NBA MVP rankings: Russell Westbrook, James Harden lead tightest race to date
Can either one top 50 wins, and if they don't, does that open the door for Kawhi or Durant?
With a quarter of the NBA season gone, it's time to take a look with where we are in a very crowded MVP race. Last time, we took a look at who belonged on that list, and it's only gotten longer as guys have put in better and better seasons. This year has been remarkable for the kinds of incredible performances we're seeing night after night. There are three guys on our list who could finish averaging at, or near, a triple-double, and yet none are an absolute lock for the award.
That is amazing.
The growing consensus is that Russell Westbrook has established himself as the front-runner, and his case is certainly valid. He actually is averaging a triple-double. There are issues, and we'll get there. But it's worth noting that while our evaluation here is a bit different (spoiler alert), Westbrook is tops among most prospective voters' conversations on the award.
HOW I PICK 'EM
These evaluations aren't based on who I would vote for today. I don't have a vote, for starters. It's a consideration of criteria voters are likely to utilize in a matrix ranking candidates on a 1-5 scale with 5 being strongest. As follows:
Team Performance: You have to win games. No player since 1985 has won MVP without a top-three seed, and the lowest since 1980 was Moses Malone, whose Rockets were a sixth seed when he won one of his three (1982). Putting up numbers on a bad team is likely to get you more bad press than good.
Statistical production: Per-game stats still rule the day, but more voters are incorporating advanced stats, player-tracking data, and numbers from outlets like Synergy Sports. Or at least, those voters have people and media outlets feeding them that info. Stats matter. You must have concrete evidence.
INFH (If Not For Him): The word "valuable" always gets under people's skin. A lot of people simply define "valuable" not as the best player, but as the most valuable to his team. So this variable ranks how much that individual player makes the team better. For example, Kevin Durant's team is very good ... but it was good without him, too. Historically good, in fact. By contrast, if it weren't for Russell Westbrook, the Thunder would almost certainly be a lottery team.
2WP (Two-Way Player): Defense matters. More than ever (as James Harden has discovered), if you laze around on one end, you're won't escape that reputation. You need to be able to showcase at least some level of competency on both ends.
Narrative: Now we're in the weeds. How do you judge a narrative structure on a 1-5 scale? You can't, so this is vague yet important. Derrick Rose's story, a kid from Chicago returning his hometown team (the team mythologized by the Jordan era) to prominence, in the same year LeBron James joined the Heat, was powerful, and influenced voters. Rose was a powerful story and many (though not necessarily most) voters are writers who value a good story.
Eye Test: Harden's statistical impact is never going to match the eye test, which is amazing every night. He will always do more than his numbers, great as they are, indicate. In many ways, LeBron is kind of similar to this, astounding because watching him is awe-inspiring, with the stats sort of being taken for granted. Basically, when you watch a player, how impressive is he? How many games and individual moments do voters remember?
Before the rubric I use, I would have considered these to be the tiers:
Tier 1: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James
Tier 2: Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant
Tier 3: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, Marc Gasol.
Now, here's where I landed after evaluating them on the aforementioned characteristics:
|Pl ayer||Team Performance||Statistical Production||IFNFH||2WP||Narrative||Eye Test||TOTAL|
A three-way tie at the top between Westbrook, Harden and Leonard may seem like a cop-out, but it's early. The conversation about those three is a tight one, and each have their advocates, though Leonard is slightly behind. The buzz is about Westbrook vs. Harden, but as you'll see, there are real arguments to be made for all the guys on this list.
You're probably thinking: "That's too many guys. They can't all be in contention." Well, think back to 2013 when Joakim Noah was considered for his passing and defense on the Bulls, or how Goran Dragic warranted conversation one year in Phoenix. There is no "unquestioned" MVP this year, because, as it was last year, that requires one player with greater impact than all others, for a team absolutely dominating the league. That's not this season, for a variety of reasons. This is the tightest MVP race, and thus the toughest decision, we've seen in a while, and it makes sense that in a year with so many amazing statistical performances, we'd have a race this deep.
Breaking it down from there:
Tier 1: Frontrunners
Harden's team has won eight straight, including a victory over the Warriors at Oracle. He's averaging 28-8-12, on 44-35-84 shooting. He orchestrates the best offense and most fun team in the league, and his defense has improved to "passably ignorable" which is a big step up.
Harden leads this group in free throw rate again, but his game is more enjoyable to watch in the Mike D'Antoni paintball spree. The vibe around the Rockets is great and Harden's a big part of that. Westbrook has him in rebounds, Harden has the edge in assists and a better 3-point percentage. Harden is undeniably worthy of the MVP, whether he wins it or not.
I just got done writing about how his defensive impact this season is limited, and if the first-quarter results continue, he's unworthy of a third Defensive Player of the Year award. However, that doesn't factor his offense, which is as good as it has ever been.
Leonard shooting 47-40-91, approaching a 50-40-90 season while being arguably the league's best defensive player, regardless of how the rest of his team performs. The eye test heavily helps Leonard because he just seems to have something new on every offensive possession. Step-back jumpers, one-hand leaners, a hook shot he tossed in vs. the Celtics Wednesday. It's a barrage of offensive creativity and it's all hyper-efficient. Leonard is in the 88th percentile offensively via Synergy Sports while leading the team with the second-best record in the West.
He belongs here, just not for the reasons most people would think he does.
The argument starts and largely ends with his averaging a triple-double. It's just a ridiculous thing to even suggest a player doing, but there he is, even after a couple of "down" games. The bigger concern for Westbrook, beyond the turnovers and efficiency (43 percent from the field, 24 percent from deep) is the Thunder record. For him to win it, he's going to have to probably carry the Thunder to 50 wins. Every loss turns the conversation from "Can you believe what Westbrook is doing?" to "Would the Thunder be better if Westbrook wasn't hunting triple-doubles every night?"
I broke down the problems with that line of thought, but it's going to wind up impacting the vote if they finish just over .500. The Thunder have to get to 50 wins for Westbrook to make it past the old guard that will value wins over all else.
TIER 2: Seven feet tall, do it all
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the RKO of MVP candidates. Out of nowhere!
Here are the players averaging 20-8-5 with two blocks this season:
And The Greek Freak is shooting better from the field, and has more steals.
The big jump from last month's ratings to now is the Bucks making a run toward .500. Giannis faces an even bigger hill to climb for those 50 wins than Westbrook does, making his stake to the claim unlikely, but based on the idea of the Bucks making a run, he fills out all the categories.
He has the stats, and the narrative would have sticking power as columns on Giannis' transition to America fill the internet. If not for him, the whole Bucks team crashes into the earth. He's their point guard, small forward, and center all at once. Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
His only statistical limitation is that he's not a super-volume guy, scoring below 25 per game and in a crazy scoring year, and his per 100 possessions scoring doesn't match up, either. He's also only shooting 24 percent from 3-point range. The Westbrook comparisons are pretty notable here. Not efficient from range (though Giannis is super-efficient from the field), do-it-all player on a team that will likely end up having to keep an eye over its shoulder for .500 most of the time.
His defensive box score stats are great, but Giannis is still learning to be a great defensive player. He'll get there. That's the scary part. The kid is 22.
KD is on the rise. He's getting more and more MVP buzz, but it's important to clarify what kind of MVP buzz he's getting. He's not getting "Is Kevin Durant the MVP?" He's getting "Hey, if it weren't for the fact that he plays on the Warriors, wouldn't he be the MVP?" Everyone has to acknowledge that first. And if he keeps this up, and the Warriors keep up their win percentage, both of which are likely, he's going to pull in votes.
His statistical claim is based on efficiency. A 26-8-5 line doesn't stack up to the top tier, or even Antetokounmpo, but Durant's 54-41-86 shooting splits spike that up. Durant's opportunities are more sparse on the super-team, but his efficiency keeps his production up. And in eye test, you wind up walking away from more Warriors games than you'd think saying "Boy, it's a good thing they have Durant." Even though they have all these crazy statistical nights from the other members of the Big 4, Durant still winds up carrying them on a lot of nights. His "If Not For Him" score has actually gone up, while Curry's has gone down.
But still, his chances of a second award aren't good. The conversation ends and begins with "Yeah, but he has Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Stephen Curry" on his team. It's just hard to argue a player is most "valuable" if his team would still have three All-NBA selections, one the two-time reigning MVP and another who put up 60 in 29 minutes last week, if Durant were not around.
TIER 3: LeBron
James combines a lot of the other players' strengths. Durant's efficiency, as he's shooting over 50 percent from the field, if only 35 percent from 3-point range. The production, as he's averaging 0.6 fewer assists than Chris Paul, and as many rebounds as Harden. His team is the best squad in the Eastern Conference, and the narrative pull factors in that voters will look to reward him for his incredible playoffs and Finals performance last year.
The only reason he slips is defense. The Cavaliers are 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions, which is worse than the Bucks, Thunder and Warriors. James himself has been coasting a bit on that end. Is he still the best perimeter defender in the NBA, outside of maybe Kawhi Leonard? Probably. But the Cavs' defensive passivity hits him a bit here.
James' narrative does take a slight dip based on one thing. The Eastern Conference being overwhelming (even though there are plenty of Western Conference dregs, is going to hurt him when voters evaluate the Cavs' dominance. There's little James can do to avoid the perception the Cavs are coasting, and James resting as he did Wednesday vs. Memphis doesn't help that.
Tier 4: Point God, Point-Center God
His stats are low-volume, high-efficiency. He's the anti-Westbrook. Fewer than 20 points per game, but he has moved up to third in assists per game, in part after putting up 20 in a game last week. The advanced metrics, in terms of Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares, and assist-to-turnover ratio adore Paul. The advanced metrics analysis of Paul will put him on most lists. Mostly right now, though,Paul is trending so high based on team success, his strength as a two-way player and narrative.
As much as Paul may drive fans of opposing teams nuts, he's respected as a player, leader and off-court role model. Add his career success and how this could be a lifetime achievement award, it makes Paul's case compelling. However, his stats would need to increase in production, he would have to stay healthy (always tough after previous knee surgeries) and for the Clippers to keep pace (which they've already started to slip from). But still, the Point God deserves a spot.
Gasol has picked up a lot of steam the past two weeks based on the Grizzlies having knocked off the Blazers and Warriors since Mike Conley went down. They're 7-2 since their starting point guard suffered a back injury, and yet they continue to win games. It's a testament to their total team strength and resilience, the coaching of David Fizdale, Tony Allen's berserk relentlessness, and Gasol's brilliance.
Gasol's rebounding figures are poor for a center, and that would hurt him in any vote, and his statistical profile overall isn't on par with the truly high-level guys. But the Grizzlies' success vs. expectations, the narrative of Gasol leading his team with so many injuries, and a general appreciation of the Grizzlies earns Gasol this spot.
THE REST OF THE SUPER-DEEP FIELD
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls: Butler is averaging 26-7-4 on 46 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. Those numbers at least get him in the conversation with LeBron statistically, and he's the team's best defender. Without him, the Bulls' surprising start wouldn't be so surprising, but a recent swoon takes the shine off that a bit. Butler is seventh in Value Over Replacement Player and third (!) in Win Shares this season. Moreover, without him, the Bulls, even with Dwyane Wade, would be doomed. His narrative pull is low because there's just not a great story for Butler, there. He's a great player on a pretty good team. Hard to find a story for voters to latch onto.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: A 21-9-5 line on 47 percent from the field, and he's been better defensively this season. The biggest damage to Griffin's campaign, outside of a slight dip in numbers, is the Clippers' faceplant vs. the Warriors on national television. Paul was there for that, but it was Griffin who had his worst game of the season. He takes a sizable hit for that, on top of the Clippers' general fall-off. The Clippers have to finish second in the West for Paul or Griffin to have a real shot.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Raptors: DeRozan's scoring is slowly coming back to Earth, he's now fifth in scoring after leading the league in points per game after the first month. Lowry has stepped up with a 21-5-7 line and the Raptors are clearly the second-best team in the East. Neither one of these guys is Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, but they are equally essential to the Raptors' team success, and so they wind up hurting each other's chances.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: The numbers are great! They really are! Davis is second in scoring, first in blocks, seventh in rebounds per game. He's shooting 49.5 percent from the field. He's awesome. But the Pelicans are still ten games under .500 and 4.5 games back (a wider margin than it sounds like) of the 8th spot in the West. If we accept that Westbrook or Harden have to get to 50 wins to win MVP, what are the Pelicans going to do, go 42-14 to hit 50? I understand what everyone says about Davis' value to the Pelicans and his individual greatness, but his team just isn't good enough for him to be a serious contender. The key will be, if there's a drop-off in OKC, we have to evaluate Westbrook the same way.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: 26-4-6 on 48-40-93, and Curry may once again top a 50-40-90 season. The Warriors are the best team in the league, and Curry's insane shooting ability opens things up for everyone else, Durant included. But you just can't reasonably make the argument that the Warriors would drop off without Curry the same way you can with Durant, not when Klay Thompson went for 60. That game showed what kind of firepower they still have around Curry.
Durant is the Warriors' best defender, Curry's just fine. Draymond Green is the team's best passer, Curry's just fine. He deserves inclusion because he's the two-time reigning winner, the Warriors are awesome, and his efficiency is still mind-boggling. But the other players on this list have resumes and narratives that are stronger. Somehow, I think Curry's probably OK with that as Golden State still seems set to zero in on Curry's second title.
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