James Harden should be this year’s MVP. Stephen Curry has done more with more. Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis have done less with less. And LeBron James has done less with more. But no one has done more with less than James Harden.
MVP conversation always comes down to the meaning of value. When considering that, we can’t take each year in isolation, otherwise we end up making an argument that just suits our temporal preference. There is a precedent to quantify value, and in considering this year’s MVP, we should review that history.
There are three common factors represented by voters historically: the quality of the player, the success of his team and the quality of his teammates (determined by whether he had a teammate who received MVP votes).
I previously reviewed the MVP voting since the merger in the 1977-78 season according to these factors, and here is the consistency with which each criterion was met:
Players were ranked strictly according to where they finished in win shares, per Basketball-Reference.com. Standings were based on team record, league-wide, without consideration of seeds. As you can see, the greatest commonality is a top team, followed by being a top player, followed by a top teammate.
Some might argue: “Why use win shares?” I also looked at Player Efficiency Rating and found that there was a stronger correlation with win shares. I’m not evaluating the quality of the metric. I’m making an evaluation based on which one historically has the best predictive value for MVPs, and that’s win shares.
I applied the same methods to this year’s MVP race.
In the chart below I looked at where players are currently ranked in win shares and where they are in the standings. Bear in mind that the shorter columns are better.
Of the mainstream candidates, only two players are in the top four in both team standings and win shares: James Harden and Stephen Curry.
Chris Paul is close in both, but it’s hard to justify putting him in over Harden or Curry who have put up better numbers with better teams. The same goes even more for LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.
In short, if we’re going off the numbers, it’s a two-way race between Curry and Harden. This is not uncommon. Typically, the field narrows down to two, and from there it becomes about who has the best story.
Narrative usually means all that stuff that doesn’t fit into stats. It’s about how a player helps his team through adverse situations. It’s how Derrick Rose won his award in 2010-11. It’s how Steve Nash won his second MVP in 2005-06.
In both cases, their teams suffered through a myriad of injuries, but the player in question kept the team in contention.
The argument for James is a flip on this argument. His advocates look at how much his team struggled when he wasn’t in. The contention for Westbrook is how he’s carrying his team to the postseason by posting Oscar Robertson-type numbers since the All-Star break.
All are valid narratives, but not as good as Harden’s.
The argument for James suggests that he should be rewarded for what his team didn’t do while he wasn’t doing anything. Yes, the team was horrible while he was gone, but why should what James didn’t do trump what Harden did do?
When Harden's co-star went out, he carried the team, not just for a couple of weeks, but for more than half the season. In fact, Harden has had his starting five twice this season and not at all since Halloween.
For each team, I looked at how many games the second-best player missed. Here are the players and the teams:
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving
- Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson
- Houston Rockets: Dwight Howard
- Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin
- New Orleans Pelicans: Tyreke Evans
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant
The chart below shows how many games were missed by each team’s No. 2 and the total number of starts missed by the team, not including those missed by the candidate.
* For the Cavaliers, I counted the games prior to the arrival of Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith as missed starts.
Even not including the games started by Anderson Varejao et al., the Cavaliers are tied with the Warriors for fewest starts lost. The Rockets have had the most injuries of any team with a player in the MVP hunt, and by a hefty margin. Even the Thunder are a distant second. And the Rockets have been without Howard for only five more games than the Thunder have been sans Durant.
And this is where Harden shows how much he distinguishes himself in the narrative discussion. One of the most amazing stats about him, this year, is how he’s carried the team with Howard hurt. When Harden and Howard both play, the Rockets are 22-10 (.688). With only Harden, they are 24-12 (.667).
By comparison, the Thunder are 18-9 (.667) with both Westbrook and Durant and only 16-11 (.593) with only Westbrook. In other words, even without Howard, the Rockets have the same winning percentage as the Thunder do with both their superstars!
I also looked at each candidate, the number of win shares they have and the number their teammates have. Only Anthony Davis has had less help. Davis and Harden are tied for the highest percentage of win shares on their team.
This demonstrates that not only is Houston a better team, they are better because Harden makes them better. The difference between Houston and the Pelicans or Thunder in the standings exists because of the difference between Harden and Westbrook or Davis on the court.
So, if we’re going to talk about carrying a team by the scruff of its neck to the playoffs, let’s not just give credit to guys who are duking it out to barely make it—let’s give credence to the man who has put his team in contention for No. 2 seed in spite of less help and more adversity.
The MVP has always been difficult to define because of the moving variables. But the one definition that seems to always fit is that it goes to an elite player who makes his team an elite team. No one fits that definition better than Harden this year, and that’s why he deserves to be MVP.
Stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com.