Way-too-early takeaways on the NBA MVP race: Harden has the edge over Curry, K.D.
The Warriors are light years ahead, but James Harden is off to a red-hot start with the Rockets
The 2017-18 NBA season is a month old, which means two things:
- It's way too early to start breaking down the MVP race.
- It's absolutely time to start breaking down the MVP race.
Instead of giving you a ranking, here are 10 thoughts on the early season MVP race and what you should be thinking about if someone asks you for your take on it:
1. James Harden is the only player so far who checks all the conventional boxes
Let's run it down:
Stats: ✅. Leads the league in points per game and assists per game while shooting 45 percent from the field, 40 percent from downtown, and 86 percent from the stripe. The Rockets are 10.1 points better than their opponents with him on the floor, with a 114 offensive rating.
Team success: ✅. The Rockets lead the Western Conference at 13-4, including a win over Golden State.
Signature game: ✅. Scored 48 points and masterminded a 90-point first-half, and 68 points out of 142 total, from scoring and points from assists.
Harden was worthy of the MVP award last season. Even if you felt as if the award belonged to Triple-Double Russ or Kawhi or the King, you couldn't say Harden did not deserve it, only that someone else deserved it more. He's once again doing absolutely ridiculous things. His defense is a bit worse than last season's, but then the Rockets' defense is considerably better, and so Harden's defensive rating has lowered, too.
Rockets fans (and management) have been exasperated in asking "what more does James Harden have to do?" The answer, honestly, should be nothing, and anyone with any sense of consistency in this discussion should recognize him as the way-too-early front-runner.
2. Steph vs. K.D. is going to be an even bigger conundrum
Stephen Curry has the best net rating in the NBA. This means that when he's on the floor, his team outscores the other team by more points than any other team outscores their opponent with them on the floor. Kevin Durant has the second-best net rating in the NBA. However, in on/off differential:
- Durant: Plus-9.7
- Curry: Plus-15.9
This means that the Warriors are 16 points better with Curry on-court than when he's on the bench, and the Warriors are nearly 10 points better with Durant on the court than on the bench. Both are great numbers, but Curry's differential is 160 percent what Durant's is.
Here's why this is important: It matches on an ongoing perception from observers and fans of the team that while Durant may be the better player on the team, Curry is the real engine that drives Golden State. Durant is a better defender, a better rebounder, and a more sound passer, but Curry, because of his otherworldly gravity, changes the way defenses play the Warriors in ways Durant does not.
Curry has also been a more complete player this season. The 2014-2016 run was just unchecked basketball hedonism for Curry, but this season, he's a central part of the synthesis. He ties the team together. He's more of a floor general than he's ever been, and he's still bombing from deep, even if he's currently shooting the lowest 3-point percentage of his career. (And imagine what they will look like if he keeps playing this way and his 3-point shot regresses to the mean?)
However, Durant is the best player on the best team. It's an impossible puzzle and trying to extricate the value of both players from one another, let alone from Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, remains impossible. By traditional values, one of the two should be at least tied with Harden for the lead. But by traditional values, we'd never see two players this good on the same team. It creates a whole host of issues with establishing what value is, and that's before you get into how it's going to feel voting for one of the two, which would be the most boring and predictable NBA vote, something that definitely will impact some voters, though many will make that call if it's simply the correct one.
These two are going to get votes. Will they split them? Will that hurt them? Or will they finish first and second, in the end?
3. LeBron James is a whole big ball of counter-arguments so far
At age 32, soon-to-be-33, LeBron James is shooting 58.5 percent from the field, which is a career high. I cannot stress this enough: On a team where he is the best player and only real play-maker most of the time, James is shooting better than he ever has. But that's not all. James is currently on track for:
- The best 3-point percentage of his career.
- The third-most assists per game of his career (Third most, per-100 possessions).
- Well above his career average in rebounds.
- The most blocks per game of his career.
- A 29.7 PER, which if he can get it 30, would be his fifth plus-30 PER season, the most of any player in NBA history.
- To finish third in win shares and second in value over replacement player.
So yeah, it turns out that LeBron James guy is pretty good. But as I chronicled in fairly exhaustive fashion two weeks ago, he has. The Cavs have the 30th-ranked defense in the league. They are literally the worst defensive team in the NBA. Can you be MVP if your team is dead last in defense? Not just "bad" but "the worst," especially when your game is predicated not on offensive explosiveness, but hyper-versatility?
James is still James. He's won several games for the Cavaliers through his own sheer force of will and brilliance so far. The Cavaliers, despite all their foibles, are 9-7 as of this writing, just two games out of the second seed in the conference. Yet they've clearly underperformed to expectations. Is that on James? Is it not on James?
James clearly has an MVP case. It's also clearly a flawed one.
4. Giannis is the new Westbrook
A quick look at players to have averaged 30-10-4 while shooting 55 percent from the field since assists were tracked by the NBA: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (twice). That's it.
But Giannis Antetokounmpo is right on the cusp of that this season: His scoring average slipped to 29.7 a game after a few games in the low 20s, but he's also at 10.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists a game and shooting 55.2 percent from the field. Oh, and Giannis shooting better from 2-point range than Kareem did. That's pretty phenomenal.
Giannis' case is similar to that of Russell Westbrook's last season -- not because of the triple-double obsession, but because of this formula: crazy stats plus crazy responsibility and usage plus perceived importance to team minus sub-par win record.
Milwaukee is 8-8, ninth in the East. Going into last season, no player had won the MVP with a seed lower than third in their conference since 1985. Westbrook broke that streak with the herculean effort he provided OKC, particularly in the clutch.
Antetokounmpo is facing the same kind of situation. The addition of Eric Bledsoe gives him a star-level player (if not a star) next to him, and Khris Middleton is arguably better than any player Westbrook had next to him last season. The stats are still going to be the marquee element for Giannis, but if he doesn't get the Bucks to 50-plus wins, it's going to be difficult. It wasn't actually the statistical value of Westbrook's production last season that won him the award; there were all sorts of metric-based arguments for James Harden and Kawhi Leonard as more valuable. It was the novelty of averaging a triple-double (while leading the league in scoring) combined with his otherworldly clutch performance (which we'll talk to in a little bit).
So while Giannis has arguably been the best NBA player so far this season, there are a lot more factors he's going to need to fall his way to sustain his place in the race this season.
5. If Giannis is on the list, so is Kristaps Porzingis
I'm not a 100 percent believer in Porzingis, on any number of levels, but here are the facts:
- The Knicks are 9-7, better than the Bucks.
- Porzingis is averaging 28 points per game to Giannis' 30.
- Porzingis is on pace to be one of two players ever to average 27-7 with two blocks per game while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, and the other player was Hakeem Olajuwon who took 19 3-point attempts total in 1994.
- His offensive rating (108.1) is higher than Antetokounmpo's (106.6).
- The Bucks are worse per 100 possessions with Giannis off-court than the Knicks are with Porzingis on the bench, but the Knicks are better with Porzingis on (plus-3.9) than the Bucks are with Giannis (plus-3.3).
Now, anecdotally, it certainly feels like Antetokounmpo has been considerably better. He makes better decisions, he is more consistent, he is being game-planned against more aggressively. However, not just because of the stats, but because of team performance and how important each player is to their team, if the Greek Freak is on the list, then 3-6-Latvia has to be on the list as well.
6. Kyrie Irving should not be on the list
Irving has been better than most expected with the Celtics. He has been a willing and active defender, a great leader who has both committed to getting his teammates involved when he's on the floor and pumping them up and cheering them on when he's off, and has been an abject monster in clutch time.
Seriously. He's averaging 62 points on 62 percent shooting for every 36 minutes of clutch time this season along with 9.5 assists.
However, then you compare him to last season, when he was the No. 2 star for the Cavaliers. And ... he's down in points, rebounds, assists and shooting metrics. His per-100 stats, which account for pace, tell a similar, but slightly different story:
Slightly better at rebounds, the same, roughly, in assists, down in points and shooting.
Now this is interesting; look at how Irving's stats per 100 possessions this season stack up next to how Irving looked the last time he was the best player on a team, with the Cavaliers, in 2014.
That is roughly, give or take a few shots, the same guy. Except the Celtics are winning games behind the best defensive rating since 2004, and so all of a sudden Irving is being discussed in MVP conversations. Now, Irving plays a crucial role in the Celtics' formula. They keep games close with their defense and then Irving slams the door shut on their opponent and they escape in confusion. His clutch time performances are vital to what Boston does. But that doesn't shape the overall structure of the team.
Irving deserves credit for the stuff he does: Creating for other guys, being an improved defender, a willing passer, and a better leader. He's helped the Celtics, he has been a good player despite his shooting mediocrity. There is also a great chance that at some point in the next 20 games he gets hot and rattles off a streak of 30-40-plus-point games that legitimately catapults him into the discussion. That's exactly what happened with Isaiah Thomas after a ho-hum start individually last season.
Literally after I wrote the above paragraph, Irving went out and scored 47 in another clutch-time masterpiece, albeit over the horrible Mavericks.
However, the Celtics are winning with defense, that's pretty clear, and Jayson Tatum and Al Horford have shot the lights out. Irving has played a part in that, but not to a level that makes him MVP worthy. Irving can absolutely insert himself into the race, but doing so now is simply trying to crowbar a narrative in for a player who many want to anoint because A.) he turned his back on LeBron, always a divisive player and B.) he plays for a legendary franchise. There's time for Irving to prove he's most valuable. Let's let him actually do so first.
7. Al Horford should be in the discussion
Now, if you want to know who's actually the best player on the best team in the NBA?
Celtics net rating (point differential per 100 possessions):
- Al Horford: Plus-12.6 on-court, Plus-13.3 net on vs. off
- Kyrie Irving: Plus-8.3 on-court, Plus-2.8 net on vs. off
- Jaylen Brown: Plus-11.3, Plus-12.5 net on vs. off
Horford is the straw that stirs the drink, the engine that powers the vehicle, the real secret to what they do. Horford is shooting 42 percent from deep on 3.3 3-point attempts per game, and because word has gotten out he can hit that shot, opponents have to close out on him. When they do, he can not only drive off it to punish them, but is such a great passer he can exploit the help:
Only six players have averaged 14-8-4 on 42 percent 3-point shooting, and Horford has the second-best defensive rating among them. Furthermore, here's what happens to various Celtics rotation players without Horford:
|Player||Net Rating with Horford||Net Rating without Horford||Differential with Horford|
Simply put, Horford's impact on the team is incredible. If you're going to go down the road of suggesting that the best player from the league's best team has to be on the list? Horford, not Irving, is on the list.
And for anyone suggesting that a player averaging just 14 points per game can't be on the list, I refer you to 2013-14, when Joakim Noah finished fourth in voting.
Al Horford is on the list.
8. The Embiid shadow
He's averaging 22-11 on 50 percent shooting with a 24.0 PER for one of the hottest teams in the league. Oh, and by the way, Ben Simmons' net rating goes from a minus-8.0 to a plus-12.7 with him on the floor. He just put on the most devastating performance in the post vs. the Lakers since the days of Shaquille O'Neal.
Still, it's tough to put him on because of how concerned you have to be with his health, every game. Even despite a terrific week, he's still playing through knee soreness. The second you hear "questionable" or "game-time decision" with Embiid and if it's not followed by "Instagram post," you immediately start sounding the sirens.
In terms of possession by possession, he really might be the most dominant player in the league when he's healthy, but that fear is still there.
The Sixers are in that same range as the Knicks and Bucks, so the wins aren't there yet, either. But Embiid, if he stays healthy, is going to loom over this race with a shadow the size of his monster frame.
9. Where's Westbrook?
So ... we've made it through all this and we haven't discussed the reigning MVP who is averaging 20-8-10.
Unfortunately, the Thunder are below .500, and Westbrook is shooting 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range. OKC's net rating says they're better than their record, but that clutch madness we talked about last season? It's turned to dirt. What's funny is Westbrook is still playing well. He's scoring 29 points on 47 percent shooting with 4.9 assists per 36 minutes of clutch time. However, per 36 minutes of clutch time, the Thunder have been outscored by a hilariously-bad 53.4 points in that time.
Westbrook's overall resume hasn't been good enough to get him on the list, and his clutch performances have still resulted Carmelo Anthony and Paul George on the team, he's not getting the triple-double per game. He'll need team success (and a better field goal percentage) to get back in the conversation.and . Westbrook can go on a tear and get him back in it, but with
10. Is it too late for Kawhi?
If Kawhi Leonard came back tomorrow, which he won't, the most games he could finish the season with is 65. The fewest games a player in a full 82-game season has played and won MVP is Bill Walton's 1978 campaign of just 58 games. Since 2000, the fewest a player has finished with is 71 by Allen Iverson in 2001.
Based on precedent, it's probably too late for him. Plus, Leonard would have to work his way back into shape, and he'd have to not only put up numbers, but get the Spurs to a winning percentage way, way higher than the .625 they currently feature at 10-6. Is this doable? Sure. But there's no real sign of a return date for Leonard, and with how strong the rest of the field is, it's hard to see Leonard putting forward the kind of mind-boggling numbers for the eye test it would take to crash the party. Never say never when it comes to the Spurs, but it sure seems like Kawhi Leonard's MVP candidacy is already sadly over.
It's too early for a list, but if I had a list ...
Here's what it would look like:
James Harden Houston Rockets G
Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors G
Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors F
Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee Bucks F
LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers F
Al Horford Boston Celtics F
Kristaps Porzingis New York Knicks F
Joel Embiid Philadelphia 76ers C
Anthony Davis New Orleans Pelicans F
Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets C
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