NBA MVP race: 17 questions to help settle Westbrook, Harden, LeBron, Kawhi debate
You have to ask yourself these before making your pick
The MVP race this season is set to be one of the closest in league history. Most are expecting a split ballot, with four key names having emerged: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and perennial contender LeBron James. Each have phenomenal cases, and to be clear, they’re all worthy of winning MVP. But one guy is going to win.
There’s a lot more to talk about when we ask the question of who the MVP is, and also, who’s going to win the vote, and those are separate issues. But if you want to have your choice for MVP, you need to have really thought about it. These players deserve your full deliberation, if you’re a voter or just a fan, and you need to be able to defend your decision.
We’re here to help.
Here are 17 questions about the 2016-17 NBA MVP race before you make your decision.
1. How do you define valuable?
This, of course, is the very first question you need to decipher, since it’s the central question that follows everything. But it’s not as simple as people make it out to be. Let’s start here: Do not be confused into believing that the league has a definition of that word. The term is purposefully ambiguous and is not defined anywhere in any official document. Every voter is able to determine what that means. So you’re not beholden to “how much better he makes his team,” or “how bad his team would be without him.” That’s one interpretation, and if that’s where you build your argument from, that’s fine. But just know you’re not beholden to it.
Here’s a sampling of ways that loaded word, “valuable,” gets interpreted.
- The team would be in the dumps without him.
- He’s what makes his team great.
- Individual excellence, a simple “best player.”
- Most impactful (I’m partial to this interpretation).
- Superior statistical production.
- Intangible “helps his team win the most” factor.
All of these ways have been used to define that word, and it has affected votes through the years. You have to have that framework. But really, using one definition is probably flawed. If you only view this question, or any question, through one prism, you’re going to miss a great deal. The reality is that all of these different ways of defining value are flawed in their own ways, and valid in their own ways.
Basically, this whole thing is complicated, even if you figure out what you think value is.
2. How much does offense-defense balance matter?
We’ll get into the specifics of just how good or bad the four candidates are defensively later, but one thing that’s not a secret is that Leonard is the best of the bunch on that end. Westbrook and Harden are obviously offensive-centric players. But Leonard is balanced, elite defensively and nearly as good offensively.
Think of it this way.
Imagine you judge a player in offense and defense on a 1-5 scale, with 1 being the worst and 5 being elite. Is it better to be a “5” on offense and a “3” on defense, or a “4” on offense and a “4” on defense?
Those are both “8” scores. So which is better? Now, you can argue that you think Leonard is a 5 on both sides, or that Harden is a 2 on defense, or that LeBron is a 5 on offense and a 4 on defense, but you still have to figure out if that matters.
One more thing to consider when we talk about this: If you talk to players about the great players in the game, they tend to point to offensive players. And not just the efficient ones, but guys that are what you might call “volume” scorers. Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, these guys are revered by players. So when you have a guy putting up historic offensive numbers, that’s going to carry weight. Why? Why is that more important than defense? I’m not saying we should argue whether it should or not, that’s a separate conversation. But you need to know where you stand on offensive production being a trump card over defense.
3. How many wins does a candidate’s team have to have?
No MVP since 1985 has won the award on a team lower than the 3rd seed. Think about that. Wins trump everything. Now, we’re not looking at who will win the award based on the voters today (and it should be noted the voting bloc has changed substantially in the past 10 years). But it does show a standard in place you need to consider.
Now, team wins are not tied to how good a player is. Anthony Davis is still awesome despite the Pelicans being bad. But no one’s seriously considering Davis for MVP, and that’s because his team is irrelevant. Does that matter to you? Do you think a player is responsible for his team’s record? One of the common veins of thought is that a player is not solely responsible for his team’s record, but if he’s not able to raise them up to a certain threshold, that’s a knock on him. However, what’s that threshold? If Westbrook pulls his team to 49 wins, how does that compare with Leonard’s Spurs having 60?
We’ll talk about impact on that team next, but first you have to kind of set a threshold. If that’s “zero, his individual play should matter most and only,” that’s a valid philosophy to take, but you still have to answer this question. What’s the number a player’s team has to get to for him to qualify?
4. Is it more important how much better a player makes his teammates, or how good he makes his team?
Net points per 100 possessions for the team while player is on/off the floor:
On the surface, this ends the conversation right there. Westbrook has a greater impact when on the floor than Harden does. But look at the raw numbers. Harden’s team is better than Westbrook’s when you look at when both are on the floor. You can argue that the Rockets are way better than the Thunder, and that’s fine. But you still have to figure out what’s more important -- making a bad team good, or making a good team great.
The argument for Harden is that his team is better when he’s on the floor than Westbrook’s team is when he’s on the floor. The argument for Westbrook is that without Westbrook, the Thunder are a disaster and he makes them “pretty good.”
It’s a fascinating debate, even if you take the numbers out of it. The Spurs are better than the Cavaliers, at least in terms of regular-season wins and performance. But without James, the Cavs are pretty pathetic, while the Spurs remain a pretty great team when Leonard is on the bench. What’s more important?
5. What, really, is the value of a triple-double?
So Westbrook is on pace to do something that has only been done once in NBA history -- average a triple-double for a full season. He also has a chance at breaking the single-season record for triple-doubles. The triple-double has always been a revered mark. It’s supposed to indicate the very pinnacle of a versatile performance. Double digits in three separate categories is just hard to do, even if players are making it seem normal this season.
However, there is a pretty basic question to be asked: What really makes it great? To put it another way: What makes a 15-10-10 performance that much better than a 20-9-9?
Or, in concrete terms this season, is the two extra rebounds that Westbrook hauls in compared to Harden enough to really separate him when Harden averages more assists? Westbrook averages more rebounds and points than Harden, but does so at a lower efficiency, and there’s a lot of talk about the high percentage of uncontested rebounds that Westbrook collects. Harden averages 29-8-11. Are those two rebounds enough to really overtake Westbrook, just because we like nice, round numbers?
6. What impact does coach and system have?
Or, the Popovich conundrum. Look, the Spurs players are excellent, all the way down. They’re talented, athletic, superb basketball players who always make the right decision. But given their historical dominance and the way their system is designed, it does feed into the perception, at least, that you or I might be able to average five points on the Spurs. That’s an exaggeration and ridiculous, of course, but Kawhi Leonard plays for the most successful NBA coach of all time, in terms of sustained regular-season performance over an 18-year span.
Meanwhile, James is the system in Cleveland. How does that compare?
Harden plays for Mike D’Antoni, who is effectively a steroid boost for point guard numbers. Steve Nash was not Steve Nash, really, until he played for D’Antoni, despite a good career in Dallas. The pace and style that D’Antoni uses enables the kind of production that Harden has put up. Westbrook, on the other hand, plays for Billy Donovan, who is still finding his footing as an NBA coach, and has not had a team put up a prolific offensive season. Does Westbrook get more credit for putting up his numbers in a limited offensive system?
Can we really judge how good an offensive system is, beyond the context of players?
7. If you know one player is the best player in the sport, how much does that impact things?
The LeBron Corollary. If I asked you who the best player in the NBA is, not who has had the best season, and you’re not a fan of any one team/player, the most common answer is James. If you know that James is the best player in the NBA, what does the rest of this matter? Stats, team wins, all of this is secondary. James has good enough stats, a good enough record and is the best player. Is that enough?
(I don’t think so, I think the award is based on who has had the best season, not who the best player is. Being able to do something and doing something is different. But it’s something you have to consider.)
8. How much more talented is one candidate’s team vs. another?
Yes, James has Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But J.R. Smith went from being a career punchline to the fourth-best player on that team, Tristan Thompson is still just a big body with long arms and good instincts and Richard freaking Jefferson is a pivotal rotation player on this team.
Leonard plays next to near-fossil Pau Gasol half the time. His point guard, Tony Parker, is a shell of his former self, though still an awesome shell. Dewayne Dedmon is his best defensive cohort.
Harden plays next to Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, so the knock goes that he has more help. But both of those guys were on an underachieving Pelicans team for years and were considered low-impact players. Their improved health definitely matters, but the rest of this Rockets team was a joke last season. D’Antoni plays a part here, but Harden also raised his game.
Westbrook lost Kevin Durant. But he still has a team that made the conference finals, and that wasn’t all Westbrook and Durant. On the other hand, there’s no real star or threat you can point to, yet the Thunder are the sixth seed in the West.
To be honest, I’m not a fan of using this criteria. It’s mostly used as a way to discredit great performances and excuse efficiency issues. “Sure, Harden’s putting up great numbers. Look at his team!” Or, “Of course the Thunder offense is bad! Look at who his teammates are!” But it’s something worth considering.
9. If a player is a specialist in one area, and the team’s stats don’t reflect that impact, what does that say?
Westbrook is an offensive whirlwind, right? So why is Oklahoma City 19th in offensive efficiency? The offense is bad. The Thunder win games because they have the 11th-best defense in the NBA. And while Westbrook has moments and stretches of great defense, that’s not his contribution. So if he’s great because of his offense, but the Thunder don’t win because of their offense, then what are we talking about here?
You can then turn to the conversation about teammates and how, without Westbrook, the Thunder offense is a burning pit of garbage, but you can’t really get past the fact that even when Westbrook is on the floor, his 107.9 offensive rating is six points worse than Harden’s, five points worse than Leonard’s and seven points worse than James’.
It’s not just Westbrook that this applies to, though.
In December,, and the fact that the Spurs’ defensive rating was the highest when he was on the court. Since then, Leonard’s individual numbers have improved dramatically, but Leonard still has the highest defensive rating on the team, and the team is way better defensively when he’s on the bench. So if Leonard’s big push in this conversation is that he’s the only player who has been great on both ends, then why is it that the Spurs don’t seem to really benefit from his defensive play, statistically? You can throw out the numbers if you want, but even if you take it anecdotally, you wind up with this: Do you think the Spurs would be anything less than great defensively without Leonard?
Meanwhile, without James, the Cavs’ defense is four points per 100 possessions worse. So clearly he makes a big impact, right? Except that James’ on-court defensive rating is still an abysmal 106. Harden’s is 106.4. We know James is a much better defender than Harden, but the stats don’t show him having that much of an impact on that end of the floor. He makes a bad Cavs defense better, but then we’re back to that question above.
Either way, you have to consider what the actual impact of a player’s emphasis on one end of the floor or the other is.
10. Do you think of efficiency as limiting wasted possessions, or production per minute?
The knock on Westbrook, above everything else (even team wins), is that he’s not efficient. He’s shooting 42 percent from the field, 33 percent from 3-point range. He’s second in turnovers (to Harden, who’s more efficient as a shooter). That, in many people’s minds, invalidates him from the conversation, based on modern conventional emphasis on efficiency’s value.
Except ... Westbrook leads the league in PER, Player Efficiency Rating. Now, some of that is because PER values rebounds and shot attempts. It typically rewards volume shooters. But it’s also built as a metric to evaluate how much production a player accomplishes per minute. And Westbrook is tops there. Points, rebounds, assists, he fills it up. He’s not just a gunner, throwing up shots constantly (though he leads the league in field goal attempts). He’s shooting, passing, rebounding, all the time -- every possession, over and over.
Leonard averages less than half of Westbrook’s turnovers. He shoots 6.5 percentage points better from the field. But he averages nearly six fewer rebounds and six fewer assists per 100 possessions, on top of five fewer points. So what’s more efficient? Westbrook’s per-minute production, or Leonard’s precision and limited waste of possessions?
11. How do you define ‘making teammates better?’
Some people don’t think this one matters, that it’s a flawed concept. But it’s worth at least asking.
We’ve talked about the impact on teammates statistically. But Eric Gordon is having a career year next to Harden. Clint Capela is a pick-and-roll monster. Richard Jefferson is a key component on a championship team because of James. Leonard covers up for the defensive limitations of a slow, aging roster. Westbrook has dragged 10 assists per game out of a terrible cast of shooters.
Some of this is leadership. Some of this is unselfishness. You can argue that Leonard’s quiet, precise way of playing makes his teammates better by never being a ballhog or dominating possessions in a way Westbrook does, or you can argue that the attention Westbrook draws from defenders opens things up for a flawed roster. It’s worth considering.
12. Do you care about ‘stat-padding?’
I don’t, for the record. Westbrook leads the league in uncontested rebounds, per NBA.com. He still averages as many contested rebounds as James and more than Harden or Leonard. But the fact that so many of his boards aren’t contested leads to the idea that his numbers, his defining argument for MVP, aren’t legitimate. I tend to believe that someone still has to go get those uncontested rebounds, and I know that the Thunder system is designed to box out and clear space for Westbrook to go get them and then race the ball up to initiate the offense. There’s benefit to what he does.
There’s also the fact that Harden and Westbrook often play late in blowouts, gunning for assists. They’ll deny it to the day they die, but they both will try and track down the numbers for those triple-doubles, and some folks believe that hurts the team, because they’re not just organically pursuing the flow of the game. You’ll have to decide for yourself what it is.
13. What about aesthetics?
Harden draws a lot of fouls. That’s no surprise. He’s not doing it as much this season, or at least that’s perception. His free-throw rate is actually up significantly from the past two years. Some people loathe the way he seeks out contact to get to the line.
Westbrook, meanwhile, is reckless. He drives into contact constantly. His game isn’t built on the jumper, which is the most aesthetically pleasing tool to the masses. He seems to play with abandon, and that turns some folks off.
James doesn’t go 100 percent, because he’s 32 and playing for championships.
Leonard is basically a robot. His game is brutally efficient, but low on defining signature moves. He just does everything well.
The NBA is an entertainment spectacle above all else, so should the way players play, and how we experience it, matter? Do you want a flopping, flailing, foul-drawing con artist as MVP? What about a coasting legend who could seem to do more but doesn’t? Or a robotic, lifeless player who doesn’t inspire much joy? Or a reckless, ball-dominant super-usage star intent on collecting all the attention?
I tend to think these are arbitrary constructs that don’t belong in who is deserving of the award, but that’s if you care about the players receiving it, and not the legacy of the award. There are drawbacks to both.
14. Does it matter what happens if you take that player off their team?
This one is really popular. As we mentioned above, the Cavs and Thunder are basically rotten eggs and spoiled milk when James and Westbrook aren’t on the floor. That’s how a lot of people, voters even, decide their MVP.
“Their team would be nothing without them, they are good with them. The end.”
The problem with this is that it means that all the other factors we talked about are irrelevant. Let’s say that the Pelicans were literally the worst team in NBA history when Anthony Davis isn’t on the floor. Worse than the 2012 Bobcats, just the worst team ever. And with Davis on the floor, they’re just bad -- basically a 30-win team. He took them from the worst of all time, to not-great. Is that most valuable?
The common construct is to place a requisite number of wins on this. So it becomes “who takes a bad team and makes them a X-wins team?” If that sounds like kind of an arbitrary and flawed setup, it is. This also ignores the fact that these stars play with starters most often. If they play with better players, of course the team is going to be worse without them.
Then there’s the “OK, what if you just removed them entirely.” Well, the problem with that is it assumes there’s no replacement for them. If you take away Westbrook, and add an average point guard, are the Thunder one of the worst teams ever? If you take away Harden and put Jeff Teague in, what do the Rockets look like? They wouldn’t be great, that’s clear. But you can’t just act like if that player doesn’t play for that team, the team does nothing to replace their production and impact.
Win-loss records are the same way. If you take the best player off any team, they’re going to be worse. Look no further than the Warriors’ struggles without Durant for proof of that.
15. How is this vote going to look in six months? What about in five years?
Imagine that in 10 years, you and your friends were going to come back to wherever you are, and you have to defend that MVP vote. Now, you don’t, but imagine you did. The Steve Nash MVP (which I will still defend as correct) has aged terribly and is constantly ridiculed and criticized for not going to Kobe Bryant. The 2011 Derrick Rose MVP still gets a few grumbles. A respected (and great) writer robbed James of being the first unanimous MVP vote in 2013 because he voted for Carmelo Anthony. (He may still feel great about that. I haven’t asked him.)
You want to try and imagine how these votes will look down the line. If you don’t vote for the guy who averaged a triple-double, how is that going to look? If you don’t vote for Kawhi Leonard, and he winds up as the best player in a series where he destroys Harden, even though it’s a regular-season award, it’s like the Hakeem Olajuwon-David Robinson situation. It’s impossible to forecast the future, but you should try and think of how the vote looks now, instead of how it will look later, because these awards, more than anything, stand as history when considering evaluation of careers after the fact.
16. How memorable is his season?
To that end, how much will we be talking about this season? Both this question and the last one lean towards Westbrook. “Remember that year that Westbrook averaged a triple-double? He didn’t even win MVP.” James is averaging a career high in rebounds and assists. But based on how the Cavs have played, and James himself, this isn’t one of his most memorable seasons. In fact, given their record and that 22nd-ranked defense, if it weren’t for last year’s title, we’d be talking about whether the Cavs are in trouble, or if they’re ever going to win a title with James there.
For Leonard, the Spurs could wind up with more than 65 wins ... but they won 67 last year. Leonard has been amazing this season, but outside of Sunday’s performance vs. Harden, there are very few times where you just marveled at the way Leonard took over the game.
Harden, for his part, has had two 50-point triple-doubles. That alone is insane. You’ll remember this LeBron season for whatever happens in the playoffs, and the same with Leonard. But Harden and Westbrook’s regular seasons seems like they’ll be talked about for a long time.
17. Who’s most impactful?
This is the question I always get to, and it’s how I evaluate the award. I consider all the other questions on this list. But at the end of it, individual basketball excellence, is about what you do when you’re on the court, and how you impact the game. There are a lot of ways to answers this one. Leonard’s defense and two-way versatility. LeBron’s singular excellence and dominance over all aspects. Westbrook’s superhuman workload and thrilling statistical feats. Harden’s efficiency and how he’s raised the Rockets into being maybe the most dangerous team outside of Golden State in the playoffs.
Offense, defense, the stats, the highlights, the signature games, all of this makes for a formula. I’m less concerned with a team is without that player as I am with how they are with them. What do they look like? Are they dangerous? Confident? Can they run over teams? Does he take over games and win them on his own? Are teams afraid of him and gameplan for him?
These all make way more than 17 questions, but this is how complicated this year’s race is. If you’re not asking yourself these questions, then you haven’t really done the work.
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