I would be lying if I told you I could say “well clearly, Steph Curry is the MVP.” After all, if that were the case, there would be no point writing why Curry should be the 2015 NBA MVP. The truth is that there is merit to arguing for one of four candidates: Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and James Harden. The column that put me, personally, over the edge was that of Greg Swartz of Bleacher Report, where he claims that James has been the most valuable to his team. That’s when I said that someone needs to voice what should be the prevailing opinion: Steph Curry deserves to win the NBA MVP.
Swartz, along with many writers, often only give the reasons for Player A winning Award X. This is both incomplete and problematic. When we are talking about relative performance, it is necessary to say why Player A deserves it over Player B. This means extolling some aspects of each candidate and dismissing others. Does this mean that the less deserving is a bad basketball player? No way. To me, the highest honor a talking head can give to a player is an answer of “yes” to the following question: could you build a championship contender with Player A as your best player? I believe that the answer to each of the four candidates here (Curry, Harden, James, and Westbrook) is a resounding “yes.” So let’s get that out of the way.
Now it’s my job to systematically dismantle the reasons for giving Harden, James, and Westbrook the MVP. In my mind, this is a multiple choice test:
Which of the following players should win the 2015 NBA MVP Award?
A. Stephen Curry
B. James Harden
C. LeBron James
D. Russell Westbrook
Maybe I’ve taken way too many standardized tests (thank you, SAT and MCAT), but it seems this is the most logical way to come to a conclusion. And it’s like those annoying reading comprehension selections. The goal is not to choose the correct answer—this isn’t a math problem. The goal is to choose the best answer.
Eliminating Russell Westbrook
Westbrook’s triple-double streak and statistical tear in the absence of Kevin Durant should be illegal. He has made the NBA his personal playground. In the four games that he’s played in March, he has averaged 41 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, and 3.0 steals. No words necessary. In February, he averaged 31-9-10 with 1.6 steals per game. Also not normal.
But Westbrook has played 13 fewer games than Steph Curry and this is important for two reasons. First, this tear that he has been on would likely diminish had he played those extra games. Maybe 41-11-11 becomes 35-7-7 and we aren't as impressed. He’s more like 2012 Jeremy Lin than 2014 Kevin Durant in the sense that it’s been over a shorter duration than what is worthy of MVP consideration. I crudely scrolled through NBA MVPs over the past 15 years and only 2001 Allen Iverson played fewer than 75 games (or the equivalent in a lockout season). And A.I. singlehandedly took Philadelphia to the number one seed in the East with Theo Ratliff as the second-leading scorer on the team at a whopping 12.4 points per game.
Second, if Westbrook ends up playing 65 to 67 games, this gives him the luxury of playing harder over the shorter span. Not only that, but his team is buffered by Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka and even then, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still scrambling to just make the playoffs. In giving out an individual award, it is necessary to see how individual talent translates to team success, as I delineated in a Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James comparison a while back. Cross out answer choice D.
Eliminating LeBron James
|Sorry, LeBron, not this year.|
Maybe voter fatigue alone will take care of LeBron, but the argument against the Cavs superstar is a corollary to that against Westbrook. (Westbrook has played 48 games, LeBron has played 54.)
James doesn’t deserve this year’s MVP because Cleveland is in the Eastern Conference. There is no way that they would have been able to recover from their early season struggles in time to make the playoffs in the Western Conference which is where all of the other three MVP candidates reside. Golden State, Memphis, Houston, Portland, the Clippers, Dallas, San Antonio, and OKC. I don’t think many people would argue that a Cavs team that started the season hovering around .500 would climb out of it in the grueling West. Eliminate answer choice C.
Eliminating James Harden
To me, it’s a two-man race. Harden has rallied a Dwight-less Rockets team to third in the West (again, the emphasis on “West” is why LeBron shouldn’t be considered). Houston has managed to find role players like Donatas Motiejunas, Pat Beverly, and (dare I say) Josh Smith to find offense after Harden’s 26.6 points per game.
The classic argument for taking Harden over Curry is this: “well, Harden’s supporting cast is worse than Golden State’s. The Rockets would do much worse without Harden.”
Yes and no. The Warriors would also do worse without Curry. And even if we buy that the two are of comparable value to their teams, why is there added value over bringing a possible seven-seed up to three vs. bringing up a possible five-seed to the number one spot? If anything, the gap from good to great is harder. Maybe Harden is making an average team into a good one, but Curry is making a good team play like a historically great team. More on this later.
Let’s also take a look at the direct Warriors vs. Rockets battles. In his column, Swartz argues that a Cleveland home win against Curry and the Warriors bolsters LeBron’s case for MVP and I find that too short-sighted. A one-game sample is not enough. But in the case of Warriors vs. Rockets, we have a four-game sample. And the Warriors swept the season series, winning each game by an average of more than 15 points. Houston looked mediocre against Golden State. Curry’s individual success translated better to team success.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the basic and advanced metrics.
You might be yelling at me, “WHY DIDN’T YOU USE PER GAME NUMBERS, YOU JUST WANT TO FIND MORE REASONS FOR CURRY TO WIN!”
I can’t disagree that I believe Curry should win, but that doesn’t take away from the merit of the argument. I do, however, need to justify the reason for using per 36 stats because it does help Steph. The important thing is to play as many games as possible. That was why I said LeBron and Westbrook shouldn’t be considered as strongly as Harden and Curry who have played 60+ games already and are both in the 33+ MPG marker. But those extra few minutes that add a few PPG to Harden are a by-product of his team playing in closer games. And if you translate the extra 1.4 APG that Curry has per game to points, then Curry beats out Harden in that category, too.
Steph Curry is so great—and so efficient—that he puts his team in a position to where it is unnecessary for him to play the final five minutes (or sometimes even more) in a game. They’ve blown out the Rockets by 26 and the Nuggets by over 40. There’s no need for your superstar to play the final minutes of games like that. So there should be some adjusting for that and per X minute stats do that.
This adjustment makes Harden’s PPG lead less impressive and Curry owns every other basic stat category not including rebounds. And at 185 (almost 40 pounds lighter than Harden), I think Curry’s rebounding totals are rather impressive in their own right. As a bonus, Curry is managing to again challenge the NBA record of threes made in a season—a record that he already holds.
Advanced metrics marginally favor Curry, as well.
Defensively, James Harden has improved miles from the comical YouTube videos of 2013-14 where he would almost literally fall asleep on defense. But Steve Kerr’s trust in Steph Curry as a defensive player under the tutelage of assistant coach Ron Adams has allowed Curry to shine defensively, too. Let’s venture over to some of the metrics that quantify defensive worth.
The story here is that Harden is 1.3% better than Curry at defending outside of the three-point line and 4.5% worse than Curry inside the arc. I like uncontested REB% as a stat because it essentially helps separate easy rebounds from more difficult rebounds. (Logic being that if a rebound is “uncontested” it somewhat falls into your lap and is less meaningful than a Marc Gasol rebound hauled in with two to three defenders in the close vicinity.) Both Curry and Harden are above average defenders, but as I argued in November, Curry is arguably one of the best defensive point guards in the league. And Golden State owns the league's best offense AND defense.
Let’s now go to on-court vs. off-court numbers, which has obvious value. This is a metric that answers the question: “how many points better is a team with Player A on the court than with him off the court?”
Curry is +18.0 and Harden is +12.6. This is a significant difference. It really shuts down the argument that Houston would be worse off without Harden than Golden State would be without Curry. For me, it's the icing on the cake of Curry’s MVP case. Eliminate answer choice B.
You can’t bottle up the MVP race into a single number. It’s about reading the whole story, from the very beginning to the very end…and Steph Curry’s story wins. When you have such a significant impact on a historically great regular season team, you deserve the MVP.