NBA MVP Race: The Fantastic Four

This season’s MVP race has been deemed as the closest race in the past 30 years of the league with the proclaimed leader changing hands on a day-to-day basis.

The race was considered a two man race heading into the All-Star break featuring the eye-enlightening Steph Curry and the proficiently-scoring James Harden. However, since the break two new names have entered into the fray. Post Miami sabbatical LeBron has reminded the NBA landscape that he still stakes claim to the title of Best Basketball Player on the Planet, while Russell Westbrook has been encompassed in a terrorize-the-league tour that rivals the scale of any by Michael Jackson or the Rolling Stones.

This MVP race has such lofty standards that a 21-year-old phenome posting a season of legendary efficiency, who regularly makes people question whether his gene pool does indeed link to human beings and not a supernatural entity is discarded as an afterthought. Sorry Anthony Davis.

What makes this MVP race unlike so many other debated races of seasons past is that it isn’t a just duel between two worthy candidates, but four, or possibly even five. The race may finally offer a glimpse into the value system by which we consider MVP candidates.

Should it be the best player in the league as long as his status as the game’s top dog hasn’t been seriously jeopardized while he’s in the midst of another terrific season (LeBron)?

Should it be the best player on the best team, who is having an incredible individual season to boot (Curry)?

Should it be the player who probably has the most value, meaning if he wasn’t on the team it would diminish to rubble (Harden)?

Should it be the player who is playing the best in the league at the current moment, whose individual success is forcing everyone to re-evaluate where he belongs in the league’s hierarchy of players (Westbrook)?

What the voters choose to emphasize and hold in high regard could finally provide a theoretical value system to the MVP race in sports. Actually probably not, but it’s an interesting proposition. Nevertheless all four players have legitimate case for the league’s most prestigious award.

Steph Curry

steph

Curry has eclipsed a new stratosphere with his glitzy highlight-filled play this season transforming from a star to a superstar. Curry has attained a new confidence and developed the type of swagger that generates either hatred or adoration depending on people’s perceptions of the player and their playing style.

That newfound swagger and confidence has led to Curry becoming the savior for the Warriors when Klay Thompson has an off night, Andrew Bogut’s knees are sore and the bench doesn’t deliver. He has reached the level of superstardom where on such nights he can single handedly take over a game with an extra gear possessed in today’s game by only LeBron, KD and Chris Paul.

Curry may possess an edge over the other three candidates due to his likability and the pure joy of watching him play basketball. In terms of pure basketball skill, none of the other candidates are on Curry’s level. His flashy and pristine handles shake defenders into a doozy, his finishing creativity and high arcing floaters leave big men swatting at imaginary flies and his flawless shooting stroke makes him a heat-check magnet capable of burning down the nets from 30 feet out. He’s also the Vine MVP, blowing up the social media landscape with these dazzling displays of basketball wizardry.

curry

Curry accompanies his MVP candidate colleagues at the top of many of the NBA’s analytical stats. Curry’s true shooting percentage plus his effective field goal percentage is 120.9, where the next closest of the other three candidates is Harden at 112.8. His WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is 13.34, just a hair below Harden’s 13.72, and well ahead of Chris Paul’s third place mark of 10.51. However, Curry’s most impressive numbers are related to his impact on his team’s performance, where his RPM (Real Plus Minus) leads the league at 8.55, and his net scoring rating[1] of 16.5 leads the league.

LeBron James

james

How many players could pace themselves in “chill mode” for the first quarter of the season, then take a two week sabbatical resting their body in the warm, soothing air of South Beach, Miami while the team struggles to maintain a 0.500 record, only to return and essentially say “time to go get it” and proceed to enforce his dominance over the rest of the league and push his team to the forefront of the NBA Finals discussion? Okay that was a long question, but the answer is short and simple—LeBron James.

LeBron’s true value as an MVP candidate may be because of what he’s done off the court this season for the Cavs. Essentially he has played the role of coach or at least team psychologist and GM in addition to MVP-level performer as a player. LeBron received a lot of criticism from fans and media members for his lack of effort on the court as well as his passive aggressive leadership style when his main channel of teammate communication came via press conferences and social media accounts.

However, it’s difficult to argue with the results at this point with Cavs surging toward the two seed in the East. This is perhaps the best pitch for LeBron as MVP. None of the trio of Westbrook, Harden and Curry have had the burden of managing so many aspects of their respective teams.

bron

As far as MVP, LeBron’s game-to-game greatness is taken for granted at this point. His passing skills and repeated contact-filled drives culminating in powerful finishes at the rim no longer wow us as they once did. His seasonal stat line suggests a down season by his standards, but an MVP-type one for everyone else. LeBron’s presence on the court, however, has been absolutely vital to his team’s success, where his net rating of 9.8 is higher than any player that doesn’t play for the Warriors, Hawks or Clippers. In fact the 6.5 differential between LeBron’s individual rating of 9.8 and the Cavs’ overall team net rating of 3.3, is the greatest player-team net rating differential of anyone ranked in the top 50 except for Michael-Kidd Gilchrist and Nene[2].

James Harden

james harden

Harden has been an offensive juggernaut this season as the central figure of Houston’s infamous Moreyball style of play, prizing the three ball and a plethora of free throws. Harden’s visual appeal in terms of playing style vanishes with his first desperate, flailing attempt to sell a call on one of his many drives to the rim, but perhaps no team is more dependent on one individual player than the Rockets are on Harden. He basically is the team’s offense, especially when considering the multiple lengthy injury absences of Dwight Howard.

Houston constantly uses Harden as its offensive creator either in isolation or pick and rolls where he has quickly ascended to perhaps the league’s most effective shot creator. Harden averages 0.97 points per possession as a pick and roll ball handler and 1.07 points per possession in isolation situations. His combined 2.04 points per possession in the pick and roll and isolation is the best mark in the NBA. However, those shots created aren’t just his own shots.

Harden’s court vision and passing skills have improved, and he is now finding teammates for good looks on a consistent basis. In fact, Hardens assist percentage of 34.6 trails only LeBron among non-point guards. Harden’s ability to create shots for himself and others essentially creates 75.7 percent of Houston’s offense, a mark that trails only LeBron and Westbrook after adding together the percentage of team’s points and percentage of team’s assists a player has accounted for.

harden

Harden’s most well-known and likely most-annoying skill is his ability to draw contact and get to the free throw line where his trips are more frequent than Taylor Swift songs about her exes. Harden has made Houston’s most unsuccessful offensive possessions a head-bucking, arms-flailing sell for a foul call that often creates two points via the free throw line. He has the highest free throw rate in the league and 30.9 percent of Harden’s scoring output comes at the free throw line, the highest mark of any player averaging 20+ minutes per game. Harden’s statistical value is truly revealed in analytics (surprise) where he leads the league in WAR, Value Added and Estimated Wins Added, while ranking second behind Curry in RPM.

Russell Westbrook

russ

Westbrook has been absolutely incredible, piling up historical stat lines, performing feats of athleticism previously unknown to mankind and exulting in his alpha-dog mentality derived from his psycho-competitive nature. He’s been a 100 MPH hyperactive torpedo of relentless, competitive, destructive, force seeking to assert his dominance on every possession.

Westbrook has fully embraced his role as the team’s unquestioned go-to-guy in the absence of Kevin Durant, taking delight in orchestrating every possession on his own terms. Without Durant, Westbrook has been unleashed as an unrelenting killer who shoots 30 plus times per game, performs daily assaults on the rim and destroys opponents with an unmatched attacking intensity.

It’s not as if Westbrook has been selfish or hunting statistics during Durant’s absence, he is simply the only real offensive weapon OKC has. Nevertheless, Westbrook is playing with a level of freedom he has never experienced before and he’s taken advantage of it, fueled by a pissed off “F-you” mission in response to his critics as he attempts to vault OKC into the playoffs.

As explosive, fiery and determined Westbrook has been during this stretch without Durant, the most underappreciated strength of his game has been his ungodly conditioning level. He never stops attacking, performing aerial theatrics to snare a rebound then racing coast-to-coast, finishing things off with a rim detonation, a possible and-one and a full body flex to reaffirm his supremacy. Perhaps Westbrook’s unwavering energy has been ignored by fans and the media because the only reasonable explanation is a supernatural power that the rest of the human race has yet to discover.

westvrook

Westbrook has blown up the stat sheet for the past month and a week, with five triple doubles (four in a row), nine games of 30+ points, six games of 40+ points[3] and has averaged a triple-double in his last 10 games. Westbrook’s recent statistical run has been a marvel, and he’s now within shouting distance of Davis’ PER mark, sitting at 30.07. Westbrook’s most mind-blowing stat may be that he has accounted for 90.6[4] percent of OKC’s offense when combining his assist percentage (54.3) and his scoring percentage (36.3).

Who Gets the MVP?

Steph Curry!

mvp

At least for now.

  1. Harden
  2. Westbrook
  3. James

[1] Net Rating= number of team points scored per 100 possessions – team points allowed per 100 possessions while that player is on the floor. In other words, the Warriors outscore opponents by 16.5 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor.

[2] I couldn’t believe it either. Nene and MKG??? Yeah, you can look it up and calculate it or just take my word for it.

[3] As of March 7. If you are reading this a few days later, you can probably chalk up another one or two 40 point games.

[4] I double checked this number at least 567 times and double checked my math at least 1,109 times. I still don’t believe it.

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