It seems somewhat startling to ask whether the best team in the league has an MVP candidate, but it’s more common than you might think.
Last year, Stephen Curry finished sixth even though the Golden State Warriors led the NBA in wins. In 2013-14, the San Antonio Spurs won the most games, but Tony Parker and Tim Duncan tied for 12th in the voting. The Chicago Bulls and Spurs tied for the most wins in 2011-12. Tony Parker finished fifth. Derrick Rose finished 12th.
The axiom that it goes to the “best player on the best team” just doesn’t measure up to history. Often, the best player on the best team isn’t even really a viable contender. It’s probably more accurate to say it goes to an elite player who makes his team an elite team.
This brings us to the current Boston Celtics. Do they have a viable MVP candidate?
Kyrie Irving is average 23.2 points, 5.2 assists and 3.1 rebounds. Al Horford is averaging 13.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
The fewest points+rebounds+assists an MVP has ever received is Steve Nash, who totaled 30.3 in 2004-05. But he also led the league in assists that year. Horford is totaling 27.0 this year. Irving has 30.3.
Additionally, neither Horford nor Irving are in the top-10 in points, rebounds or assists. If either were to win, they would be the first player in history to not be among the leaders in at least one of the major statistical categories.
Now, let’s consider the recent times when the best player on the best team wasn’t really a candidate. Last year’s Warriors won fewer games with four All-Stars. The two Spurs renditions were teams that won on depth and coaching. The Bulls won based on depth and defense.
Historically, voters have made this distinction, and there’s no reason to expect that pattern to change now. With apologies to Celtics’ fans (and a big shout out for Coach of the Year going to Brad Stevens), this is one of those times. The Celtics just don’t have an elite player this year, and being an elite player is necessary to win the award.
There’s a tendency to shoehorn Irving into it, but frankly, he just doesn’t have the production to be in the conversation, whatever his clutch numbers are.
1. James Harden is destroying the world with regularity. Among qualified leaders, he is first in scoring 31.52 and points generated by assist 23.56. He also has the Houston Rockets rolling over everyone in their path. They’ve won 13 of their last 14, with a net rating of plus-17.7 in that span. Boston might have the best record right now, but Houston is arguably the best team. And right now Harden is playing better than anyone in the world. The award remains his to lose.
2. LeBron James has been engaged in the regular season for the first time in a few years–mostly because he needed to be. LeBron doesn’t like to lose, and frankly, the Cavaliers haven’t since he decided it was time to stop. He’s averaging 28.3 points, 8.7 assists and 7.9 boards per game. He’s shooting 58.3 percent from the field, 41.3 percent from deep and 64.0 percent from two. And he’s dominating fourth quarters. The Cavs’ net rating is 31 points better with LeBron on the court during the winning streak.
3. Stephen Curry has a bad finger, and it’s really killing his shooting. He’s only averaging 27.0 points on 51.8 percent shooting and 42.3 percent from deep since missing a game. And his free-throw shooting has plunged all the way down to 85.7 percent. How you gonna win like that? Curry now has 1,995 made threes. Possibly his next game, he’ll become just the 8th player in NBA history to get 2,000 in just his 597th game. The fastest anyone has gotten there was Ray Allen–who took 824 games.
4. LaMarcus Aldridge has carried the weight of the Spurs in the wake of Kawhi Leonard’s injury. He’s averaging 23.0 points and adding 8.1 rebounds. His effective field-goal percentage is a career-high 53.6. And the Spurs net rating is 9.6 points better with LA on the court. He also gets some narrative talk, not just for stepping up, but for doing so after his chat with Gregg Popovich at the start of the season.
5. Joel Embiid is averaging 23.1 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 blocks per game and he’s only playing 29.7 minutes per night. Furthermore, that doesn’t much reflect the effectiveness of his defense. The Sixers’ defense surrenders nearly seven fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. Nor does the Sixers’ record indicate they’ve played the toughest schedule in the league.
Honorable Mention: Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Andre Drummond, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Jokic