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The NBA Needs To Address Its MVP Problem

Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard will be conspicuously absent from The Finals. Maybe the MVP voting needs a change.

Editor's note: Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Perloff will contribute commentary during the NBA Finals. He keeps sending us stuff and The Crossover's editors cannot continually change their email address. If we have to read, so do you.

Remember that crazy season when Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double and James Harden almost did the same thing? Oh right … that was this year. When either Westbrook or Harden walks on stage to accept the MVP award at the NBA Honors event on June 26, neither will have played in over a month (two months in Westbrook’s case).

So why is there a disconnect between the MVP race and playoff success?  And why is that guy from the Dan Patrick Show parachuting in on a debate that peaked four weeks ago? Because the true meaning of “value” is on full display this Finals matchup and worth recognition with the star players on the Cavaliers and Warriors.

Harden, Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard are three finalists, but the three most valuable players in the NBA—LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant—are about to take center stage.

Let’s dive in to some of the reasons why the MVP award represents the wrong kind of achievements this season…

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Not so money ball

The Internet is loaded with deep analytical content for the NBA and everyone—even some analytics guys—acted like Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles were a magical feat. How is that possible?

You don’t have to be a Sabermetrician to realize traditional NBA stats don’t tell the whole story: Points/Rebounds/Assists are as out of date in the NBA as Batting Average/Home runs/RBIs are in baseball. At least batting average tells you something about efficiency. The triple-double stats are woefully incomplete.

Start with points. They’re similar to hits in baseball. The batting champion leads in average, not hits. To a lesser extent, we don’t value total passing yards in the NFL—no one is carving Matthew Stafford’s Hall of Fame bust even though he is one of five QBs to ever throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season. Why do we devalue totals in other sports more than the NBA? This isn’t even a case for analytics, because even the basic NBA stats should be more evolved at this point.

Shooting percentage is the first and most important hole in Westbrook and Harden’s MVP case. Westbrook scored 31.6 ppg but he shot 42% from the field. Harden’s only a little better at 29.1 ppg and 44% from the field. Kawhi stands out among the finalists at 25.5 ppg and 48.5%. When you look at true shooting percentage (2-point, 3-point and foul-shooting combined), Westbrook is tied 142nd in the NBA at 55.4%. Harden is much better—tied for 29th at 61.3%—but mainly because of his prowess at the free-throw line. 

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All three of the real MVPs rank much higher in true shooting percentage—Durant is third in NBA at 65.4%, Curry is 6th at 63.1% and LeBron is eighth at 62.3%.

Rebounds are also incomplete because they don’t differentiate between contested and uncontested. Westbrook did average 10.7 rpg, but 8.0 of those boards were uncontested—the second highest mark in the League behind DeAndre Jordan. If you watched the Thunder and Rockets, it was obvious both Westbrook and Harden were leaving their men to chase boards. Meanwhile, big men like Steven Adams and Clint Capela were doing the dirty work, boxing out and clearing the way for the guards to swoop in and grab the ball.

Assists are confusing because the nature of the word implies they’re an unselfish act. But not the way Westbrook dishes them out. Everyone gives lip service to ball movement. The Warriors and Cavs are playing two or three passes out. Why should the player with the final pass get all the credit. Westbrook is obviously a great passer with elite court vision, but his 10.4 assists per game also speak to his ball dominance. How much pressure are the Thunder putting on all five defenders if Westbrook is the only one creating points? If Curry or Durant’s usage numbers increased to something close to Westbrook’s, they would cripple Golden State’s offense. No one on the Warriors averages more than 7.2 assists per game and that’s the way they like it.

OK, now that my oversimplified Sabermetric points are out of the way, what about less tangible factors ….


The Greenlight Effect

Anyone who’s played pick-up knows that when the guys on your team stink it frees you up to ball out. In basketball every shot you take robs an opportunity from a teammate. When you’re surrounded by talent there’s a lot of pressure. I imagine that’s why Steph Curry’s shooting percentage fell slightly this season. Westbrook and Harden were completely free to do whatever they wanted and played as loose as possible. It’s a major challenge to find a way to fit into a better team and Curry and Durant have achieved that so far. Critics lament super-teams, but you could also celebrate the self-sacrifice and lack of ego we’ve witnessed with the two Finals teams.

Making teammates better

JaVale McGee shows up in Golden State and looks like Wilt Chamberlain in the first half of Game 3 against the Spurs (maybe an older, Lakers Wilt). That’s in part because of ball movement and spacing, but it’s also about confidence. Team culture is unquantifiable, but the Warriors seem to embrace one another and make everyone feel like they’re part of something special. That’s undoubtedly what drew Durant to the team when he met with Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala last summer during free agency.

From an early age LeBron has excelled at helping teammates maximize their talent. He used to be ripped constantly for deferring to other players. But now you can see marked improvement by players like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith. Kevin Love’s place on the Cavs is still a work in progress… but no one’s perfect.

Harden also deserves points for making the players around him better in Mike D’Antoni’s system. But Westbrook appeared to be missing something in this department in 2016-17 as several of his teammates failed to play up to their potential.

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Story time is for kids

The MVP is a narrative award that relies on novelty. Storytelling is nice, but not if it makes everyone ranking these players in the wrong order. We got sick of the Steph Curry story and moved on before we should have. Once he got through the adjustment of playing with Durant, Curry returned right to the top of the mountain. Curry has the highest plus-minus mark (plus-2150 through the first three rounds of the playoffs since they started logging that stat in 1997). LeBron fatigue is also a factor—much like the Michael Jordan MVP fatigue in the 1990s… which leads us to…

Regular season redux

The regular season is less meaningful than ever because of resting. The elite teams sit their players with an eye on a greater prize. The Rockets and Thunder ran Harden and Westbrook into the ground. That helped make them MVP finalists but weakened their chances in the postseason. So the MVP race flies directly in the face of the only thing that matters: advancing in the playoffs.

The MVP vote happening before the playoffs has always led to odd results. No one except Jordan should have won an MVP during his title run, but the voting happened before he carved up the eventual award winners in the postseason. Dirk Nowitzki won the MVP in 2006-07 but exited from the first round of the playoffs. He won a title in 2010-11 and came in sixth in MVP voting behind winner Derrick Rose. Steve Nash captured two MVPs but never reached the Finals.

Some will say the Finals MVP is an answer to this critique, but do we really remember who won the Finals MVP or value that in a meaningful way? If the League is going to wait until June 26 to hand out awards, there’s no reason they can’t wait to vote. If you’re worried the playoffs will be too influential, you’re not giving voters enough credit to discern what matters. 

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Compromise Solution

The Associated Press hands out Offensive Player of the Year and MVP in the NFL. It’s not necessarily a popular option when the two are different, like in 2014 when DeMarco Murray nabbed the offensive honor and Aaron Rodgers won MVP. But it’s a framework that lends itself to the NBA this season. Westbrook and Harden were spectacular and should be recognized for their individual achievements. Just don’t give them an award with the word “value” in it, because that belongs to one of the players in the NBA Finals. Or, if you don’t like splitting the awards, just give it to LeBron.

Now that we’ve mostly sorted out the awards business (I sent in 2,500 words on the Sixth Man Award that no one at SI has responded too yet) … it’s time to sit back and enjoy the two best teams and the three best players compete for the only honor that really matters, the NBA championship.