The NBA MVP Race

Posted: 03/02/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

We’re entering the home stretch of the NBA regular season, which means it’s time for us to start talking about MVP candidates. This year, a theme in the NBA has been “wide-open.” As many as a dozen teams have a chance of winning it all, with no clear favorite, so the wide-open theme works on a macro level. It also follows for the MVP race. If we can take anything from Sunday’s great game between Houston and Cleveland (besides the fact that both of those teams are pretty darn good), it’s that the MVP race is going to be intense and come down to the wire. For most of the season, it’s been a two-horse race between James Harden and Stephen Curry, but over the last few weeks the field of players who have a legitimate shot of winning the MVP has doubled. Depending on how you think, any of Harden, Curry, LeBron James, or Russell Westbrook could be a legitimate choice for MVP. If I had to handicap the race right now, I’d call Curry the favorite, followed by Harden, LeBron, and Westbrook. Now a look at each candidate:

Stephen Curry is probably the MVP candidate for the old-time voters. He’s the best player on the best team in the NBA (with apologies to Atlanta) and is averaging 24 points with 4.8 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. He also fits the profile of a first-time MVP winner; he’s been really good for a few years now, so everyone knows who he is, but he’s really exploded onto the scene this year thanks to his team’s rapid improvement. And Curry looks pretty good from a stats standpoint, to. He’s shooting at a near 50-40-90 clip (48.5-41-90.8) and has the best RPM in basketball to go along with the third best PER. He’s added 15.8 wins, third in the NBA behind Harden and the now-injured Anthony Davis. It seems like a pretty good resume, and it is. But Curry isn’t an MVP shoo-in for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the fact that coach Steve Kerr has (smartly) managed Curry’s minutes. He’s averaging just 33.2 minutes per game, 40th in the NBA and well behind Harden (36.6) and James (36.4). That might not seem like a lot, but a 3.4 minute difference is nearly six games over an entire season. The second reason is the fact that Curry has a lot more help than his compatriots. Klay Thompson definitely helps him a lot on the court, but he might hurt him in the voting. Ok, I’m nitpicking, but that’s something I have to do given the other three candidates. Curry is the favorite now, but he doesn’t have much margin for error.

James Harden is a very strong MVP candidate, too. He has the aforementioned minutes advantage over Curry as well as the points per game advantage (he’s averaging 27.1). Up until an upcoming one game suspension for kicking LeBron James yesterday, Harden has also played every Rockets game this season, and he often has to carry the team. There have been games this year in which Harden has scored a good 30-40% of Houston’s points. A loss to Portland, when Harden scored 45 of Houston’s 98 points, come to mind. The Rockets are a surprising 41-18 despite the fact that they’ve been missing star center Dwight Howard for about half the season. Do you think the Warriors would be playing as well if Steph Curry were missing Klay Thompson? Besides Harden and Howard, the Rockets’ leading scorer is Trevor Ariza… at 12.6 points. James Harden has been the heart and engine of one of the five best teams in basketball this year. He’s also the darling of the advanced stats crowd. He scores his points on just 18 shots per game because he hits a ton of threes and gets to the line. He also has assisted on more made threes than any other NBA player and a huge percentage of his seven assists per game come on threes. So Harden scores more than Curry, he carries a bigger load for his team, and he averages almost as many assists despite playing shooting guard. Harden’s detractors point to his lackluster defensive effort, but even his defense has improved markedly this season. His defensive RPM is up from -2.84 to .48, and he’s averaging nearly a block and two steals per game. Harden would be my pick because I don’t care much about each team’s record and because I really appreciate how much he has done for his team.

LeBron’s case is simple: when he wants to be, he’s still the most dominant player in the NBA. He lost his head-to-head battle with Harden because he shot 3-11 from the free throw line (missing two that would have sent the game to double overtime or won it), but only a few days prior to the loss he dominated Curry’s Warriors, scoring 42 points and adding 11 rebounds in a double-digit win. Let’s not forget that LeBron ended up with 37, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals, and three blocks against Houston, either. And how about this: the Cavs are 35-15 when LeBron plays and 2-9 when he doesn’t. If that doesn’t show his value, I don’t know what does. LeBron is also third in the NBA in scoring, behind just Harden and Westbrook. His shooting numbers are a lot worse than what we’ve come to expect, but he’s still putting up great stats. His numbers are a step behind Harden’s, Curry’s, and Westbrook’s, and he also missed 11 games, so he’ll need some more huge performances down the stretch, but LeBron can turn it up to a level nobody else can.

A few weeks ago, Russell Westbrook wouldn’t have been an MVP consideration. Now, even after having surgery on his face (an injury that won’t keep him out for long), he definitely is. Let’s start off with the negatives. Westbrook probably won’t win the MVP for a few reasons. Firstly, he’s played just 45 games this season. Secondly, he plays for an eight seed. When’s the last time someone playing for an eight seed has won the MVP? But with the way Westbrook has been playing, it might not matter. In February, he averaged (gulp): 31.2 points, 9.1 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 46% shooting, 91% on 10.5 free throw attempts per game. I don’t know if there’s ever been a better one-month stretch in the NBA. If Westbrook keeps playing like that over the season’s final few months, it won’t matter how many games he missed. The way he’s played without Kevin Durant has made Westbrook an MVP candidate.

In the end, I would vote for Harden, followed by Westbrook, Curry, and James. I think if the votes were made today, Curry would be named MVP, followed by Harden, James, and Westbrook. Watching these four stars over the final few months will be a lot of fun. Let’s hope Westbrook can get and stay healthy, because he makes the NBA a lot more interesting to watch.

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