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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Evaluating the 2018 NBA MVP Contenders

James Harden will almost certainly win the 2018 NBA regular season MVP award. The media members who vote for the MVP have often shown a preference/bias toward the "best player on the best team" and Harden is the best player on a Houston team that has had the NBA's best record for a large portion of this season. Harden is having an MVP caliber season, averaging a career-high 31.1 ppg (first in the league), 8.8 apg (third in the league) and 5.1 rpg while exceeding his career averages in field goal percentage (.453 compared to .444), three point field goal percentage (.380 compared to .366) and free throw percentage (.865 compared to .855). 
Point guards in Coach Mike D'Antoni's system tend to put up career-best numbers in the regular season but do not match that productivity--individually or in terms of team success--in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to watch Harden in this year's playoffs; Harden has no excuses in terms of team depth, nor can he reasonably assert that the system is not completely focused on accentuating his strengths while hiding his weaknesses.

Regardless of how well Harden is playing, it is odd that very little attention is being paid to the exceptional numbers being posted by the 2017 regular season MVP, Russell Westbrook. While Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder have not been quite as good as many expected that they would be after adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Westbrook has been phenomenal, averaging 25.3 ppg (eighth in the league), 10.1 apg (first in the league) and 9.6 rpg (12th in the league and one of the best marks ever by a point guard). After being teamed with two All-Star level talents, Westbrook's scoring is understandably down a bit from last season's career-high, league leading 31.6 ppg but he has an outside shot at averaging a triple double for the second consecutive season, which would be unprecedented. Westbrook's statistics would be amazing for anyone but they are even more impressive considering that he is a 6-3 point guard.
Last night, Westbrook authored his 19th triple double of the season (21 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) as the Thunder defeated the San Antonio Spurs 104-94. During the ABC telecast, Jeff Van Gundy noted some team statistics that support the idea that Westbrook should be mentioned as an MVP candidate. First, the Thunder have outscored their opponents by 284 points with Westbrook on the court but have been outscored by 86 points when he is off the court. Second, the Thunder have arguably the worst bench in the league (their reserves average a league-low 25.6 ppg). This means that Westbrook has to carry a heavy load for the Thunder to be competitive--and he has more than lived up to that challenge.

While Harden has the inside track for MVP honors and Westbrook deserves more recognition than he is receiving, there are some other MVP caliber players who also should be mentioned. Anthony Davis has emerged as a top five MVP candidate this season, carrying the New Orleans Pelicans after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending Achilles tear. Davis ranks second in the league in scoring (28.1 ppg), second in blocked shots (2.3 bpg) and sixth in rebounding (11.1 rpg). Unlike Harden, Davis makes a significant impact at both ends of the court. Davis has also added a reliable three point shot (career-high .362 3FG% this season) to his repertoire.
LeBron James is always an MVP candidate and this season is no exception. When James is motivated and not in self-described "chill mode," he is the best all-around player in the league, a physical freak of nature who can score, rebound, pass and defend. This season, James is averaging 26.9 ppg (fourth in the league), 8.4 rpg (.2 rpg short of his career-high) and a career-high 9.0 apg (second in the league).
The Golden State Warriors are 51-15, just a half game behind Harden's Rockets in the race for the league's best record. The Warriors have two former MVPs who are playing at an MVP level this season. Stephen Curry (the 2015 and 2016 regular season MVP) is averaging 26.3 ppg (seventh in the league), 6.2 apg and 5.1 apg while continuing to be an elite shooter: .494 field goal percentage, .424 three point field goal percentage and .919 free throw percentage (fifth in the league). Curry's teammate Kevin Durant, the 2014 regular season MVP--and 2017 Finals MVP--is averaging 26.4 ppg (sixth in the league), 1.9 bpg (fourth in the league), 6.7 rpg and 5.4 apg.
DeMar DeRozan, an All-NBA Third Team selection last year, is the best player for the East-leading Toronto Raptors. DeRozan is averaging 24.0 ppg (fifth in the league), a career-high 5.2 apg and 4.0 rpg. Like Davis, DeRozan has added the three point shot to an already formidable offensive arsenal; DeRozan is posting career-highs in three point field goals made, three point field goals attempted and three point field goal percentage.
While most observers may believe that Harden is an easy choice, if I had a vote I would feel torn: James is the best player but he coasts too much; Westbrook is having the best all-around season but it does seems like the Thunder should have a few more wins; Harden is putting up video game offensive numbers but he is doing so in a system that always augments the statistics of point guards; Davis is a tremendous two-way talent but until he wins a playoff series he looks somewhat like what TNT's Kenny Smith calls a "looter in a riot" (a good player who boosts his statistics by playing for mediocre teams that are rarely participating in meaningful games); Curry and Durant are both MVP caliber players but it is hard to determine which one is really more valuable to the Warriors; DeRozan is doing work for the surprising Raptors but his numbers are not quite on the level as those posted by the other players mentioned above. 
I will freely admit that I never thought that Harden would be the best player on a team that is on pace to win 60-plus games. It is difficult to argue against Harden as the 2018 MVP but I do think that there are other players who at least deserve more consideration than they appear to be getting.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:59 PM