2017 NBA Playoff MVP Rankings: Can Anyone Catch LeBron James?
There can only be one.
The 2017 NBA playoffs have featured plenty of star performances. LeBron James has nearly averaged a triple-double while refusing to play along with established conventions about humans needing rest. James Harden has continued to rack up assists and points. Al Horford has showed nearly unmatched versatility at his position. Kawhi Leonard has decided he'd rather not miss shots down the stretches of tight contests.
But only one can be the postseason MVP.
We're using the same criteria for this hypothetical award that exists while trying to hand out the regular-season trophy. Individual numbers matter. So does winning and narrative. Importance to a team has to be a big factor.
Editor's Note: Isaiah Thomas has a great chance to move into a featured spot as the Boston Celtics continue to rack up victories, but these rankings were compiled before his 53-point explosion in Game 2 of the second round. That performance was not taken into consideration.
Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 29.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 blocks
The point guard shot the ball quite well during the Warriors' first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, even knocking down 19 of his 45 attempts from Curry territory. As he's often been over the last few years, he served as one of the league's most dangerous offensive threats, given his penchant for perimeter exploits and ability to swing the ball to Golden State's myriad flamethrowers.
But he wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team, which makes it tough for him to earn anything more than an honorable mention in these rankings.
Would Golden State have won without him? Possibly, even with Kevin Durant missing more time due to injury. Is he the team's best player? Also possible, though Durant will have something to say about that when fully healed.
Still, when it comes to the MVP pecking order, his defensive limitations in a series against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum drop him to No. 2 on his own team.
John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 28.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 11.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.9 blocks
Wall thrived on offense against the Atlanta Hawks and continued his exploits in a Game 1 loss to the Boston Celtics. His combination of scoring and facilitating excellence makes him an unstoppable point-producing presence, lending legitimacy to any arguments that he should be in the hunt for an unofficial postseason MVP.
But two elements of his play hold him back.
Despite Washington's series victory over the Hawks, Wall didn't win his positional battle by much. He allowed Dennis Schroder to torch him on numerous occasions and, in general, was unable to keep the Atlanta floor general from sparking his squad's offense.
Furthermore, he struggled when he was leading a unit comprised of bench players, even getting outscored by 40.7 points per 100 possessions during the 32 minutes he played without Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr, per nbawowy.com.
5. Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 13.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 4.3 blocks
Draymond Green put on a defensive exhibition against the Portland Trail Blazers, whether he was stuffing Damian Lillard at the rim or switching onto wings to keep them from closing a deficit. No matter what role he was thrust into by the Golden State Warriors' coaching staff, he flat-out thrived, keeping his assignments to a meager 38.2 percent from the field.
As Mike Prada explained in detail for SB Nation, Green is at his best when guarding no one and instead operating in space, as exemplified by a play in Game 3 against Rip City during which he literally guarded every single Portland player.
That versatility can't be quantified. And yet, Green's box-score numbers are still so outstanding that he ranks No. 5 in the postseason field for defensive points saved (the defensive portion of NBA Math's TPA) while sitting behind 71 other players in minutes. He's contributing in every way imaginable as a stopper, but he's still not confined to one-way production.
Against Portland, Green couldn't miss, shooting 50 percent from the field and 55 percent on his triples. Throw in his remarkable work as a distributor while still keeping his turnovers in check (2.3 cough-ups per game), and he was the complete package while spearheading Golden State's opening sweep.
4. Al Horford, C, Boston Celtics
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 16.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Remember when Al Horford was overpaid? News flash: He never was.
The big man was well worth a max deal, especially given the cap structure and limited availability of star players during the 2016 offseason. The free-agency climate dictated his pay grade, despite his limitations as a rebounder and the slow start to his tenure with the Boston Celtics.
Now, he's winning over even those who doubted him throughout the regular season.
While Isaiah Thomas fought through adversity—both on and off the court—in a tough first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, Horford emerged as the central two-way figure. His defense helped shut down the interior and force the opposition into an excessive number of jumpers, and his work as both a scorer and distributor sparked the offense:
|Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
Don't be fooled by the defensive swing without Horford since the Celtics bench did a fantastic job against Chicago's second-stringers. His ability to contest shots around the hoop and cut off passing lanes still worked wonders, and his tendency to cede offensive rebounds to Robin Lopez was the only real knock against him.
But it was still offense where Horford went from good to great. His comfort finishing plays around the hoop and knocking down mid-range jumpers opened up lanes for his teammates, and his passing did even more. Boston shot a staggering 55.7 percent off his feeds since he consistently created easy opportunities and found the open man after the Bulls defense compressed around him.
3. James Harden, PG, Houston Rockets
- Russell Westbrook, 62.4
- John Wall, 54.7
- LeBron James, 54.6
- James Harden, 50.5
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 31.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
James Harden keeps doing just about everything for the Houston Rockets on the offensive end.
Through one victory against the San Antonio Spurs and a series win over Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the bearded guard is averaging 31 points while shooting 41.7 percent from the field, 25.9 percent from downtown and 91.0 percent on free-throw attempts. Those percentages may not seem exemplary, but taking 13 trips per game to the foul stripe and converting at such a high clip does wonders for Harden's true shooting percentage, which still sits well above the median in this year's playoff field.
And it's not like he's just a scorer.
Harden's 8.2 assists per game rank No. 5 in the postseason, behind only John Wall (11.1), Westbrook (10.8), Rajon Rondo (10) and Chris Paul (9.9). He also falls short of LeBron James when looking at assist points created per game, which give players credit for facilitating triples, but the combination of his scoring and passing leaves him in even more exclusive territory—one of only four players producing 50 points per contest:
Westbrook was eliminated from contention by virtue of his first-round loss to Harden and Co. Wall was relegated to the honorable mentions for his shoddy defense against Dennis Schroder and his inability to keep bench-laden lineups afloat. James hasn't yet shown up in these rankings, though that will eventually change.
And as for Harden, he's paired his offensive excellence (in fewer minutes per game, mind you) with surprisingly solid efforts on defense—the occasional lapse notwithstanding—and an ability to coalesce with virtually any teammate. He's so close to the top two in these MVP rankings that one more standout performance could easily tip the scales in his favor.
2. Kawhi Leonard, Basketball Robot, San Antonio Spurs
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Kawhi Leonard remains one of the NBA's greatest perimeter defenders, but he's made his living on offense during the 2017 postseason.
Even after a rough Game 1 against the Houston Rockets, he's averaging 29.7 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 52.5 percent from the field, 47.2 percent from long range and 97.1 percent on freebies. It all adds up to give him the top qualified true shooting percentage in the postseason, and he's also pacing everyone in PER, win shares per 48 minutes and offensive box plus/minus.
But the 25-year-old isn't just racking up points because the rest of his teammates are making life easy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as most San Antonio players are struggling to find their offense, allowing margins to shrink and clutch situations to pop up more frequently.
Just take a gander at how Leonard's TPA breakdown compares to every other Spur, per NBA Math:
|Offensive Points Added||Defensive Points Saved||Total Points Added|
|Second Place||6.81 (Tony Parker)||6.57 (Manu Ginobili)||3.13 (Dewayne Dedmon)|
|All Non-Leonard Spurs||Minus-23.8||16.79||Minus-7.01|
He's doing all the heavy lifting, which forced San Antonio into a number of close first-round games against the Memphis Grizzlies. But the pressure hasn't affected Leonard, who has averaged 43.8 points and 5.7 assists per 36 minutes in fourth quarters, shooting 68.2 percent from the field, 80 percent on threes and a perfect 100 percent on free-throw tries.
It gets better.
During clutch situations, defined by NBA.com as anything occurring in the last five minutes of a game separated by no more than five points, Leonard has produced 64.0 points and 7.7 dimes per 36 minutes while slashing 57.1/66.7/100.0.
He may actually be a robot.
1. LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Postseason Per-Game Stats: 33.2 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 2.6 steals, 1.8 blocks
From a purely objective standpoint, Kawhi Leonard has performed slightly better than LeBron James during the early portion of the 2017 postseason. But the MVP award isn't just handed to the NBA's premier player; importance to a team has to matter, and that's where James pulls marginally ahead in spite of the struggles by the non-Leonard members of the San Antonio Spurs.
Yes, Deron Williams has become a dynamite shooter. Channing Frye is dropping in triples. Tristan Thompson has feasted on easy opportunities around the rim.
But those are all byproducts of James' unabashed dominance. He has the scoring chops to draw constant defensive attention, but he's also able to keep his eyes up and make the right plays to create pressure-free chances for the rest of the Cavs. It's no fluke that only John Wall and Russell Westbrook have created more points per game.
With Kyrie Irving struggling to find his offensive footing in the first round (41.9 percent from the field, 21.9 percent from deep and nearly as many turnovers as assists), James has shouldered undue pressure. The Indiana Pacers didn't just roll over and play dead against Cleveland, but instead tested the reigning champions so thoroughly that they completed a sweep with only a 16-point cumulative advantage.
And James was there for all of it, sitting out only 17:03 during the opening round. The Cavs needed every bit of his heroics, whether he was impacting possessions by jumping into passing lanes and locking down against off-ball shooters or nearly averaging a triple-double.
If Leonard keeps up his torrid pace and leads the Spurs to victory against James Harden and the Houston Rockets, he may surpass James. But even that might not happen if the four-time MVP continues his Herculean efforts with nary a breather.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.