NBA Preview — MVP Picks

With the regular season now over, here’s my (meaningless) pick for MVP

Because I’m arrogant enough to assume that people care what a random blogger thinks, I’m publishing my choice for MVP. Before I do that though, I want to get a few things out of the way. I’m not going to do a deep statistical dive. I don’t have the time or energy for that, although I think it’s certainly very valuable. For me, the MVP discussion boils down to a question of philosophy, since each of the four top players embodies an important NBA trait. The statistics for all of these players are important, but they’re impressive for all of them.

For me, as for many others, the top four candidates are LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. These players are the consensus options for many, and for good reason. Westbrook’s furious statistical outburst has carried a mediocre team to the playoffs, while James has continued his dominance of the league despite a flawed roster of his own. Leonard is the player on the best team out of these four, and his defensive ability adds a unique layer to his case. Finally, Harden is setting records for efficiency and captains one of the most exciting offenses in the league.

I’ll start by trimming this list down to two. I’m not going to pick either James or Harden. Here’s my reasoning: as good as they both are (and they’ve been amazing this year, make no mistake), I think Leonard and Westbrook are better. I’m not picking James because his case hinges a little too much on reputation. He may be easily the best individual player out of these four, but a good deal of his appeal is based on what we expect to see in June. That counts a lot, but in terms of this regular season he lags a little behind the others.

I would rank Harden third, and I leave him out of the top two with great difficulty. I see both he and Westbrook as having similar cases, since they each have carried their respective teams to great heights. While Harden has been phenomenal, Westbrook’s contributions have just been a little more valuable. The Thunder would be nowhere near the playoffs without him, and he holds a massive lead in Basketball-Reference’s VORP statistic. This number doesn’t tell the whole story, but it still tells a lot of it. OKC would be sunk without him, he deserves all the credit for that.

Credit: basketball-reference

I like Leonard a little more than Harden or James because of defense. I value that a lot when I watch players, and Leonard holds a massive lead over all three other candidates in that category. Yes, I know that offense is more important than defense. But stopping other players is still a vital part of the game, and Leonard is one of the very best. I’m aware of the metrics that say his defense has slipped, and I’ve seen several smart minds discount this story. Leonard is still a phenomenal defender by the eye test, and individual defense is notoriously hard to quantify statistically.

So that brings me down to Westbrook vs. Leonard. Leonard is the best player on an elite Spurs team, and I honestly struggle to say how good San Antonio would be without him. They would probably still be a playoff team, but his offensive and defensive contributions fuel everything that team does. And if defense matters, Westbrook takes a hit, here. Even though he has the physical tools to be a good defender, he just isn’t. Leonard is better, and it isn’t close.

The counter to this is that I don’t think Leonard could carry OKC like Westbrook does. Maybe the Thunder would win 40 games with Leonard and no Westbrook, but I can’t see the total being much higher than that. Westbrook’s herculean effort to carry his team by what seems like sheer force of will at times is amazing, and I’m not sure that any other player in the NBA could do what he’s done this season.

So this begs the philosophical question — which case is more valuable? Is it the elite defender who has turned into an offensive powerhouse, or the player who carried a shattered team to a mid-tier playoff spot? How much does it factor into this discussion that Leonard plays with much better teammates, and the best coach in the NBA? How do you weigh individual defense against a season-long triple-double? I know that statistic is somewhat arbitrary, but there’s still a reason that it never happens.

Ultimately, I pick Leonard. Call it a gut feeling, call it foolishness, and criticize me for not using more statistics. In an era where the statistical evidence is overwhelming and inconclusive, I think that the player who is better at both ends of the court is the right choice. Scoring is more important, but Leonard does both. He’s my MVP.

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