This season has given us one of the most fascinating MVP races in years. After last year’s runaway Stephen Curry campaign, this season is complicated, with multiple players putting in a compelling case. There have been so many stand-out performances, in fact, that two-time MVP Steph Curry is barely in the discussion. Despite leading the team to the best record in the league, nobody is seriously talking about him. He’ll land at fifth on a few ballots, but that’s about it.
While galling to Warrior fans, it is understandable. Curry is the Warriors’ best player, but Kevin Durant is an MVP in his own right, and with another sharpshooter in Klay Thompson and two elite defensive players in Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, it’s easy to imagine that the Warriors would be a very good team without Curry. Add in a year that, while excellent, paled next to last year’s (which was the best offensive season of all time) and it’s hard to imagine most voters wanting to reward him.
So instead we’re left with four candidates. Let’s take them one at a time.
Russell Westbrook has emerged as the de facto leader in the MVP race, although we won’t find out who wins until June. That’s a real shame as it would be loads of fun to see what happened to the Thunder-Rocket first round series if Westbrook or James Harden won the award and it was given out at halftime of game two or three.
Westbrook’s case is built on traditional counting stats. Do you like points, assists, and rebounds? You’ll love Westbrook. Do you not care about missed shots? You’ll love Westbrook.
Westbrook is fun to watch. He plays the game like a wrecking ball taking care of a 40-year-old casino. He’s fearless, bitter, and relentless. The argument for him comes down to triple doubles and the insane load he’s carrying.
But triple doubles are a weird stat. As has been pointed out many times, getting, say, 18 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds, isn’t necessarily better than getting 25 points, 8 assists, and 8 rebounds. But even Westbrook’s triple doubles are suspect, as detailed here. He abandons defense to hunt uncontested rebounds, and his team schemes to give him rebounds on missed free throws. Take away the freebies, and he doesn’t have a triple double.
Westbrook did, however, do an insane amount, and it must be admitted that the Thunder have been awful when he’s not playing. However, some of this is schematic. You can’t have an “everybody stand around and watch Westbrook,” offense when he’s on the floor and run a system when he’s off the floor. The Thunder have other good players - Steven Adams is one of the better young centers in the league, Enes Kanter is a great low-post player, Victor Oladipo is a solid contributor.
In fact, it’s worth pointing out that almost all of these players are viewed as less valuable now than they were a year ago. A year ago, they were seen as a promising team that was one role-player away. Now, sure, Westbrook kept them afloat with the departure of Durant, but all of a sudden all those role players are being perceived as trash. What happened?
Russell Westbrook. That’s what happened.
People have been so desperate to dismiss efficiency arguments against him that they’ve made up some new stats. (Have you seen this “adjusted TS%” stuff going around? I’m not going to get into it because that would be a separate 800 words post, but that’s one of the worst stats I’ve ever seen. Never use it). What possible logic is there for Westbrook to be taking only one fewer three pointer a game than Klay Thompson?
If your best player is making your other players worse, he’s taking away value. If he takes bad threes when you’ve got an elite low-post scorer, he’s taking away value. For all the value he adds (which is a lot) Westbrook also takes a lot away. Take this play for example:
He is great, but you simply can’t have plays like that and deserve the MVP.
James Harden is one of those players who is fun to hate. His game is so ugly it’s hard to believe that it’s so effective. He’s amazing at drawing contact and even better at convincing the refs that he’s drawn contact.
Unlike Westbrook, Harden is a fantastically efficient scorer - hitting two legs of the holy trinity with high volume and high efficiency (the third leg, high aesthetic beauty, not so much).
Harden has led a team that has out-performed expectations by a greater margin than any of the other candidates’ teams (Vegas preseason over-unders for the Rockets were worse than the Thunder’s). The fact that everybody now seems to talk like Harden’s surrounded by great talent, while Westbrook isn’t, gets to a key aspect of Harden’s candidacy: when he’s motivated, he makes his teammates better. Westbrook doesn’t.
That being said, as good as Harden is on offense - and he’s spectacular - he’s pretty mediocre on defense. He’s putting in effort this year, which is a nice change, but it must be said that he’s still putting individual contributions ahead of his team: notice, in particular, the way he kept playing through an injury even while the Rockets were locked into the three-seed.
This is a team that has a chance to win the title (I think they might be the best threat to the Warriors, when you accommodate skill, style, and variance). And Harden didn’t want to sit because it might cost him ground to Westbrook in the MVP race. While that’s not as bad as quitting on his team during the playoffs while his teammates led a ferocious comeback (look it up), it still suggests that Harden has, at his core, a me-first attitude.
And the award isn’t “most skilled,” or “best stats.” It’s “most valuable.”
Besides, do you really want to give the MVP to somebody who plays like this?
What else can be said about LeBron James at this point in his career? He continues his inevitable assault on Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest of all time and on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s status as the most irritating-superstar-of-all-time (for reasons having nothing to do with actually being great at basketball).
James takes passive-aggressive shots at his teammates. He takes cheap shots and then whines to the refs when opponents retaliate. He acts like he never travels. He stops to whine at an opposing player or a ref when the ball is going the other way.
And he still might be the best player of all time. He’s that good.
That being said, Cleveland’s weaknesses, this year, are James’ weaknesses, not as a player, but as a leader. James didn’t want to play for David Blatt, so he got him fired, and then started doing everything Blatt wanted him to do for Ty Lue, who appears to be, shall we say, tactically overmatched. You can’t talk about the Cavs’ discipline and schematic struggles without pointing the finger at James.
A team takes on the personality of their best player and this year’s Cavs are all about the annoying aspects of James: you can’t take pot-shots at your teammates and then be surprised when the defensive communication breaks down. When your best player doesn’t respect the coach, should anybody else?
Like Curry, James is judged on his own scale. This has been one of his most impressive seasons on the court, where he’s led the league in minutes-per-game, but that stat seems like a triumph of James’ supreme athleticism over smarts. James’ created a team where nobody can stand up to him, where he does what he wants, and as the team limped to the two seed, it’s hard to wonder what the point was?
But unlike Harden and Westbrook, James is a big asset on the defensive side of the floor. He coasts a lot on that end - although not as much as Westbrook (giving the lie to the notion that Westbrook and James have to coast on D because of how much they work on O). If anybody else had his season, nobody would be talking about Harden or Westbrook deserving the award over him. James is that good.
But there’s a better candidate.
Is defense half the game?
It seems like an obvious question, right? Players spend as much time on offense as they do on defense. The ability to stop somebody from scoring is just as valuable to your ability to win as the ability to score yourself. A point scored is no more valuable than a point saved.
I suppose you could argue that defense is slightly less valuable. Teams can usually decide who shoots for crucial possessions, and it’s harder to decide who defends the shooter. But how much less valuable?
Is it 40% of the game? 30%?
Most MVP voters act like it essentially doesn’t matter at all. They call someone “a great two-way player” and it comes across like a dismissal, when really we should look at players like Harden and Westbrook and call them “great one-way players.” This ain’t football. Playing both ways is what you’re paid to do.
It’s not like Kawhi Leonard is bad at offense. He scored 27 points per 36 on .612 TS% this season, which, in case you’re wondering, is better than Kevin Durant’s career numbers (Kevin Durant, who many think will go down in history as the greatest scorer of all time).
Even if we were to say that Leonard was only the tenth best offensive player in the league (which is a low estimate), he’s a top three defender. What possible logic is there - how little do you have to value defense- to say that being the 10th best offensive player and the third best defender is somehow worse than being the best offensive player and, say, the 100th-best defender? And calling either Westbrook or Harden the 100th-best defender is absurdly charitable.
The only conclusion is that most MVP awards voters - or at least the talking heads version of them - don’t value defense at all. They literally assign it zero value. They pay lip service to it, sure, but when it comes down to ordering their votes, they see “points” and “triple doubles” and their minds just shut off.
Because if you valued defense even 20% as much as you valued offense, you couldn’t give the award to Westbrook or Harden. Leonard and James would be the only candidates.
Now, I don’t entirely blame the two front-runners for that, after all, they’re merely responding to the incentives the media and the fans have put in front of them, but I do blame the voters.
This year’s MVP race should be an open-and-shut case. If you are look at everything the players did on the floor this year, if you count missed shots and you count defense, there’s no question. Kawhi Leonard should be your 2016-2017 MVP.
There’s one more player we’ve got to talk about here.
Indulge in a thought experiment with me. Imagine you were trying to design the perfect teammate. What qualities would he have?
Well, for starters, he’d be damn good at basketball. He’d be able to score with the best of them, sure. But lots of people can do that.
He’d also take joy in passing, though. He’d be as happy for you if he passed you the ball and you knocked down the game-winning shot as he would be if he did it. And, heck, he wouldn’t really care if you passed it, costing him an assist, to get it to somebody else with an even better shot.
He’d set tough screens. Hey, you set ‘em for him, so he’s going to return the favor. On or off the ball, he’s making his teammates better with his gravity, his well-timed cuts, hard screens, and dynamic skills.
He’d play fast, joyful basketball. It’s a long season and you want to be with guys who are having fun. So our hypothetical perfect teammate doesn’t get too down after losses, and he celebrates wins. He’s having fun and making everyone around him have fun. He builds up his teammates.
But he takes the game seriously. So many great players coast on their talent, but that can have a toxic effect on their teammates, so our hypothetical perfect teammate works hard. He’s constantly trying to get better and pushing himself.
There’s only one superstar in the league you can say that about.
No, not the guy on the left.
I’m not going to dig into the statistical case for Curry’s third-straight MVP. The team over at 538 has done that. He’s the best player on the best team. He’s the most fun player in the league to watch. This isn’t about that, either.
It’s about the value Curry added to the team this year in another shape. A skinny, long-armed, 7-foot shape. You may have noticed him running around the court this year. I’m talking about this guy:
Stephen Curry is responsible for Kevin Durant coming to the Warriors. Now that, my friends, is value.
On top of his personal production, there’s simply no other player who even comes close.
What other in-his-prime superstar would gladly share the spotlight with someone else who most people think is better than him? Who else would go out of his way to cost himself individual accolades in order to maximize his chance of winning?
And this isn’t a fluke. Twice, since Stephen Curry became the face of the franchise, has the team had meaningful cap space in the offseason. The first time that space resulted in the addition of what looked like the second-brightest jewel in the free agent class (although, in retrospect, let’s be honest: you’d rather have him than Dwight Howard), future finals MVP Andre Iguodala.
The second time, adding a finals MVP wasn’t enough. The team added a league MVP.
Both of these players had played with Curry on Team USA. Both of them had said, “You know what, I want to play with that guy!”
Durant could have gone anywhere. He could have stayed with Russell Westbrook (ha!). He could have rejoined his former teammate James Harden. He could have gone East, to Boston, and had a clear-cut path to the conference finals. But he had played with Steph Curry, and he thought, “Now, that’s how I want to play basketball.”
There’s a common thought experiment, which is that if you were starting a team from scratch, what superstar would you want for the next six years. And generally people pick a young up-and-comer: Anthony Davis, maybe, or Karl-Anthony Towns. But how could you not pick Steph Curry? Because Steph Curry draws talent like an Emily Ratajkowsi picture draws clicks.
Players look at him and say, “I can have fun, I can play to my strengths, and he’ll make my life easier.” And they sign on the dotted line. Have you ever seen Iguodala so happy on a basketball court? Did Durant ever have the sort of chemistry with Westbrook, after years of playing together, that he has after six months with Curry?
Russell Westbrook was amazing this year. James Harden was amazing this year. LeBron James is always amazing. Kawhi Leonard was amazing on both ends of the floor. But Steph Curry was amazing ... and he added Kevin Durant.
And that’s why Stephen Curry is the most valuable player in the NBA in 2016-17.