January 20, 2019

After a hiatus, the MVP ladder is back. Apologies to those of you who missed it, but my flu battling the extra work from the trade deadline made the Ladder an innocent victim. On the bright side, nothing really changed.

If anything, James Harden stretched his lead.

To put things in perspective, here are the top 10 in total stats the last two weeks:

The first thing you’ll notice is Harden is the NBA leader at 50.2 total stats per game. Anthony Davis is second at 47.9. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice there are two names not in the top 10: Kevin Durant (16th at 35.9) and Stephen Curry (22nd at 32.9). The only other person who is even a credible part of the MVP conversation is LeBron James, who is fifth, at 44.3.

So the big question here: Who is even second?

There’s almost no argument against Harden as the front-runner now. As I noted yesterday for 94 Feet Report, the statistical argument for him is almost ironclad. His placement in the following categories on the season:

· Points per game: 1 (31.3)
· Player Efficiency Rating: 1 (30.3)
· Usage Percentage: 1 (36.1)
· Win Shares: 1 (10.6)
· Win Shares per 48 minutes: 1 (.296)
· Offensive Win Shares 1 (8.3)
· Box Plus Minus: 1 (10.0)
· Offensive Box Plus/Minus: 1 (10.6)
· VORP: 2 (5.5)
· Real Plus Minus: 2 (6.03)
· Assist Percentage: 2 (45.1)
· Assists per game: 3 (8.9)

The Houston Rockets are tied with the Golden State Warriors for the fewest losses on the season, and they’ve beaten the Warriors twice–the exception being the game that Harden missed. They are als0 2-0 against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

That makes Harden 4-0 against his next three competitors.

So what about narrative? Does Golden State coasting through the regular season, bored and waiting for the playoffs make a great narrative?

How about the Cavaliers turning into a dumpster fire around LeBron James? Maybe, if James had carried them through said dumpster fire without any burns. But he didn’t, and there is at least some evidence that part of what was burning was trash he threw in said dumpster.

Jimmy Butler was making a push, but the Timberwolves have stumbled a bit in the last week. Russell Westbrook was reminding people he existed, but the Thunder lost five of their last seven, and he played in four of those games. The fact is the Thunder have a better chance of missing the playoffs entirely right now than catching the Rockets.

So again, I ask, where is the challenger. Usually, at this point in the season, we have it down to two guys. The last time we didn’t was 2016 when Stephen Curry became the only unanimous winner in history. While Harden may not reach that pinnacle, it’s becoming more of a possibility than someone else winning it.

So here’s the ladder with a “who’s number 2 slant?” with arguments for and against No. 2. The prospective No. 2s are in alphabetical order.

1. James Harden, for reasons outlined above.

2. Jimmy Butler: If you want to base this just on RPM wins, Butler has a great case, since he leads the NBA in that. He is not the most spectacular player, and he’s not leading the league in highlight plays. But he’s a winner, and he’s turning the T-Wolves into winners. But the problem is, Minnesota hasn’t won enough to get it done. They’re just too far behind the rest.

2. Stephen Curry is the catalyst of everything the  Warriors do on offense. They are clearly just a better, more explosive team when he’s there. The Dubs are better with Curry and no Durant (+16.5 net rating) than Durant and no Curry (+6.4). That 10-point differential is hard to look past.

2. Kevin Durant is a better two-way player than Curry is. He’s in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, in fact. When you’re arguably the best scorer and defender in the NBA, you should get some MVP consideration. But the problem is, for whatever reason, that just doesn’t have the measurable impact that you think it should. It has an impact, don’t get me wrong. But not as much as Curry’s and if you’re not the MVP of your team, how can you be the MVP of the league?

2. Kyrie Irving’s argument was mostly based on being Boston’s best player. Even that was a bit tortured as the only reason the Boston part of that argument was relevant is that they had the No. 1 seed in the East. Now Toronto has passed them, and even that’s not very valid. At 24.6 points and 5.0 rebounds, Irving’s statistical case is weak. Even his clutch numbers aren’t that impressive anymore.

2. LeBron James has the numbers, but the Cavs are the No. 3 seed in the weaker conference, have lost to the Rockets twice, and still own 28th-ranked defense in the NBA.  Yes, there were a whole bunch of trades, and Cleveland may be situated. But if your best argument for LeBron is “they made a bunch of trades at the deadline,” you have a pretty weak argument. The reality is that while you can’t put all the blame of those issues on LeBron, you can’t absolve him of any blame, either. He is the leader of the team, and he owns at least part of the responsibility for the struggles.

So who is number two? Or is there just no real challenger at this point. In which case you have to wonder if Harden can be the next unanimous winner.




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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