A case for The King
By Sam Beech
Published: Feb 21, 2017, 4:28 PM ET
Most consider this year’s MVP race to be a two-man race. When you look at the raw numbers, this seems logical. You have Russell Westbrook, who is on pace to be the first player to average a triple-double for an entire season since Oscar Robertson. Then you have James Harden, who is also putting up incredible numbers, and his team is near the top of the Western Conference. There are a few other cases being made out there for players such as Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, but the general consensus around the league believes we are looking at a Westbrook/Harden battle for the MVP.
Based on the league’s obsession with herculean offensive stats and the history of the MVP award it is very likely, perhaps almost certain, that one of these two will eventually take home the trophy. But is the player with the most impressive stat line really the “most valuable” player? Perhaps not.
Do triple-doubles always correlate to wins? Westbrook is stuffing the stat sheet, but the Thunder are playing sub-.600 ball, and are only the 7th seed in the West. What about defense and turnovers? It’s easy to see the positive effect points and assists have on general value, but a lack of defensive presence can have just as detrimental of an effect on your overall value. If we truly are looking for the most valuable player in the league—if we are looking for someone whose value transcends the box score—another name needs to be thrown into the conversation: LeBron James.
While Westbrook and Harden are getting most of the headlines, James is quietly having another great year. His basic offensive statistics aren’t as impressive as the top two candidates, but they are impressive enough to show that he is still in his prime. His main arguments for the MVP Award are based on his defensive efficiency, his lack of offensive miscues, and his team success.
Beech Analytics has created a model to track the most valuable player in the NBA. The model is based on two main factors: individual statistics, and team success.
The statistics part of the model is based on three categories: offensive efficiency (scoring, assists, offensive rebounding, and foul shooting), defensive efficiency (defensive rebounding, steals, and blocks), and miscues (turnovers and fouls committed). The model uses each of these statistics to compute the importance of each category through a linear regression analysis. Here is how each of the three categories are weighted:
The team success portion of the model simply uses the team’s current winning percentage to calculate a projected win total for each team. This total helps determine how many wins an individual player is responsible for, which defines his overall value.
Based on their offensive statistics, James is predictably behind both Westbrook and Harden. The gap is not that huge, however. James’ main weakness is his foul shooting (68.8%), but his shooting the ball with great efficiency from the field (53.5% from the field, including 38.0% from three). Westbrook and Harden still have greater overall offensive value, because of the volume of shots they take compared to James. So for this part of the model James trails the two mainstream candidates, but not my much.
The three rate fairly close to each other in defensive statistics. James trails the other two in defensive rebounding, but he leads the group in blocked shots (0.6 per game). Westbrook has a slight lead over James in terms of steals (1.6 to 1.5 per game). Overall, Westbrook and James are very similar in terms of defensive efficiency, and Harden is slightly behind both of them.
James’ main statistical argument is that he makes the fewest errors of the three. Based on the model, turnovers are the single most important statistic in determining team success. Intuitively this makes sense, because turnovers cost your team a possession, while giving your opponent an extra possession. Despite playing about 38 minutes per game, James commits about 4.2 turnovers nightly, while Westbrook (5.5) and Harden (5.9) are much more mistake-prone. James also commits only 1.7 fouls per game despite his high playing time, fewer than both Westbrook (2.2) and Harden (2.6). In terms of errors and miscues, James costs his team less than other two.
Fact: Only two players have averaged 5+ turnovers per game over the course of a season in NBA history. Westbrook (5.5) and Harden (5.9) are both averaging more than 5.
Based on the statistical portion of the model, Westbrook is the MVP. But when you account for team success, the gap becomes much closer. James’ Cavaliers boast a .709 winning percentage, and the Rockets are right behind at .690. At the All-Star break, the Thunder are only at .561.
Taking into account their team’s success, this is how the MVP race looks. We’ve listed the top five candidates overall, as of February 15th.
Based on the model Westbrook still deserves the nod as the league's most valuable player, but James is right on his heels. If James continues his overlooked statistical dominance, and his team continues to play well, he may overtake Westbrook. Kevin Love's recent injury also gives James an opportunity to gain ground, because it will likely force him to be more aggressive in both scoring and rebounding.
Given how balanced the Warriors and Spurs are, it is unlikely that either Durant or Leonard will have enough of a workload to give themselves a shot at winning. Harden remains a threat, but it seems unlikely that he will be able to improve on his monstrous stats, and his team is likely playing very close to its potential already.
If I was a betting man, I would not put my money on James to win the award. The NBA generally rewards offensive prowess, and Westbrook’s and Harden’s statistics make them much more appealing candidates. The league also likes to spread the award around as much as possible; James already has won MVP four times, while neither of the other two have won it. The trophy will almost certainly go to Westbrook or Harden, and both are deserving of it. But if we are looking at who truly provides the most value for his team, James certainly deserves to be in the conversation.