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I have to start here, because everything I’m about to say falls apart if I don’t: Russell Westbrook should not have won the MVP in 2016-17.
The best player in a given season is not always (or even frequently) the one who takes home the MVP award. Most of us implicitly accept this conceit, but even in this context, Westbrook’s win was an aberration. The season after Durant bolted for greener pastures in Golden State, Westbrook’s Thunder won only 47 games and finished sixth in the Western Conference, both shockingly low for an MVP winner (hold that thought). His stats were historically overwhelming — though oddly less so when he repeated the triple-double feat the following year — and the narrative of taking the league on single-handedly made for a story voters could get behind.
Besides the triple-double thing (which is no doubt impressive but pretty arbitrary — people just love round numbers), his stats did not outshine those of James Harden by a big margin, if at all. They were first and second in scoring; Brodie had more rebounds, but The Beard had more assists. You could make a case for either one, depending on which advanced metrics you prefer: Russ led the league in PER, BPM, and VORP; Harden led in Win Shares (total and per-48 minutes). There’s not really a “right” answer statistically, but Harden had one huge advantage: his team won 55 games and finished third in the conference. And while it doesn’t sound revolutionary to say the MVP should be on a team that wins a lot of games, the history of the award suggests it’s even more important than you’d think, which is why Russ receiving the trophy is such an anomaly.
Determining what makes a player the “most valuable” is incredibly complex, both in an objective and subjective sense, but predicting who will actually win the MVP award is a little simpler. Picture a triangle, with the three points being Wins, Stats, and Narrative. In most seasons, the player who wins is the one who fills in the largest possible triangle. Westbrook winning was unusual because of the shape of the triangle — enormous ‘Stat’ point, pretty large ‘Narrative’ point, historically small ‘Win’ point — and whether he set a precedent for what an MVP winner can now look like, or he just turns out to be the exception that proves the rule is hard to know because it is still relatively fresh in our minds.
History suggests the latter is the more likely explanation, so for this analysis, it would behoove us not to give team success short shrift. In the last two decades (since Michael Jordan’s second retirement from the Bulls), the team of the MVP winner has won an average of 61.1 games. [Note: I’m extrapolating the 1998-99 and 2011-12 lockout-shortened seasons to a full 82 games for consistency.] Sixty-one is a huge number of wins, though, so it’s probably unfair to make it our benchmark. A better number might be 54, which is the next lowest win total for a winner during this span. [Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns in 2005-06, in case you’re wondering. This was another odd MVP year: Nash had already won in ’04-’05, so his narrative case wasn’t particularly strong. Kobe came in 4th despite how Russ-like his season was — he scored an unreal 35.4 ppg with a then-NBA record 38.7% Usage Rate, but the undermanned Lakers, still reeling from losing their other transcendent superstar, won only 45 games. Sounds familiar, except Kobe’s narrative also worked against him: Bryant was perceived as a petulant gunner who had forced Shaq out of town, and the season started just over a year after his acquittal on sexual assault charges, the backlash from which had not yet “blown over,” if in fact it ever truly did. LeBron finished second, putting up a righteous 31.4/7.0/6.6 in his age-21 season, but the Cavs only won 50 games, and Bron was still a couple years away from taking over as the league’s undisputed best player. Dirk, who finished third, may have had the best case, leading a 60-win Mavs’ team and putting up similar-if-not-better stats than he would in winning the MVP the following year for a 67-win juggernaut, making him our Harden in this comparison. OK, recent history lesson over. Let’s move on.]
So if a team needs to crack about 54 wins to get their guy in the conversation — incidentally, 54 wins tends to be the historical benchmark for contention, so it dovetails nicely — then what is the statistical bar? The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement already has its own “Derrick Rose Rule,” but it works well in this context, too. Rose’s MVP campaign in 2010-11 illustrates the other side of the Westbrook coin: the upstart Bulls led the NBA with a 62-20 record, and the narrative gods conspired against LeBron, through both voter fatigue (he had won the award the previous two seasons) and his heel turn from The Decision. This left Rose as the default “narrative” choice, despite statistics which, from a historical perspective, were a little underwhelming for an MVP. He averaged 25.0/4.1/7.7 on 44/33/86 shooting splits with a 23.5 PER and .208 Win Shares/48 minutes (LeBron: 26.5/7.5/7.0, 51/33/76 shooting, 27.3 PER, .244 WS/48). Despite the relatively modest stats, team success and voter hive-mind coalesced, allowing him to garner 113 out of a possible 121 first-place votes, easily outpacing Dwight Howard, LeBron, and Kobe.
In 2018-19, LeBron is on another new team, and voters will be in no hurry to hand Harden a second trophy — he basically won last year by wearing everyone down with his annoyingly consistent excellence — but given the offensive explosion of the pace-and-space era, it’s nearly impossible to envision a scenario where someone takes home the award without putting up eye-popping stats, even if the near-instant buyer’s remorse associated with Westbrook acts as a cautionary tale for voters. So let’s keep the “Rose Rule” in mind as we break down the candidates.
Analyzing a player’s ‘Narrative’ is a much more subjective, nebulous exercise, and it tends to bleed into the other categories, which is why it grinds my gears that it ends up being such a major factor in who wins the award every year. Has the player won before? Did his team exceed expectations? Did he do something to “turn off” the voters? Is he on a new team? Is he cancelled out by another star teammate? Is it “his time”? All of these factors impact voters, and since they are all writers, it can be easy for the story to take on an outsize influence relative to what’s actually happening on the court. It may not be an ideal system, but it’s the one we have, so we neglect to account for it at our peril.
Now that I’ve masterfully buried the lede, where does this leave us for this season? Here are Vegas’ current MVP odds:
LeBron James +300
Anthony Davis +350
Giannis Antetokounmpo +400
James Harden +500
Kawhi Leonard +600
Kevin Durant +950
Russell Westbrook +950
Joel Embiid +1400
Stephen Curry +1500
Kyrie Irving +2500
Let’s start crossing names off the list based on our three criteria, but first, a few honorable mentions:
NIKOLA JOKIC, DENVER NUGGETS:
WINS: There is some optimism the Nuggets are ready to take a step forward in the West, with a full season from Paul Millsap — who played only 38 games last season — and internal development from their young core. Vegas has their over/under at 47.5 wins, and the over is at -125 (meaning you’d have to wager $125 to win $100), so the betting public thinks the total is a little low. I tend to agree, but getting near 54 wins would represent something of a perfect storm, in terms of health, a resurgence from Isaiah Thomas, Jokic making the leap, and coach Mike Malone cobbling together a marginally competent defense (25th in Defensive Rating last season). Not out of the question, but a lot has to go right.
STATS: Jokic has a cool statistical profile as the league’s preeminent passing big man, and he blew the doors off after the All-Star Break last year (21.7/11.0/6.5 with 53/46/85 shooting). If he can maintain similar efficiency over an entire season (unlikely) and bump his scoring up closer to the 24-25 ppg range (also unlikely), then he could find his way into the conversation. However, if young guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray continue to mature and take on bigger roles in the offense, IT returns to 70% or so of his Boston form, and Michael Porter, Jr. shows flashes, then there may not be enough to go around for Jokic to get there, even on a team that figures to be as offensively explosive as Denver.
NARRATIVE: His ascent from anonymity has been a nice story, and his flashy passing is highlight-worthy, but I doubt it’s enough to move the needle of the national conversation in a meaningful way. The prevailing narrative also suggests he is a woeful defender — even if the reality doesn’t entirely line up with the perception — which hurts his case when the other big men in the conversation are all considered DPOY candidates.
VERDICT: Probably a first-time All-Star, but not quite ready for his close-up yet.
DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS:
WINS: This is a tough sell. The consensus seems to be Portland bumped up against its ceiling last year with 49 wins, and after their playoff humiliation at the hands of New Orleans, Vegas is way down on the Blazers this year (O/U 42 wins). The untimely death of owner Paul Allen could be either a galvanizing force/rallying cry or the final straw in splintering a locker room already facing questions of fit and chemistry. With all the same core personnel, there’s not much reason to see a leap coming on either end of the floor, so 54 wins feels like a pipe dream.
STATS: Lillard finished 4th in MVP voting last season (a little strange he’s not even in Vegas’ top ten this season, no?) with a pretty Rose-like season — 26.9/4.5/6.6 on 44/36/92 shooting and a 25.2 PER — but at 28 years old, he’s probably right in the ballpark of his apex. Building on those numbers in a significant enough way to move up in the voting, particularly given the young guns looking to make the leap around the league, feels like a long-shot.
NARRATIVE: Works against him a little, if anything. There are whispers of locker room discord and (thus far unsubstantiated) rumors of a possible trade to the Lakers if this season starts off poorly. Not exactly MVP-type story lines.
VERDICT: An elite offensive player in his prime, but it’s hard to argue he’ll get any closer than he did last season.
VICTOR OLADIPO, INDIANA PACERS:
WINS: The Pacers took a big jump forward last year to 48 wins, and Vegas largely expects them to remain in place this season (O/U 47.5), despite being a sexy sleeper pick among many media types to continue their ascent. They made some nice ancillary moves, and Myles Turner finally ditched the baby fat, but are Tyreke Evans and a yoked Turner worth 6 or 7 extra wins? I don’t think so either.
STATS: Obviously enjoyed a breakout season last year, but fell well short of the Rose Rule. He’s still only 26 and could develop further, but his ceiling is limited relative to the others on the list. Pass.
NARRATIVE: Still enjoying his honeymoon as a star player after being yanked around in Orlando and relegated to a spectator in OKC. The “reclamation project” narrative is all well and good, but it probably doesn’t boost his candidacy in a meaningful way.
VERDICT: May not be done growing as a player, but even his apex probably won’t be enough to jump the line.
JIMMY BUTLER, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (?): Just kidding. Kind of.
TIER ONE: THE DOUBLE-EDGED SWORDS
KYRIE IRVING, BOSTON CELTICS:
WINS: The Celtics are loaded with stars and depth. Vegas gives them the second-highest over/under (58.5), and bettors are banging the over (-165) like it’s a porn star. If Boston posts a win total in the mid-60’s, as I’m anticipating, someone on their roster will have to be in the MVP conversation, and Kyrie is the obvious candidate.
STATS: In the era of analytics, we’ve gotten much better about properly appreciating efficiency, and this is where Kyrie really shines. He just missed out on a 50/40/90 season last year (49/41/89 splits), and there’s no reason to suspect his looks will get any worse with the return of Gordon Hayward and the continued development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The question is, with so much surrounding talent, will he be needed enough to produce the kind of statistical volume voters want to see? His most important statistic will ultimately be in the Games column. He has an ever-growing laundry list of injuries in his rearview, and Brad Stevens will have the dual luxuries of resting Kyrie liberally due to the other talent on the roster as well as bringing him back slowly whenever the inevitable injury does occur.
NARRATIVE: As powerful a narrative as “best player on the best team” should be, Kyrie is likely to suffer a bit here. Unfair or not, “most valuable” is relative to one’s surroundings. With so much other talent on hand, voters will probably ding Kyrie for being less essential than stars on less-formidable rosters, and the team getting within one win of the Finals last year without Irving in uniform will do little to quell the confirmation bias.
VERDICT: Has to stay healthy, and probably won’t outshine his fellow stars by enough to grab voters’ attention.
STEPH CURRY AND KEVIN DURANT, GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS:
WINS: Lumping these two together for obvious reasons. The team will naturally win plenty to get both guys in the conversation, so no issues there, but when your ceiling is “Greatest Team of All Time,” it’s pretty difficult to exceed expectations.
STATS: Both players are clearly capable of putting up transcendent numbers on their own, but the presence of the other and the system in which they operate tends to artificially suppress their overall statistical output. Both are supernaturally efficient in ways that shouldn’t even be possible.
NARRATIVE: All of the things which put them in the conversation are the same things which take them out. These are two of the top five players in the world by most any metric, and they’ve both already won the award in the absence of the other, but how can you argue someone is the most valuable player in the entire league when he may or may not even be the most valuable player on his own team? Durant’s narrative will always work against him so long as he’s on Golden State, and Curry will forever have to live up to (or exceed) his scrumtralescent ’15-’16 season in order to garner votes. Much like with Kyrie, having an overwhelming talent advantage comes with a lot of perks, but MVP votes is usually not one of them.
VERDICT: If we can’t have nice things, neither can they.
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TIER TWO: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT
RUSSELL WESTBROOK, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER:
WINS: To quote The Who, “We won’t get fooled again!” OKC upped its win total by one (to 48) last season, and yet Westbrook fell to fifth in MVP voting. With Paul George in the fold, Russ is highly unlikely to ever approach the meth-fueled level of usage and statistical volume of his MVP season, but even if he does, it won’t sway voters unless it comes attached to a jump towards the top of the West standings. Vegas has them pegged at 48.5 wins, which feels about right, considering the uncertainty surrounding the health of Westbrook’s knee, and how much, if any, we’ll see of defensive ace Andre Roberson this year. The depth is improved, Terrance “Turd” Ferguson could be impactful in a bigger role, and Melo is no longer around to hijack possessions, so there is some upside, but the team will have to take a big leap forward and Russ will have to stay healthy for it to translate in the voting. No thanks.
STATS: Not much more to cover here. The voters’ fascination with triple-doubles has waned, and the presence of PG and Dennis Schroder should siphon off just enough usage to pull Russ back from the statistical event horizon.
NARRATIVE: If people already regret the one they gave you, it’s pretty tough to make a case for another one.
VERDICT: No. Just no.
JAMES HARDEN, HOUSTON ROCKETS:
WINS: Their O/U is set at 55.5 (-175), which is both a little disrespectful after last season, and a sign of how difficult it will be to exceed expectations this season to a degree where voters will want to reward Harden again. Topping 65 wins is a virtual impossibility, and any regression will be placed at Harden’s feet, fair or not.
STATS: Similar to Russ, he is what he is: often infuriating and devastatingly consistent. There’s no reason to suspect a significant drop-off anywhere in his statistical profile, but his case was always going to come down to the next category.
NARRATIVE: He probably deserved the award in ’16-’17, and he definitely deserved it last year, but now that he’s won it, voters are likely to do everything they can to not give it to him again, regardless of merit. Voters will be happy invoke a lower win total as justification for what is actually an implicit rebuke of his unappealing style. [Additionally, I’m pretty sure no one wants to hear him drunkenly stammer his way through another acceptance speech — what the hell was that??] We all have to respect the brutal efficiency of his game, but that doesn’t mean we have to celebrate it.
VERDICT: *Curls up in fetal position*
TIER THREE: THE KNOWN UNKNOWNS
JOEL EMBIID, PHILADELPHIA 76ERS:
WINS: With an O/U of 53.5 and a young core with tons of room to grow — and thus exceed expectations — this one feels like almost TOO snug of a fit.
STATS: Here’s where it gets tricky. Embiid’s per-minute stats are as good, if not better than, anyone on this list. If he plays 70+ games and 2,500+ minutes, Philly will be looking at the perfect confluence of circumstances, and he could absolutely challenge for the award. However, that ‘IF’ should be so big and glowing, you could slap it on a hotel in Vegas. And even in this unlikely scenario, he still might not stack up statistically to the two big men I’ll be discussing shortly. Sure, Jo-Jo put up a 27.2/13.0/3.7 per-36 minutes last season — straight-up, prime Shaq numbers — but he did it with sky-high usage (33.4%, third in the league), questionable efficiency, and a comically bad turnover rate. If he drastically improves in those areas (he might), his menacing defense maintains or improves (it should), and the team throws up 60 wins (???), then he is right there in the conversation with Anthony Davis. But would I bet on all those things happening AND him staying healthy all year? Woof.
NARRATIVE: It’s possible we’re still a year or two away from Embiid becoming the undisputed king of this category, but even as things stand now, there are not many guys for whom the voters would rather root. He is still very much in the “honeymoon/100% approval rating” phase as a superstar. His ubiquitous social media presence and transparency with the media make him a perfect modern avatar for the game. His hyper-modern ability to both step out and shoot and also put the ball on the deck at 7’2″ (don’t try to tell me he’s only 7 feet — I have eyes), combined with his throwback ability to post up and defend the rim, endears him to “nostalgics” and “prisoners of the moment” alike. There is a non-zero chance fellow young star Ben Simmons could take the leap and cancel Embiid out to an extent, but that’s about the only thing holding him back in this category.
VERDICT: All the ability is there, but too many things have to go right.
LEBRON JAMES, LOS ANGELES LAKERS:
WINS: Probably the biggest question mark in this entire column. Your guess is as good as mine.
STATS: We’ve grown so inured to LeBron’s statistical greatness that it’s nearly impossible for him to do anything to surprise us, which certainly works against him in this context. Also, his first seasons with new teams (2010-11 and 2014-15) rate as two of his worst statistical seasons (relatively speaking, of course), so there is likely to be an adjustment period coming this season as LeBron figures out how much control he needs to exert over the offense and who he can trust. While his stats will obviously still be good in an absolute sense, with the numbers likely to be put up by the names below, it could be enough to sink his candidacy.
NARRATIVE: It seems like it’s been ages since this category rated as a net-positive for LeBron, but here we are. No one considers him a villain for leaving Cleveland this time, he’s approaching the twilight of his career, and everyone wants to see someone challenge Golden State for the throne, so the stars have kind of aligned for him to be buoyed by his narrative again, rather than anchored down by it. If he integrates seamlessly with the young core and the team comes out of the gate strong (unlikely, but possible), watch out for all the “You guys forgot LeBron is the best player on Earth, didn’t you?” stories that will start flying around.
VERDICT: Lack of continuity suppresses the win total juuuuust enough, and everyone continues to take LeBron for granted while he’s here.
KAWHI LEONARD, TORONTO RAPTORS:
WINS: The team won 59 games last year, the O/U is 55.5 this year, and oh yeah, they added Kawhi Leonard. As long as he’s healthy, it’s hard to envision team success being the problem.
STATS: The best version of Kawhi we’ve seen (’16-’17, 3rd in MVP voting) nudges up statistically to the Rose Line, which is a bit concerning. However, he only played 33.4 mpg that year, so IF HEALTHY (he should just legally change his name to “Kawhi Leonard If Healthy” at this point), new Toronto head coach Nick Nurse could play him enough minutes to comfortably eclipse the benchmark, but his statistical ceiling remains a roadblock to his candidacy, relative to his peers. His efficiency and defensive chops are a boon, of course, but given the rarefied air we’re approaching now, they are not as distinguishing as one might think.
NARRATIVE: Works for and against him. A new team and a mildly redemptive “comeback” story are promising at first glance, until you stop and think about how those circumstances came to be. San Antonio Kawhi had all this political capital as the quiet, humble, team-first superstar, which made it all the more whiplash-inducing when he decided to use his injury as leverage and hold the league’s most venerated franchise hostage for an entire season before demanding a trade. Some of the backlash has died down as the actual games approach and we remember how freaking good of a player he is, but the residue of his messy exit from the Spurs is going to be hard to completely wipe away, at least this season.
VERDICT: Voters won’t want to reward his pre-agency tactics, and a lack of complete statistical domination will provide the justification.
TIER FOUR: THE HARDEST CUT
ANTHONY DAVIS, NEW ORLEANS PELICANS:
WINS: This feels like the possible rub for The Brow. Forty-eight wins last season and an O/U of 45.5 this year, so a big jump forward in wins is basically a prerequisite for AD’s candidacy, but it’s unclear exactly from where it will come. The team played at the league’s fastest pace last season and was 3rd in points per game, so it may be a lot to expect much improvement on that end, without even factoring in the loss of Boogie Cousins who, for his many faults, is a phenomenal offensive talent. Davis is already one of the league’s very best defenders, and he should continue to get better, but the team ranked only 14th in Defensive Rating last season, so he’ll need a better effort from his teammates on that end if the Pels are to join the ranks of Western contenders. The addition of Julius Randle should help, though trying to play him in lineups with both Davis and Nikola Mirotic could prove to be an awkward fit.
STATS: Umm, yeah, they’ll be fine. Have you seen this guy play? He’s a nightmare. From February on last season (31 games), he averaged 30.8 ppg and 11.8 rpg on 52% shooting. It’s not at all crazy to suggest he could put up similar numbers for an entire season. As long as he’s healthy — and his durability concerns from earlier in his career appear to be behind him — his statistical case is pretty unassailable.
NARRATIVE: It is definitely “his time.” He is at (or near) the peak of his powers. His team is on the rise. He hasn’t won the award before. He’s never given the fans or the media a reason to turn on him. He works hard, consistently gets better, plays outstanding defense, and keeps his mouth shut. What’s not to like?
VERDICT: He’s a beast. Nothing can stop him. Except…
GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MILWAUKEE BUCKS:
WINS: The Bucks are poised to make a huge jump in the East. They won 44 games last year, and the O/U is set at 48, which both feels low and gives them a lot of room to improve (unlike, say, Toronto, who is starting from a high baseline). The offense was already a top-10 outfit, but they were just 19th in Defensive Rating under the “tutelage” of Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty, and the upgrade to Mike Budenholzer could be the most impactful personnel change in the East. They brought in more shooters to space the floor for Giannis to attack the interior. A 55-win campaign feels very much within reach for this team, more so than for the Pelicans, anyway.
STATS: I don’t even know where to put Giannis’ statistical ceiling. He may not have one. I mentioned this in my Bucks’ preview column, but last year — in his age-23 season, mind you — Giannis averaged 26.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.8 apg, and 1.4 bpg, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in ’74-’75) as the only player to hit all four benchmarks in the same year since blocks became an official statistic. And Milwaukee only ranked 20th in pace last season; Coach Bud’s Hawks’ teams ranked an average of 11th during his five seasons at the helm, and they never ranked lower than 7th in 3-point attempts. Giannis had a high usage rate last season (31.2%, 7th in the league), but there is certainly room for him to do more. So to recap: a 6’11”, 23-year-old athletic super-freak who put up historic numbers last season, will now have more possessions, more space, better shooters around him, a better defensive scheme, AND will be more physically and mentally mature. Does any part of that suggest we aren’t about to see some absolutely INSANE numbers?
NARRATIVE: Much like Embiid and Davis, another guy who has the 100% approval rating going for him. Everyone likes this guy and everyone wants to see him succeed. As I mentioned, the team has a lot of room to surprise. If he develops a remotely consistent outside shot (say, 34-35% from three), he’ll have his “Uh oh, Happy learned how to putt!” moment and the media will lose its collective shit about how unguardable he is. Everything is lining up perfectly for him, and I can’t come up with a reasonable counter-argument, so he’s the pick.
VERDICT: The Greek Freak takes home the hardware.
Happy NBA season, everybody — let’s do this thing!!