We’re past the 50-game mark of the NBA season, and that’s when the MVP talk usually starts to heat up. Two of the frontrunners–arguably the two frontrunners–are Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors and James Harden of the Houston Rockets.
They have certain things in common; both are elite point guards on teams who implement analytically-driven offenses. The systems are very different, but have nearly equal efficiency.
The Warriors lead the NBA in offensive rating at 113.8. The Rockets are second at 112.3.
They are both very good 3-point shooting teams, with Houston ranking first and Golden State third in buckets made behind the big arc. They get a similar number of buckets at the rim; the Ships get 17.9 and the Dubs get 17.4.
Yet, apart from that how they derive those points is incredibly different. The Warriors average 30.6 assists per game; the Rockets just 22.2. The Warriors pass the ball 324.8 times per contest (third-most); the Rockets just 26.14 (second-fewest).
The Rockets love running iso sets with Chris Paul and James Harden collapsing defenses and using their passing skills to find their spot-up shooters.
The Warriors love to set screens for their shooters and move the ball around.
Harden is averaging over 52 points per game combined, including both his passing and shooting this season. It is his second season doing that with a true shooting percentage above 60. No other player in the history of the game has done that.
Curry can dominate a game just by existing on the court. Even when he doesn’t have the ball, defenses will honor him hanging back several feet from behind the 3-point line because the Warriors can all pass, and he can basically hit shots from anywhere. His gravity, therefore, is the greater test of his value than his actual production, and his production is at an MVP level.
Both are the primary player responsible for the success of the offense they are in. With both offenses being among the 10 most efficient in NBA history, it’s hard to fault the systems or the way they are running it.
The problem we run into is when we start asking how Curry would run the Rockets or how Harden would fit in with the Warriors. First, these are purely hypothetical, and a lot of what we “know” ends up falling flat when we consider these things.
We drooled all over ourselves envisioning the Kevin Durant/Curry pick-and-roll, but that never came to pass. Many questioned how well Harden could play with Chris Paul, and that seems to be working out fine.
Why would our hypothesis on things that will never come to pass be any more accurate than those of hypotheticals that have?
The second thing is that teams are built around their superstars. Curry would thrive more in Golden State because it’s built around him. Harden is better in Houston because it’s designed to complement his strengths.
We should evaluate players based on what we do know, which is how important they are in the systems they are in. In both Curry’s and Harden’s case, that’s just stupidly important. While there’s room to debate who is more “valuable” in their system, that should be the debate. Evaluating them based on how you think they would perform in another’s is neither verifiable nor relevant.
Having settled that, let’s move on to this week’s ladder.
1. James Harden – He’s leading the league in scoring and averaging 9.0 assists. While his defense still isn’t “elite” it’s better than it’s ever been and he’s made some huge defensive plays down the stretch. He’s improved in the areas where he’s received criticism historically. And he’s finished second twice. If this is even close, he probably gets the “tie-breaker” just on the “it’s his turn” mentality.
2. Stephen Curry – There simply are not enough superlatives to describe Curry. He’s averaging 28.1 points on 68.0 percent true shooting, which is up from the 66.9 percent when he won the award unanimously. Voter fatigue and the fact that he could split votes with Kevin Durant probably tip the vote to Harden’s favor, though.
3. Kevin Durant – Durant is averaging 25.8 points, 7.0 boards, 5.6 assists and 2.0 blocks. The only other player to (officially) have those numbers was Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1975-76. Guess who won the MVP that year?
4. Kyrie Irving – Irving did his level best to help the Cs get past the Ws but in the end, he got out-Kyried by Curry. Honestly, the drop-off form three to four here is massive. It’s the difference between having and not having a realistic chance to win it.
5. Russell Westbrook – As OKC has decided to let Russell be Russell and the other stars have tried to fit with him instead of he them, the Thunder is starting to roll. They now sit just half a game behind the Wolves for the No. 4 seed after reeling off eight straight. Westbrook is averaging 29 points, 10.3 assists and 9.0 rebounds over that stretch.
Honorable Mention: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul