NBA Preview — Thoughts on the MVP Race

James Harden and Russell Westbrook played each other last night, but should one game mean much for a season-long award?

The MVP tracker from Basketball-Reference

Sunday afternoon’s OKC/HOU matchup was great for TV, and great for MVP storylines. Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the two presumptive favorites for the league’s most prestigious award, went toe-to-to in an entertaining battle. As this chart from Basketball-Reference indicates, these two players are at the top of the list. Even though Kevin Durant is ahead of Westbrook, his recent injury has disqualified him from the award in the eyes of many.

After the Houston victory, the team’s twitter account wasted no time in applying the results to the MVP race:

As hilarious as this tweet is, I think it’s fair to ask if any one game should determine the result of the MVP race. Harden and Westbrook are both phenomenal players, and the result of one afternoon — even one that pitted these two stars against one another—shouldn’t outweigh an entire season of evidence. Besides, two other players in the race weren’t even there. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard both have strong MVP cases of their own.

As someone who spends a lot of time on twitter, I’m constantly amazed by how much anger and vitriol gets flung around the MVP discussion. I’ve seen more “if you don’t think player X can win MVP you’re an idiot” tweets than I can count, and I think it’s somewhat hilarious that people get so worked up over an award that’s so subjective. What does “most valuable” even mean? It’s subjective, just like nearly every measure of a player’s greatness, and there are many different ways to define who really is the most valuable athlete in the league.

Credit: Basketball-Reference

For me, the chart on the left is the most meaningful single statistic. My MVP vote doesn’t matter at all, but I’m planning on writing up some (brief) thoughts on the race in the near future. This chart, VORP, will probably be the main statistic I use since it’s so eye-popping. Westbrook and Harden have enjoyed a season-long lead in this category, but lately Westbrook has started to edge Harden as well. 10.5 wins for a season that hasn’t even ended yet is insane.

In any case, there are plenty of good candidates, and plenty of good arguments for each one. Who you pick may say more about how you watch basketball than anything else.


6–3 last week, 165–124 for the season. Tonight, TNT has two pretty interesting games:

Cleveland at San Antonio: San Antonio

Cleveland lost a big game to the Washington Wizards this weekend, and many of the team’s defensive weaknesses were exposed. With that in mind, a road trip to San Antonio isn’t the most favorable matchup in the world. It’s possible that James could have an offensive explosion, especially since he voiced his frustration recently. However, the Spurs are just better than the Cavaliers are. I don’t even think that’s a controversial statement. Games with teams this good can easily go either way, but San Antonio is the rightful favorite here.

New Orleans at Utah: Utah

New Orleans is on a back-to-back and on the road, but Gordon Hayward might still be out. Even with his injury unclear, I’m picking the Jazz. They’re at home, they need to win to stay in position, and they’re probably the better team even without Hayward. I really hope he comes back soon. I can’t wait to watch this team in the playoffs.

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