The NBA Needs To Address Its MVP Problem
Editor’s note: Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Perloff will contribute commentary during the NBA Finals. He keeps sending us stuff and The Crossover’s editors cannot continually change their email address. If we have to read, so do you.
Remember that crazy season when Russell Westbrook averaged a triple double and James Harden almost did the same thing? Oh right … that was this year. When either Westbrook or Harden walks on stage to accept the MVP award at the NBA Honors event on June 26, neither will have played in over a month (two months in Westbrook’s case).
So why is there a disconnect between the MVP race and playoff success? And why is that guy from the Dan Patrick Show parachuting in on a debate that peaked four weeks ago? Because the true meaning of “value” is on full display this Finals matchup and worth recognition with the star players on the Cavaliers and Warriors.
Harden, Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard are three finalists, but the three most valuable players in the NBA—LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant—are about to take center stage.
Let’s dive in to some of the reasons why the MVP award represents the wrong kind of achievements this season…
Not so money ball
The Internet is loaded with deep analytical content for the NBA and everyone—even some analytics guys—acted like Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles were a magical feat. How is that possible?
You don’t have to be a Sabermetrician to realize traditional NBA stats don’t tell the whole story: Points/Rebounds/Assists are as out of date in the NBA as Batting Average/Home runs/RBIs are in baseball. At least batting average tells you something about efficiency. The triple-double stats are woefully incomplete.
Start with points. They’re similar to hits in baseball. The batting champion leads in average, not hits. To a lesser extent, we don’t value total passing yards in the NFL—no one is carving Matthew Stafford’s Hall of Fame bust even though he is one of five QBs to ever throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season. Why do we devalue totals in other sports more than the NBA? This isn’t even a case for analytics, because even the basic NBA stats should be more evolved at this point.
Shooting percentage is the first and most important hole in Westbrook and Harden’s MVP case. Westbrook scored 31.6 ppg but he shot 42% from the field. Harden’s only a little better at 29.1 ppg and 44% from the field. Kawhi stands out among the finalists at 25.5 ppg and 48.5%. When you look at true shooting percentage (2-point, 3-point and foul-shooting combined), Westbrook is tied 142nd in the NBA at 55.4%. Harden is much better—tied for 29th at 61.3%—but mainly because of his prowess at the free-throw line.
All three of the real MVPs rank much higher in true shooting percentage—Durant is third in NBA at 65.4%, Curry is 6th at 63.1% and LeBron is eighth at 62.3%.
Rebounds are also incomplete because they don’t differentiate between contested and uncontested. Westbrook did average 10.7 rpg, but 8.0 of those boards were uncontested—the second highest mark in the League behind DeAndre Jordan. If you watched the Thunder and Rockets, it was obvious both Westbrook and Harden were leaving their men to chase boards. Meanwhile, big men like Steven Adams and Clint Capela were doing the dirty work, boxing out and clearing the way for the guards to swoop in and grab the ball.
Assists are confusing because the nature of the word implies they’re an unselfish act. But not the way Westbrook dishes them out. Everyone gives lip service to ball movement. The Warriors and Cavs…