JP’s MVP Front-Runners

M-V-P, M-V-P, M-V-P. Late in the game, typically during free-throws, fans throughout the league chant for their hometown-favorite. From Cleveland to Houston to Milwaukee to Philly (despite not seeing much Sixers action I would imagine the locals shout MVP during Embiid’s lengthy routine), fans shower their stars with these chants of praise. Most of these local heroes, however, are not in series contention to hoist the Podoloff Trophy at the end of the season.

The not a chance-ers

Embiid

23.5pts/11reb/3.2ast – FG 48.6%, 3P 30.3%

Joel Embiid is one of the most exciting players in the NBA. All flash on the court and dominant on social media, Embiid has enamored NBA fans around the world. The 76ers feed off of Embiid to the tune of 33-22 when he plays. He is the rare player that teams simply can’t match up with putting out their regular starters. Embiid dominates smaller guys on the block, and can drive by bigger/slower defenders when he starts on the perimeter or at the high post. He is truly one of the few can’t miss guys in the NBA – you have to watch every night to see how other teams try to stop him.

Unfortunately, Embiid just isn’t on the court enough to be seriously considered for MVP. He has only played in 55/66 games, and only clocks 31.2 minutes per game. The rest of the field plays closer to 35/36 minutes, and guys like Russell Westbrook and LeBron James use those minutes to rack up the stats. Joel Embiid is a dominant star, and I look forward to watching him develop his game and compete for the MVP in years to come, but he simply isn’t on the court enough to win it this year.

Giannis

27.1pts/10.1reb/4.7ast – FG 53%, 3P 30%

Giannis Antetokounmpo, along with Kristaps Porzingis and the aforementioned Joel Embiid, are known as the NBA’s 3 Unicorns – they are tall (Giannis is the shortest at 6’11), they are all surprisingly quick for their size, and they can handle the ball effectively. But Giannis is the most dangerous. He might just be the NBA’s best at driving to the hoop. In this respect, Giannis is like the Rickey Henderson of the NBA. Whenever Henderson got on base, everybody in the stadium knew he was going to steal. Even with those eyes on him, Henderson set the MLB record for steals in a season in 1982 when he swiped 130 bags. Henderson stole over 100 bases 3 times in his career en route to the most steals in MLB history – now that’s imposing your will. Giannis has the same gift but for taking it to the hole. Defenders routinely set up at the free throw line when Giannis brings the ball up, and he still goes right by them to get his 27 ppg. To think that Giannis has yet to develop a serious 3-point shot is scary – when he does, he will truly be unstoppable. He isn’t there yet, though, as he is only hitting 29.8% from deep. Giannis came hot out of the gate, beginning the season with 33.7ppg in September. If he can develop his 3-point shooting and sustain the success he had at the beginning of the year, he will win an MVP in the future – but not this year.

Kyrie

24.4pts/3.8reb/5.1ast – FG 49.1%, 3P 40.8%

The Kyrie Irving Saga was among the biggest storylines of the NBA offseason. As we all know, the Cavs traded Kyrie to Boston for an injured Isaiah Thomas, a couple overrated role players, and a high draft pick. Some argued that the Celtics gave up too much, but they got the best player in the trade and that’s almost always a win. Pundits projected the Celtics to win 50-55 games and challenge the Cavs for a ticket to the NBA finals. But those projections changed quickly after Gordon Hayward’s gruesome ankle injury less than halfway through the first quarter of the Celtics first game of the season. Since the opener, Kyrie has been the star Boston needed. Averaging 24ppg and 5apg while shooting over 40% from three, Kyrie has added an elite efficiency to go with his all-world handles – he seems to have the ball on a string when dribbling through opposing defenses. After leading his team to 44 wins through the end of February, it appears Kyrie’s Celtics still have a good shot at 55 wins. But despite being the engine of Brad Stevens’ offense and re-dedicating himself on the defensive end this season, Kyrie still doesn’t have the all-around game that we require from our MVP candidates.

Falling short

DeMar

23.6pts/4reb/5.1ast – FG 46.2%, 3P 32.1%

DeMar DeRozen is one of the most improved players in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, it is late in his career for this kind of a step up; yes, DeMar’s stats aren’t that much better than previous seasons; yes, his scoring is actually a bit less than it was last year – bear with me.

Despite the perception that the last two sentences are contradictory, I stand by labeling this season as an improvement. We’ll start with the obvious: The Toronto Raptors are in first place in the East. At 50-17, the Raptors are 4 games ahead of the Celtics (46-21) and 11 games ahead of the Cavs (36-28). This puts The Drakes on a pace to win about 60 games and earn the top seed in the East. DeRozen has re-committed on the defensive end, and has improved his all-around game by averaging 33% more assists than he did last year as well as shooting the most 3s of his career at the highest percentage of his career. DeRozen’s unselfishness has been contagious as five Raptors average in double figures. Additionally, he’s bearing a heavier burden this year due to a dip in Kyle Lowry’s production (6 fewer ppg, .5 fewer assists per game). Unfortunately for DeMar, no MVP has averaged 23.6 or fewer points per game since Steve Nash had 18.8 per game in 2006. Nash, however, paired his 18.8 with 10.5 assists per game and 43.9% shooting from 3. He may propel the Raptors to the top of the East but he will not bring the MVP trophy north of the border.

Steph
KD

Curry: 26.3pts/5.1reb/6.2ast – FG 49.4%, 3P 42.4%
Durant: 26.6pts/6.8reb/5.3ast – FG 52%, 3P 43.6%

Steph and KD have combined to win three of the last four MVP awards. They are both averaging 26ppg, and they are both shooting 42% from deep. The Warriors dynamic duo along with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, are enduring a “down year” at 51-16. Despite a ridiculous .761 winning percentage that most teams would kill for, the Warriors are having their worst season of the last 4 years. They have already lost 16 games this year and their lost totals in the last 3 seasons are 15 in 2015, 9 in 2016, and 15 in 2017. This season’s Dubs squad is pretty clearly coasting through the regular season to get to the playoffs, very similar to what we saw LeBron do the past few years. I am not saying they take games off, but they appear to be underperforming relative to past seasons. Additionally, it is tough to tell which player is more valuable to the team this year, and that is a bigger problem than winning fewer games when it comes to the MVP race. If the MVP vote is split between Steph and KD, they are both at a huge disadvantage compared to the field. LeBron, Russ, and Anthony Davis, by comparison, get 100% of the MVP votes that players on their team get. Thus, despite [arguably] being two of the five best players in the league, neither of them will win the MVP this year. That being said, neither of them are prioritizing the award, they are solely focused on winning back-to-back championships and becoming the first team since the Kobe/Shaq Lakers to win three titles in a four year period (note that the Lakers won three in a row from 2000-2002).

Russ

25.3pts/9.6reb/10.2ast – FG 44.8%, 3P 28.5%

The reigning NBA MVP is having a good season.However – winning the MVP 2 years in a row is extremely difficult to do in the NBA. If you don’t improve upon your statline from your first MVP season then it’s basically impossible. Steph Curry won back-to-back in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, Curry improved his ppg from 23.8 to 30.1 and his FG% from 48.7% to 50.4%. LeBron won back-to-back in both 2009 and 2010 as well as 2012 and 2013. In 2010 improved to 29.7ppg from 28.4 and increased his FG% to 50.3% from 48.9%. In 2013 he increased his rebound and assist numbers in addition to shooting 56.5% from the field, up from 53.1%, and 40.6% from 3, up from 36.2%. Not only is Russ down 6 points per game, down to 25.3 from 31.6, but he is down a full rebound and 1/5 of an assist. He is, additionally, shooting an anemic 28.5% from 3, down from 34.3%. To add insult to injury, the Thunder are actually playing worse than last year after adding stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Instead of contending for homecourt in the first round of the playoffs, they are fighting just to make the postseason. Russ is having a great 2018 campaign but he will not repeat as MVP.

Ladies and Gentlemen, your NBA MVP Short List

AD

28.1pts/11.1reb/2.4ast – FG 53.4%, 3P 35%

The Pelicans made a splash at the 2017 trade deadline when they traded top -10 pick Buddy Hield to Sacramento, bringing Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins to New Orleans. Boogie and his incumbent running mate, Anthony “AD” “The Brow” Davis, struggled down the stretch in 2017, finishing 10th.

This year has been a totally different story. After the Kentucky kids spent the offseason familiarizing themselves with each other’s games, New Orleans started hot and looked like a dark horse contender. Boogie was actually the Pellies primary MVP candidate until a January achilles injury ended his season prematurely. Since AD lost his front-court mate, he’s been an absolute monster. Davis led the Pelicans to an 8-3 record in February on 35/13/1.5 with over 2 blocks and 2 steals per game, vaulting him into this conversation. Davis, one of the NBA’s pre-eminent talents, has *historically* had trouble staying on the court. AD has only missed a couple games so far this year and will need to remain healthy if the Pellies want a shot at a playoff berth. The Pelicans currently sit 5th in the west (though 3-9 are separated by just 3.5 games) and are 2 games out of 3rd. To have any chance at winning the MVP, AD has to lead the Pellies to a playoff berth and continue his February production. Even if he does help them make the postseason it may be too little, too late. However, if AD continues his torrid pace and the Pelicans can lock up home-court advantage, his efforts may be too great to ignore.

Harden

31pts/5.2reb/8.7ast – FG 45.1%, 3P 37.7%

I think we can all agree that James Harden was robbed of the MVP last year. Sure, Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double last year, but the Thunder finished 6th in the West with the 10th best record overall, and got bounced in five games by Harden’s Rockets in the playoffs. Harden’s 29/8/11 last year should have made him the runaway favorite, yet Russ’s triple-double barrage brought him the crown. This year, Harden is in a good position, possibly even pole position depending on who you ask. The Beard is leading the league in at 31ppg, and is shooting more 3s and at a higher percentage than last year. On top of these improvements, the Rockets boast the NBA’s best record at 53-14, and have won 19 of their last 20. This puts them on pace for 65 wins which would likely make them either the 1 or 2 seed in the West. On the downside, Harden is averaging 3 fewer rebounds and 2 fewer assists than last year. This reduction in counting stats represents around a 20-30% decrease in each stat. Of course, the Rockets added point god Chris Paul over the summer via trade from the LA Clippers – will that count against Harden in the same way that Curry and Durant playing in the same jersey counts against them? Only time will tell, but the Rockets are 38-6 when Paul plays and 45-10 when Harden plays, which might not be enough of a disparity to shift things further Harden’s way. It will come down to how our three finalists play down the stretch but Harden may, ultimately, have his best chance last season.

LeBron

26.9pts/8.5reb/9ast – FG 54.3%, 3P 37.2%

LeBron James is seemingly always in contention for the MVP. He has, unquestionably, been the best player in the league for some time, and the only person stopping him from winning the MVP every year is himself. This is the first year in the last few where he hasn’t seemed to take games off during the middle of the season. In prior years, LeBron sat games out to save his energy for the postseason. Could he almost see this as a lost year?

This is definitely the weakest roster he’s been a part of since at least 2010. LeBron has no clear 2nd or 3rd option this year which hurts his chances at winning his fourth title, but makes his statline that much more impressive. He is 4th in scoring, 2nd in assists, 15th in rebounding, 14th in FG%, 2nd in triple doubles (14 to Russ’s 21) and is single-handedly leading the Cavs to the 8th best record in the league – he is the league’s best all-around player. His 54.3% FG percentage is the highest of all MVP candidates and especially surprising considering the number of 3-pointers and mid-range jumpers he takes.

Think about what the “Most Valuable Player” award represents; it is not the “best player in the league” award, it’s an award for the most valuable. Would the Rockets be a playoff team without Harden? What see would the Warriors be without 1 of KD or Steph? Would the Cavs even make the playoffs without LeBron? These are the questions that start to set LeBron apart from the field. They are key to the argument that bolsters LeBron’s campaign significantly as he and Anthony Davis are the two serious contenders that don’t have top roster talent to work with.

The MVP race is far from over, but without much time left in the season, it would be surprising if one of the current top 3 didn’t win. From my seat, LeBron is currently sitting in pole position, but both James Harden and Anthony Davis have the opportunity to take home the hardware.

Stats from ESPN, NBA.com, and Basketball-Reference

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