For those who consider the regular season a “waste of time,” you missed out on an incredibly exciting season. With Russell Westbrook and James Harden enjoying their historical individual seasons, LeBron being LeBron and even Isiah Thomas’ emergence, the MVP race presents one of the most compelling races in the history of the NBA, and a massive headache for the voters of the award.
Russ’ triple-double season and Harden’s ridiculous 29 point and 11 assist stat line have many assuming it has ultimately come down to a two-man race. Given the accomplishments by both, it’s an understandable concept and ultimately, one of the two will likely win the award. Especially when considering the tendency of voters to get bored with selecting the same player every season, aka LeBron, but rather vote for candidates enjoying their best individual season to date and who might not be in consideration year after year.
Due to the extent of the historical seasons put up by both Westbrook and Harden, most seem to have written off the idea of LeBron James winning his fifth MVP this year. Yet, the 14-year pro remains the greatest player in basketball and coasted to another year of greatness that so many fans appear to have grown accustomed to. It’s been three years since LeBron won his fourth MVP in five seasons, and the apparent dark horse candidate is still the best player in the league and his numbers this year are certainly MVP worthy. Before all the Russ and Harden truthers piss themselves over this argument, let’s dive into the numbers that make The King just as viable of a candidate.
For starters, LeBron is having a historic season in his own right. The three-time champion is on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average at least 26 points (26.2), eight rebounds (8.6) and eight assists (8.7) while shooting over 50 percent from the field (54.5 percent) and 35 percent (36.2 percent) from three. In fact, his rebounding and assist numbers represent career highs.
Another cool fact about his assist numbers: Over half of them resulted in a 3-pointer. No other player can say that. In addition, his 1.7 three-pointers made per game ties a career high. He also currently sits second in the league in points scored in the paint per game (13.9), while his 75 percent field goal percentage on shots within five feet ranks first by a healthy margin. Plus, he lands in the top five in fast break points scored, averaging roughly 5.5 per game. Though he may not be creeping in on the record for triple doubles in a season, he does currently have 12, which marks a career high.
Now compared to the statistical achievements of Westbrook and Harden, LeBron’s numbers may not necessarily be considered “eye popping.” Still, the King’s 2016-2017 stat-line is not only historically impressive, but proves this is still his league. It almost looks boring to him at this point (unless Kawhi is guarding him). With this being his 14th year in the NBA and the Cavs desperately needing him on the floor at all times, the four-time MVP made a noticeable effort at conserving his energy throughout the regular season. Yet, Lebron “coasting his way through the regular season” STILL managed to put up over 26 points a game, eight rebounds and eight assists while shooting over 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from beyond the arc. No one’s ever done that! Sure, averaging a triple double is dope, but Oscar Roberston already crossed that bridge. Averaging 29 points and 11 assists like Harden is nuts, but Tiny Archibald averaged 34 and 11 back in the 1972-1973 season.
This isn’t to say that Lebron’s 2016-2017 stat line is as impressive as Harden or Russ, but when watching the three instead of just spitting out stats, which players stands out as both the best and most valuable? Not only is LeBron still the best player in the league, he remains the smartest, which is evident by his extremely efficient brand of play. Personally, the efficiency that comes with LeBron’s game is what separates him from the other top candidates. He offers the perfect blend of freakish athleticism and ability, matched with the fact that he makes the correct basketball play every.single.time.
At 32, LeBron is currently second in the league in minutes played per game at 37.6, while neither Harden nor Russ sit in the top five. Combine that fact with LeBron’s advantage in on/off the court numbers amongst the top candidates, it’s hard to argue there’s still not a player more valuable towards his team’s success than the King himself.
To compare, below are the On/Off ratings for Lebron, Russ and Harden. For those who are not familiar with On/Off numbers, it’s found by calculating the net offensive/defensive ratings for a player’s team both while they are on and off the court, and then finding the difference between those two numbers.
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The beauty of these numbers indicate how much better the Cavs are when LeBron’s on the floor compared to when he sits. Ultimately, this explains why a player in his 14th season would finish in the top two in the league for minutes played per game. The Cavs offense in particular takes the biggest hit when LeBron exits the game. With he’s on the court, the Cavs post an offensive rating of 118.6 in the 2,705 minutes he’s charted compared to a 103.9 offensive rating in the 1,069 minutes he’s on the bench. That’s a +14.7 difference! Compare that to Westbrook’s on/off offensive rating numbers of 111.5 and 101.0; the numbers indicate LeBron’s presence has a bigger impact his team’s success compared to the other candidates.
Granted, one could argue Russ’ supporting cast, or lack thereof, negates the legitimacy of the on/off numbers. Now, instead of reminding those that JR Smith and Kevin Love both missed at least a month while the Thunder, and the Rockets for that matter, have enjoyed relatively healthy seasons, consider this: Ironically, Russ’ lack of help has allowed him to put up the numbers that he has. With a league-leading usage rate of 41.7, that number is more than 10 points higher than that of LeBron’s 30.1 rate. Harden holds a usage rate of 34.1.
The on/off numbers and usage rates introduce an interesting component to the nit picking process that comes with this specific MVP race. On one side of it, Harden and Russ both seem on a mission for this year’s MVP award. This isn’t to knock either player, as both are equally just as focused on the ultimate team goal. Yet, this is evident by the usage rate, numbers which speaks to how often each player controls their respective team’s offensive position. LeBron has posted his lowest usage rate number since his third season in the league, while still managing to put up the numbers that he always has. While this isn’t an important piece to the puzzle necessarily, it is worth noting.
As for the on/off differences, the numbers indicate the Cavaliers are one of the best offensives teams in the league with LeBron on the floor and a below average offensive team when he sits. On the other hand, the absence of Russ shares a similar impact, but Russ’ on-the-floor impact doesn’t boost his teams overall play near the magnitude to that of the King’s. As for Harden, he’s clearly the best and most impactful player on his team, but the Rockets don’t seem to miss a beat the way either the Cavs or Thunder do.
Typically, the MVP award goes to a player with the most impressive season that plays on a Finals contending team. Not to say this will negate Russell Westbrook from the discussion, but is anyone picking the Thunder to even win a playoff series? As impressive as a triple-double season is in itself, this fact could shy some voters away from ultimately picking the league’s leading scorer. Although, the same cannot be said for the Rockets, as they appear destined for a 55-win season and will surely be a trendy sleeper Finals pick. As a matter of fact, Houston currently has a better record than Cleveland. But keep this in mind, the Cavaliers are 0-6 in the games LeBron has sit due to rest. Combine that fact with the on/off numbers previously given, Harden’s 2016-2017 season has been beyond magical, but is he more valuable to his team’s success this season than the best player in the league? The Cavaliers took a “We don’t care about the regular season” approach and the attitude was clear to the public eye, and still the Cavs are destined to have home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. As for the Rockets and Thunder, both teams exerted as much energy to prove their status as possible contenders and what did that lead to? A matchup against each other in the first round as the third and sixth seeds in the West.
Again, there’s a good chance the voters ultimately reward either Russ or Harden with their first MVP after the absurdly impressive seasons by both. If either take home the award, hats off to them both are the upmost deserving. But please don’t sleep on LeBron James. The best player on the planet. The future G.O.A.T. The man who caused the Warriors to blow a 3-1 Finals lead. Only three players have won at least five MVPs (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 6, Bill Russell 5 and Michael Jordan 5). The King deserves to join that list. Russ and Harden’s greatness this year definitely decreases the possibility of this happening and will mark the fourth consecutive year that the best player in the league failed to earn the ultimate individual award. Given his own accomplishments this season, LeBron James is by no means the sexy pick for the 2016-2017 MVP, but he just might be the right one.
Edited by David Bradford
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons