The NBA MVP award polarises opinions, often creating generous debate and mass hysteria as the candidates are dissected in all manner of ways. Sometimes it raises eyebrows – Karl Malone (1996-97), Steve Nash (2005-06) and Derrick Rose (2010-11) are examples of where compelling arguments could be made for other players who didn’t win. Other times, it has been as simple a selection process as any award in world sport; Stephen Curry last season and Michael Jordan in any of his six MVP seasons were clearly the best candidates. Take a look at the list of players that have won at least three of the awards and you could argue that all eight players (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Moses Malone, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson) are among the greatest 10-12 players in NBA history. To win one of these awards, you are generally a champion player.
This season’s MVP race has seen four players emerge with legitimate claims on the trophy, and each has a unique strength and/or skill set that would make them a worthy winner. In today’s social media era, the scrutiny and public interest on such an award is unreal and voters are accountable by thorough, transparent process. Last season, anyone inept enough to not vote for Curry would have been exposed and had to explain that brain fade – there would have been no argument, insanity aside. However, this season, anyone of Kahwi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James could win and be fully deserving. On a side note, any media member not filling their first four ballot spots with these four guys should have their accreditation removed, but I digress.
All four offer such different benefits and make their case based on unique skill sets. James is the best player today, and one of the five best players ever. Harden is a surgeon, and running the league’s most lethal offense. Westbrook is a human wrecking ball, unlike anything the NBA has ever seen. Leonard is as efficient and effective a superstar as the game has known, dominating with surreal success. But who stands out as the most deserving candidate? Let’s rate them on a few categories – offensive dominance, big game appetite, efficiency, defensive prowess, clutch performances and FU mode.
In terms of offensive dominance, it is surprising to see that Westbrook has far and away the lowest offensive rating (108.0), which places him well behind James (114.9), Harden (113.6) and Leonard (112.4). Of course, when your best offensive teammate is Enes Kanter then you cannot be held fully accountable for this rating. I mean, the other candidates are surrounded by offensive talent but Russ is left to do it himself, leading to an NBA-record usage rate of 40.9. Westbrook also ranks a distant fourth among the quartet in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. James leads the group in all these offensive categories; in his 14th season he is on track for his highest ever offensive rating and third best season in terms of true shooting and effective field goal percentages, despite his team playing at the fastest pace as any team he has ever been on. The guy is a fucking marvel, and we are all witnesses to pure greatness.
For as great as LeBron has been offensively, his defense leaves plenty to be desired. Still capable of defensive dominance, he picks and chooses his spots and has been far more sporadic than he should be defensively. I mean, he still makes Westbrook and Harden look totally fraudulent on that side of the ball, but the gap between the best guy and the rest in this group is huge defensively. Leonard is far and away the best defender in the group, and the best perimeter defender in the NBA. Bill Simmons ranks him as the best perimeter defender he has ever seen…recency bias is strong, but it may not be that strange a claim. We all remember how LeBron handled seeing young Kahwi re-enter the game in the 2013 Finals.
This reaction was because Kahwi owned The King in that series, and if the Spurs have any chance of getting past the Rockets and Warriors this season they need The Claw in full lockdown mode. Leonard clearly has the best defensive rating, and Westbrook is second far ahead of James and Harden; if LeBron wanted to, he could still dominate defensively (ask Andre Iguodala or the entire Boston Celtics team about how a locked in LeBron can dominate the game at that end of the floor) but numbers don’t lie, it is Kahwi first and daylight second.
If Kahwi’s defense is good, his efficiency is better. He plays just four minutes a game less than James, who leads the league in that category but averages almost less than half as many turnovers than James, and roughly a third as many as Westbrook and Harden. His usage ranks ahead of James and just behind Harden, and he ranks a close third behind James and Harden in true shooting and second behind James in effective field goal percentage. His ability to have the ball in his hands most of the time but barely make any mistakes while being the sole focus of the opposition is quite incredible.
No-one is better than LeBron in the big game, as evidenced by the clash with the Celtics last week. James downplayed the game, before single-handedly dismantling Boston and reminding everyone that he is the best. Last year’s Finals were proof that James just needs the platform to raise his game. Harden has struggled mightily against the Warriors, and Westbrook has struggled against most other elite teams (again, mainly because he most offensively proficient teammates is ENES F’N KANTER) while Leonard is a beast against all comers, and is the most understated superstar the league has known. The internet explodes when he smiles, such is his aversiveness to displaying emotion and that is refreshing in an era of manufactured sportsman and fakeness at every turn. The fact remains that when the game is on the line he is THE MAN, as evidenced by this crucial matchup a month or so back against Mr.Harden…Kahwi drills the three, chases down Harden for the block and then grabs the ensuring rebound. If he gets ANY of those three things wrong, his team loses.
A glance through the last few paragraphs would make you think it is a two-horse race between Leonard and James, but perhaps Westbrook’s greatest strength is his performance in the clutch.
Beat writer Royce Young came up with this incredible stat earlier today.
The Thunder are 46-34, so simple maths tells you that Westbrook has directly accounted for 13 wins based on clutch shots. His usage is near on 20% higher than second place in clutch situations (defined as games where the margin is five points, when there is five minutes left in the game) and his player impact estimate is almost 30% higher than the second-placed player. He also ranks second in assist percentage and 12th in rebound percentage in the clutch; some might say he is lucky as the Thunder would be fighting for the eighth spot if he misses half of the game-winning or tying shots he has made but that’s short-sighted – he does it every single night in the clutch for a team that needs every win they can get! He has hit crunch shots in four of the Thunder’s last six road games and has done the same in a handful of home games. LeBron is the pre-eminent clutch player, but Russell takes the crown easily this season.
Lastly, we talk about FU mode which is not some secret code but simply ‘fuck you mode’ which is simply defined as when a player decides enough is enough, and does whatever they need to for their team to win with scant regard for the repercussions. Westbrook lost his running mate Kevin Durant who took the easy option and bolted to the Warriors, and rather than pout he has turned this season into a personal comment against Durant, the opposition, the league and the world. Everything he does on the court is done all full speed; there is talk that his teammates let him shark rebounds, hence the rebounding rate is inflated. So, you are saying a professional sporting team allows their best player (and arguably the most devastating open court player in NBA history) to get rebound so he can push the tempo and dominate…that is a bad thing, how?!? He scowls, talks trash and does everything at warp speed but has done something not done in 50 years. The basketball community is amusing at times – so many media types and ‘experts’ claim that Westbrook averaging a triple-double is passé and not that big a deal. Are you kidding me?? The guy has been consistently dominant and been incredible in taking a very average offensive team to the point where they walk into the playoffs and may well be more than pest value in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, he will need to average 45 points a game for the Thunder to get the 110 points required to beat Houston, but why couldn’t he do it? If his assists numbers drop, is Westbrook selfish? No, he’s not – he will do whatever he can to win!!
Everything said about James is not enough. This guy has a chance to be considered the second-best NBA player in history if he was to win the title again this season, and may well enter the conversation with Michael Jordan as the best player in history with another title win or two. Nothing he does is a surprise, and no-one dominated to the extent as he has over a 14-year period. Logic says Cleveland shouldn’t get close to the Warriors if they play in the Finals, but who would be brave enough to pick against LeBron? If he wanted to win the MVP, he probably would do so but he ranks fourth on my ballot this season despite easily being the best player in the league, again.
The Spurs would trade Leonard for very few, if any players in the league as player and team are a perfect marriage. He is everything the Spurs loved in Tim Duncan – an understated, humble superstar around which they can build a contender year after year and a guy who will only get better. He would be a worthy MVP winner any other year but has to settle for third place this season.
Harden has been elite as an offensive juggernaut and would be a deserving winner. He has gone from giving zero effort last season and being as bad a leader as any team has had in recent memory (your team don’t react like this if you are a good teammate)
Seriously, was enough made of this? His entire bench looked like they HATED the fact he just hit a playoff game-winner?!? Dude must have been a woeful teammate, but he has been anything but this season. Mike D’Antoni has unlocked his potential by running an offense that takes advantage of his generational skill set and it has worked perfectly. They could well lose 4-0 to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, but then again would anyone be surprised if they took the series to 7 games on the back of Harden? Make no mistake, if they are to get past the Spurs in the second round they need him to be at his best, and then he needs to reach another level against Golden State in the next round. He ranks second in my MVP ballot.
There has been much debate on how we should define most valuable, but let me ask you one question. If Russell Westbrook doesn’t play for the Thunder this season, they are offensively reliant on Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo. Even being elite defensively, they would win 20 games at best in today’s fast paced game. That, people, is enough evidence to make this a very easy decision – Russell Westbrook is far and away the NBA MVP for season 2016/17.