Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) hugs Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) after the Rockets defeated the City Thunder at Toyota Center. Houston Rockets won 118 to 116 .Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports
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As the 2016-17 NBA season enters its home stretch, here’s a look at the MVP case for the league’s four leading candidates: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James.
More than any other professional sports league, the NBA is driven by star power. From social media to advertisements to individual branding to highlights from each franchise’s best players, NBA superstars are as accessible, scrutinized and beloved by their fans as any other sports figures.
It makes sense, then, that the Most Valuable Player Award of that kind of league is such an important distinction. Even in straight forward seasons it’s a source of constant debate, but in this 2016-17 campaign, it may be more contentious than ever.
Simply put, this is one of the most loaded MVP races in NBA history, with as many as four candidates deserving votes at the end of the season (and seven if you include our secondary candidates, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Durant and John Wall).
There’s LeBron James, the undisputed best player on the planet who just led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA title last June. There’s Kawhi Leonard, the most fearsome two-way player in the league right now and the driving force behind a San Antonio Spurs team threatening to secure the No. 1 seed in its first season without Tim Duncan.
There’s James Harden, the 2014-15 MVP runner-up who has spearheaded a surprisingly successful Houston Rockets team under Mike D’Antoni‘s enjoyable direction. And finally, there’s Russell Westbrook, who’s carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder with an incomprehensible triple-double average.
Kawhi has a great case. LeBron has a great case. Westbrook has a great case. Harden has a great case.
The MVP Award takes more into account than “Who is the best player?” or “Who would win one-on-one?” This honor includes a player’s individual numbers, their advanced statistics, how successful their team is, how much worse their team would be without them, and whose season the 2016-17 campaign really belongs to (i.e. narrative).
Bearing all those factors in mind, it’s time to take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate’s MVP case, and rank them from deserving to most deserving. (Calling anyone “least deserving” doesn’t feel right, since even our fourth ranked candidate is deserving. But I digress.)
Honorable Mentions: Isaiah Thomas (not quite good enough numbers or team success), Kevin Durant (missing too many games, too much talent around him) and John Wall (not quite good enough numbers, slow start to the season)
Mar 3, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) waits for the game to resume in the fourth quarter of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. The Cavaliers won 135-130. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
This is not LeBron James’ best statistical season, nor is it the most impressive statistical season of the bunch. But to ignore what the King is doing at 32 years old would be a travesty.
Not only are the Cleveland Cavaliers sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings and poised for LeBron’s seventh straight NBA Finals appearance, but he’s averaging a 26-9-8 stat line while shooting 54 percent from the field and just under 40 percent from long range.
We should also probably point out that he’s posting career-highs in rebounds and assists, functioning as his team’s primary playmaker and is second in the league in minutes per game…all in his 14th NBA season.
However, that’s probably where LeBron’s MVP case ends. While it’s unfair to say he’s undeserving just because this isn’t the best season of his career, it’s also true that voter fatigue is a real thing.
For the voters to feel he has a compelling case, especially in a season with so many deserving candidates, he’d need to do something remarkable by his standards.
Simply put, having the fourth best record in the NBA won’t quite get the job done, even if he has 10 triple-doubles on the season and will probably lead the Cavs to their third straight Finals appearance.
LeBron’s numbers compared to his other MVP years aren’t relevant in THIS MVP debate. It’s his numbers/impact vs other candidates. Just sayin
He’s still elite by almost every statistical measure, ranking fourth in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), fifth in assists per game, fifth in Box Plus-Minus (BPM), seventh in total win shares, eighth in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), ninth in scoring, 11th in field goal percentage…you get the idea.
After ending Cleveland’s 52-year title drought and bringing the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 Finals deficit against a 73-win Warriors team, no one should question that when the playoffs roll around, LeBron James is the best player in the NBA.
But that may actually hurt his case, since no matter what happens from here on out in his career, his legacy was cemented forever last June.
Most Valuable Player is a regular season award, and even with Kevin Love and J.R. Smith out and LeBron doing all the heavy lifting, it somehow feels like the Cavs are coasting. His defense isn’t what it once was for the NBA’s 22nd-ranked defense, which makes sense as the King prepares for another gauntlet of Herculean tasks in the playoffs.
Because of that, voter fatigue, no compelling narrative and his team’s success paling in comparison to two of the other players on this list, there are more deserving candidates this year.
Mar 3, 2017; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates after a basket by teammate guard Patty Mills (not pictured) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Spurs defeated the Pelicans 101-98 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The best two-way player in the NBA right now is Kawhi Leonard, and frankly, it’s not particularly close. The “system player” labels are so off-base now it’s almost comical, especially since the Claw also doubles as one of the NBA’s elite individual scorers.
For years the San Antonio Spurs have thrived on their balance and celestial ball movement. Even when they had Tim Duncan, the plan was hardly ever to give the ball to one guy and let him go to work. And yet that’s what their crunch-time offense has become at times, and more often than not, Leonard delivers with robotic precision and poise.
Though Kawhi may not win his third Defensive Player of the Year Award this season, he still ranks sixth in steals per game, sixth in defensive win shares and seventh in defensive rating.
His rebounding and assist numbers are nowhere near as strong as our other MVP candidates, but Kawhi also ranks eighth in the league in scoring (ahead of LeBron), first in win shares per 48 minutes, second in PER, second in total win shares, fifth in VORP and sixth in BPM.
Those are elite measures for any player, let alone one who’s the catalyst behind San Antonio’s 52-15 record, which is second-best in the NBA and only one game behind the Golden State Warriors for the No. 1 overall seed.
Head-to-head matchups between MVP candidates are slightly overblown, since one or two regular season meetings shouldn’t have a massive bearing on an award meant to recognize the full 82-game slate. But Kawhi has pretty much owned his competition, sporting impressive numbers and a stellar record against contenders and other MVP candidates.
People don’t think of Kawhi Leonard as the Michael Jordan, LeBron James, ultra-competitive type, but he’s averaged 29.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game against the Warriors, Cavaliers, Rockets, Celtics and Thunder, sporting an 8-2 record in the process.
Early in the season, it was hard not to notice how the Spurs were so much better on the defensive end with Kawhi out, and it’s worth mentioning that their defense is still a whopping 8.5 points per 100 possessions stingier with him on the bench, per NBA.com.
However, that might actually be because Kawhi is SO good defensively that teams have started drawing his man out of the play and letting the offense operate 4-on-4 against San Antonio’s other aging defenders, as CBS Sports’ Matt Moore wrote about earlier this season.
To suggest Kawhi Leonard is anything less than a terrifying two-way player would be foolish, and though his on-court/off-court defensive numbers may hurt his DPOY case, they don’t affect his MVP case when he’s busy blocking James Harden or stealing Stephen Curry‘s lunch money.
Kawhi is what happens when a “system player” is given the fullest opportunity to thrive within a championship culture and transcends all preconceived notions of what his ceiling was. He has become something far greater than anyone expected, and even if he doesn’t win it this season, an MVP Award feels like an inevitability in his career.
For Leonard to win this year, his Spurs may have to snag the No. 1 seed in the West. His per game averages don’t quite compare to the raw numbers Harden and Westbrook are putting up, but team success factor and the defensive end of the floor certainly bolster his case.
Feb 26, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) is fouled by New Orleans Pelicans forward DeMarcus Cousins (0) on a dunk during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
From a purely statistical standpoint, Russell Westbrook starts and ends the conversation with a historic feat matched by only one person in NBA history.
No matter where his team winds up in the standings, averaging a triple-double for an entire season is a statistical marvel. It’s pretty damn hard to top that kind of achievement, and in almost any other season, this wouldn’t even be a debate.
And yet, somehow, it may not be enough for Westbrook to win MVP in his first season without Kevin Durant. While there wouldn’t be a juicier narrative in the league than that kind of accomplishment — can you imagine the awkward KD responses to questions about Russ winning MVP? — there are some holes in his candidacy.
For starters, his team’s record. The Oklahoma City Thunder are on pace to win roughly 46 games, which would be an accomplishment in and of itself in their first season without KD. The franchise immediately went from reeling from that free agency departure to housing one of the league’s nightly wonders — about as good as one could hope for after losing a top-three player for nothing.
However, if the season ended today, the Thunder would be sixth in the Western Conference. The last player to win MVP without having a team record in his respective conference’s top-three was Moses Malone back in 1982, when the Houston Rockets snuck into the playoffs as the sixth seed.
Important part of the Westbrook MVP-potential conversation: Last MVP to come from a team that didn’t win at 50-win pace was ’82 Moses Malone
This wouldn’t be the first time Westbrook matched a historic feat from decades ago, as his triple-double average clearly indicates, but the voting is out of his control. As awe-inspiring as a triple-double average is, the team success factor would put him dead-last among LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.
Westbrook has been far better in crunch-time this season than he’s given credit for, but some of his other notable flaws are still as present as ever. His shooting efficiency (41.9 percent from the field, 33.3 percent from deep) is Sacramento Kings Isaiah Thomas-esque, he ranks second in turnovers and there’s something to be said about how often he shoots.
Russ leads the league in field goals made and attempted, but we should note the Thunder are only 15-17 when he shoots 24 times or more, compared to 16-5 when he hits the sweet spot of 20-23 field goal attempts. Case in point, three of the last five times he’s scored 40 or more points, OKC lost — including his career-high 58-point explosion last week.
Had the Thunder secured a top-three spot in the West, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. And honestly, the fact that this iseven a discussion is a bit saddening.
Can we really give the MVP to someone else in the only other season in NBA history where a mere man transcended his mortal bonds and became a triple-double demigod?
There’s still a chance for Russ and company to climb as high as fourth in the standings, as the Thunder trails the Utah Jazz by 4.5 games, but that’s unlikely. Even so, ruling out Westbrook’s MVP case just because his team isn’t elite would be an oversight. They’re still a good playoff team, after all.
It’s not just that Westbrook is about to become the second player to ever average a triple-double, either. Can we appreciate that a 6’3″ point guard is averaging 10.6 rebounds per game, which ranks 12th among ALL players in the league? Or that after cries about how he never passed the ball enough, his 10.3 assists per game ranks third in the NBA?
Or how about the simple fact that he’s leading the league in scoring at 31.8 points per game? Maybe leading the league in PER, assist percentage, usage percentage, BPM and VORP works too? What about his 33 triple-doubles that nearly double the next closest player (James Harden at 17)? Or how about how the Thunder would be a lottery team without him?
By the strictest definition of the term “Most Valuable Player,” the Rockets, Spurs and Cavaliers might all have better teams without their best player compared to OKC without Russ. What he is doing — 33 triple-doubles in 67 games to put this team on course for 46 wins — is remarkable. In terms of pure statistical firepower, Westbrook’s 2016-17 season packs as much punch as one of his atomic tomahawks.
Mar 12, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) reacts after a play during the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
If the season ended today, it’d be hard to vote for anyone over James Harden. While Russell Westbrook’s statistical marvel is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement and Kawhi Leonard has both team success and stellar two-way play on his side, Harden has been the NBA’s MVP with a month left in the season.
In fact, if it weren’t for Russ’ insane triple-double feat, we’d probably be paying much more attention to the fact that the Beard has 17 triple-doubles of his own this season — seven more than that of the next closest player, LeBron James.
Everyone talks about Russ’ path to emulating Oscar Robertson, but it’s worth mentioning that the only player in NBA history to match the 28.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.0 rebounds per game that Harden is currently putting up was also the Big O.
In terms of MVP statement games, people will quickly point out how Kawhi doused the Rockets on both ends of the floor, and they’d be right to do so.
But don’t forget the Beard’s unforgettable 51-point, 13-assist, 13-rebound triple-double against the Philadelphia 76ers, or his 38-11-10 triple-double in a statement win against LeBron’s Cavaliers:
And whatever you do, don’t let his historic 53-17-16 triple-double on New Year’s Eve slip your mind.
Even against the New York Knicks, that kind of stat line is unprecedented.
In addition to leading the league in assists and total win shares, Harden ranks second in minutes, second in BPM, second in VORP, second in assist percentage, third in points per game, fourth in usage percentage, fourth in PER and fourth in win shares per 48 minutes.
He’s not without flaws, as he’s leading the league in turnovers, ranks fourth in missed field goals and will always be something of a liability on the defensive end. But he’s gone back to the 2014-15 James Harden — who was also a legitimate MVP candidate — in that his defense has improved from “abhorrent to the point of going viral” to just “passably bad.”
Considering all he does for that Houston Rockets team, which boasts the NBA’s third-best record, Mike D’Antoni will take a couple of defensive lapses now and then. It’s how this team was constructed, and a middling defense has often been good enough in the wake of an offensive powerhouse.
The Rockets only rank 12th in defensive rating, but their second-ranked offense — centered around the NBA’s most three-point attempts and makes per game — more than makes up for it.
That offensive firepower starts and ends with Harden’s full-time point guard duties as the NBA’s best playmaker, and since the Rockets only rank 15th in three-point efficiency, it’s unfair to automatically assume the Beard has “more help.” Without him, all the open looks disappear and that three-point onslaught gets significantly weaker.
Harden is not only the association’s leading assist man, displaying a higher basketball IQ and ability to bend defenses than ever before, but according to NBA.com, he also leads the league in isolation scoring at 6.5 points per game. Simply put, there has not been an individual playmaker better than James Harden this season.
He still gets to the line more than anyone, leading the NBA in free throws made and attempted. But his ability to create in one-on-one situations, penetrate to find open shooters and make the right pass by reading the weakside defensive rotations is on par with the best facilitators in the game like John Wall and LeBron James.
The fact that Harden has not missed a single game makes him one of the league’s iron men. The fact that a fair amount of people thought Houston would struggle to even make the playoffs matters as well.
From the pure power of his raw statistics to being the driving force behind an offensive powerhouse to his team overachieving, Harden has a unique blend of jaw-dropping numbers, team success and narrative on his side. That could change over the next four weeks, but as of right now, James Harden should be the frontrunner for the 2016-17 MVP Award.