Last year, for the first time since 1982, a player who wasn’t on a top-3 seed won the MVP when Russell Westbrook took home the award with the No. 6 seed. The last person to do that was Moses Malone in 1982-83, who did it with the No. 6 seed.
Not only is that rare. In the interim, only two players–Michael Jordan in the 1987-88 season and Karl Malone in the 1998-99 season have won the award with a No. 3 seed. Even that needs a qualifier, as while the Jazz were a No. 3 seed, they were actually tied for the best record in the NBA, but they were tied with the San Antonio Spurs who they were in the same division with. Because the rules at the time stipulated that the division winners got the 1 and 2 seeds (there were only two divisions in each conference), the Jazz were a 3 seed in spite of tying for the league’s best record.
Prior to that, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won in 1975-76 in spite of the fact his Los Angeles Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs or have a winning record. But that also has a qualifier as players voted for the award back then. In 1981-82, the media started voting for it. Westbrook became only the second player in that span to win the award on a sub-3 seed team.
Prior to last year, “winning mattered.” Does that mean that winning doesn’t matter anymore, though? Was last year an anomaly or the start of a new trend? I entertain this question because I’ve seen many state this as a premise, but I’m not sure it’s correct. There were several mitigating factors to consider here.
First, it was a highly unusual race in the sense that there was an unusual level of competition for it. One year after Stephen Curry won the first unanimous award, four different players received first-place votes with 32 of them not going to the winner.
The last time that happened was 2011-12. But even then, LeBron James received a .888 MVP share (a calculation at Basketball-Reference based on the percentage of votes compared to the maximum possible). The second-place finisher was Kevin Durant, who was on the No. 2 seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.
In 2005, Shaquille O’Neal came close to winning with 58 first-place votes compared with winner Steve Nash’s 65, but both players were on the top seed in their respective conferences. The last time the MVP winner received a lower percentage of the first-place votes and the second-place finisher wasn’t a top-2 seed was when Tim Duncan won it over Kevin Garnett in 2003.
And that’s where things get interesting because last year’s second-place finisher wasn’t a top-2 seed either, making it the only time in history since the media started voting that the top-two vote-getters didn’t represent top-two teams. While James Harden’s Hoston Rockets finished better than Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder, they didn’t finish better than San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard.
That’s where a more hidden kind of “vote-splitting” might have occurred. Voters could compare Westbrook’s historic triple-double season and compare it with Harden’s, but Leonard’s–while more efficient and balanced–didn’t have the same box-score punch Westbrook’s and Harden’s did. After all, we’re talking about the two players who generated the most and second-most points (combining scoring and passing) in NBA history.
But in making the decision both players deserved it over Westbrook, voters subconsciously took winning out of the occasion. If winning mattered, why not give it to Leonard? It becomes an argument of “It matters here, but not here.”
And then there is the narrative issue. People were cheering for Westbrook after Kevin Durant left for the Golden State Warriors. Westbrook was fun to watch with his Tasmanian devilry and vicious dunks. Compared with Harden’s old-man game and foul drawing, the aesthetics weren’t even a contest. The common fan wanted Westbrook to win, and that kind of narrative plays into things.
This year, a lot is different. Westbrook has a lot more help after the arrival of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony while Harden’s new help, Chris Paul, has been sidelined most of the season. Harden, though, has the Rockets tied for the best record in the Western Conference. He’s doing that with a career-high in scoring and a career-low in free throw rate.
And if you haven’t watched the Rockets play this year, you might not be aware, but his defense has definitely stepped up, as well. The narrative, for the first time, is flipping in Harden’s favor. He’s doing it the right way. His passing is surreal and a whole new level of entertaining. He’s leading the Rockets, which might be the best chance to defeat the mighty Warriors.
Fans are getting to the point of wanting him to succeed, and that flips the narrative.
So the point of all of this is that winning still matters. Last year was an anomaly as the other factors that go into MVP voting just mattered more. So don’t expect someone from an also-ran to win this year.
With that, here are this week’s rankings.
1. James Harden is leading the NBA in points, assists, points created off assists, 3-pointers made and minutes. He’s second all-time in 3-pointers per game. And he’s averaging 35.8 points, 11.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals over the Rockets’ current six-game winning streak while notching a 68.0 true shooting percentage.
2. Stephen Curry is averaging a substandard (for him and only him) 3.6 threes per game and shooting “only” 38.8 percent form deep on the season. But he’s shooting 57.3 percent from two and averaging 25.2 points per contest on 65.6 percent true shooting as he has a career-high .424 free throw rate (which is actually higher than Harden’s or Westbrook’s, believe it or not). His plus-15.6 would set a new NBA record. However, considering he has three other All-Stars playing with him and the best bench in the league backing him up,
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo is off to a torrid start, leading the league scoring with 31.7 points per game while adding 10.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. He’s doing that all while shooting 59.4 percent from the field. He has a chance to join Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and Westbrook as the only guys to average 30/10/5 for a season. Bearing in mind that steals and blocks weren’t tracked prior to 1972, he would be the only one in that group who also averaged one of each.
4. LeBron James is still the best player in the world, and his ranking here assumes that at some point in time the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to start winning. James has quietly been spectacular, though, even if the Cavs’ defense has not been. The King is averaging 28.5 points, 8.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds. He’s leading the league in minutes per game a month away from his 33rd birthday. His 29.9 Player Efficiency Rating is the highest it’s been since the last time he won the MVP in 2012-13.
5. Kyrie Irving is a soft No. 5 here out of respect to the Boston Celtics, who own the NBA’s best record. While Irving has certainly contributed Boston winning, and done so on both ends of the court, the Cs won their game (really two for all intents and purposes) without him as well. Irving’s 20.3 points and 5.2 assists per game aren’t exactly MVP numbers either. Still, he’s one to watch out for.
On the radar
6. Kevin Durant has been a brilliant two-way player and the defending Finals MVP could easily swap places with Steph. It’s going to be hard for one team to have two players in the top-five though, as that’s historically extremely rare.
7. Kristaps Porzingis is playing out of his mind, but we have to wait and see if the Knicks are for real.
8. Anthony Davis and 9. DeMarcus Cousins are playing equally well and doing everything they can for the Pelicans. Boogie and Brow have combined to score exactly half of all the Pelicans’ points. They also account for 73.4% of blocks, 54.4% of rebounds, 34.0% of steals and 33.2% of assists. In sum, they account for 48.8% of the box score stats but only 30% of the minutes. However, splitting votes as a 7 or 8 seed isn’t going to work for either of them.
10. LaMarcus Aldridge deserves a shoutout here. The power forward is having his best year with the Spurs, averaging 21.8 points and 8.5 rebounds. He has San Antonio staying competive while we wait on Leonard to heal.