The Case Against Every 2017 NBA MVP Candidate
Somebody is going to win the 2017 NBA MVP award, and that somebody—whether it's Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard—will have advocates nodding, justifying and exclaiming delightedly that he deserved it.
You know what? Those advocates will be right. This year's race is sure to yield a worthy winner, as all four of those players (and a handful of others just outside the main conversation) have unusually strong cases.
Deciding whose is strongest feels almost impossible. So let's flip it and build the cases against every MVP candidate.
If you're building an argument against one of this year's potential MVPs, what do you focus on? Where are the weaknesses—such as they are?
This is going to get ugly, and it's not going to feel fair. We'll weigh one candidate against the others, which means whenever we say anything nice about one of them, it'll only be in service of denigrating his competitors.
Let's tear them all down.
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Russell Westbrook's narrative is better than James Harden's, and that matters.
Harden is coming off a crummy 2015-16 season of underachievement. He's also getting propped up by a three-point-heavy, tuned-up system that would inflate anyone's numbers if they had the scoring and playmaking responsibilities he does.
This isn't a redemption angle for Harden. It's more of an environment optimizing his gifts.
Westbrook, on the other hand, is single-handedly elevating a team that lost a former MVP, can't shoot a lick and creates virtually nothing on offense unless he's the one doing it. His rise, and the feral flair with which he's willed his team to the playoffs, is a far better story than Harden's.
Plus, the Beard plays no defense, can't touch Westbrook's triple-double dominance and will not be the first thing we remember about the 2016-17 regular season a decade from now. Westbrook averaging a triple-double, leading the league in scoring and crushing every previous clutch usage statistic will be the historically significant story.
In light of all this, Harden can't win MVP.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Harden's Rockets are going to win at least 55 games, and team success typically matters in the MVP debate. That's going to hurt Westbrook's chances, as his Thunder will probably finish with around 10 fewer victories than Harden's Rockets will.
Since 1985, just two MVPs have been on teams that finished lower than second in their conferences: Michael Jordan (1988) and Karl Malone (1999). Both were third.
Houston is going to finish in that No. 3 spot, which puts Harden's candidacy on thin ice. But at least there's a historical precedent working in his favor. For Westbrook, whose Thunder likely won't climb any higher than sixth in the West, there's no chance.
Consider, too: Westbrook's true shooting percentage ranks 26th among the 35 players averaging at least 15 shots per game this year. He's also shooting just 34.0 percent from long range. Are we sure he shouldn't be playing more team ball?
Throw in the stat-hunting and inherently arbitrary significance of the triple-double, and you have a player putting up terrific cosmetic numbers on a middling playoff team. That's fine, and Westbrook has been highly entertaining this season.
But fine and entertaining aren't the criteria for the league's highest individual honor.
In light of all this, Westbrook can't win MVP.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Voter fatigue has often been the best way to get around giving LeBron James the MVP award every year.
If you're starting a team from scratch, he's still the guy everyone would pick first, and that gets a little boring. We're desensitized. Have been for years.
In addition to that, though, we can level the team-success argument against James this season. His Cleveland Cavaliers have surrendered on defense, ranking 22nd on the year and 28th since the All-Star break in points allowed per possession. As a result, Cleveland went just 7-10 in March and may not finish with the top seed in a mostly unimpressive Eastern Conference.
That's not all on James, who's averaging career highs in assists and rebounds while posting the third-best true shooting percentage of his career. But if we're always so keen to reward big win totals with MVP awards, we have to withhold them when the losses mount.
On a more serious note, it's conspicuous how one doesn't have to make ridiculous reaches to argue against James' candidacy. Picking at Westbrook and Harden's credentials felt farcical. But even though James is the best player in the world, these gripes about his worthiness are legitimate.
In light of all this, James can't win MVP.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
For starters, the acceptance speech would be terrible.
"Thanks or whatever. Smaller than I thought," Leonard would mumble before walking off and discarding the trophy in a trash can, leaving the broadcast with an hour of airtime to kill.
Aside from making for bad TV, a Leonard win would effectively signal that MVP voters don't care about stats anymore. That seems unlikely, and whether you prefer advanced metrics or old-school averages, Leonard doesn't stack up with the front-runners.
Harden creates a league-high 27.2 points per game via assists, and Westbrook is the runaway NBA leader in box plus-minus. Leonard, meanwhile, creates just nine points per game via assists and checks in at No. 7 in box plus-minus.
Yes, he's on a better team than any candidate listed so far. And yes, he's still the league's best perimeter defender while somehow becoming an elite No. 1 option on offense. But the guy is barely in the top 10 league-wide in scoring, and he averages fewer assists and rebounds per game than each of Harden, Westbrook and James.
In light of all this, Leonard can't win MVP.
"I think it's comical that people were saying I'm having a down year," Curry told B/R's Kevin Ding. "To go black and white and say I'm not having as good a season as I was having last year based on just five points a game or shooting percentage or whatnot…there are other things that you try to do other than just the eye test to try and help your team win."
True, but voters aren't going to give credit for accommodating Kevin Durant early on. They'll focus on that five-point scoring decline and the lowest three-point percentage of Curry's career.
When you set the bar at "Unanimous MVP," there's nowhere to go but down.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
KD's knee injury will cost him just over a month, which all but disqualifies him—as does the presence of a better player, Curry, on his own team. It would have been fascinating to see where his candidacy wound up without the injury, though, as Durant has been the most efficient high-volume scorer in the NBA.
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
The fourth-quarter scoring and broad appeal of being an undersized dynamo can't overcome the defensive issues. Thomas grades out as one of the league's worst players on that end, ranking dead last among 461 players in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus metric.
MVPs can be below-average on D, but they can't be glaring liabilities.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Butler's team stinks, and he can't match the volume production of anyone we've listed so far. Even if he's the only reason Chicago might make the playoffs, questions have always lingered about his leadership capabilities.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
In a vacuum, averages of 23.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.7 assists would warrant serious MVP consideration, as no one has ever posted those marks in a season before. But it feels a little early for Antetokounmpo to be considered a legitimate MVP candidate, and his Bucks won't even have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The best player on the Eastern Conference's fourth-best team has no chance. Wall creates the second-most points per game via assists, and he ranks second in steals and 17th in scoring—fine for All-Star consideration, but nowhere near MVP credentials.