This year’s MVP race is undoubtedly one of the most exciting battles we’ve had in years. James Harden has elevated his game to level no one saw coming, thanks to Houston’s hiring of offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni as head coach and Harden’s shift to point guard. Kawhi Leonard has improved from last season, when he finished second in MVP voting, assuming the role as the unquestioned leader of yet another 60 win season for the San Antonio Spurs. Russell Westbrook is on pace to make history, becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to average a triple double while also tying (and likely surpassing) Robertson’s record of 41 triple doubles in the regular season – two records previously considered unbreakable in the modern era, unless you’re Austin Rivers of course. And finally, LeBron James has arguably had his best statistical season in years, setting career highs in rebounds and assists while guiding the Cavaliers to the top of the Eastern Conference once again.
All four players have well supported arguments in their favor, but I’m sure you’ve heard enough about that. It’s time to take a look at the evidence against each player, which makes the MVP debate even more unpredictable and compelling.
Arguments Against Each NBA MVP Candidate
James Harden: D’Antoni-Influenced Inflation
What’s with this media love affair of James Harden in 2016-17? One year he’s the media’s scapegoat as the worst defensive player in the league, and the next year he’s all of a sudden a top candidate for MVP. Did people forget he still doesn’t play defense? Well in case you forgot, James Harden is still a lazy defender.
Sure, Harden has some fancy offensive numbers, but I’d like to call that the “D’Antoni Effect”. Thanks to Mike D’Antoni’s high powered offensive system, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell once combined to average 42.8 points per game in 2007. Freakin’ Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell. That’s more than Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have ever averaged together in their careers, with the exception of the 2013-14 season, when they barely beat out the dynamic duo of Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell.
It should be no surprise that Harden has put up the stats he has given the fact that every single Houston Rockets possession is either a way-too-fast fastbreak, a James Harden isolation, or a James Harden drive-and-kick. Find me any All-Star guard and plug him into D’Antoni’s system, and you’ll see inflated stats just as Harden has produced this year. Harden has the highest usage rate of any player not named Russell Westbrook since 2005. 2005 was also the year that Shaquille O’Neal debuted for the Miami Heat, the Charlotte Bobcats first opened their arena doors (they aren’t even the Bobcats anymore!), and Reggie Miller retired from the NBA. So yeah, it’s been a long time.
Harden has that smooth, silky stroke from downtown, earning the reputation as one of the best three point shooters in the league, right? Well, not exactly. His 34.5% clip from beyond the arc ranks 124th in the NBA. I’m not even going to begin listing players who I like to classify as “players who should never shoot better than James Harden from downtown yet they somehow are.”
Speaking of shooting percentages, Harden has been at his worst against top competition this year. If the Rockets are going to have success in the playoffs, they’re going to have to beat the Warriors, and, well, Harden hasn’t exactly been too effective against Golden State this year. In four games against the Warriors, Harden shot 31.5% from the field and 14.7% from three point range. MVP’s can’t shoot that poorly against the the league’s top team. Sorry, James.
Kawhi Leonard: Not This Year
If the discussion is about who holds the most value to the Spurs, it may not even be fair to give that award to Kawhi Leonard over Gregg Popovich. The Spurs’ string of success has more to do with the coaching, culture, and discipline instituted by their brilliant mastermind of a head coach. Leonard is simply the quiet, humble player with freakish athleticism and talent who scores the most points.
Widely considered the NBA’s best defender, Leonard has slipped in most defensive categories this season. He was top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares last year, yet now he’s seventh and sixth respectively. Leonard’s defensive box plus minus – a statistic that measures a player’s defensive contributions relative to league average – is just 1.5, by far the lowest of his career. Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert, Leonard’s top competition for Defensive Player of the Year award, sit first and third in the league in defensive box plus minus at 4.9 and 4.7 respectively, yet Leonard doesn’t even crack the top 100 of the list with his mark of 1.5. Leonard is still a great defender, but in a year where his defense hasn’t been at its best, how can he win his first MVP award?
Offensively, Leonard has averaged a career-high in points, yet his shooting percentages are some of the lowest of his career. The 2014-15 season has been the only season of Leonard’s six-year NBA career in which he has posted a lower effective field goal percentage than he has this year. Once again, if Leonard is having a down year for himself, then how can he be the most valuable player of the entire league?
Factor in the team-first system and talented team around him in San Antonio, and the argument against Kawhi Leonard’s MVP case continues to add up. Maybe one day Kawhi Leonard will be crowned as the league’s MVP, but not this year.
Russell Westbrook: Triple-Doubles Are Nice, But…
You’ve heard plenty about Westbrook’s record-setting triple doubles, but maybe there’s a reason for these inflated stats. Watch any offensive possession of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball from any game of the season, and see what happens. Odds are that Russell Westbrook has the ball in his hands for the majority or even the entirety of the possession. The Thunder offense literally consists of getting Westbrook the ball and letting him go to work. It’s as if head coach Billy Donovan hasn’t even created offensive plays or a system for this season, so yeah, it makes quite a bit of sense that Westbrook has put up huge numbers.
Westbrook’s usage rate is set to finish as the highest since…ever. With a usage rate north of 40%, Westbrook is set to break Kobe Bryant‘s record of 38.74. Just like I argued with Harden, give any player the ball that often and the level of control over the offense that Westbrook has, and he’ll produce some pretty impressive stats.
Okay, so Westbrook’s extreme usage rate accounts for his double digit points and assists. What about rebounds? Well, Westbrook’s career high in rebounds can be attributed to the fact that he pads his stats by going for uncontested rebounds. Westbrook leads the league in what the NBA calls “uncontested rebounds” – rebounds in which no one else is really around to grab the loose ball. Teammates often times back out of the way so Westbrook can tally up another rebound, and Westbrook often dives in for easy rebounds off missed free throws. He’s averaging 8.6 uncontested rebounds, good for first in the league, while averaging just 2.1 contested rebounds per contest, which ranks 64th(!!!) in the NBA. Something seems a bit fishy here.
Another factor contributing to Westbrook’s “impressive” rebounding numbers? His tendency to slack off on defense. As of April 1, Westbrook ranked dead last among players who play over 30 minutes per game with 160 contested shots on the season. Also, he ranks third to last among such players in defending three point shots, trailing only seven footers Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. How is it possible that DeAndre Jordan defends more three pointers than Russell Westbrook? Teammate Steven Adams, another seven foot center, defends nearly double the number of field goals per game as Westbrook does, including 5.3 shots from 15+ feet away from the basket, in comparison to just 3.9 of such shots contested by Westbrook. Remember, Westbrook is a guard, and Adams is a center. How is Adams contesting 33% more shots from 15+ feet away from the basket than Westbrook is? Oklahoma City’s big men are picking up the slack for Westbrook on defense while he cheats around the rim for rebounds.
These alarming stats suggest Westbrook is more concerned with padding his stats than he is with playing tough, winning defense. Maybe that’s why his Thunder are just sixth in the Western Conference, another reason why Russell Westbrook isn’t worthy of MVP.
LeBron James: The Jungle’s Most Overrated King
With the most talented surrounding cast James has ever had, his Cleveland Cavaliers are likely going to finish with one of the worst regular season records James has ever had. The front office added the likes of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams to a team that was already the most talented and deep team James had ever played for, yet the Cavs have failed to dominate like one would expect. If the Cavs were a commanding 60+ win team, then James’ case for MVP becomes more appealing. However, they’re not.
These Cavaliers have struggled to find the success they experienced during last year’s playoffs, and much of that has to do with LeBron James’ inability to bring this team fully together. Considering James rallied the troops together last season, he should’ve been able to do it this year, too, with a more talented and experienced roster that already knew what it feels like to win. Instead, James was left begging the front office for more players like a spoiled brat while stacking up losses late in the season. The Brooklyn Nets won more games in March than the Cavaliers did. Yep, the same Brooklyn Nets who play Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Justin Hamilton 62.8 combined minutes per game.
James has frequently sat out games due to rest, which certainly hurts his chances to win MVP. If other candidates have played significant minutes without resting throughout the season, then they should be more deserving of the MVP award than James, the supernatural athlete who still needs to find his precious time to rest.
The most embarrassing aspect of James’ 2016-17 season has been something that has gone relatively unnoticed around the league, media, and fans: his atrocious free throw shooting. LeBron James, widely lauded as the best basketball player in the world, shoots just 67.4% from the charity stripe. Not a typo – the King makes just 67.4% of his free throws. You know, the shots that are supposed to be free.
Don’t think of me as some pessimistic, superstar-hating villain trying to take the fun out of the NBA MVP race. I’m just trying to pose some counter arguments for each MVP candidate to help fans look at all perspectives before quickly crowning their MVP. Let the MVP debates commence.