Another regular season of competition in the National Basketball Association (NBA) is coming to a close. With the high level of play this year, it will be tough to chose a most valuable player (MVP) from a group of notable stars.
Four-time former league MVP LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who took an eight-game basketball sabbatical in late December, has had a tremendous season, averaging 25 points, over six rebounds and seven assists per game. Since his January return, the Cavaliers are 33-9 and in control of the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers has played in all 82 games this season and is averaging a league-best 10.2 assists per game to go along with 19 points, shooting 48.6 percent from the floor and 39.3 percent from three point range, his best shooting percentages since 2009-2010. The Clippers lost All-Star forward Blake Griffin in the most difficult stretch of the season, but Paul singlehandedly steered the team to a 9-6 record, averaging 20.5 points and 12 assists in that time.
Consider that these two are not even in the running for the Most Valuable Player award and you start to understand that this season has been special. The four who are in the running for this year’s award – Houston’s James Harden, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis have, in their own way, contributed to the storied history of the NBA and are worthy of being named MVP.
Let's start with Anthony Davis, the Pelicans' 22-year old center, who has averaged 24.3 points on 53.7 percent shooting per game, 10.3 rebounds and an NBA-leading nearly three blocks per game average in 67 games this year. Davis has been the driving force that has the Pelicans tied for the final playoff spot in the competitive Western Conference. His unique blend of athleticism, basketball IQ and perimeter shooting make him the most intriguing young talent in the Association since LeBron.
The stat that makes you wonder if Davis should win the award outright: His 31.06 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is not only tops in the league, but would be the eleventh highest single-season PER in the history of the league. The players in the top 10 for highest PERs in league history? Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James and Michael Jordan. Davis’s season is one of the greatest the league has ever seen.
Davis will probably finish fourth, likely trailing Oklahoma City’s ethereal point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has been sublime this season, contributing and dominating in all phases of the game, averaging a league high 28 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 2.1 steals, shooting 42.5 percent from the floor. He leads the league in usage rate, which measures how often the team relies on Westbrook to finish a possession, and happens to be second in PER at 28.92.
Westbrook has been called on to do more following a season-ending foot injury to last season’s MVP Kevin Durant. In the 26 games since Durant has been out, Westbrook has upped every facet of his game, scoring 31.1 points per game, grabbing 8.8 rebounds and dishing out 10 assists per contest. In those same 26 games, he has also amassed 9 triple-doubles to give him 11 on the season, the second most in the last 20 years. Sitting tied with New Orleans for eighth in the West hurts Westbrook's chances to win the award, but he has undoubtedly been one of the most electrifying players to watch in recent years.
Choosing between the two front-runners for the MVP, Houston’s hyper-efficient shooting guard James Harden and Golden State’s sharp-shooting point guard Stephen Curry, is an almost impossible proposition. Curry has played in 79 games this year, averaging 23.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2 steals, shooting an incredible 48.8 percent from the floor and 44.2 percent from beyond the three-point line. He ranks third in PER, and last week broke his own record for most three pointers made in a season (284).
Curry is the best player on the best team in the NBA, an argument many are making in favor of him winning the award. If the Warriors win out, the team will finish with 67 wins, which would make them the fifth-best team of all time. The Warriors have been so good it has hurt Curry as well. If he wins the league MVP, he would do it playing the fewest minutes, only 32.8 per game. Curry has also sat out 15 fourth quarters this season because the Warriors have been leading by so much. Savvy MVP voters should look to the Wins Share per 48 minutes stat, which quantifies Curry’s wins added per 48 minutes and has him atop the NBA in the value he has contributed.
Despite Curry’s phenomenal season, the very slight favorite among pundits is James Harden who has willed Houston to the third-best record in the West, playing 80 games and averaging 27.5 points per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor and 37.5 percent from three, 5.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists, and 1.9 steals. He is the NBA’s leading scorer and gets to the line and converts (10.2 free throws attempted and 8.8 makes) more than anyone in the league. His 16.2 raw Wins Share is the best in the league, and he has done it all in the midst of various injuries to his teammates, including a significant one to center Dwight Howard, who has played only 40 games this year.
Harden, who also leads the league in minutes per game at 36.9, is relied upon heavily to score for the Rockets, who don't have many players that can create their own shot. Consider that when Harden is off the court, the team turns the ball over more, rebounds less, and has a lower total offensive rating.
Harden is more valuable to Houston than Curry is to Golden State only because Golden State is such a tremendous team. It seems unfair to reward Harden for having a worse team, and punish Curry for having a spectacular one. However, Harden has been so good despite being tasked with the team’s scoring responsibility and having opposing defenses geared up to stop him that it is hard to pick against him. While this observer believes Curry is the better player and has had the better season, Harden is most deserving of the league MVP.