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Wednesday, February 06, 2019

MVP Musings

For at least 25 years or so--ever since it supposedly became too "boring" to vote for Michael Jordan to be the NBA regular season MVP--I have often not agreed with or even understood NBA regular season MVP voting. Sometimes, the narrative is that the best player on the best team should win, even if that player is clearly not the best all-around player in the NBA. Sometimes, we are told that a player whose team does not rank in the top four in his conference is automatically disqualified no matter how well he plays. Other times, we are told that the best player should win regardless of team success. Basically, the qualifications seem to shift depending on which narrative is preferred by the majority of the media members who have MVP votes in a given season; they decide who they want to win, and then choose to hype the narrative that best matches their choice.

My take on MVP voting has consistently been simple and direct: the MVP should be the best all-around player in the game, with the only exception being if there is a player who is so dominant in one or two areas that he is more valuable/impactful than even the best all-around player; that caveat is how I would justify awarding multiple MVPs to Shaquille O'Neal, who was never the best all-around player but was for a period of time the most dominant player. Team success can be a consideration or perhaps a tiebreaker in an otherwise close race but the problem is that team success depends on many factors that cannot be controlled by just one player. I agree with Kenny Smith's oft-repeated statement that one has to be wary of a "looter in a riot," a player who is amassing gaudy statistics while playing for a bad team, but it is not often that such a player gets serious MVP consideration anyway.

By my reckoning, over the past 20 years or so Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James should have won more MVPs, while Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose and James Harden should have won fewer MVPs.

Glancing at mainstream media coverage, the consensus seems to be that this season's MVP race is a two man contest between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. I am baffled, but not surprised.

The 40-13 Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the league largely because of the all-around prowess of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 26.7 ppg (eighth in the league), 12.6 rpg (seventh in the league) and a team-high 5.9 apg. A good argument could be made that Antetokounmpo is the best all-around player in the league, which is the primary criterion I consider when evaluating MVP candidates. He is an elite scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. If being the best player on the best team is the MVP standard, how can Antetokounmpo not be considered the clear favorite at this point of the season? 

Last season, the Bucks had the seventh best record in the East. No one expected the Bucks to be this good this season. When the Phoenix Suns exceeded expectations and posted the NBA's best record in 2004-05, Steve Nash won the regular season MVP despite averaging just 15.5 ppg (fourth on his own team) and having no impact whatsoever defensively. Voters were so impressed by what they perceived his impact to be that they gave him the MVP the next season as well, even though the Suns did not post the best regular season record. Nash won the first MVP ahead of Shaquille O'Neal (who he edged out 65-58 in terms of first place votes), Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and a young (but already impactful) LeBron James; Nash won the second MVP ahead of James, Nowitzki, Bryant and Chauncey Billups. In 2005-06, Bryant won the scoring title with the highest average (35.4 ppg) since Michael Jordan scored 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and Bryant carried a team with non-NBA level players Kwame Brown and Smush Parker starting at center and point guard, traditionally the two most important positions. Bryant received 22 first place votes, second only to Nash's 57, but Bryant slipped to fourth overall because many voters did not even rank Bryant in the top five! Ostensibly, this was because Bryant's team did not win enough. Based on that precedent, if the voters are going to be consistent then they can never give the MVP to a player whose team does not finish in the top five in wins, because it is hard to imagine a player ever having a better, more explosive season than Bryant did in 2006 and then not only not winning the MVP but being left entirely off of many ballots.

That brief tour down memory lane takes us directly to James Harden, who is scoring a league-high 36.5 ppg for the Houston Rockets, who currently have the fifth best record in the Western Conference and the 10th best record in a 30 team league. The Rockets started the season slowly, as Harden showed up in less than optimal shape, and although they have played better recently they are 6-4 in their past 10 games even as Harden keeps setting scoring records. Harden remains a subpar defender, and his offensive numbers are indisputably inflated by (1) his team's style of play (every lead guard who plays for Mike D'Antoni--going all the way back to Nash--has inflated numbers relative to what he did/would do in a more conventional system), (2) rules changes that favor perimeter offensive players and (3) the inexplicable but undeniable facts that (a) Harden is permitted to blatantly travel on his patented "step back" move and that (b) Harden is awarded free throws on plays that do not result in free throws for any other offensive player. Harden is officiated so much differently than any other player that opposing players have taken to putting their hands behind their backs when guarding Harden so that referees do not have the slightest excuse to call a foul, but of course such "defense" enables Harden to shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make without difficulty. The context in which Harden is equaling or surpassing marks set by Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is farcical, and bears no relationship to the context in which those records were set, when players were allowed and even encouraged to play defense and when offensive players were required to at least loosely adhere to the rule against traveling.

Harden is without question a talented scorer but the perfect storm of factors listed above has transformed him into a record-setting scorer--but even with him setting records left and right his team is still not a legit contender well past the halfway mark of the season. When Bryant and Jordan averaged 35-plus ppg they were also All-Defensive Team performers (unlike Harden) but even that was not enough to ensure an MVP (Jordan did not win in 1987 but in 1988 he won his first MVP after his second 35 ppg season, when he also earned the Defensive Player of the Year award and his Chicago Bulls won 50 games, third best in the East). Barring a tremendous jump in performance by Houston down the stretch, an MVP award for Harden would fly in the face of the historical precedents established when Jordan and Bryant did not win MVPs as 35 ppg scorers who had games that were more complete and fundamentally sound than Harden's.

Of course, a flawed precedent should not be followed but the point is there is not a rational set of criteria by which Harden would finish first: he is not the best player on the best team, he is not the best all-around player and he is not better than previous top performing players for non-contending teams who did not win MVPs. On what basis does it make sense to place Harden ahead of Anteokounmpo?

If the MVP race were decided by the criteria that I value, the leading candidates would be Anteokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Paul George. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry are each playing at an MVP level but have missed too many games to qualify (barring exceptional circumstances/performance, an MVP should play at least 70 out of 82 regular season games). What about Harden? We have already seen this movie before, albeit with slightly less pyrotechnics, but we know that Harden's gimmicky game does not translate well into the playoffs. Why should that matter when voting for a regular season award? The answer is that this is not just any award but rather the most prestigious individual award and likely the first line on a player's Hall of Fame resume, along with championships won/Finals MVPs won. Harden is a high level "looter in a riot," doing things in the regular season that (1) are not translating into his team having top five status during this season and (2) will almost certainly not translate into postseason success. Does Harden belong on the select list of players who have won an NBA regular season MVP, let alone the even more select list of two-time winners? I don't buy it. I realize this is a minority opinion and I am OK with that. I have been providing minority opinions here on many issues for well over a decade and history has vindicated the vast majority of those opinions.

Antetokounmpo's MVP resume is listed above. It should be added that he has superior size, speed, agility and ball-handling skills. He is a taller version of Scottie Pippen who looks for his own shot a little more than Pippen did.

Westbrook has been the most underrated great player in the league for several years and the gap between his playing level/the perception of his playing level is growing each year. On Tuesday night,  Westbrook had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 16 assists as his Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Orlando Magic, 132-122. That was Westbrook's seventh career 15-15-15 game, tied with Wilt Chamberlain for second on the all-time list behind Oscar Robertson, who accomplished the feat 14 times.

Westbrook has posted seven straight triple doubles, averaging 20.0 ppg, 13.2 rpg and 14.4 apg during that streak as his Oklahoma City Thunder went 6-1 while scoring 124.6 ppg. The Thunder have the third best record in the Western Conference. This is the third time that Westbrook has had a triple double streak of seven games, tying Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson (who each did it just once) for second all-time behind only Wilt Chamberlain, who once had a streak of nine consecutive triple doubles. Westbrook has averaged a triple double in each of the past two seasons and is averaging a triple double this season as well. Prior to Westbrook, Robertson was the only player to average a triple double in a season (1961-62; he also averaged an aggregate triple double during his first five NBA seasons).

The NBA community is acting like averaging a triple double for multiple seasons is no big deal, while simultaneously lavishing praise on Harden for scoring tons of points when no one is permitted to be within a foot of Harden without being whistled for a foul.

Oklahoma City Coach Billy Donovan is baffled that Westbrook's triple doubles feats are largely being ignored: "I think it's crazy that anybody is devaluing that in my opinion. Oscar Robertson did it for a season and it hadn't happened again in 60 years. (Westbrook) is in the process of doing it three consecutive years, so just that is something in and of itself that has not happened in the history of the game. He impacts our team in so many different ways."

Westbrook's teammate Paul George--who defied the expectations of the "experts" and re-signed with the Thunder as opposed to going to the L.A. Lakers to play with LeBron James--declared that Westbrook is the main reason that the Thunder's offense so explosive: "He is definitely the reason for that. He is the reason we have had the highest (offensive) months in Thunder history. I cannot say enough for the credit he deserves for our offense being at the level it is at."

Westbrook is the best all-around player in the NBA--no player possesses his unique combination of scoring, rebounding and passing skills--but I would rank Antetokounmpo ahead of Westbrook now because Antetokounmpo is so much bigger. Size matters in the NBA and even if one argues that Westbrook's triple double skill set may be better than Antekounmpo's skill set, size is the decisive tiebreaker.

There is every reason to believe that both players can and will play the same way during the postseason.

Kevin Durant has won the last two Finals MVPs, outdueling LeBron James, who is the best all-around player in the league when he is healthy. This season, Durant is averaging 27.5 ppg (fifth in the league), 7.1 rpg and a career-high 6.0 apg. He is an unguardable player who can score from anywhere on the court, though he is more effective facing the hoop than playing with his back to the basket, despite being 7 feet tall (or very close to that, regardless of what height he is listed at). Durant has been the most productive player for a Golden State team that has the best record in the Western Conference; his running mate Stephen Curry has a slightly higher scoring average but Curry has played in 11 fewer games and has less of an impact than Durant in every area of the game other than scoring. If Curry had not missed as many games as he has then he would certainly deserve to at least be in the MVP conversation but this year he does not make the cut.

Paul George is the most intriguing player on my 2019 regular season MVP short list. His game and impact are consistently misunderstood by most analysts. First, they widely assumed that he would leave Oklahoma City last summer to join forces with LeBron James in L.A.; the media seems to have difficulty grasping the concept that many players do not want to have anything to do with the drama that inevitably comes with playing alongside James, who thinks nothing of throwing coaches and teammates under the bus. Then, after George stayed with the Thunder and played some of the best ball of his career during the first half of this season, the media--instead of crediting Westbrook for "making his teammates better," which would have been the narrative if George had played this way alongside James--acted as if George is doing well despite Westbrook and that George has supplanted Westbrook as the Thunder's best player. Right now, Westbrook is 1A and George is 1B, an arrangement that is not uncommon on championship contenders. Westbrook is the engine who makes the team go (reread the above George quote about Westbrook) but George's timely scoring/shotmaking nicely complement Westbrook's all-around game, particularly as Westbrook has struggled with his shot at times this season. George is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who is also averaging a career-high 28.0 ppg (fourth in the league). George is not nearly the rebounder or playmaker that Westbrook is, and George is more comfortable having Westbrook run the show (which is still the case, even though George is scoring more points), but George is playing at an elite level and deserves to be in the conversation for top five MVP candidates.

Barring something unforeseen, the media will turn this into a two candidate race between Antetokounmpo and Harden, with George and Durant receiving some "honorable mention" type consideration and Westbrook probably not getting any votes--but that does not make their presumptive MVP voting pattern this year any more right than it was when they, in their infinite wisdom, gave MVPs to various other players when O'Neal, Bryant and James were more deserving (as was Jordan, in a previous era).

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:47 PM

5 comments

5 Comments:

At Thursday, February 07, 2019 12:26:00 AM, Blogger Nick Feldman said...

David-

I agree that Harden has no business winning over Giannis, barring an unlikely Houston leap or Milwaukee slide, and probably not even then.

I think really, assuming things continue as they are, Giannis should be the clear winner.

George/Westbrook and Durant/Curry are not even indisputably the best players on their respective teams, so it is difficult for me to see them as more "valuable" than someone like Giannis who is single-handedly carrying his, all other things being vaguely equal. Of that bunch, only George is comparable to Giannis defensively and only Curry has as much value offensively (this season; both Durant and RWB have had more valuable offensive seasons in the past).

I think you may be slightly overvaluing RWB's triple doubles--which are ultimately as arbitrary a statistical milestone as Harden's scoring achievements, and benefit from their own set of contextual factors-- but he is certainly having his best all-around season once one factors in his improvement on defense. His scoring efficiency is abominable this year (perhaps due to his knee injury) but his play has otherwise been exemplary and deserves the second guard spot on the All-NBA team beside Curry, IMO. He won't get it. The media loves a scorer.

For my money, George, RWB, and Durant are all putting up vaguely MVP-caliber seasons in a year in which Giannis happens to be putting up a better one. If Harden can drag Houston to a Top 4 record he can join them on that list, but his overall impact still won't be as great as Giannis'.

I would also add Jokic to the list of candidates, particularly if Denver can reclaim the top slot in the West. But as things are now, it should be Giannis.

 
At Thursday, February 07, 2019 9:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

We agree that Giannis should win this year's MVP.

I think that it is possible for someone to be the clear choice and yet for a few other players to also be having MVP caliber seasons. So, Westbrook, George and Durant are having MVP caliber seasons even though they are not more deserving of the award than Giannis is. I disqualify Curry based on number of games missed but when he has played he has played at an MVP level as well.

The triple double may be somewhat arbitrary but what Westbrook is accomplishing and the way he is doing it is underrated. A point guard who rebounds like a center, leads the league in assists and scores 20 ppg (despite struggling with his shooting stroke at times) is providing a lot of value in a a lot of different areas.

If I had expanded my list in this article, Jokic probably would have been the next player who I mentioned.

 
At Friday, February 08, 2019 2:47:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

For years now MVP doesn't go to MVPs of the game, so I sadly ignore this now meaningless award. Meaningless except for media love for some players... who don't deserve it. It's nothing more than popularity contest.

Imho MVP should be voted by coaches and players. That's it. To think people outside the game have much idea of what's going on on the courts is ridiculous... sure there are exceptions you mentioned, but these are rather rare.

 
At Saturday, February 09, 2019 3:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 2019 All-Star Game draft spoke pretty loudly about who the best and most valuable players in the game are. LeBron and Giannis were voted as captains while Durant, Curry, Kyrie, Embiid, Leonard and Paul George were all taken ahead of James Harden. This shouldn't be used as an official statement on who is the actual MVP as the players certainly have their biases but I find it hard to believe that the best and/or most valuable player wouldn't be voted in as a captain and then be selected seventh.

 
At Saturday, February 09, 2019 5:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree.

 

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