By Kelly Scaletta
The NBA season is still young but it’s never too young to start talking about the MVP. Becuase hey, who doesn’t love to debate that?
As this is the first rendition of the ladder for the season, I want to use the intro space to outline my methodology in ranking the players.
My rankings are not a ranking of who “should” win; they are my assessment of the current likelihood of winning.
Historically, there are four factors that go into determining the MVP. There is no magic formula (as people have fruitlessly tried to develop them) because “value” itself is not the type of thing you can nail down. It is deliberately ethereal in nature, and it can change from one day to the next.
Just as your house changes in value from one year to the next, even if it remains exactly the same, numerous other factors play into things that cause it to go up or down. Value is not a constant, and neither are the relative pulling factors, but there are primarily four factors which affect the notion of “value” when it comes to the MVP award.
Stats matter. Typically, the MVP doesn’t have to be the best player statistically, but he does have to be a top-five player. This traditionally includes the box score numbers and more recently also involves how well a player does in the advanced stats. Kawhi Leonard, who fares better in the advanced numbers which reflect defensive impact, for instance, did better in the voting last year than he might have in previous years. Isaiah Thomas, whose Defensive Real Plus-Minus was horrible, probably got hurt in the MVP vote.
Still, Russell Westbrook’s win was mostly powered by the fact that he averaged a triple-double, so don’t overlook the importance of the basic numbers in the minds of voters.
I’ve seen and heard a lot of people suggest that Westbrook winning last year means that “winning doesn’t matter anymore.” I’m hesitant to agree with that. I think that was an exception to the rule, not a change in the rules. It was the first time since Michael Jordan’s first MVP win in 1987-88 that a player won that didn’t have a top-two seed.
Before extrapolating that as a change in voting behavior, I have to see more than one exception to the rule. I think in this case the other factors just outweighed the winning factor.
There are only two times in NBA history where an MVP winner had a teammate finish in the top five in voting. Jordan and Scottie Pippen in 1995-96 and Moses Malone and Julius Erving in 1982-83. It’s a careful balance between having teammates who are good enough to help you win, but not so good that they draw votes away from you in the voting. This could be a little more interesting this year with so many superstar tandems being the new norm in the NBA.
For better or worse, “narrative” is a thing. Kobe Bryant won his award, in part because of “career achievement.” Derrick Rose humble origins won him a lot of support when he won in 2010-11. And Russell Westbrook’s triple-double chase was a big part of him getting votes. Narrative matters to voters, whether it should or not.
These four factors each weigh in but they are not constants in how much they matter. My rankings are based on how each of the players is measuring up based on each.
And with that introduction, here are the first rankings of the year.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The “Greek Freak” is the leader out of the gates, and with good reason. He’s averaging 34.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists, along with 2.0 steals and 0.8 blocks. He’s doing that while shooting a ridiculous 63.1 percent from the field. His advanced stats are even better with a 67.8 true shooting percentage. He leads the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (36.5), Win Shares (1.7), Win Share per 48 (.351), Box Plus-Minus (12.5) and VORP (0.9).
If he keeps that kind of dominance up, he might win regardless, but the one big concern that could hold him back is whether the Milwaukee Bucks can fight for a top-two seed in the East.
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden is averaging 25.6 points, 9.4 assists and 4.9 boards this season. That’s not quite where he was last year but it’s still pretty impressive totals. He alos has the Rockets competing for the No. 1 seed with a 5-2 record while his superstar teammate, Chris Paul, has missed most of the season with a knee injury.
And really, where would be without Harden finishing second in the voting?
3. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Griffin is averaging 24.8 points, 9.6 boards and 4.4 assists in leading the Clippers to the NBA’s best record and the best scoring differential in the wake of Paul’s departure via trade. Their net rating is also 12.4 points better with Griffin on the court. He has a great chance to climb up the rankings quickly if the Clippers continue to establish themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams, but this early, skepticism is understandable.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are only 4-3, which is a pretty big shock. They’ve been playing bored through the first part of the season and have not been engaged on the defensive end. But we can’t jettison preseason expectations entirely just two weeks into the season. Curry is second in the league in Win Shares and whoever leads the Warriors in Win Shares will get the most votes on the team. It would be a shock if the Warriors didn’t finish with the NBA’s best record.
5. John Wall, Washington Wizards
The Eastern Conference seems a bit up for grabs with Gordon Hayward injured and the Cavaliers floundering. The best player on the team that wins that top seed will likely be in the MVP conversation. Right now, it looks like the Washington Wizards might the favorites for that (with apologies to the Detroit Pistons; I need to see more first). At 21.7 points and 10.3 assists per game, Wall would be the favorite then.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook