For all its thrills, the NBA's MVP race is brutal and unforgiving. Candidates are expected to win big, produce huge numbers, possess a compelling story—and to do it all while maintaining near-perfect health.
During the three-point era, MVP winners have missed an average of just 2.3 games per season. Even as strategic resting and playing time management have increased in recent years, that standard has barely moved: The last 10 winners have missed an average of just 2.5 games during their MVP seasons. What’s more, the only player since 1978 to miss more than seven games in his MVP season was Allen Iverson in 2001, turning 75 games played into a hard-and-fast threshold.
This is, of course, disheartening context for James Harden, who had occupied pole position in the 2018 MVP race until suffering a hamstring strain this week.
Houston announced Monday that Harden—the NBA’s leader in scoring, Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares and Real Plus Minus (RPM)—will miss at least two weeks, costing him seven games at minimum. It’s possible that Harden could still land his first MVP trophy with a prompt return to full form and perfect health the rest of the way. But, fair or not, history suggests that his MVP case has been weakened and that his margin for error has been erased, even though his absence will almost certainly underscore his extraordinary value to the Rockets.
“But he missed time” is a powerful deciding factor for nitpicking voters up and down the awards ballot, in part because an absence can erode a candidate’s case in numerous ways. For Harden, his hamstring injury could become more than just a momentum-stalling event should the Rockets’ December hiccups continue into 2018. Houston’s hot start record-wise has faded slightly in recent weeks, as has Houston’s point differential, which dropped from a whopping +10.8 on Dec. 1 to (a still excellent) +8.6 through Wednesday. Further hits can be expected during Harden’s absence, although Houston is lucky that its Thursday showdown with Golden State is its only contest against an elite team over the next two weeks.
Harden’s candidacy is also centered on his ability to be the leading scorer and playmaker on an elite offense. While Houston has jockeyed with Golden State for the league’s best attack all season long, its offensive rating drops from 115.1 with Harden to 106.7 (roughly the NBA’s 10th best offense) without him. It’s far easier to make the case for Harden over Cleveland’s LeBron James, for example, if Houston’s offense, point differential and record are better than everyone besides Golden State. That argument becomes less convincing if San Antonio overcomes Houston in the West’s standings or if Cleveland surpasses Houston in offensive efficiency.
Needless to say, the door is now wide open for James, who entered 2018 as Harden’s chief competition. The four-time MVP’s latest résumé lacks a glaring weakness: Cleveland will likely finish with a top-three record in the East, a top-five offense and a top-seven point differential. James is among the league’s leaders in minutes, he’s yet to miss a game, and he grades out impeccably across the advanced metrics, ranking second in PER, second in Win Shares, and fifth in RPM. Remarkably, the 33-year-old James is posting numbers that he’s never managed before during his Hall of Fame career (27.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 9.1 APG), and the only two players to post a 27/8/9 line during the three-point era were last year’s MVP (Westbrook) and the runner-up (Harden).
James’s case from a narrative standpoint is strong and likely to grow even stronger. He has kept Cleveland near the top of the standings despite Kyrie Irving’s off-season departure and Isaiah Thomas’s hip injury, earning him oodles of “burden” points. He has excelled as a point forward, integrating a host of new teammates and captaining Cleveland’s downsized and interchangeable lineups. He has displayed unmatched staying power, impressing Golden State coach Steve Kerr, and many others, with his ability to play “better in year 15 than year 10.” And given that he’s been viewed as the game’s best player every season since his most recent MVP in 2014, James is set up nicely for a “lifetime achievement” nod as he seeks to match Michael Jordan’s five career MVPs.
The next question to trickle down in Harden’s absence: Which players are best situated to challenge James? Westbrook’s Thunder have been mired in a rocky season. Kawhi Leonard, last year’s third-place finisher, still isn’t up to speed after missing San Antonio’s first 27 games. Thomas, fifth in 2017 voting, only returned to the court this week. And an early 2018 favorite, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, is still figuring out how to translate his individual brilliance into consistent team success. That leaves a fairly short list of leading names on winning teams: Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, and Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
The Warriors’ duo clearly trails James at present, but both should be regarded as compelling sleepers, even though they have failed to generate much buzz to date and are subject to vote-splitting as teammates.
Durant (25.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 5.3 APG) can’t match Harden, James or even Westbrook when it comes to volume stats, and his reputation has taken a series of hits since he left the Thunder in 2016. Regardless, he has checked an awful lot of MVP boxes this season: He plays for the league’s best team, he is a key cog in one of the league’s best offenses and one of the league’s best defenses, he held down the fort while Curry missed time with an ankle injury, and he has remained a model of efficiency. Durant is threatening to join the hallowed 50/40/90 shooting club again this season after first hitting those marks during his 2014 MVP campaign.
However, 2018 Durant is clearly a more complete and refined player than the 2014 version, as he ranks among the league leaders in blocks and stepped up his offense initiation and distribution during Curry’s injury. One helpful point of reference here is actually Leonard, who rode the “Best two-way player” angle to third place last season. Durant is averaging more points, rebounds, assists and blocks than Leonard did in 2017, and his defensive impact exceeds this year’s other leading candidates in Leonard-like fashion.
Curry (27 PPG, 5 RPG, 6.5 APG) missed 11 games in December with a sprained ankle, so he must overcome the double whammy of voters placing a high value on availability (the major issue facing Harden) and voters coping with Warriors fatigue (a major issue facing Durant). At the same time, Curry’s absence last month only reinforced the major arguments that helped him claim the 2015 and 2016 MVP awards. Golden State’s offense was a shell of itself, lacking its trademark excitement, flow and pace. Like Durant, Curry lags behind Harden and James in counting stats, but he makes up for that lack of quantity with the pure quality of his minutes.
The Warriors’ offensive rating with Curry is a preposterous 120.2, nearly 14 points better than when he is off the court. That helps gives Curry, who ranks fourth in PER and second in RPM, a much wider on/off impact differential (+11.2) than Harden, James, and Durant. Among the names mentioned here, only Butler (+16.2) can compare to Curry by this measure, although his figure is juiced by Minnesota’s anemic bench.
Curry, it must also be noted, is pushing for a 50/40/90 shooting season and has box score stats that fall in between the numbers he posted during his two MVP seasons. Golden State’s flip-switching ability and depth shouldn’t be discounted as the second half of the season unfolds, and Curry closed in strong fashion last year when Durant missed time with a knee injury. This hasn’t been a fully healthy season or Curry’s best season, but his influence and standard of play are so high that he belongs on MVP watch lists now that Harden’s injury has shaken up the race.