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Unanimous No Longer: The Race for MVP

This season is proving to be one of the best in recent memory. Not since Oscar Robertson in the 1961-1962 season has any player averaged a triple-double in a season, and this year we have two potential candidates in James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

The Western Conference no longer dominates the league like it has for the past few years, and a balance has settled between both conferences this season. In fact, of the top 15 teams in the league, eight reside in the Eastern Conference, a trend that has been supported by the rise of players like Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, and Kyle Lowry.

Those three players have been the key cornerstones of their franchises, elevating their level of play to new heights and carrying their teams in the process. Their value is almost priceless, and yet, they find themselves on the outside looking in as discussions for the Most Valuable Player begin to take shape.

This is no fault of their own, rather, there are simply too many candidates who cannot be overlooked. It speaks to the talent we have in this era of basketball, as the MVP race has not been this close in a very long time, and never between so many candidates. I find myself at mid-season with five players who could all individually make a case for the award.

NBA: Stephen Curry MVP Press Conference

KELLEY L. COX/USA TODAY SPORTS

In no particular order, here is my five-man shortlist for the MVP award: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.

Harden and Westbrook certainly must be up for discussion, based solely on the individual numbers they have put up this season. LeBron is, well…LeBron, and he is always in contention for the MVP each season. What he is doing for Cleveland this season has been overshadowed by what the two men aforementioned have accomplished, however it should not be overlooked.

The same can be said for Durant, who joined a team including the two-time and reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry (among others), yet is statistically having one of his best seasons as a pro while seamlessly transitioning to playing at power forward. Kawhi has taken over as the superstar in San Antonio, and has quietly led the Spurs to the 2nd best record in the NBA. With the void left by the departure of Tim Duncan, Kawhi has risen to the occasion and is amidst the best season of his young career.

Player Comparison
Player MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3P% 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
Kevin Durant 34.1 9.1 17.0 .539 1.9 .374 .610 .595 5.6 6.3 .876 8.3 4.9 1.1 1.7 2.3 25.8
James Harden 36.6 8.3 18.9 .440 3.2 .353 .521 .525 9.4 11.0 .852 8.3 11.3 1.4 0.5 5.8 29.2
LeBron James 37.5 9.7 18.0 .539 1.8 .389 .589 .587 4.8 6.9 .689 7.7 8.8 1.4 0.6 4.3 25.9
Kawhi Leonard 33.5 8.6 17.6 .488 2.0 .396 .525 .545 6.6 7.4 .899 5.9 3.3 1.8 0.7 2.1 25.9
Russell Westbrook 34.6 10.1 23.9 .422 2.2 .338 .453 .468 8.7 10.5 .828 10.5 10.1 1.6 0.4 5.5 31.1

 

The definition of most valuable player varies, depending on whom you ask. While most may interpret it as the best player of that given season, my perception of the award revolves around two main factors: team success, and how the individual contributes to it. When talking about a player’s true value, ultimately, it should relate to how the value translates to success.

Take DeMarcus Cousins for example. He is an immensely talented player, well on his way to becoming the best center in the league (if he isn’t already). But I would not consider him in the breath of this conversation, simply because his individual value does not translate to team success. Any coach will preach that you are only as good as your team, and in the discussion of most valuable player, team success is paramount.

What Harden and Westbrook have accomplished individually this season is truly incredible, and it is the main reasons why both of their teams are sitting comfortably in the Western Conference standings. No one could have envisioned the Rockets’ offense becoming as unstoppable as it now, and the Thunder would not even be in playoff contention if not for the herculean effort from their star point guard.

The Spurs have not lost a step since losing Tim Duncan to retirement. With the introduction of seven players to the roster in the off-season, Kawhi leads a squad of aging veterans, free agent cast-offs, and a regressing LaMarcus Aldridge.

In the biggest move of the off-season, Durant left the Thunder to join the superstar-laden Warriors in hopes of finally winning an elusive championship. Justifiably, his usage rate has dropped to the lowest of his career, yet his production has not suffered in the slightest. He’s shooting the ball with better efficiency than at other point in his career, as he and his fellow superstars have led the Warriors to the best record in the NBA.

While the four play an integral part for their respective teams, they all pale in comparison to Lebron’s influence on the Cavaliers’ success. No team relies more heavily on a single player than the Cavs do on LeBron.

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JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

Here’s some perspective: when LeBron is on the court 58.6% of the team’s points come off an assist, when he is off the court that number drops to 49.2% (a difference of 9.4%). Harden and Westbrook do not even come close in that regard, as their on-off court AST% differentials are a meagre +0.2% and +0.5%, while Kawhi and Durant both net a negative differential.

What that difference translates to is a drop from a 117.7 ORTG with LeBron on the court, to a 106.0 ORTG off the court. It is reflected in the eFG%, which falls from 55.7%, to 50.0% on and off the court respectively.

Delving further into the on-off court statistics (see: LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Kawhi, Durant), notice that LeBron’s impact is not solely offensively, but defensively as well. Taking the opposition’s statistics into account, the difference when LeBron is on the court as opposed to off is just staggering. None of the other candidates impact their teams nearly to the same extent or across as many categories as LeBron, not even Westbrook, who is a nightly triple-double threat.

LeBron isn’t putting up nearly the same numbers as Westbrook or Harden, but he is having an impressive season in his own regard. He has been extremely efficient shooting the ball this season; his 58.7 eFG% and .616 TS% ranks 9th and 15th in the league, respectively. His three-point shooting has improved this season to 38.9%, second only to Kawhi amongst my shortlist, and the career high 8.8 assists further indicates how important he is to the proficiency of the Cavs’ offence.

Defensively, LeBron is holding the opposition under 42.6% while defending an average of 11 shots per game. That percentage is better than Kawhi’s, who is the reigning defensive player of the year, two years running. While he may not be the same calibre defender, LeBron showcases his keen defensive insight through the understanding of the opposing team’s offensive sets, and translating his observations by vocally engaging the rest of his teammates. His intelligence and attention to detail simply set him apart from other players in the league, echoed by coaches and players alike.

The growing debate amongst the NBA circle is whether the MVP award deserves to go to the most valuable player to the league, or the most valuable player to the team. This has largely been the debate over Steph Curry’s consecutive MVP awards. When you compare the on-off court statistics over those two seasons (14/15 and 15/16), the Warriors were better with him on the court, than the Cavs were with LeBron on (14/15 and 15/16). For that, Curry deserved to win in those seasons even though LeBron was arguably the best player in the league during that time.

However, this year LeBron is both the most valuable to his team, and to the league. Cleveland’s reliance on LeBron to facilitate and create plays for his teammates is most prominent this season than in any of the previous two. The team’s AST% differential in the 14/15 and 15/16 seasons were -1.4% and +1.5% respectively, compared to +9.4% this season (as I mentioned earlier).

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SAM SHARPE/USA TODAY SPORTS

This is so astounding because it doesn’t reflect the type of roster Cleveland possesses. Kyrie Irving continues to mature into an NBA superstar, and Kevin Love has grown into his role on the team, becoming a consistent spot-up threat like Chris Bosh during Miami’s Big Three era. The rotation is filled with capable role players, and the addition of Kyle Korver has only bolstered the Cavs for another long playoff run. Yet, they have never depended on LeBron as much as they have right now.

LeBron deserves to win the MVP this season, but coming to that decision was not without struggle. Days were spent debating and building a case for Harden, Westbrook, and to a lesser extent, Kawhi and Durant. But when considering the dominance LeBron still exudes at the age of 32 and the significance he has towards his team’s success, surely, he must be the MVP. While it may seem I am overlooking Westbrook’s historic season, it would be an even greater oversight to not recognize what LeBron has, and continues to do this season.

With Love set to miss the remainder of the regular season, I expect LeBron to raise his level of play similar to the calibre of his 2015 Finals performance. In the two games without Love, LeBron has averaged 28 points, 6.5 rebounds and 9 assists, shooting 71% from the field and 75% from three. If that is any indication of what we should expect from the King, he is well on his way towards his fifth NBA MVP.

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