The Amazing Race

There are few words that invoke a more individual, opinion-based definition than the word “valuable”. Especially when it comes to sports men and women and attempting to define their greatness or differentiate their talent. As a result, awards like the Most Valuable Player have at times been divisive (for good reasons). Simply put, is the award for the most important player on a team that wins, and can you quantify exactly what he contributes to those victories? Or is it for the guys putting up the gaudy numbers regardless of results? Additionally, what external factors affect our perception of the Most Valuable Player race as well as the players racing, for that matter?

My hoops indoctrination occurred in the 90s…idolising “his Air-ness” and never understanding (or caring for that matter) how anyone besides MJ won any awards. I had no real knowledge or understanding that the awards themselves have historical parameters and are affected by several factors outside of buckets, boards and dimes. How much does winning count? Do you have be a division champion at the regular season’s end to be considered? After all the pursuit of the Larry O’Brien trophy requires a commitment to stacking up those wins to a certain degree.

So for this season I have compiled a shortlist of who I think are the main MVP candidates and added a few honourable mentions out of respect for some amazing performances this season. Let’s get down to business.

James Harden

Current Record: 46-21 (.687) – 3rd in the Western Conference.

Per Game: 29.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 5.8 turnovers.

Shooting Splits: 44.3 FG%, 35.3 FG3%, 84.8 FT%, 62.8 TS%

Usage: 34.2%

The Case For:

The case for James Harden is a simple one; he is making plays and – maybe more than at any time in his career – he is making his teammates better….at least on one end of the floor. His assist number is up almost 4 more than at any other point of his career and his ability to find the free throw line (and make foulies at almost 85%) stresses defensive schemes like few others in the league. Shifting Harden to PG was also genius because it’s made it easier for him to get the ball on every possession and far more difficult to stymie his effectiveness – as opposed to trying to get open off ball while being the focus of the defensive planning. The Beard is an offensive maestro! He possesses a wildly diverse skill set and the instinctive creativity to match. The turnover number is the highest among the award frontrunners, but then again he does have the ball all the time. At the end of the day they’re winning and if not for the evergreen Spurs, they would most likely be a Division leader at this stage of the year.

The Case Against:
What’s not in Harden’s favour is the fact that his team is only a season or so removed from a deep play-off run. Sure last season was a mess but with a smart GM and progressively open minded coach in Mike D’Antoni (pushing the pace and encourage the long range bombing), Harden is playing some of his best ball. One of the biggest problems for his MVP case is that he is widely considered a one way player. Having said that it wasn’t that long ago that he was a decent defender and great scoring option off the Thunder bench deep in the playoffs. Is the problem effort or interest, which really should be what you pay for when handing out max contracts? Or are we unfair to ask him to expend so much energy at both ends of the court? Surely he loathes being publically roasted on YouTube for a multitude of pathetic defensive efforts! The question when considering Harden as a possible MVP is, how much does “run and gun” Mike and his sometimes gross defensive efforts hold him back from the truly elite players in the league? Can a one way monster be considered the league’s best player?

LeBron James

Current Record: 44-22 (.667) – 1st in the Eastern Conference.

Per Game: 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 4.2 turnovers.

Shooting Splits: 54 FG%, 38.5 FG3%, 68.1 FT%, 61.7 TS%

Usage: 29.8%

The Case For:

King James is possibly the most influential person in basketball since the MJ. But the difference with Lebron is that he more than any other player I can recall craves the role of puppet master! He is perhaps the most complete player in NBA history, and clearly makes everyone he plays with better. Perhaps he’s not the best individual talent I’ve seen (that would be Jordan….90s kid remember), but if I was building a team LBJ would be the first player I’d take because he affects everything that happens on the floor. He’s like human no more gaps…..he fills the holes in your roster…..the ultimate problem solver! For that reason he transcends numbers to some degree even though his stats are pretty frickin’ good. His case is highlighted by career high averages in rebounds and assists per game as well as currently shooting the long ball at the second best percentage of his career to date. He is not the defender he was, but can be when he needs to be and still moves with the purpose and power of jungle cat into his early 30s. Only Kyle Lowry averages as many minutes per game as Lebron. He carries his franchise to the point that if he takes a game off, that essentially equates to a Cavs loss. When you combine his basketball IQ, skills and physical flexibility with his durability it’s no surprise that the list of MVP candidates usually starts with Lebron’s name near the top. It really must be good to be the King…even if you say so yourself!

The Case Against:
When does the drop off come? He isn’t quite the freakish athlete he was and not the consistent game changing defender. Clearly he picks his spots and has a great supporting cast when you consider the complementary skill sets of guys like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. His often publically expressed desire for help makes him look “weak” to some and his turnover rate this year is concerning. Lebron as much as any athlete is also judged harshly for the mistakes of his past. I’m not a believer in this thinking but I can see that he may be experiencing some voter fatigue not unlike Jordan at his apex.  At some point his past glories dull the brilliance of his recent performances, I’m not sure why but he is setting the bench mark for length and quality of the fabled player “prime” in front of our eyes. He is an iron man that continues to dominate the league but on the surface doesn’t have that one nasty number that makes our eyes pop out like Jim Carrey’s in the Mask! Having said that, Lebron is on track to set the season record for the highest assist average by a frontcourt player in league history (a record he shares right now with Wilt at 8.6 assists per game). Obviously his obsession with legacy is more tied to rings than MVPs at this stage of the King James experience.

Russell Westbrook

Current Record: 38-29 (.567) – 6th in the Western Conference.

Per Game: 31.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 5.4 turnovers.

Shooting Splits: 41.9 FG%, 33.3 FG3%, 84.1 FT%, 54.6 TS%

Usage: 42.1%

The Case For:

A triple double every night….that’s what he has going for him!! If he manages to reach the end of the year with something not seen since Oscar Robinson (in season 1961-62), then he will challenge the conventional wisdom attached to the MVP award. In terms of year to year numbers Russell has lifted his scoring average by over 8 points and his rebounds by a shade under 3 per game. Russ is leading his team in every conceivable way, and makes the definitive decision on how over 40% of all the Thunder’s possessions end. Even though everyone knows who will have the ball, he cannot be stopped. He is irrepressible, a force of nature more than a basketball player. There is no doubt that leading his squad the 6th spot in the Western Conference standings is no joke, especially when the prevailing thinking that he is a one man band. He plays basketball with violence and energy unlike any other. His intent, scowl on face and combative swagger makes me want to watch him from behind my couch just in case he thinks I’m eyeballing him!

The Case Against:
Watching Russ dominate the ball and put up crazy numbers would be amazing for every spectator in the gym……except maybe those also wearing Oklahoma Thunder uniforms. Sometimes I wonder if they should play with two basketballs so everyone can actually get a touch. There is a school of thought that there is no talent on the Thunder roster but they currently have two top 5 picks  in Victor Oladipo (2nd overall in 2013) and Enes Kanter 3rd overall in 2011) and Steven Adams and Domantas Sabonas who were both selected inside the top 12 picks of their respective NBA Draft classes. That’s not mention guys like Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott that they’ve recently added via trade. By no means are they Westbrook level talents but they are real players that will have their effectiveness capped by waiting around and hoping the pass Russ might make will come to the one of them. Secondly more isn’t always better, Westbrook is easily the least efficient scorer of the top candidates which poses the question, could it be done better by utilising your teammates more?

Kawhi Leonard

Current Record: 52-14 (.788) – 2nd in the Western Conference.

Per Game: 26.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals and 2.1 turnovers.

Shooting Splits: 48.5 FG%, 38.4 FG3%, 89.5 FT%, 61.5 TS%

Usage: 31.4%

The Case For:

Kawhi Leonard is a machine….one that seemingly experiences no highs or lows as he dominates for the Spurs on both ends of the court. Few players in the NBA are clearly the best defensive and offensive players on their team as evidenced by the game leading 3 pointer he made against the Rockets that was followed by pinning Harden’s shot to the glass to secure a win recently. KL is soaking up more possessions than at any time in his career and lifted his scoring average (by 5 points) and assist numbers per game to career highs. In fact his scoring has increased every year he has been in the league but not at the expense of his vice-like defence. He has elevated himself to the clear leader of this team and guided the Spurs to the second best record in the West and right on the heels of the banged up Bay Area Boogiemen. A feat Kawhi can take a lot of credit for when you consider the rapid aging of Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker and the up and down play of LaMarcus Aldridge. The silent assassin is a defensive monster, he’s what Lebron fears is living under his bed in the playoffs. The fact that he has steadily improved his offensive play is testament to his work ethic and why Pop gave up one of his favourites (George Hill) to draft him 15th overall in 2011. He is the Terminator…..and as Kyle Reese once said “It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop!”

The Case Against:

The Pop effect! The Spurs have won 50 or more games in 19 of the last 20 NBA seasons, all of which have been under the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei….I mean Greg Popovich (must get boring really)! They are the model of consistency and adaption and under Pop have reinvented themselves on several occasions to maximise the talent on their roster. In terms of Leonard’s MVP candidacy it poses an interesting question, how big of a cog in the San Antonio machine is he? Not unlike other sporting franchises with storied coaches (Bill Belichick and the Patriots), it is hard to know exactly where the scheme and talent intersect and which part is the more responsible for the team’s success in each case. Also does his reserved nature and lack of self-promotion actually hurt his case compared to the more bombastic characters in the MVP race? In terms of greater recognition does doing your job included telling us all about how well you’re doing it?  There is no doubt that Kawahi is a star but when you have the Emperor of the Galactic Empire behind you, it must slightly weaken your stance as one of the NBA’s true elite players.
Honourable mentions:

Kevin Durant

Current Record: 53-14 (.791) – 1ST in the Western Conference.

Even though the Slim Reaper has averaged more points per game in his career, he has never had a higher FG%, rebounded the ball more or blocked more shots per game that he did before going down with injury. He is a surgeon, precision personified when it comes to putting the ball in the bucket. He also had been amazing stepping up defensively and replacing some of the rim protection of Bogut and taking the defensive match-ups that used to belong to Harrison Barnes. Had he maintained his play and the Warriors rolled to another league leading record he may well have been a 2 time MVP!

John Wall

Current Record: 41-25 (.621) – 3rd in the Eastern Conference.

Wall is in the process of putting up career highs in FG%, points, assists and steals this season. Sometimes you have to watch his games in slow motion or you’ll miss him. Blazing speed even with the rock and great floor vision highlight his skill set. However Walls patchy shooting, the emergence of Porter and relative health of Beal may be stealing some of his shine as well as his slower start due to preseason knee surgery. The Wiz are 3rd in the Eastern Conference currently and are stalking the Celtics down the stretch, but this feels like a young core coming of age rather than the John Wall show.

Isaiah Thomas

Current Record: 42-25 (.627) – 2nd in the Eastern Conference.

IT’s rapid rise form the 60th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to the “King of the Fourth” is a great story and one that he should be lauded for because his self-belief and the work he has clearly put in. Boy can he fill it up! The problem for him is that defensively he is terrible. Some of that is attributed to his stature. His lack of range defensively makes teammates have adjust slightly positionally and that draws some attention away from their own defensive responsibilities. He is a willing defender to be fair but as hard as he works, he will always be defensive liability.

The Wrap

There are a couple of guys that perhaps could’ve been covered in this article……if you think so then maybe you should have written it! Value is relative, so what should be the common factor to help differentiate the MVP candidates? Obviously the answer is……WINNING!

The perfect example is the Big O’s triple double average season. Guess what, he came third in the MVP race in that year. In fact Wilt Chamberlain didn’t win it either and he averaged 50.4 points and 27.5 rebounds. The award went to Bill Russell who was collecting 18.9 points. 23.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists (and probably a million blocks that weren’t recorded at the time) while being the predominant winner in the NBA at that time. That season the Celtics took home the title after putting up a 60-20 season, owning the best record in the entire league (consisting of 9 teams)!! This tells us that the Most Valuable Player Award was and still is directly correlated to winning games every night.

Since 1985 no Most Valuable Player Ward winner came from a team seeded any lower than 3rd in their respective conference at the end of the regular season and this only occurred 2 times in that span. It seems that those lucky enough to shape the awards season value winning and honestly that is the way it should be. What’s the point of lacing up 82 times if the results of those games are irrelevant to the post-season? Although I do believe that a great production over the course of a season deserves recognition by the wider basketball community, the best thing about the NBA is that ultimate glory can only be achieved by a team.


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