Around the midpoint of another exciting NBA season, there’s already buzz about candidates for the league’s most valuable player, and why not: for only the second time since 2009 (Derrick Rose, though he probably didn’t deserve it), the winner is likely to be someone not named LeBron James or Kevin Durant. With injury problems for both superstars alongside disappointing records (though the Cavs have turned things around of late), other, younger stars have entered the spotlight in bidding to be recognized with the NBA’s most prestigious individual award. Let’s break down how the top candidates stack up, and take a look at who’s most deserving of the award as of this point in the season.
Thus far this season, the MVP race has really been between three guys, but a few on the outside looking in could have real chances at the award when the season’s run its course.
Murmurs of Paul’s decline have been greatly exaggerated: he is still one of the top five players in the NBA, as an elite point guard on both sides of the ball. He’s fourth in the NBA in many player value metrics, including win shares and real plus-minus, and with a team around him that’s not as great as they’ve been in past seasons, the Clippers are still right in the thick of things in the West, and might actually be one of its best teams (Exhibits A/B).
Don’t count out the King just yet. Since his return from injury, James has looked like his old self, and non-coincidentally, the Cavs have been firing on all cylinders, currently on an NBA-best 12-game win streak. It’s a long season, and enough LeBron playing like LeBron over the remaining months could throw the whole MVP conversation out of whack.
The Grizzlies big man is having the best season of his career, and the outstanding two-way center is the biggest reason Memphis has surprised most of the league with a 37-12 record, good for third in the Association. A former defensive player of the year, Gasol is averaging almost 19 points per game alongside his 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, and if the Grizzlies continue to play at such a high level, some voting heads may turn Gasol’s way.
As evidenced by his becoming-routine 45/6/6 last night (one game after a triple double and three games after another 40-point effort), Westbrook has been one of the best players in the NBA this season, and, largely without Kevin Durant, has carried the Thunder for large stretches on both offense and defense. The league’s most athletic player (maybe ever) can count on some MVP chatter toward the end of the season if he keeps up his elite play.
3. Anthony Davis
Box score stats
Advanced player value stats
EWA: Estimated Wins Added (Hollinger); WAR: Wins Above Replacement (ESPN); nERD: total player efficiency (NumberFire); WS: Win Shares (Basketball Reference); VORP: Value Above Replacement Player (Basketball Reference)
It’s funny to think that Anthony Davis, after breaking out last season, could be a legitimate pick for most improved player this year. He seems like the definite pick for defensive player of the year as well, and when the defensive player of the year is averaging almost 25 points per game on better than 55% shooting, he’s undoubtedly in the conversation for MVP.
Davis will be dominating the league for years to come, but he’s pretty much already been doing just that this season. First in the league in two top metrics at the age of 21 just isn’t fair for 29 teams. While there’s an argument for Davis already as the best player in the NBA, his MVP chances will be hurt by his team’s standing compared to those of the other top candidates.
However, what will hurt his MVP chances might be one of the reasons he should win it. Outside of Davis, the Pelicans don’t exactly have an elite roster, and although there is talent, it doesn’t mesh so nicely. Jrue Holiday (who’s missed a lot of time), Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans are all at their best with the ball in their hands, all three of them start when healthy, and none of them are the best offensive player on the team (the Brow). Even with awkward lineups void of shooters (that sometimes force New Orleans to put defensive revolving door Ryan Anderson at the – *shudders* – small forward), though, Davis’ presence has the Pelicans just a game out of the playoffs in perhaps the best conference of all time. If they continue to play well (9-4 in their past 13 games), New Orleans could be right in the thick of the playoff race come May – and Davis will have an even better shot at the most valuable player award.
2. Stephen Curry
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Advanced player value stats
Stephen Curry’s season has been like something out of a dream. He’s playing at an MVP level for the top team in the West, and maybe the league, and even beat out LeBron in all-star game votes (if you care about that sort of thing).
Curry has finally supplanted Chris Paul as the NBA’s best point guard, and his aggressive style makes him one of the most fun players to watch in NBA history. He’s a nightmare to cover, with the ability to truly put the ball in the basket from anywhere on the court. He can shoot from unlimited range, and he far from needs a spot-up look to do it. He’s got an elite handle, has become one of the league’s best dishers (5th in the league in assists), and – believe it or not – is one of the best finishers, if not the best finisher, at the rim in the league. Check out the top five (qualified) finishers in the league by FG% (courtesy of NBA.com), and you’ll see a likely unexpected name at the top:
Curry’s rise to perhaps the league’s best offensive weapon has been meteoric, but his defense has improved as well – he’s second behind Russell Westbrook in steals per game. However, there are many times when he doesn’t guard the opponent’s elite point guards due to the presence of great defensive two guard Klay Thompson, and that brings me to the one real knock on Curry’s record as an MVP candidate – his elite supporting cast, even outside of his all-star splash brother.
The Warriors have two of the NBA’s top defensive players roaming their frontcourt (Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green are 2nd and 5th, respectively, in defensive real plus-minus), a solid bench lead by starters-on-most-teams Andre Iguodala and David Lee, and a beautifully orchestrated, shooter-spaced offense (even outside of Curry: Thompson and Harrison Barnes are 4th and 6th in the league in 3PT%, respectively, while Green has developed into a viable stretch four, hitting 1.4 treys per game). While Curry is the biggest reason why Golden State has the best record in the West, the rest of the Warriors have also played a big part.
Though Curry is my runner-up for MVP as of now, he’d probably be the favorite if the league voted today due to his team’s record. In my view, though, MVP belongs to the player that’s had the best season, regardless of team record, and that player is…
1. James Harden
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Advanced player value stats
Sorry, Sam Presti.
The player that was once jettisoned from Oklahoma City for a package with Kevin Martin (no longer on the Thunder), Jeremy Lamb (currently averaging 7.4 points per game in 16.2 minutes), and a pick that became Steven Adams (who’s actually contributing well for OKC this year) has developed into one of the best – and this season, maybe the best – players in the league.
Harden has perhaps the worst supporting cast of players among the MVP candidates. Dwight Howard’s only played in 32 of the Rockets’ 49 games this season, and hasn’t been himself when he has played – his 16.4 points, 11 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game this season would be the 3rd-worst, 2nd-worst, and worst numbers of his career, respectively. Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley are both solid 3-and-D role players, but don’t provide much more help offensively, while Donatas Motiejunas and Joey Dorsey (who?) have been starting at the 4 and 5. As a matter of fact, Harden, Ariza, Beverley, and Motiejunas are the only four Rockets with a Value over Replacement Player of 1 or more this season. Compare that with Steph Curry’s Warriors (six players over 1, and one at 0.9) and it’s clear that Harden is making the most of his supporting cast, with the Rockets somehow alone in 3rd place in the uber-competitive West.
Clearly, Harden’s advanced player value stats above show how elite he’s been this season, but what’s made him so good? For one thing, he’s really improved his defense. Harden was ridiculed for his defense so much last season that he and Foot Locker even decided to make some money off it:
However, things have been different this season. He’s averaging a career-high 2 steals per game – that’s good for 3rd in the NBA, and just ahead of perhaps more reputable defenders Tony Allen and John Wall. His defensive rating of 101 (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions, courtesy of Basketball Reference) is also a career high. Perhaps his most striking defensive career high this season is in defensive box plus-minus – another Basketball Reference stat that estimates defensive value over a league-average player. Take a look at his numbers over the course of his career:
Not only is this year the first he’s been above average on defense, but he’s been more of a positive on D than he’s ever been a negative in his career. It’s time to rewrite Harden’s reputation on defense – no wonder Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted this video out a few weeks ago:
James Harden’s really done it all for the Rockets this season. He’s played defense at a high level, created for his teammates (almost 7 assists per game), and scored incredibly efficiently (27 points on 18.3 field goal attempts per game) thanks to his three-pointer and free throw-loving, analytics-approved style.
What makes Harden even more valuable is that he’s playing at perhaps the game’s thinnest position. While the league is chock-full of great point guards, really impactful twos are hard to come by. Consider this: seven of the ten guards playing in this year’s All-Star game are of the point variety, and that doesn’t count notorious snub Damian Lillard.
With contributions in every facet of the game, and an entire 3rd-place Western squad on his back, James Harden is my favorite for this year’s MVP.
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University