A look at my current MVP ballot.
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MVP. “Most Valuable Player.” It should be clear how to define that, but people still have different perceptions nonetheless.

Personally, I don’t like how sports media and fans have started to project that it should mean: “Most Valuable Player [for their particular team.]” By that, I mean: I don’t think you should be rewarded bonus points for having bad teammates, or penalized for having good ones.

It’s a strange calculus that you hear across all sports. “Well, Tom Brady isn’t the MVP, because the Pats would be fine with Jimmy Garoppolo…” Is it Brady’s fault that the Patriots have a competent backup? If New England decided their backup QB was a mule with a helmet on, would that make Brady a better player? I mean, if Brady got hurt, that mule would barely be able to win the AFC East.

So, in my opinion, “Most Valuable Player” means “Most Valuable Player [in the league.]” In a vacuum. If you could have any player in the league for your hypothetical expansion team the Las Vegas Blackjacks, who would be the most helpful player to your success?

Now, some caveats on that. I still factor in your play for that particular regular season only. By that standard, Steph Curry in 2016-2017 is not as good as Steph Curry from his prior MVP years.

So my top 5 MVP candidates is based on that: whose season would I want on my team the most?

Honorable mentions

MVP
Kevin Durant gets an honorable mention for his work with the Warriors thus far,

Kevin Durant and Chris Paul: If we stopped the season now, Kevin Durant would be in my top 5 because of his stone-cold efficiency. However, it’s fair to presume he’s done for the regular season, and those missed games will make it difficult to choose him (or CP3, who may have had a case if he stayed healthy.)

Kyle Lowry: The NBA media tends to track big changes more so than steady play, so Lowry’s consistent success with Toronto tends to get overlooked. But let’s give the guy credit for continually improving: he’s even shooting 41.7% from three this year.

Nikola Jokic: He’s not “there” yet because of limited minutes, but in terms of pure efficiency and impact, the Joker has a legitimate case to make as a top 20 player in the league. If he can play 35 minutes a game next year, he may even jump into that top 10.

Rudy Gobert, Utah: Gobert’s not in the MVP discussion, but he’d be somewhere in my top 15 because of his monster impact on the defensive end. Unlike other shot blockers (who tend to hunt for blocks to the detriment of their team), Gobert makes that Utah defense better every time he’s on the court.

John Wall: The Wizards’ breakout has more to do with the improvements by Bradley Beal and Otto Porter than a leap by John Wall, but Wall still is the engine that makes that team go (and allows Porter so many good looks.) He’ll be a legit MVP candidate in the future if he can bump up his shooting some.

Anthony Davis: I’m not a big “wins/losses” guy when it comes to MVP because clearly, the best player can still be on a bad team (see Markelle Fultz at Washington). But still, there’s a minimum standard for me. On pure talent and production alone, Davis would be in the top 5, but because of his team’s struggles, he’d be more in that 5-10 range for me personally.

Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo: In terms of usage and putting their teams on their back, but of these forwards would probably crack my top 10 for MVP, regardless of their mediocre teams. Between the two, Jimmy Butler has the best case for the top 5. He makes up for his average shooting by hammering to the line and shooting 87.2% from the stripe.

Isaiah Thomas This may be my most controversial statement in the post, but I don’t think Thomas is even CLOSE to MVP this season. In fact, he’d struggle to make my top 10. I know he’s been a wizard on offense all year long and led the Celtics to a great season (and maybe even a #1 seed), but at the end of the day, he’s still a limited player. Any team with Thomas is going to suffer some liability in terms of defense and rebounding. The advanced stats bear that out, suggesting he’s a “-4.4” on the defensive end in terms of real plus/minus. In fact, that particular stat hates Thomas. They rank him as the 15th in terms of RPM and 12th in wins — among point guards alone. Thomas is a great offensive player, but the idea that he’s close to the “Most Valuable Player” in the league is silly to me.

Draymond Green Green’s on the opposite end of the spectrum. Real plus minus loves him (where he’s +4.8 on defense). Still, he hasn’t been good on offense this year, struggling with 32.9% from three. You can make a legitimate argument for him as DPOY, but top 10 in MVP is a real stretch.

The top 5

(5) Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors

As mentioned with Kyle Lowry, storylines tend to track momentum, which is why Steph Curry has been getting some flak for his play this year. But just because he’s not playing as well as last year doesn’t mean he’s playing poorly. His 39.9% from three is disappointing for him — but would be amazing for anyone else. He’s a still an efficient assassin on offense and hasn’t been a liability on defense (a + rating according to RPM).

(4) Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Okay, forget what I said about Isaiah Thomas: this is probably the most “downvote” worthy proclamation of this post. But yes, Westbrook, arguably the frontrunner for MVP, wouldn’t make my top 3.

Based on pure raw stats, Westbrook is having a historic season — 31.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 10.0 assists per game. But I do think we’re going overboard with this whole “triple-double” nonsense. In fact, the Thunder may be going overboard with it as well. Consider those rebounds, for example. Westbrook has taken a huge leap there — going from 7.8 rebounds a game to 10.6 this year. Part of that is due to long-armed Kevin Durant leaving, but part of that feels fishy as well. After all, Westbrook is grabbing the same number of offensive rebounds as last year (1.8) but has jolted up in defensive rebounds (from 6.0 to 8.9). Big centers Steven Adams and Enes Kanter have declined in defensive rebound percentages at the same time. OKC fans will say that’s by design to get the ball in Westbrook’s hands immediately, but I have to say it feels like some stat hunting to me as well.

Okay so let’s say Westbrook’s quest for triple doubles is a little artificial; that 30-10-10 would still be something like 30-8-10, right. Still amazing. Still, I’m downgrading him for his efficiency (which is down to 41.9% from the field, 33.7% from three). Westbrook has to “do it all” for this OKC team, but he’s not exactly doing it all as well as others could. If I had to pick a season in a vacuum, this Westbrook season wouldn’t be my top choice.

(3) Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

I’ve been cited the “real plus-minus” stat a lot, although I don’t always trust the numbers it spits out. For example, by their metrics, Kawhi Leonard is only a +0.8 on the defensive end. That doesn’t jive with what my eyes tell me. When I watch the Spurs, Leonard feels like a top 3 one-on-one defender, if not #1.

Offensively, his improvements have been staggering. A questionable shooter in college, Leonard is up to 48.7% from the field, 38.5% from three, and 89.6% from the line. He’s nearly averaging more steals (1.9) than he is turnovers (2.0). I can see an argument for Leonard as the #1 MVP. For me, he’ll need to boost his playmaking (3.4 assists a game) to get that spot, but he is a remarkable player.

(2) James Harden, Houston Rockets

I think all NBA fans have been up and down on James Harden, with all of us begrudgingly admitting his basketball brilliance this year. Sure, he’s still a negative on defense (-1.5 according to RPM), but his offensive game has taken another jolt forward under Mike D’Antonio. I never thought Harden would average 11.3 assists per year (albeit with 5.8 turnovers), but he’s doing a great job running the offense.

His shooting efficiency is what puts Harden over Russell Westbrook to me, although their two MVP campaigns are very closely linked. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who thinks they should be 1 and 2 in some order based on their raw production and effort this year. In terms of EWA — estimated wins added) — Westbrook’s 1 and Harden’s 2. They’re clearly doing the most this season — but personally, I don’t feel like they’re doing the best.

(1) LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

I’m putting LeBron at #1, but this isn’t because of the “LeBron should win every year” argument, or because of how well he played in the Finals last year.

I’m putting LeBron #1 because I feel like he’s having the best season in 2016-17. Some reasons why:

Unlike Harden and Westbrook, LeBron’s still a positive on the defensive side of the ball. In a sport where there’s only “offense” and “defense,” I feel like that second half of the equation should matter.

Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. LeBron’s found his shooting stroke this year, hitting 39.8% of his threes (after a really down season last year in that regard). In total, he’s shooting 53.8% from the field — which is nearly 10% higher than Harden and 12% higher than Westbrook.

In a sense, that’s the best argument for LeBron. He’s not doing as much as Westbrook and Harden right now, but if he HAD TO, don’t you think he could put up numbers like they are, with better efficiency to boot? Is there any circumstance in the world where LeBron shoots 41.9% like Russell Westbrook is doing this year? I don’t believe so.

Even without that curve, I’d rather have LeBron operating with that kind of A+ efficiency than a player taking all my possessions and doing a A- job with them. So like I said, if I ran the Las Vegas Blackjacks and we needed to win as many games as possible, I would take 2016-17 LeBron James as my #1 pick. He’s the “most valuable player” in the league this year.

So far. There are still 20 games, so I reserve the right to change my mind among these top 5 or any other candidates. Make your charge, JaVale McGee, make your charge.

 

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