NBA MVP race: The nine players besides LeBron James and James Harden who need to be considered for award, and why
Reid Forgrave breaks down 11 players worthy of being included in an MVP race that's shaping up to be one for the ages
We all know that the NBA MVP award frequently does not go to the best player. If it did go to the best player -- to the single player who is most valuable to his team -- then LeBron James would win it. Every. Damn. Year. Instead, he's somehow only brought home four MVP awards.
Instead, winning an MVP award is often about a confluence of factors. It's about the narrative, first and foremost. (See: Steph Curry in 2015, marking the Golden State Warriors' emergence as a dynastic force.) It's about a season that's such a statistical outlier that you can't help but recognize it. (See: Russell Westbrook in 2017, when he averaged a triple-double.) It's about being about time for an awesome player who seems overdue. (See: James Harden last year.) It's about being the hands-down best player on one of the best teams, if not the best team. (See: LeBron James, every year he's won it.)
We're right around the halfway mark of the NBA season, which seems like an appropriate time to size up this MVP race. And what we currently have is … the most bunched-up MVP race in recent memory. No clear narrative has emerged around one player -- or more accurately, far too many narratives have emerged around great players having great seasons on (mostly) great teams.
Surely you'd think these narratives will winnow themselves down over the next several months. They usually do. But what we could have is one of the closest MVP races in history. The closest MVP race ever was Karl Malone beating Michael Jordan in 1997 by 29 points (one of the dumbest MVP results ever, by the way). The next few closest races: Steve Nash over Shaquille O'Neal in 2005, Tim Duncan over Jason Kidd in 2002, Malone over Alonzo Mourning in 1999. But what could make this MVP race so intriguing isn't necessarily a close race between the top two but a race that has more relevant candidacies than just about any past year.
What follows is my breakdown of all the players whose names ought to be mentioned in any MVP race discussions. By my count, there's 11. Now, not every player listed has a realistic shot at winning the MVP, obviously. Damian Lillard wasn't going to win the MVP last season, not when he was going up against Harden, LeBron and Anthony Davis. (Lillard finished fourth, after those three.) But to not include him in the conversation would have been dereliction of MVP-voting duty.
I broke these players down by both traditional and advanced stats, and then I gave my case for and against each player's MVP candidacy at this point in the season. All statistics are current as of Tuesday. The advanced stats I used all come from Basketball Reference: player efficiency rating (PER), win shares (WS), and box plus/minus (BPM). There's no perfect advanced statistic to give a single measure of one player's greatness over another; that's why each player ranks differently depending on the advanced stat. But these three stats ought to give a bigger picture of what the advanced numbers say.
And there's obviously the eye test and well as one of the most important elements in a player's MVP candidacy: How good is his team? I'm not one to reward an MVP award to a player who is having an incredible individual season for a mediocre or bad team. There's no Andre Dawson MVP to be given here (Dawson won the 1987 National League MVP in Major League Baseball after hitting 49 home runs for the last-place Chicago Cubs.)
After breaking down each candidacy, at the end, I'll rank them, 1 through 11.
Here we go.
- Traditional stats: 26.6 points per game (ninth in NBA), 12.6 rebounds per game (seventh), 6.0 assists per game (24th), 1.3 steals per game (42nd), 1.6 blocks per game (12th), 33.5 minutes per game (36th)
- Advanced stats: 29.1 PER (second), 6.7 WS (second), 9.8 BPM (second)
The case for: The narrative. Everybody -- especially the NBA -- loves a fresh new face winning the MVP award, and Giannis is exactly that. New Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has constructed the perfect Giannis offense, where driving lanes have opened up for Giannis as he's almost always surrounded by four shooters. The Bucks are a top team in the East, a legit Finals contender and one of the most surprising stories of this NBA season. He may soon become the face of the league as LeBron hits his golden years. Now that he's playing for a contender, it's time to recognize Giannis' youthful brilliance with an MVP award.
The case against: Let's see if this lasts. He was the (very) early MVP favorite last season, too, before fading back into the pack as the Bucks faded into a mediocre team. (Blame the coach for that, not Giannis.) And although the personnel around him as well as Budenholzer's game plan have become perfectly suited for Giannis' game, his game itself isn't drastically improved from a year ago -- specifically at 3-point shooting, where he has regressed from a not-yet-good-but-clearly-improving 30.7 percent to a putrid 16.9 percent.
- Traditional stats: 33.7 PPG (first), 8.7 APG (fourth), 2.0 SPG (sixth), 37.2 MPG (first), 4.8 made 3s per game (second), 38.6 percent from 3 (43rd among players averaging more than two attempts per game)
- Advanced stats: 28.7 PER (third), 6.3 WS (fourth), 10.6 BPM (first)
The case for: The Rockets were awful out the gate this season. It was a combination of a bad offseason (adding Carmelo Anthony and Michael-Carter Williams, losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute) and injuries and suspensions to Harden and Chris Paul. The Rockets are now the hottest team in the NBA, and it's because James Harden has caught fire in historic fashion. In the past 14 games, the Rockets are 12-2, and Chris Paul has missed eight of those games. Harden has averaged 39.4 points per game while launching an absolutely insane 14.4 3-pointers per game (and hitting them at a 40.6 percent clip). The last time a player averaged more than 33 points per season was 2005-06, when both Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson did so.
The case against: There isn't much of a case against Harden, other than it is someone else's turn this year since it was his turn last year. The team started 11-14, and if it was still below .500, that would torpedo any chance of a Harden candidacy. But the Rockets are now fifth in the stacked West, and only 4.0 games out of first.
- Traditional stats: 27.3 PPG (sixth), 7.9 RPG (34th), 1.9 SPG (10th), 34.9 MPG (14th)
- Advanced stats: 26.6 PER (fourth), 5.3 WS (11th), 4.7 BPM (18th)
The case for: Toronto may be the team best positioned to upset the Warriors in the playoffs, and Kawhi is the main reason. He's picked right up from where he left off in 2016-17 -- his last healthy season, when he finished third in MVP voting. His numbers are a tick better than that season, in fact.
The case against: The Raptors are more about team basketball than individual excellence, and although Kawhi certainly sets the tone for the Raptors, and is certainly the best player on the Raptors by far, his statistics are not otherworldly.
- Traditional stats: 27.3 PPG (fifth), 8.3 RPG (31st), 7.1 APG (12th), 1.3 SPG (43rd), 34.7 MPG (18th), 2.0 made 3s per game (48th)
- Advanced stats: 26.4 PER (sixth), 5.0 WS (14th), 7.8 BPM (fifth)
The case for: Do you know what the middle letter in the acronym "MVP" stands for? The "V" stands for valuable "valuable." And it's hard to assert than any NBA player is more valuable to his team than LeBron James is year in and year out. He's having a typical LeBron statistical season, but just look at what his team has been like without him. Since LeBron's groin injury on Christmas Day, the Lakers have gone 2-5 without him. And the Cavaliers went from a Finals team with LeBron last year to perhaps the worst team in the league this season without LeBron.
The case against: He's competing against himself, and the past decade and a half of LeBron is the stiffest competition you can ever have. And the truth is, this Lakers team is likely not a Finals team like the past eight LeBron teams. If this award were really about "the player who is most valuable to his team," LeBron would win it virtually every year. But it's about much more than that. The last player to win an MVP past age 30 was Steve Nash, by the way.
- Traditional stats: 28.9 PPG (second), 5.5 APG (31st), 1.3 SPG (34th), 34.9 MPG (13th), 5.03 made 3s per game (first), 45.0 3-point percentage (seventh among players averaging more than two attempts per game)
- Advanced stats: 25.9 PER (seventh), 4.3 WS (21st), 6.3 BPM (ninth)
The case for: The greatest shooter of all time is virtually equaling his greatest season, when he was the unanimous MVP in the 2015-16 season. If it weren't abundantly obvious already, his value to the Warriors was again shown when he missed 11 games in November and the Warriors went 5-6.
The case against: He may have been the MVP before the injury, and he may be the MVP after the injury, but you can't take away the fact that Curry has only played in 29 of the Warriors' 40 games. If he plays at this pace for the rest of the season and doesn't miss more games with injury, hit me back. Until then, he just hasn't played enough to qualify for this hardware.
- Traditional stats: 26.8 PPG (eighth), 8.0 RPG (33rd), 2.2 SPG (second), 35.3 MPG (ninth), 3.3 made 3s per game (third), 38.4 percent from 3 (50th among players averaging more than two attempts per game)
- Advanced stats: 24.0 PER (16th), 6.1 WS (fifth), 6.3 BPM (10th)
The case for: He's the reason -- and not Russell Westbrook -- why the Thunder are one of the best stories in the NBA's first half of the season. He's the reason the Thunder are in third place in the stacked West despite having only the 19th-rated offense in the NBA. He's been the Thunder's single point of consistency on offense, and more importantly, he's anchored the NBA's top-rated defense.
The case against: Sorry, but the numbers just aren't there … and the "best player on the best team" argument doesn't fly when the Thunder are pretty clearly not the best team in the NBA. If George's numbers keep up in the second half of the season, and if this team is able to stick as the top defense in the NBA and a top-two team in the West (despite having the NBA's toughest remaining schedule), we can revisit his candidacy.
- Traditional stats: 19.2 PPG (36th), 10.1 RPG (18th), 7.4 APG (ninth), 1.5 SPG (24th)
- Advanced stats: 25.9 PER (eighth), 5.4 WS (10th), 9.4 BPM (third)
The case for: A unique player for a unique team should win the MVP award in an NBA that puts more value than ever before on uniqueness. Jokic may be the best-passing center of all time, and the fulcrum of one of the most exciting offenses in the NBA. (His defense is much improved, too, and a big reason for the Nuggets posting a top-10 defense after being awful defensively last season.) Jokic's traditional numbers may not wow anyone, but the advanced stats show just how impactful he is for the team with the best record in the West.
The case against: The NBA is a make-or-miss league, and Jokic simply doesn't make enough buckets (or even take enough shots). MVP awards are for scorers, not facilitators. The last player who averaged fewer than 19 points per game to take home an MVP award was Steve Nash in 2005-06, when he averaged 18.8 points per game -- but also averaged 10.5 assists and shot 43.9 percent from deep.
- Traditional stats: 28.5 PPG (fourth), 7.5 RPG (38th), 6.1 APG (21st), 1.0 BPG (36th), 36.0 MPG (fifth)
- Advanced stats: 25.5 PER (ninth), 6.1 WS (seventh), 4.7 BPM (19th)
The case for: One of the greatest scorers in NBA history is having a typically great season. He's taking more shots (and scoring more points) than any season since 2013-14 -- when he won MVP.
The case against: He's not even the most valuable player on his own team. Now, if he had this sort of season for the New York Knicks and made them a top-four team in the East … that'd be a different story!
- Traditional stats: 28.7 PPG (third), 13.3 RPG (fourth), 1.8 SPG (eighth), 2.6 BPG (second), 37.0 MPG (second)
- Advanced stats: 30.7 PER (first), 7.3 WS (first), 9.2 BPM (fourth)
The case for: Look at the individual statistics. My goodness. There's not a player in the NBA having a better individual statistical season than Davis. He's single-handedly putting these short-handed Pelicans on his back.
The case against: Well, let's see, the Pelicans are …19-22, and 12th place in the West. Basketball is a team sport. It's not Davis' fault that the Pelicans have never, in his seven seasons in the league, been able to fill out a competent roster, but here we are. A player can't win an MVP award during a season when his team misses the playoffs, and while the Pelicans certainly could turn things around, they'll have to greatly impress as a team in the second half for Davis' MVP candidacy to ramp up.
- Traditional stats: 26.2 PPG (10th), 6.0 APG (23rd), 35.4 MPG (seventh), 3.0 made 3s per game (sixth), 38.6 percent from 3 (44th among players averaging more than two attempts per game)
- Advanced stats: 23.4 PER (19th), 5.7 WS (eighth), 5.0 BPM (15th)
The case for: On Jan. 1 last year, the 2017-18 Trail Blazers were sitting at 18-17… and they went 31-16 the rest of the way, thanks to Lillard. Over the final 25 games of last season, Portland's star averaged 30.5 points per game, proving exactly how valuable he is for the Blazers. He's been nearly as good this season, with the Blazers sitting only 3.5 games out of first.
The case against: He'll need to have a similar second half of the season as a year ago to even sniff at a candidacy in this crowded field -- and the Blazers will have to become a top-three team in the crowded West.
- Traditional stats: 26.7 PPG (seventh), 13.4 RPG (third), 1.9 BPG (eighth), 33.9 MPG (30th)
- Advanced stats: 25.3 PER (10th), 5.1 WS (12th), 3.5 BPM (30th)
The case for: He's a monster on both ends for a team that could win the East. Embiid is the Sixers' hands-down best player, and has one of the highest usage rates in the NBA.
The case against: Embiid has been great, and he certainly deserves being mentioned, but he's not in the top tier. The Sixers would have to become the clear-cut best team in the East for Embiid's candidacy to gain steam.
Forgrave's MVP Rankings, 1-11
My order (I'm completely torn with the top two, and it's tough to slide a piece of paper between any of the top four, and if LeBron and Steph hadn't been injured they'd be in that mix too).
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