The NBA MVP Rubric

Deciding a season’s MVP can be…complex.

Part of the problem is that the term “Most Valuable Player” is vague and unclear. Is it the best overall player in the game? The best player on the best team? How good does the team have to be? Is it whoever puts up the craziest stats for the season? But what if that guy doesn’t make the playoffs?

This season, another huge bump in the MVP deciding road is that solid arguments can be made for at least four players to be named MVP. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard can all make legitimate claims at the throne. If you’re yelling “what about Kevin Durant?” that is even more appropriate fuel on the MVP fire. The talent level and quality of play in the league has reached a ridiculous level, and it shows as our collective minds all explode trying to decide who should get the league’s top individual honor.

What about this guy? Remember him?

So I created this rubric. Because why make one single tough decision when you can make a series of five equally tough decisions.

Here’s how it works: five categories, each representing a different factor to consider when naming an MVP. Rank the top five players in each category and assign points based on their place (5 points for a #1, 4 points for a #2 and so on). At the end, the player with the most points is your choice for Most Valuable Player.

Easy, right?

It’s not perfect. And it still leaves a lot of wiggle room for personal opinion to come into play. But this stuff is more art than science anyway. So let’s have some fun.

Category #1: MIP

The first category will rank players by how important they are to their respective teams.

Who does the most for their team? Whose team would be hurt the most by their absence? Who hurts their team the least? Who gets their teammates involved and lifts them up, but can put their team on their back and carry them when they have to?

On-court activities only, none of this “without Lebron the Cavs would never have traded for this guy, and couldn’t have signed so and so, and would never have been able to blah blah blah” stuff. While that’s certainly valuable to a team, we have to draw the line somewhere. I think a good place to draw that line is right on top the one that is already around the court.

This category is the most open, all-encompassing, flexible, and closest to the way most people just flat-out decide MVP. But we’re just getting started.

The Rankings:

  1. Russell Westbrook: I don’t think another player’s absence would hurt their team more than if Westbrook was taken off this Oklahoma City team. His star at the center of solid role players strapping the team on his back and carrying them across the finish line performance is reminiscent of Allen Iverson circa 2001. His out-of-this-world usage rate, while usually pointed to as a negative, is just more proof of how important he is to his squad. The Thunder was a team composed of two superstars surrounded by role players, lost one of those superstars, and has stayed relevant thanks to the blood, sweat, tears, and triple doubles of Brodie.
  2. Kawhi Leonard: I almost ranked the best two-way player in the game number one in this category. It’s almost not even fair how much he’s asked to do by the Spurs. He’s the best defensive player in the league, and is looking like one of the greatest wing defenders of all-time, and is now the centerpiece of San Antonio’s offense. My reasoning why he fell to number two might be a dumb one, but he benefits from being on the Spurs, who might have the greatest system in all of professional sports. I think the simple fact of playing in the Spurs system might elevate a “replacement level” player a few notches higher, so it has to benefit a player at the level of Kawhi as well.
  3. LeBron James: Ranking him third seems absurd. The way he controls a game, and knows exactly what to do in every single situation, and not only plays in the flow of the game, but creates that flow is one of the most under-appreciated amazing things to watch in the history of sports. Under-appreciated because no matter what he does, and how great he is, we always seem to want more from him, and we’re not being fair. But he comes in third. Because that’s how crazy this year has been.
  4. James Harden: What a perfect fit of player and system. The first ever player’s choice for MVP has been able to elevate his game even further thanks to the fast-paced play under coach Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets’ game flows through Harden and his efficient scoring, timely assists, and gutsy play has them well ahead of where many pre-season predictions had them ranked.
  5. Giannis Antetokounmpo: The Greek Freak made the leap this year. He made a lot of leaps, literally, and his highlight-reel play have made the Bucks one of my favorite teams to watch. Figuratively he made the leap from a young player with a boatload of talent and potential to a (still super-young) player capable of carrying the young squad around him for years to come. Placing him here might be a year early, but it’s my rankings and I’ll fly how I want to.

Honorable Mentions: Anthony Davis, John Wall, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler

Category #2: Straight Stats

Oh, good, a category based on flat-out numbers. This should be easy to rank, right?

Nothing worth doing is easy. And I didn’t set out to create a five-step evaluation system for determining the NBA’s MVP — an award I have no actual say in giving out whatsoever — so it could be easy.

I poured over traditional and advanced stats trying to figure this one out, and the best I could do was this.

The Rankings:

  1. James Harden: Came a measly 2 rebounds per game away from averaging a triple double for the season while scoring 29 points per game with a .613 True Shooting Percentage while also leading the league in assists and Win Shares.
  2. Russell Westbrook: Actually averaged a triple double for the entire season, lead the league in PER, won the scoring title, and left behind a scorched earth everywhere he went. Ranking him two because of his efficiency, but I kind of hate myself for it.
  3. Lebron James: 26.4, 8.7, 8.6 practically in his sleep. True Shooting Percentage of .619 and a win share of 12.9. Just another yawn of a season from a guy everybody expects more from.
  4. Kawhi Leonard: Am I under-valuing defensive stats ranking him 4th? Probably. Am I over-valuing his third-overall 27.62 PER by ranking him 4th here? Also probably. I think that evens it out and makes ranking him 4th accurate.
  5. Anthony Davis: Giving the nod here to The Brow and his 28points 12rebounds and 2+blocks per game. If you don’t like it that’s ok. My brain is fried. And there’s still three categories to go.

Honorable Mention: Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, probably more

Category #3: The Belt

Who is the greatest player in the game? Who would you take with the first overall pick when drafting a team that will play with your life in the balance?

While the MVP is an award for the season, and not overall greatness, the “first pick” factor should come into play when deciding who will take home the yearly hardware

The Rankings:

  1. LeBron James: Still the best in the game today. Getting closer and closer to GOAT.
  2. Kevin Durant: I have Durant second. The way he came into Golden State and became the best player on a team with the reigning two-time MVP while also fitting their style perfectly narrowly edges out Russell Westbrook’s season of vengeance.
  3. Russell Westbrook: Probably the best individual performance in the league this year. And one could argue that since his team won, not too bad of a team-performance as well. Although I’d be on the other side of that argument.
  4. James Harden: A shade less impressive of an individual performance than Westbrook, while being a bit more impressive of a team performance.
  5. Kawhi Leonard: I called him the “best two-way player in the league” earlier. He has to make my top five here.

Honorable Mention: Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, maybe Chris Paul (legitimate claims to the best player in the world title are hard to come by, long live King James)

Category #4: Talk of the Town

In ten years, when you think about the NBA in 2017, who are you going to think of (in a good way)? Who owned the year?

The Rankings:

  1. Russell Westbrook: Hands down number one here. He dominated the talk this season.
  2. James Harden: Most MVP debates are headlined by “Westbrook vs. Harden” with some “hey, what about LeBron or Kawhi” sprinkled in and for this fact, he gets my number two spot here.
  3. Kevin Durant: Not just because his signing with Golden State shocked the world and shook up the league, but how he played when he got there, and immediately became the best player on the best team.
  4. LeBron James: Is he the greatest of all time? Does he need to do more? Are people who think he needs to do more crazy? Is he actually somehow under-rated? We’ll never stop talking about LeBron.
  5. Giannis Antetokounmpo: Deserves to be in the discussion as this year he’s made the leap from being one of the league’s next great players — to actually being in the top tier of talent. Thinking about the fact that he hasn’t yet hit his ceiling is preposterous.

Honorable Mentions: Isaiah Thomas, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns

Before we get into Category Five we must narrow down our candidates to the top five. Take a moment to do some math, and add up the points from each category.

The results after the first four categories:

  1. Russell Westbrook (17 points)
  2. LeBron James (13 points)
  3. James Harden (13 points)
  4. Kevin Durant (11 points)
  5. Kawhi Leonard(7 points)
  6. Giannis Antetokounmpo (2 point)
  7. Anthony Davis (1 point)

Category #5: The Knock

For the final category, I’m going to take the top five leaders in points so far and rank them based on the arguments against their case for MVP. The greater and more compelling the case against someone, the lower they rank on the list.

Valid arguments against a player’s case for MVP should come into play, but I believe only after focusing on the positive. It’s a finishing category, meant to nit-pick, and really only come into play in really close races.

The Rankings:

  1. Kawhi Leonard: The knock on Kawhi is that his team is too good? The system he plays in might be the best in sports? You better knock louder, nobody’s gonna hear you, you’ll never get in with that weak-ass knock.
  2. LeBron James: Sure, his team maybe underachieved a little bit in the regular season, but the Cavs are focused on the finals, and that’s what really matters.
  3. James Harden: He plays defense more than he used to. But that’s still not a whole lot of defense.
  4. Kevin Durant: He’s on the best team in the world, and even though he’s their best player, they’d still be damn good without him (and we know that for a fact). He also missed a bunch of time at the end of the season due to injury.
  5. Russell Westbrook: His team is only a six seed in the west. He usage rate is out of this world. He’s hunting for stats. He’s stealing rebounds and grabbing easy boards when it doesn’t matter. He’s forcing assists to pump his stats. You know these arguments, and they are all legitimate. But still…

The good outweighs the bad as Russell Westbrook wins the 2017 NBA MVP by way of my (not-at-all) foolproof rubric.

The Final Rankings:

  1. Russell Westbrook (18)
  2. LeBron James (17)
  3. James Harden (16)
  4. Kevin Durant (13)
  5. Kawhi Leonard (12)

Why are you still reading? Go out and fill in your own rankings. Then come back and tell me why I’m wrong.