Curry or Harden: The 2015 MVP Debate

The 2015 MVP race is interesting in a lot of ways. Like the season in general the story has been about new faces dominating the picture. This has been a welcome and refreshing development. It also features a most productive player vs. best player on the best team debate. That would Stephen Curry of the Warriors and James Harden of the Rockets. This article breaks down the MVP chances for both players and adds some thoughts on 4 longshot candidates.

Stephen Curry, Golden State: Curry is the player best positioned to win the MVP as the season enters the final stretch. He is the only player who stands out as the top player on the top seed and that has always been the most important factor for the voters. Of the 59 MVPs, 44 have come from the team that finished with the top seed. Nine more have come from a team with the 2nd seed. Those 9 came in years when the top seed featured no obvious MVP like last year’s Spurs and Pacers.

The two recent comps for Curry are Steve Nash in ’05 and Derrick Rose in ’11. In both cases a team that experienced dramatic improvement and finished as the top seed in their conference saw their PG rewarded with an MVP. Curry fits that profile. The ’05 Suns and ’11 Bull improved by 33 and 21 games respectively. The current Warriors are on pace for both the best record in the West and a 15 game improvement over last year.

The other important factor in Curry’s favor is he has been very good. Curry is top 10 in scoring and assists. He leads the league in steals and 3-pointers made. He’s 2nd in win shares and 3rd in PER. He’s been a superior player to both ’05 Nash and ’11 Rose by any measure. He fits the mold of past MVP winners perfectly. He’s the best player on the best team and is one of the top 5 most productive players in the league. The 2015 MVP award is Curry’s, and the Warriors’, trophy to lose.

James Harden. Houston: The case for Harden is simply that he’s been the most productive player in the league this year. Harden is leading the league in scoring, minutes and win shares. In addition to being possibly the league’s most productive player, Harden gets points for his team performance. The Rockets lost 3 rotation players in the offseason in Parsons, Lin and Asik. In addition center Dwight Howard has missed 26 games and counting. Even with the roster turnover and injuries, Harden is having his best season ever and has the Rockets in 3rd place in the brutal West. It is easy to make the case that he is the most valuable player to his team, considering the production, minutes logged and the Rocket’s performance.

The problem for Harden is there is only one instance in the past 30 years where the MVP was given to the most productive player over a viable MVP candidate on the best team. That was the ’88 season when Michael Jordan won his 1st MVP for the 3rd place Bulls. That year featured Magic Johnson and Larry Bird as popular superstars at the top of their games leading their teams to #1 seeds. Those 2 would have battled for the MVP in any other year. But Michael took home the hardware as his numbers were just too good to ignore. In 1988 Jordan led the league in scoring with 35.0 PPG. He also led the league in steals and was top 20 in assists, FG pct and blocks. He led the league by a wide margin in PER, Win Shares and VORP. Jordan’s ’88 may have  been the best statistical season ever. That’s what it has historically taken for a player in Harden’s situation to win the MVP over a player like Curry.

As great as Harden has been this year, he’s not close to Jordan’s ’88. Harden has been great, but it isn’t even clear that he’s the league’s most productive player this year. He leads the league in both VORP and Win Shares, but is 4th in PER. The margin Harden leads those 2 measures by is nowhere near Jordan’s margin in ’88 when he was pretty much in his own zone.

The previous MVP that gives hope to Harden is Steve Nash in ’06. Like the ’15 Rockets, the ’06 Suns were looking at an uphill struggle to repeat their success of the previous year. All-star center Amare Stoudemire went down for the season with an injury after just 3 games. Nash rallied the team and led them to 54 wins, 1st place in the Pacific Division and the 3rd best record in the West. The voters gave Nash credit for the Suns’ surprising season with his 2nd consecutive MVP. Another factor in play in 2006 was there was no clear MVP on either of the top seeds, Detroit and San Antonio. In ’06 Nash didn’t have the obvious traditional MVP winner to contend with that Harden has in Curry.

One last thing that needs to be mentioned is things are changing in the way the NBA is covered and that could eventually affect things like MVP voting. Analytics has gone mainstream and almost certainly will become a bigger factor in the MVP vote in future years. While in past years winners like Iverson in ’01, Nash in ’05 and ’06 dissenting voices were just a murmur. When Rose won it over LeBron in ’11, those voices were a lot louder. This year there is a legitimate Curry vs. Harden debate raging. It will be interesting to see how much that debate works its way into the vote and if it helps Harden. Will the voters stick with tradition and give it to Curry, or strike out on a new path armed with statistics and metrics to back up their case and give the award to Harden?

LeBron James, Cleveland: LeBron has the Cavs on a roll. His numbers aren’t as dominant as they have been in previous years, but they stack up well enough against Harden and Curry that a Cavalier’s run to the top seed will put him in the mix. With Washington struggling, Toronto slowing down and Chicago getting hammered with injuries, Cleveland has emerged as the top threat to the Hawks in the East. Passing the Hawks would be an impossible task, but would be necessary for LeBron to get serious consideration.

For that reason  LeBron winning his 5th MVP remains a longshot. His numbers are down slightly from previous years. The fact that his team has underachieved based on expectations hurts a lot. This is a disadvantage the superstar has in MVP voting.  LeBron comes into every season with high expectations. If he and his team don’t play up to that level, it is going to hurt him in the voting.

Al Horford, Atlanta: Before 1984, the MVP could have been called the MVC for most valuable center. Between 1960 and 1983, the award went to a center 22 of 24 times, with only Oscar Robertson in ’64 and Julius Erving in ’81 scoring one for the perimeter players. Since 1983 things have completely flipped. Only 3 times have centers taken the trophy home, David Robinson in ’94, Hakeem Olajuwon in ’95 and Shaquille O’Neal in ’00. We could push that number to 5 if we count Tim Duncan in ’02 and ’03. Considering David Robinson was a Spur those 2 seasons, I would call Duncan a PF.

Horford has bad timing when it comes to winning the MVP. Before 1984 Al Horford would have been one of the favorites for the award had he played center and was the best player on a team that surprised everyone by taking the league by storm and finishing at the top of their conference. This happened in ’69 with Wes Unseld, who won as a rookie on the Baltimore Bullets. It also happened with Willis Reed in ’70 and Dave Cowens in ’73. None of those 3 MVPs had much, if anything on Al Horford ’15. But that was the way they voted back then. Instead of joining these HOFers in the MVP pantheon,  Al Horford will likely be battling teammates Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for 3rd to 5th place votes tossed to Hawks players in a nod to their great season. I think we can all be thankful that we have a more enlightened group of voters than pre-1984.

I’ll add that Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies also would fit the pre-’84 mold of a prime MVP candidate for the same reasons as Horford, should Memphis, currently running 2nd, pass the Warriors for the top seed.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans: Davis started the year on fire, but has faded some since and is out of the serious debate. He would probably win if the question were “Who is the one player you would choose to start a team with?” He’s just 21, but has emerged as one of the NBA’s best. He’s top 10 per game in points, rebounds and blocks. He’s 4th in turnover pct.  He’s among the leaders in PER, Win Shares and Vorp.

Davis would need to finish with a flurry, dragging the Pelicans into the playoffs while blowing away Curry and Harden statistically in the final 6 weeks to have any chance. This is true of any player on teams currently seeded from 3-9. I mention Davis because he seems like the one player talented enough to pull off a feat like that. Even if such a run happened, Davis would remain something of a longshot. Only twice since 1980 has the MVP gone to a player on a team that finished lower than the 2nd seed. That was Nash in ’06 and Jordan in ’88. Both teams were 3rd seeds. Even if the Pelicans were to win all their remaining games while the teams ahead of them continued at their current pace, they would still just hit the 5th seed.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City: Westbrook has emerged as a wild card, but remains a long shot MVP candidate. He has been on a tear lately, becoming the first player since LeBron in ’09 to notch 3 consecutive triple-doubles. He’s 3rd in VORP and is actually ahead of both Curry and Harden in PER. He has kept the Thunder on the playoff bubble despite the fact that reigning MVP Kevin Durant has missed significant time due to injury.

Westbrook remains a longshot simply because the Thunder are unlikely to rise much higher than the 6th seed. If they had a year like the ’06 Suns or the ’15 Rockets where they hit the 3rd seed despite injuries and adversity, Westbrook would be a prime candidate. But that hasn’t happened and nothing short of continuing the triple-double streak through the end of the season is likely to make Westbrook a serious candidate.

My vote, if I had one, would go to Curry. I believe being on the best team means something. The Curry-Harden debate isn’t as clear as the Rose-LeBron debate from 2011 when it was obvious LeBron was the much better player. I also like the idea of rewarding the best player on the best team, as long as that player is a viable candidate. Stephen Curry is a strong candidate and I think he’ll win the MVP fairly easily assuming present trends continue.

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