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March 17th, 2017

LeBron, Leonard, Harden, or Westbrook; Who’s the Real 2017 NBA MVP?

Mike Brady @MBHoops13
2017 NBA MVP

LeBron James defends Kawhi Leonard (Edward A. Ornelas /San Antonio Express-News)

As the sun slowly sets on the regular season, the 2017 NBA MVP race is coming down to a photo finish.

With basketball analytics rapidly evolving and the League itself changing, there is an abundance of ways to decide who should be the MVP.

Around four years ago, I read a book titled “The Book of Basketball”; almost every NBA fan has read this book at some point. Originally published in 2009, it was written by Bill Simmons and although it’s far from a must-read for die-hard fans, it’s certainly a great introduction to the history of the NBA. It is a great read stuffed with trivia and humorous hypothetical situations (just brace yourself for the rampant sexism throughout).

In this book, Simmons lays out his four-step process for casting his vote in the MVP race. His definition of a true MVP is centered around four questions:

Question 1: If you replaced each MVP candidate with a “decent” player at his position, hypothetically, how would the team have performed that year?

The on/off numbers for each candidate seem like a good place to start here. According to 82games, LeBron James has a net rating of +16.7 points per 100 possessions while Westbrook is at +15.4 in the same category. Meanwhile, Harden and Leonard trail and are +3.7 and +1.3 respectively.

So that’s that. Question answered… right? Well, it’s not that simple.

LeBron James might have some great on/off numbers but let’s be honest; his team is stacked. Out of all of the MVP candidates, nobody else has a teammate the same caliber as Kyrie Irving. If we replaced James with a “decent” forward, the Cavaliers would still have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to go along with a pretty deep bench.

At the same time, the San Antonio Spurs bench boasts the best +/- in the league and is top ten in scoring for bench units. Without Leonard, the Spurs would still have some solid talent on their roster. On that same note, the Houston Rockets bench is seventh in scoring and third in +/- implying that they wouldn’t completely crumble without Harden. However, with Harden, it’s important to consider the fact that he does run the offense and they don’t have anyone else that even remotely resembles a franchise player.

And then there is Westbrook. The man who has carried his team to victory on multiple occasions this season. Without him, their next best player is probably Steven Adams. While Adams is a great player within his own right, he’s certainly not someone you want to be building a franchise around. If you were to replace Westbrook with someone “decent”, I’m not convinced that the Oklahoma City Thunder would be finishing even near the 8th spot.

That’s one point on the scoreboard for Westbrook.

Score:

Westbrook – 1
James – 0
Leonard – 0
Harden – 0

Question 2: In a giant pickup game, two knowledgeable fans are obligated to put their life on the line and pick teams; who do they pick first based solely on the current season?

Out of curiosity, I ran a poll on twitter to see what the fans would say. It’s a small sample size but the result are interesting nonetheless.

Despite the amazing year both Harden and Westbrook are having, neither of them came close to winning the poll.

While I’m surprised at the results, we’re assuming that everyone who voted is knowledgeable about the game. Even so, I still think this is the fairest way to decide this question.

Score:

Westbrook – 1
James – 1
Leonard – 0
Harden – 0

Question 3: Ten years from now, when someone brings up this season, who’s name will pop into your head first?

This one is easy, right? It has to be Westbrook. Assuming he manages to average a triple-double on the year, he would only be the second player in the entire history of the league to accomplish this feat. Oscar Robertson managed this in 1962 and due to the way the game has changed in regards to pace and talent pool (among other factors), it was assumed by a lot of fans that this would never happen again. Robertson set that record in 1962 and people still talk about it every year. Short of a 100 point game, there’s not much any of the other candidates can do to make their 2017 regular season more memorable than Westbrook’s.

Westbrook isn’t without his faults, though. His poor decision making, short temper, and occasional inefficient play have drawn a lot of criticism from fans, bloggers and analysts alike. Regardless, you have to appreciate the relentlessness of Westbrook. If you were to open him up, I’m almost certain that you would find a roaring ball of energy that could be used to power an entire city. He’s the lightning to Oklahoma City’s thunder.

Even the people criticizing Westbrook during this amazing run will be talking about it ten years from now.

Score:

Westbrook – 2
James – 1
Leonard – 0
Harden – 0

Question 4: If you’re explaining your MVP pick to someone who has a differing opinion, will he (or she) say something along the lines of “I don’t like it, but I get it”

This is probably one of the more difficult questions to answer. This is mainly because NBA fans appear to have gone from enthusiasts to outright extremists when it comes to lobbying for their favorite player or team.

There really shouldn’t be an issue defending any of these players as MVP winners. However, the most difficult of the four to defend is Westbrook. Yes, he’s having an amazing season but his team isn’t winning enough games for him to be a realistic MVP candidate. I don’t say this because I don’t think he’s deserving but simply because history dictates that if your team doesn’t finish as a top four seed, you won’t be winning the MVP award. On top of this, he hasn’t been nearly as efficient as the other players in this discussion. The next most difficult to defend would be James Harden. Harden has been an offensive juggernaut this year and even though he has shown an increase in effort defensively, he’s still lackluster on that side of the floor (as is Westbrook actually).

That leaves us with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.

Part of this comes down to their “labels”. James is labeled as an all-time great who now coasts through the regular season to save himself for the playoffs in his never-ending quest to collect as many rings possible.

Meanwhile, Leonard is inexplicably labeled as a “system player” who’s success is a direct result of Coach Popovich and his intelligence. Forever he will be an elite defensive player who overachieves offensively thanks to his team, or so it seems. Right or wrong, these labels exist. With that in mind, the possibility of convincing an average fan that Westbrook is a good defender may be higher than the possibility of convincing them that Leonard isn’t a system player.

In the end, it’s easier to defend a once in a generation talent like LeBron James. After all, we’re talking about a guy who’s essentially the terminator in a pair of Nikes.

Score:

Westbrook – 2
James – 2
Leonard – 0
Harden – 0

Victory lap

Simmons formula for choosing the MVP is questionable, but it’s worth discussing for one simple reason. These are the type of guys who get to vote. It isn’t the stat geeks, bloggers or fans that get to decide the outcome of these awards. It’s the Bill Simmons’ of the world.

Simmons formula has provided us with a tie, however, Simmons did mention that the questions are ranked based on importance in his book. In theory, this means that Westbrook should be winning the MVP award.

However, it’s not that simple.

Tainted by the “Moneyball” movement of advanced analytics, Westbrook’s season is overrated to some, and history in the making for others. While he stuffs the box score on a regular basis, his efficiency is lacking.

Below is an infographic comparing the MVP candidates.

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Westbrooks current true shooting percentage (TS%) is 54.6, which would be the worst TS% of any MVP since Kevin Garnett in 2004 (.547). It would also be the worst from a guard since Allen Iverson in 2001 (.518).

While averaging a triple double is special, a more cynical writer might look at Westbrooks usage (USG%) and spit his drink out all over his computer monitor. His USG% is currently at a staggering 41.3% which would be an all-time record if he finishes the season with that number.

While some people will insist on relying purely on what they’ve witnessed with their own two eyes, the truth is the game has changed. The emergence of advanced analytics has changed the way in which fans, scouts, and media members evaluate players. There is more information available now than ever before and it’s at our fingertips.

Who’s the real MVP?

As the sun retreats to give way to the night, another day has passed and we’re not really any closer to declaring a definitive MVP. While Bill Simmons questions are a fun way of weighing the 2017 NBA MVP candidates, they are still missing a lot of key issues. This is far from a sure fiew way of predicting the MVP.

In fact, only two things are for sure: everyone has their own way of quantifying the MVP award, and someone is going to be disappointed.

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