has excelled in that role.

Looking at the team’s success with Thomas on the court, it should come as no surprise that he ranks highly in several categories when it comes to individual scoring as well. Per Synergy Sports, Thomas ranks in the 80th percentile or higher in five major offensive categories (isolation, pick and roll, hand-offs, spot-ups, and off-screens). He also ranks in the 95th percentile for overall points per possession, the highest among the five candidates. His ability to score in any scenario is what makes him, and the Celtics’ offense so deadly. He may not lead the league in scoring, but he may just be the best scorer in the league this season (with all due respect to Durant, whose candidacy was ruined by injury).

Still, Thomas’ best hope for an MVP push is time. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to make a true run at it, but with about a month left, he still has enough games to try and change some of the narratives surrounding his breakout season. The Celtics have been terrible on defense when Thomas plays, but since the start of March, they are surrendering only 102.2 points per 100 possessions when he plays. That’d be the equivalent of a top five ranking if it held up over a whole season.

If the Celtics can mantain that mark, and Isaiah explodes a few more times, he may be able to garner more than a few votes, especially if they can snag the first seed (with a soft schedule and one more game against Cleveland, it’s not impossible). Thomas has been magical on the court all season, he may just have one more trick up his sleeve.

The Case for Kawhi

Back on March 6th, the basketball-viewing world begun to realize that the battle for the MVP trophy was more than just a two-person duel. That was the night Leonard went head to head with Harden, posting 39 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists as the Spurs beat the Rockets 112-110. Not only was Leonard fantastic from beginning to end, he capped the victory off with the most dazzling two way sequence of the season:

 

Of course, Leonard had been amazing before then, having averaged 25.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals from the beginning of the season through February. But his play in the penultimate month of the NBA regular season has really warmed people to the idea of Leonard being crowned the league’s most valuable player. Since March 1st, he has averaged 27.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.2 steals per game.

The Spurs have also put themselves in prime position to steal the top overall seed in the West, and doing so would only bolster Leonard’s case. The MVP award often goes to the top player on the top team, and Leonard would fit that bill if the Spurs can end the season atop their conference.

Some opponents of Leonard’s candidacy will point to the fact that the Spurs are barely better with him on the court (they have a net rating of 8.8 with him and 8.1 without him), their defense becoming substantially better when he sits, and their 6-1 record in games where Leonard has not played as proof that he cannot be considered the most valuable player. After all, how much value is a player adding if the team can sustain itself without him?

But those factoids all fail to apply context. Sure, the Spurs have won six games without Leonard, but, they have come against teams with a combined record of 177-246 (omitting the game against the Warriors, because nobody on either side played). Their two most impressive wins have come against a Raptors team without Demar Derozan, and a Trailblazers team without Damian Lillard.

It shouldn’t be an indictment against Leonard that a team as deep and well-coached as the Spurs can have success against the bottom-feeders of the league without their star player. But, there is no evidence that they could have success against the elite teams in the league without Leonard’s two way excellence.

Make no mistake about it; Leonard remains a two-way force. Going at him is a fruitless exercise, and opposing teams have only isolated him 37 times this season, according to Synergy. His numbers in those scenarios aren’t good, but it shows just how much respect the opposition has for him. He ranks above average in every other relevant play type statistic as well.

As usual, he also is among the league leader in steals. For some players, this can be a misleading statistic. For Leonard, it is the most obvious indicator of his defensive dominance. He is equally adept at playing in the passing lanes as he is ripping the ball away from his assignment. When Leonard is fully engaged, it’s better to simply cut off whatever side of the court he happens to be on.

 

His on/off numbers are misleading as well. No three-man grouping that has played at least 200 minutes involving Leonard and Dewayne Dedmon has allowed a defensive rating over 98. In fact, the Leonard-Demond pairing has only allowed opponents to score 98.3 points per 100 possessions. But, the two have only played 529 minutes together on the season. On the other hand, Leonard has played close to 1000 minutes with Pau Gasol, and they surrender 106 points per 100. Leonard’s numbers may simply have more to do with the fact that having a big man that can contain the pick and roll and protect the rim is still one of the major keys to crafting a top-level defense.

Offensively, Leonard has become infallible. He will never be a playmaker on the level of James, Harden, or Westbrook, but out of the three of them, only he excels in all aspects of scoring. Right now, a Leonard post up may just be the most efficient play in all of basketball. Not only does he score 1.06 points per possession on his own shots out of the post, but the Spurs score a terrifying 1.53 points per possession when he passes out of the post. He may not rack up the assists, but he knows when and where to move the ball.

If you’re looking to give the award to the best two-way player in the game, someone with no true weaknesses, who brings it every night on offense and defense, then Kawhi Leonard is the only possible choice.

The Case for LeBron

One underrated aspect of a tight MVP race is all of the arguments that spring up around it that try to give a clear definition of what valuable means in the NBA. Is it the best player on the best team? Is the player putting up the best statistics? Or is it the player whose contributions to their team are so immense that he adds more value to his squad than anyone else, even if those contributions cannot always be quantified?

If your views align with that last point, then James is likely the choice for you. No other player can match the way he manipulates defenses and gets guys open. Every dribble, step, and fake is designed to bend the defense so that the most optimal possession is created for his team. Despite all the of injuries and moving parts, the Cavaliers remain third in the league in offensive efficiency, and, as noted earlier, they drop off tremendously when James isn’t around to orchestrate every play.

No individual player on the Cavs is outside James’ sphere of influence either. Even a player as great at scoring as Kyrie Irving becomes only average efficiency-wise once he is forced to run the show without James.

Efficiency With and Without Lebron

With a loss to the Clippers this past Saturday night, the Cavaliers are now 0-6 this season when James does not play. If team wins are worth noting in the MVP race, then we should only count games that those players have actually participated in. James has played a part in all 45 of the Cavs’ wins this year, while Leonard has been a part of 46 of the Spurs’. Thomas and Russ are currently below the Cavs in the win column, and the Rockets are up only three games on the Cavaliers. There doesn’t seem to be a big enough gap there to tilt the race in any one player’s direction, which only helps James’ case.

Another universally agreed-upon prerequisite for being the MVP is statistical dominance. He may not have over 30 triple doubles or lead the league in any particular category, but LeBron’s statistical feats still are worthy of our admiration. This year, he is having his third-most efficient season ever inside the arc, his second-best three-point shooting season, and he is averaging a career high in both rebounds (8.4) and assists (8.9). Somehow, after having played over 46,000 minutes (including the playoffs) coming into his 14th season, James has still found ways to improve his game.

The Case for Russell

He’s averaging a triple double. Seriously. In just about any other season, that alone would make Westbrook the clear-cut favorite to take home the hardware, but there has been such stellar individual play this season that the man who literally does it all for his team may not be considered the most valuable.

I do understand some of the argument against him. For one, the MVP award does not go to players who are not on a top team. The Thunder are a good team, but they are not among the top four in their own conference, nor in the top six among the entire league. But what would they be without Westbrook? Replace him with a league-average point guard, would the Thunder crack 30 wins? Replace Thomas with one and the Celtics could ride their effort, stingy defense, and coaching to a respectable season in the Eastern Conference. The Spurs could recalibrate their game to feature their big men more, the Cavaliers would still have two All-Star-level players in James’ absence. The Rockets have shown a greater ability to sustain themselves when Harden sits than the Thunder do in their minutes without Westbrook.  The Thunder’s offense and defense both fall off a cliff when Westbrook isn’t in the game, and despite some media members clamoring for him to allow his teammates to do more, it’s hard to see what more they could do if given the opportunity.

Then there is the contingent that dutifully points out that his counting stats are inflated due to him always having the ball in his hands. He’s inefficient (especially compared to the other candidates), turns the ball over a ton, and chases rebounds in an attempt to pad his stats.

Yet the Thunder appear to need every ounce of Westbrook’s production. They are 28-6 when he records a triple double, and only 12-24 when he does not. Correlation does not imply causation (after all, would one less rebound or one less assist in some of those wins have changed the outcome?), but his supposed stat chasing could alternatively be viewed as just doing whatever it takes to help the team win.

Even his uncontested rebounds seem to help the team win. Westbrook gets a lot of flak for inflating his rebound totals by chasing boards that could seemingly go to his big men, but there are real and tangible benefits to him doing so. For instance, the Thunder are a terrible half-court offense. They rank 24th in the league in points per possession in the half-court, per Synergy. As a team, they aren’t very effective in transition either, but in those situations, they at least rank as average. Any scenario in which the team does not have to play against a set defense is a win for them, and Westbrook is the best at putting them in such situations. And according to Nylon Calculus, when a guard rebounds, regardless of where the rebound occurs, it is more likely to lead directly to a fastbreak shot attempt. That isn’t the only advantage to a Westbrook rebound, however. Through December, a separate analysis showed that the Thunder had an effective field percentage of 55 in transition, following a Westbrook board. When the fastbreak was initiated after any other player got the rebound, that number dropped down to 50%. Again, Westbrook grabbing rebounds is a positive thing for his team.

His overall inefficiency has been overstated as well. Naturally, we can expect volume and efficiency to have an inverse relationship, especially in scenarios where one player is trying to carry a team. Currently, no player in the league operates at the same volume as Westbrook. His usage rate is over 40%, which is the highest recorded amount by far.

If we look at players who are at least in his ballpark in terms of usage, we can develop a better understanding of how efficient or inefficient Westbrook has been in his role.

There have been 21 players in the modern era who have sported a usage rate of 35% or greater (including Westbrook this season). On average, the effective field goal percentage of those players is 47.4%. Currently, Westbrook has an effective field goal percentage of 46.8. So while he is below average compared to other players with insanely high usage, it’s reasonable to conclude that he is operating at average efficiency for a player of his usage. Remember, no one has ever cracked 40 percent usage, let alone the 42 percent Westbrook is currently putting up. For now, we cannot know, because what we are seeing is truly unprecedented. 

The Case for Harden

Since Tiny Archibald did it in 1972-1973, only three players have averaged at least 24 points and 10 assists: Michael Adams in 1990-1991, Russell Westbrook this season, and James Harden this season. The Beard is currently averaging 29.4 points, 11.2 assists, and chipping in 8.1 rebounds per game as well. He isn’t averaging a triple double, but those numbers are just as mind-boggling. He is doing all of that on elite efficiency (62% true shooting) while leading his team to a top-three seed in the West, and a top-three overall record. Meanwhile, he’s accounting for over 59% of his team’s points this season, which is downright absurd.

He is also on pace to break the record for most total points produced. Harden is directly responsible for 56.7 points per night, via scoring and assists, which would break Wilt Chamberlain’s record of 55.2 if it holds.  

Harden has become the realized ideal of a Mike D’Antoni point guard, and although he did a lot of ball-handling in previous years, his move to full-time lead guard has seemingly given fans a newfound appreciation for his night-to-night brilliance. And with Harden, it truly is night to night. He has appeared in every game this season, even though the Rockets have been unofficially locked into the third seed for quite a while now. In an age with more teams using rest as a strategy, Harden’s commitment to playing every night should count for something. It’s also possible that, because he does go out and dominate every night, we’re sort of desensitized to his greatness. For instance, in the month of March, Harden is averaging 32.7 points, 10.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds while shooting nearly 50% from the field, yet he doesn’t seem to be getting the same coverage as some of the other candidates. He has also had two 50-point triple-doubles this season, and his performance against the Knicks (53 points, 16 rebounds, 17 assists) set the mark for the second-most points produced in a single game in NBA history.

But every candidate is statistically superior in their own way to some degree. An MVP’s case has to go beyond the numbers. What really drives home Harden’s case is that, more than any other team with a player on this list, the Rockets are exceeding expectations. Back in September, the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas released their over/under win total odds for every team. The Celtics were set at 51.5, the Cavaliers 56.5, ditto for the Spurs, and the Thunder were pegged at 45.5. The Rockets? A measly 41.5 wins. That was tied for 14th in the league with the Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as tied for 8th in the Western Conference.  The Rockets have 49 wins at the moment, and Harden is the biggest reason for that.

No matter who ends up coming away with the award, this race has been one for the ages. It’s not often we are given the chance to watch players so fundamentally different in their approach come and play at such high levels every night. They’ve treated us to some of the most memorable regular season performances in recent memory. If that’s not good enough, there is a real chance that each of these players will match up against another candidate in high-stakes playoff games. The award only applies to regular season feats, but if those matchups occur, it will only give these players another chance to prove to the world who the most valuable is.

*All stats accurate as of March 22nd

Isaiah Thomas James Harden Kawhi Leonard LeBron James


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