Who is the Real NBA MVP?
With four deserving but flawed candidates competing for basketball’s most prestigious individual award, there’s no obvious answer, but there is a right one.
What is value? The word itself is ambiguous, as there are many ways to measure what a player means to a team. Every year, NBA fans argue over what “value” really is in hopes of settling one of the most arbitrary debates in sports, only to have the same discussion resurface the following year. The 2016–17 Most Valuable Player race is no different, with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, and Cleveland’s LeBron James all vying for the award.
Is the MVP the player with the best individual season, someone who made history with a statistical feat no one else has accomplished in over 50 years? Should it be the all-star who transformed from a score-first shooting guard uninterested in defense to the leader of a team that has overachieved by 15 games? If defense wins championships, what about an emerging superstar who is widely regarded as the league’s best two-way player? Or is the MVP simply the best player in the world who can transform just about any mediocre group into a championship contender overnight?
Unlike last year, when Stephen Curry was the league’s first unanimous MVP, there is no obvious choice for the award this year. There are compelling arguments for each of the four stars, but only one will go down in history as the Most Valuable Player of the the 2016–2017 season. Starting with the favorites, here is a breakdown of each case for MVP, with a conclusion of who the MVP should be, not a prediction of who it will be. The answer may surprise you, but it shouldn’t.
Most Outstanding Player: Russell Westbrook
For as long as there has been an MVP, there has been a media narrative tied to the winning player’s campaign. In 2011, the award went to Derrick Rose, a hometown hero and the youngest MVP in league history who took the Chicago Bulls to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. In 2015 and 2016, it was the baby-faced Curry whose sweet shooting led the lovable Golden State Warriors to their first championship in 40 years and the best regular season record in league history the following year.
This year, the MVP trophy is expected to go to Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, which would be a feel-good story for the dynamic point guard who brought his team back to the playoffs after co-star Kevin Durant betrayed the Thunder in free-agency and bolted to join the arch-rival Warriors. Westbrook made history with an incredible individual season in which he averaged 31.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists, racking up 42 triple-doubles in the process, breaking Oscar Robertson’s record of 41 in the 1962 season. He will go down in history as one of two players to average a triple-double, one of the most impressive statistical feats ever. The darling of OKC, Westbrook will be remembered as the loyal teammate who stuck with the small-market franchise and brought it back to the postseason.
On paper, it’s impossible to argue with what Westbrook has done, as he leads the NBA in scoring (2553), Value Over Replacement Player (12.4), Box Plus-Minus (15.6), and Player Efficiency Rating (30.8). Although numbers never lie, they can be extremely misleading, as they are in this case. Westbrook’s astronomical VORP and PER would suggest he as an efficient and unselfish player, as would his league-leading assist percentage of 57.3.
However, Westbrook apologists would hesitate to point out that while he leads the league in field goals made (822), he shoots far more than anyone else. In fact, his 1931 shot attempts are nearly 400 more than the next highest player, DeMar Derozan of the Toronto Raptors at 1545. Not to mention, he also leads the league in missed shots (1109), 255 more than James Harden, the next highest player on that list.
Additionally, Westbrook is a turnover-machine, and this season’s 434 turnovers are the second most in NBA history. Ironically, Westbrook would have broken Harden’s record of 374 in 2016 by a wide margin, but his fellow MVP candidate has even more turnovers than Westbrook does this season at 460! The chances of two players breaking an NBA record for most turnovers in a season while also being the two front-runners in the MVP race is unthinkable, but has a reasonable explanation.
In the modern NBA, statistics are inflated because teams are pushing the pace like never before. An up-tempo, “pace and space” playing style is being adopted by a growing number of teams. which results in more possessions and shots, which also leads to more rebounds and turnovers. Many will view Westbrook’s statistical achievements as the epitome of basketball excellence, and it’s clear he had one of the best individual seasons of all time.
But in the midst of Westbrook’s do-it-all campaign, did he really elevate the players around him? The OKC All-Star may have dished out plenty of assists, but stunted the growth of promising young teammates Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and Enes Kanter in the process. Contrary to popular belief, the supporting cast of the Thunder is one of the better ones in the league even without Kevin Durant, and Westbrook’s “me against the world” season did little for the growth of his counterparts. Coupling that with his inefficient shooting percentage and astronomical turnover rate, and Westbrook is a player who racked up stats and carried a team that he didn’t necessarily have to.
Offensive Player of the Year: James Harden
Much like Westbrook, Harden’s stats are eyepopping: second in points per game (29.1), first in assists per game (11.1), and first in offensive win shares (11.2). Harden got to the line more than any other player in the league, finishing with the most free throw attempts (873) and makes (740). Harden has always been a wizard on offense, an unstoppable force who is deadly from outside- his 257 three pointers were second to only Curry and Klay Thompson- and routinely drives and finishes hard in the paint. Not to mention, Harden boasts some of the best handles in the league, making any opponent who dares to guard him look like a deer on ice skates.
The knock on Harden has always been his lackluster defense and effort, which has kept him out of the MVP conversation in years past. He has always been focused on scoring and disinterested on the other end, leading to some laughable defensive gaffes. However, Harden has made a genuine effort this year to be a better defender and teammate, and it has made a huge difference for Houston.
Projected to be a borderline playoff team in 2017, the Rockets have exceeded their expected Vegas Win Total by a remarkable 13 games, much to the play and leadership of Harden. The team has thrived under new head coach Mike D’Antoni, who emphasizes three point shooting and discourages inefficient mid-range shots. This coach-star partnership is a match made in heaven, as Harden has taken his game to a new level in this new offensive philosophy, where Houston takes (40.2 per game) and makes (14.3) more threes than any other team in the Association.
So why isn’t Harden the runaway MVP? As mentioned earlier, saying that Harden isn’t careful with the ball is a dramatic understatement, as he has already broken his own record set last season for most turnovers ever. And while his effort has improved on the defensive end, he’s still an average defender at best. Like Westbrook, who has a negative defensive real plus-minus rating of -0.59, Harden’s team improves by 1.81 points on defense when he’s not on the court. Despite the show he puts on offensively every night, can the league’s Most Valuable Player be someone whose team is better without him on the defensive side of the court?
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard
If defense wins championships, Kawhi is your guy. A former NBA Finals MVP and the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard is quietly one of the most productive players in the world who seems to always fly under the radar. The Spurs once again have exceeded their expected win total of 56.5 victories, an impressive feat considering that excellence has been the standard for the past two decades in San Antonio. They hold the second best record in the league at 61–20 and have a very realistic chance of dethroning the two-time defending Western Conference Champions in the Golden State Warriors.
Leonard doesn’t like to talk, but his numbers speak for themselves: his 25.7 points per game is ninth in the league and his Defensive Rating (101.4), Offensive Win Shares (8.9), and Defensive Win Shares (4.7) place him sixth in the league in each category. He is an unselfish player who makes everyone around him better on both ends of the court. He isn’t flashy or a fashion mogul, he doesn’t pound his chest or make noise and headlines. Leonard is the silent assassin, a two-way terror who keeps the Spurs at the top of the league, even after Hall of Famer Tim Duncan’s retirement and the gradual decline of San Antonio greats Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, ages 39 and 34 respectively.
Leonard’s statement MVP moment came in highlight fashion on March 7th against Harden and the Rockets, as he sealed a win with a dazzling display of clutch shooting and defensive prowess in a 30-second sequence. Down 108–107, the Spurs’ star splashed a contested go-ahead three, hustled down the court and swatted fellow MVP candidate James Harden’s layup attempt, then hit the game sealing free throws completely unfazed.
For this year’s race however, Leonard has been very good, but one stat keeps him from being a serious contender for the league’s MVP. With Leonard on the court vs on the bench, the Spurs outscore opponents by an average of only 1.4 points per game. Compare that to LeBron James, whose impact on the Cavaliers is 15.1 points per game. Though his numbers don’t jump off the charts, Leonard is still about as consistent and effective as anyone else in the league, and it’s plays like those at the end of crucial games that capture the imagination of fans for years to come as he just begins to enter his prime.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James
In our society, everyone has a short attention span, and is always looking for the “next big thing”. The biggest mistake you can make in basketball is anointing an heir to King James’s throne too early. At first, it was Paul George of the Pacers who would overtake James, then Kevin Durant and the Thunder, and most recently, Curry and the Warriors. Everyone is gunning for the man at the top of the league, and so far, no one has come close to catching him.
Since he entered the league in 2001, LeBron has been utterly dominant, and after his three world championships, All Star appearances in 13 of 14 seasons, and four MVPs, it’s almost impossible to argue that he’s not the NBA’s best player, if not the greatest of all time. He’s already played more minutes than Michael Jordan did as a pro, and he’s still in his prime at 32 years old. James’s legacy is still being shaped, but with six straight finals appearances and many more to come, he is a surefire top five all-time player.
LeBron’s MVP case is simple: he’s the best player in the world, and has been for the past decade. When he broke the hearts of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010 free agency period by bolting to the Miami Heat, the Cavs went from the best record in the league at 61–21 to the second worst team in the NBA the following year, managing just 19 wins along with 63 losses. Just think: one player made a difference of 42 wins. The Heat went from a respectable 47 win team to a powerhouse at 58–24.
Similarly, after James went home to the Cavaliers, they have played 21 games without him in the past two years and have gone 4–17. As stated earlier, his impact on and off the court is over 15 points per game. To put this into context, 15 net points per game is the difference between the 23rd ranked Dallas Mavericks, who are outscored by 2.8 points per game, and the 67 win Golden State Warriors, who win by an average margin of 11.6 per game and are the overwhelming title favorites.
In a “down” year for Cleveland, LeBron is posting career highs in rebounds (8.6 per game), assists (8.7 per game), and three pointers made (1.7 per game). It’s a testament to James that we’ve grown so accustomed to his perennial excellence that it’s become boring and we now feel obligated to anoint a new best player.
Sure, the Cavaliers will finish a shade under their expected win total of 56.5 games and will come away with the #2 seed in the weaker Eastern Conference. If this is a disappointment, that attests to the ridiculously unrealistic expectations created by having the league’s best player on your team. In the end, value is simply what a player means to a team, and where would the Cleveland Cavaliers be without LeBron James?