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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Handicapping the MVP Race Just Past the Quarter Pole of the 2016-17 NBA Season

The NBA All-Star ballots will be officially released on Sunday and the NBA season is nearly one third over, so it is not too early to at least take a preliminary look at the MVP race. Historically, when I write about the MVP race--or the NBA awards in general--I only discuss who I think should win and why. For example, this article describes who I felt should win the various NBA awards for the 2011-12 (it also includes links to several of my articles about the NBA awards from previous seasons). For this article, though, I am taking a different approach: I will list the top five players in my MVP rankings and I will also list who I believe would be the top five finishers if the media voters filled out their ballots today.

My philosophy about the MVP award remains unchanged; the MVP should be the best all-around player in the league, unless there is a player who is so singularly dominant in one or two phases of the game that this dominance makes him more valuable than the league's best all-around player at that time. So, Shaquille O'Neal should have won several MVPs (instead of just one) even though he was never the best all-around player in the league; his dominance in the paint made him more valuable than anyone else during his prime.

Also, in most years my MVP choice will play for team with a winning record but I would not rule out a player from a lesser squad if his individual play is exceptional and his supporting cast is clearly extremely deficient.

My top five MVP choices right now are:

1) Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook's triple double exploits set him apart from every other player in the league today. Oscar Robertson is the only player in pro basketball history to average a triple double for an entire season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62) but Westbrook is on pace to match that feat--and Westbrook has already averaged a triple double further into a season than any player other than Robertson.

Westbrook is not only having an MVP caliber season; he is having a historically great season. Some of Westbrook's point-rebound-assist lines this season defy description or belief: 36-11-17, 17-13-15, 27-18-14, 35-14-11. He recently posted a 26-11-22 stat line, becoming the first player since Magic Johnson in 1988 to have a triple double that included at least 25 points and at least 20 assists.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Westbrook's season is the way that Westbrook is single-handedly keeping his Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoff picture. When Westbrook is on the court, the Thunder are one of the league's top eight teams in point differential--but when he is out of the game, the Thunder are the worst team in the league! I am not sure if Westbrook's supporting cast is worse than anyone thought or just is not yet fully performing up to par but it is clear that Westbrook has less help than any other elite player in the NBA whose squad is in playoff contention. It is worth noting that Westbrook is also the only such elite player whose roster is not built around his skill set. The Thunder were built around Kevin Durant, who fled to Golden State; a team built around Westbrook would feature more shooters to spread the floor and also more athletes who could run with Westbrook in the transition game.

What Westbrook is doing this season is a heightened version of what Pete Maravich and Tracy McGrady did during their respective primes: he is playing at such a high level that when he is on the court an ordinary roster looks very good but when he is not on the court that same roster looks like an expansion team. Maravich, McGrady and Westbrook have very different physiques and skill sets but they each merited MVP consideration during their primes based on the way that their individual brilliance shined in a team context.

2) Lebron James

The case for James is that he is the best all-around player in the NBA and he is putting up MVP-level numbers across the board, including a career-high 9.0 apg. The case against James is that he sometimes enters "chill mode" (as he once called it) by either physically sitting out a game or by mentally sitting out, so consequently his defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers only have the third best record in the league. In most years, I would probably rank James first, anyway--but not during a season when Westbrook is putting up historically great numbers while never sitting out physically or mentally.

3) Kevin Durant

Durant is the best player on the best team in the league. In many years, that is a pretty reliable MVP formula--but I cannot place him ahead of James (who is a better defender and passer) or the incomparable Westbrook.

4) Stephen Curry

The back to back reigning MVP is having another great season but no one could seriously argue that he is playing better than his teammate Durant and it is self-evident that you cannot be the league MVP if you are not the best player on your own team.

5) Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has had perhaps the most bizarre career arc of any serious MVP candidate ever. He owns a Finals MVP, he has won the Defensive Player of the Year award the last two seasons and he finished second in MVP voting in 2015-16 but he has only made the All-Star team once. This season, he is clearly the best player on a San Antonio team that has the second best record in the NBA and his two-way brilliance earns him the fifth spot on my MVP list.

*****

The media voting for MVP has produced some odd results. Shaquille O'Neal--the most dominant player of his era--only received one MVP and the year that he won it one voter did not pick O'Neal just to prove some kind of bizarre point, thus depriving O'Neal of the opportunity to become the first unanimous winner (Curry earned that distinction last season, beating out LeBron James before succumbing to him in the Finals). Kobe Bryant, the best all-around player in the NBA for several years, also won just one MVP. Meanwhile, Steve Nash won two MVPs, Derrick Rose won an MVP and Karl Malone and Charles Barkley each won MVPs before losing to Michael Jordan in the Finals in those respective seasons. The media supposedly gets "tired" of voting for the same player (or else Jordan would have won several more MVPs) and the media also likes to latch on to certain kinds of narratives, such as the underdog or the quirky and/or outrageous guy. LeBron James is one of the greatest players of all-time, he is in or near his prime and he has not won the regular season MVP since 2012-13. Last season, James finished third in the regular season MVP race before leading his Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise's first title by capping off a Finals MVP performance with a game seven triple double. Unless something changes, James will probably slip to fourth in the media's regular season MVP voting in 2016-17. I doubt that the media will ever vote him as MVP again.

Here is how I think the media MVP voting would go today:

1) Russell Westbrook

This is one season when at least one of the the hyped narratives is actually worth hyping. The media pumped out stories about "angry Russ" as soon as Durant left the Thunder. Westbrook's 2016-17 story was already written before the season even began: if he played well, then that proved that "angry Russ" had properly channeled his feelings but he if played poorly then that proved that he lacked self-control and was not worthy of the status he assumed in Oklahoma City after Durant's departure. There will be no nuances in the coverage of Westbrook this season. He is a hero now but rest assured that the goat stories have already been written as well and those stories will be published if the Thunder lose too many games, regardless of how well Westbrook plays.

2) James Harden

The media loves "the Beard." He has a nickname, he does some kind of stir the pot antic after he scores, he is involved with a Kardashian--bottom line, he makes life easy for media members. So what if he lacks leadership qualities, plays no defense and will run out of town anyone who expects him to play defense. Harden is a very talented offensive player; there is no doubt about that. There is also no doubt that Mike D'Antoni's system inflates a point guard's touches and numbers. If the media evaluated players on a skill set basis, Harden could never rank ahead of the five players on my MVP ballot--but he will almost certainly finish second in the MVP voting this season (unless there is a late push to turn Westbrook into a goat and hand the honor to Harden instead).

3) Kevin Durant

As mentioned above, Durant is the best player on the best team. Many MVP voters use that as their number one criteria, so Durant figures to finish no lower than third.

4) LeBron James

By merit James should finish no lower than second but I expect that the voters will place him fourth, for the faulty reasons I have already discussed.

5) Chris Paul

Paul finished sixth in the MVP voting last season. I think that the voters will move him past Curry this year. There are a lot of stories floating around about how this is shaping up to be the Clippers' year or at least the last chance for this group to win a title together. Many media members tried to give Paul the MVP over Bryant when Bryant was in his absolute prime, so if the Clippers make a run at 60 wins then Paul will receive a lot of support for MVP. I respect Paul's grit, toughness and court vision but we have already seen that he is too small (and perhaps too stubborn in terms of how he plays) to lead a team to a title. By rights he should be no higher than 10th in the MVP race but I think that he has a great chance of cracking the top five. If the Clippers win 60 games and finish second in the West standings to the Warriors then Paul could even move into the top three.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:07 PM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Tuesday, December 20, 2016 7:23:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I'm of the opinion that there's little justification for picking anybody but Lebron this year or most years since about '09 or so (though Curry last year made sense to me given the exceptionalism of both his play and GSW's win rate), but I agree with your prognosis in terms of likelihood at this point in the season. It is mathematically probable that at least one of Harden/Westbrook will see either their stats or their win-rate decline due to injury (to themselves or teammates) at some point in the season, which could knock either down a few pegs, but I think you've accurately prognosticated based on the data we have today.

 
At Tuesday, December 20, 2016 7:32:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Addendum: I think it's likely that Curry and Durant hurt each other's chances, even if Durant is clearly having a better season. It is difficult to win an MVP award while playing alongside another MVP candidate in their prime (only case I can think of is Moses winning for truly dominant Philly team in '83 alongside Doc. Pippen had MVP level talent but not an MVP level reputation/narrative while playing alongside Jordan) as not only do they "steal" some votes but they lend themselves to a "well of course they're winning, look how stacked their team is" narrative.

It is telling that Shaq won his only MVP award before Kobe was truly Kobe and Kobe did not win his lone MVP award until Shaq was long gone. Lebron won a few alongside a slightly diminished Wade (and is arguably not quite a true MVP candidate even in his prime, though I'd probably say he was), but should have won more. Magic did not start winning MVPs until Kareem was clearly no longer an MVP-level guy, though Magic was not all that much better in '87 than he was in, say, '84.

You could argue some of the '60s guys (specifically Russell) did it, but the league was much different then and the MVP was chosen differently.

 
At Tuesday, December 20, 2016 8:50:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

My grammar on that last post is bad. I meant that Wade was arguably not a true MVP candidate in his prime (though I personally think he was), not Lebron, who is obviously still an MVP candidate and has been for about ten years.

 
At Wednesday, December 21, 2016 3:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



Marcel

Harden mvp david his team 21-8 this year he showed leadership. And his best player is ryan Anderson, its no doubt to me he carrying his team he efficient and playing team ball.

Russell Westbrook a stat stuffer but he has alot of costly turnovers and is out of control alot and he hasnt proven he can lead a team as far as harden has to say he def better than james. His team 16-12 james is 21-8 this is a no brainer to me.

Kawhi has great chance to win it if spurs finish with 55 wins even tho I dont think he a mvp level player really

Durant and curry cancel each other out. And durant by far best player on that team. So curry has no chance to three peat.

I think if houston keeep it up u have to give it to harden he had a great year.

 
At Wednesday, December 21, 2016 4:10:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

I think you underestimate media and Harden will win MVP this season, a la Steve Nash.

I also doubt Westbrook is going to be healthy enough whole season to sustain his production.

I wish I was wrong on both points though.

 
At Wednesday, December 21, 2016 6:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

As I mentioned in the article, a good case could be made that LeBron James should have won several more MVPs than he has won and that he should be the MVP this season as well. In a "normal" year I would take James without hesitation but if Westbrook keeps up this pace (or something reasonably close to it) for a full season then that is a historic accomplishment and I would give him the edge over James, particularly because James enters "chill mode" here and there.

Your point about injuries is well taken but I hope that the MVP race is not decided by injuries.

 
At Wednesday, December 21, 2016 7:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Did Eric Gordon retire? Patrick Beverley is one of the top defensive players in the league, in addition to averaging about 6 rpg and 5 apg. Ariza is a quintessential "D and 3" wing in this era. Harden has the supporting cast he always wanted: players who will play D, shoot threes and not take umbrage at Harden getting all of the credit.

Westbrook has been to four WCFs in the past six years plus an NBA Finals. His current Thunder are the worst team in the league when he sits and a top eight team when he plays. Harden is the featured player on a team built around him and he has lost in the first round three times in four years. The Thunder are not even built around Westbrook because OKC did not think that Durant would leave. Wait until the Thunder actually have a roster that fully complements Westbrook's talents.

Despite all of the above, you think that if Harden leads Houston to the third or fourth best record in the West then he should win MVP over Westbrook's historic season, LeBron's perennial two way excellence and Durant being the best player on the team with the best record? That makes absolutely no sense.

 
At Wednesday, December 21, 2016 7:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

I hope that you are wrong on both counts but I know that there is a chance that both things will happen, namely Westbrook breaking down physically and the media deciding to hand the MVP to Harden.

 

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