Picking the MVP

Who is the 2016-17 NBA MVP?   The question is more interesting than in most seasons.  There are many different assessments for “value” and, usually, they lead to the same place.  Let’s take a look at the basic theories of MVP and see where each of leads us.

Who is the best player on the best team?

The Warriors were the class of the NBA and Kevin Durant was their best player.  Though it is often true that the best player on the best team is the best player in the NBA, this is a lazy way to dole out the award.  Great teams are great because of the total team.   This is illustrated by way of a simple example.  Ff the Warriors traded Steph Curry or Kevin Durant to the Nets, Curry or KD would still be quite valuable but the Nets wouldn’t likely be a title team.  Curry might fall off the MVP radar for circumstances beyond his control.  That doesn’t make much sense.

Even though this best-on-the-best theory is lazy, Durant had a really strong MVP case until he missed 20 games.  Curry also was very good but his numbers are a notch below those of James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

Who is the advanced stats MVP?

The answer really depends on the advanced stat you like.  Here’s a quick rundown of the leaders:

PER, Russell Westbrook 30.8:  PER has weaknesses as a definitive stat.  It tends to over-reward high efficiency players, it misses most of the defensive side of the ball, and doesn’t process the value of certain role players.  Nevertheless, when looking at stars who are expected to excel in all areas, PER provides a nice snapshot.  In PER, Westbrook has a huge edge over the second place contender Kawhi Leonard (27.7).  Russ’ 30.8 PER ranks as historically great (he is currently twelfth, only exceeded by LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, and Curry).    A PER that good can’t be ignored.

-Win Shares, James Harden 14.7:  I’m not a huge fan of the theory of allocating specific wins to a particular player in the NBA context.  It seems that there is some randomness to the allocation.  For example, Rudy Gobert is the second best player in the NBA by win shares, which doesn’t pass the smell test.  Nor does Otto Porter leading the Wiz in win shares over John Wall.  Incidentally, when win shares are calculated on a per-minute basis, Harden falls to fifth (with Durant leading the way and Leonard second).

-BPM, Russell Westbrook, 15.7:  Plus/minus also has some inherent weakness but Westbrook’s BPM is crazy good.  Harden is second at 10.0, which is a huge gap.  Westbrook’s BPM rates as the best of All-Time for a season, shattering LeBron’s 2008-09 BPM of 12.99.

VORP, Russell Westbrook, 12.4:  Again, Westbrook crushes the field (Harden is second at 8.8).  And also again, Westbrook set the All-Time record in a stat.  This time, he edges out Michael Jordan’s 1988-89 season (11.98).  While no single advanced stat is definitive, Westbrook’s performance in most of them certainly shows he’s been the best player in the NBA.

Who would you take to start a team?

Let’s put this another way….If you had to draft a team to win the 2016-17 playoffs, would you start with Westbrook?  Russ is an unbelievable player but it would be quite rational to take Durant or LeBron over him.  They aren’t exactly slouches.  On the other hand, this type of inquiry isn’t really fair.  The MVP is meant to reward the player who played the best during the regular season.  While KD and LBJ were great, Westbrook was on another level this year.

Does the triple-double record mean anything?

Averaging a triple-double and breaking Oscar Robertson’s record is fairly amazing.  Still, this is not an actual accomplishment.  Westbrook’s accomplishment was generating tons of points for his team.  He shouldn’t be granted extra credit because he happened to average double-figure rebounds while doing it (if he had averaged only nine rebounds per game, would that take anything away from his season?).

In the end, Westbrook is a fairly obvious MVP candidate.  The other great guards, including Harden, just can’t compare with Westbrook’s overwhelming numbers.  A few forwards have slight arguments.  Leonard scored great and is a versatile defender (though his DPM numbers were down his year).  Durant was having a great year but those 20 games missed take him out of argument.  LeBron always has a case but he, also, can’t quite match the Westbrook Train.  It’s not clear how much longer Westbrook can keep this up but 2016-17 will always be remembered as the year he dominated the NBA.

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