James Harden
Mar 18, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) with the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5) during the second half at Pepsi Center. The Rockets won 109-105. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

By Kelly Scaletta

In this space, I typically use some number crunching regarding a specific player, outlining what the statistical argument for why he merits consideration. But today, I’m just going to do some gold old-fashioned opining here. Specifically, I want to address what MVP means.

In the first Ladder, I addressed there are four basic factors which historically factor into deciding the MVP award, individual success, team success, not having a teammate who is also in contention and narrative. There is no magic formula which can predict the winner because these are malleable, not equal. But to some degree, they are all there.

However, if you want to carve out a simple, working definition of “value” as it pertains to the award, it goes to the “player whose elite play did the most to make his team an elite team.”

Ergo, two things are historically required: being an elite player and being on an elite team. Only two players have won the award without being on something resembling an elite team: Moses Malone in 1981-82 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76.

This is a custom that has become more ingrained over the years. The last time a player won the award without being at least tied for one of the four best records in the league was the 1987-88 season, when Michael Jordan won it in spite of the fact his Chicago Bulls were tied for the seventh-best record in the league.

Part of the reason for that is that his 21.2 win shares were 41.3 percent more than second-place finisher, Larry Bird.

All of this matters when we consider the current race. Our “realistic” field has dwindled to four players: James Harden, Rusell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Based on how they fit that historically relevant definition, let’s look at how they fit in this week’s ladder.

  1. James Harden is having an elite season. His 29.2 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds are evidence of that, particularly when you factor in his efficiency and how often he facilitates his teammates three-point shooting. Combining his scoring and passing, as I explained at FanRagSports.com, he’s accounting for 56.4 points per game with those points coming on roughly 63 percent true shooting. Comparably Westbrook is at 55.4 points on 57 percent true shooting. The next best season in history was Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961-62 season (54 percent true shooting, 55.2 points). That makes a pretty solid case that Harden is having the greatest offensive season in NBA history. And in doing so, he’s leading what could very well be the greatest offense in NBA history, accounting for nearly half their points. Furthermore, the team’s TS% is 7.5 percentage points higher when he is taking or facilitating the shot. That’s a pretty good argument that they are an elite team because of him.
  2. Kawhi Leonard is having an elite season as well, averaging 26.1 points, 5.9 boards and 3.4 assists. His argument is enhanced by the fact he doesn’t turn the ball over much (just 2.1 per game). The fact he is also the two-time defending Defensive Player of they Year doesn’t hurt, either. But are the Spurs elite because of him? That’s a little dicier. He is a reason they are elite. He’s an elite scorer, but he’s not an elite shot creator. And then there’s the fact that he’s on the best-run organization in North American professional sports over the last quarter century, along with one of the two greatest coaches in the history of the game. He is also playing with another All-Star caliber player (LaMarcus Aldridge) and two future Hall of Famers (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili). Harden doesn’t have a teammate who has ever even been an All-Star. Leonard’s numbers don’t quite square up with Harden’s, and he’s not as big of a factor into their success.
  3. LeBron James is having a great season, averaging 26.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists. Not bad for an old man, eh? And the Cleveland Cavaliers are technically in that top-four grouping. And while they’re “only” fourth, they’re also the reigning world champs, so they definitely fit the “elite” team mode. The problem is, they Rockets are ahead of the Cavaliers, Harden has more points, more assists, and nearly as many rebounds. And Kyrie Irving is better than anyone on the Rockets not named Harden. It’s hard to make the argument that LeBron has more value when Harden is putting up better numbers on a better team with a worse “Robin.”
  4. Russell Westbrook is getting a pass for his team not being elite by a large contingency of voters, and it’s not a pass I believe he deserves. There’s an argument to make for him based on his on/off numbers. But it’s a stretch to say he doesn’t have teammates who can give him enough help. Consider this: Westbrook’s three best teammates (Enes Kanter, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams) average 1.2 more points, 5.9 more rebounds and 1.1 fewer assists than Harden’s trio of mates (Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza). Additionally, Westbrook gets far more defensive help from his next three than Harden does from his. The Thunder have an offensive rating of 108.0 with him on, which is slightly above average. The fact he doesn’t have a backup who can competently run the offense when he sits doesn’t really enhance his MVP argument, but it does explain the huge drop off when Westbrook sits.
  5. John Wall has the Washington Wizards in the hunt for the second seed in the East, and he’s unequivocally the most important player on the team. But he’s also significantly behind the other four. He’s just the best of the next group.
  6. Isaiah Thomas is a great scorer, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t get past his complete lack of defense. And before you say, “But Harden,” understand that Harden’s defense is still worlds ahead of Thomas’.
  7. Stephen Curry is finally breaking out of his three-point shooting slump and the Warriors have stopped losing since he did. But when the Dubs needed him to step up the most, he floundered for a while, and that hurts his MVP case.
  8. Gordon Hayward is the best case for the Utah Jazz, though, there are other players who are having better seasons for worse teams.
  9. DeMar DeRozan has been stepping up since Kyle Lowry went down and has the Raptors still fighting for the No. 3 seed and locking down home court.
  10. Giannis Antetokounmpo is leading the Bucks into playoff contention. In fact, they could end up with the sixth seed, in which case, they might even be a viable upset in the first, and even second rounds.

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Kelly Scaletta

Kelly Scaletta writes for Vantage Sports, Bleacher Report and BBALLBREAKDOWN. He has the crazy notion that watching games and understanding stats are not mutually exclusive.

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