Westbrook won’t be MVP but Leonard might

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As the regular season of the NBA draws to a close, talk of potential MVP picks has heated up. Last night’s games concluded the regular season and the playoffs will begin on Saturday. On June 26, the NBA will hold an awards show, announcing the 2016-2017 season MVP, as well as other major awards. Some time between now and then, a large group of North American sportswriters and broadcasters will be sending in ballots with their top five picks for MVP ranked. As the MVP is actually decided by a panel of sports journalists, the buzz that a player has as a potential MVP pick may genuinely affect the votes. Despite this, for some bizarre reason, some patterns in the history of NBA MVP picks seem to suggest that two most buzzed-about candidates actually have the odds stacked against them.
Although the choice for MVP is currently hotly debated, a general consensus has emerged around a top four potential picks: the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Lebron James. Tyler Pasko’s article for the March 23 edition of the Phoenix analyzed the the reasons each of these players is a notable contender for the award. Since then, discussion of potential contenders has condensed around Westbrook and Harden. This seems somewhat natural, they have the highest stats of the four and are also easier to compare to each other than to James or Leonard. Westbrook and Harden are both guards, Westbrook is in his ninth season at 28 while Harden is in his eighth season at 27, and they’ve both put on incredible offensive performances. Westbrook is setting records with an average of 31.9 points per game, 10.4 assists per game, and 10.7 rebounds per game while Harden is following close behind with 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds. Westbrook is leading the league in points, Harden is leading the league in assists. Supporters of Harden counter Westbrook’s greater average points and rebounds by pointing out that the Rockets have 7 more wins than the Thunder and wins are all that matter because they suggest that Harden’s offense is ultimately more successful. Historical MVP choices indicate that, in fact, wins do matter, but also that neither Harden or Westbrook is actually winning enough to have a good shot at the MVP title.
To test the importance of wins in determining the choice for MVP, we’ve aggregated data on MVP winners since the 1980-1981 season, when the NBA switch from player voting to the current system of a panel of sports journalists. By examining win percentages, instead of raw win numbers we’re able to include the two years with shortened seasons due to lockouts, 1989-1999 and 2011-2012. There are however, a few notable records concerning raw win numbers. Excluding the two lockout seasons, no NBA MVP since 1980-1981 has ever won less than 50 games that season, and there are only two years in which the MVP won fewer than 56 games: Michael Jordan in 1987-1988 and Steve Nash in 2005-2006.
What these records make clear is that Westbrook winning MVP would be as record-breaking as his stats, but not in a good way. No prior MVP has ever been playing on a team doing as poorly as the Thunder. Similarly, due to a post-All-Star-break slump, the Cavs now have a low enough win percentage that the only MVP winner whose team was losing as  much was Jordan’s ‘88 Bulls, while the Rockets, despite a tremendous effort from Harden, have a record very similar to Nash’s ‘06 Suns. The only one of the top four picks who should be an MVP contender, based on past MVP team performance, is Kawhi Leonard.
We can also consult the records of team conference standings as they enter the playoffs to identify trends in the relationship between team performance and MVP selection. As it happens, every team that an MVP was playing for was either first or second in their conference that year, with the single exception of Jordan’s ‘88 Bulls.

Year MVP Team Conference Standing
2015-2016 Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 1
2014-2015 Stephen Curry Golden State Warriors 1
2013-2014 Kevin Durant Oklahoma City Thunder 2
2012-2013 LeBron James Miami Heat 1
2011-2012 LeBron James Miami Heat 2
2010-2011 Derrick Rose Chicago Bulls 1
2009-2010 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 1
2008-2009 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers 1
2007-2008 Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers 1
2006-2007 Dirk Nowitzki Dallas Mavericks 1
2005-2006 Steve Nash Phoenix Suns 2
2004-2005 Steve Nash Phoenix Suns 1
2003-2004 Kevin Garnett Minnesota Timberwolves 1
2002-2003 Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 1
2001-2002 Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs 2
2000-2001 Allen Iverson Philadelphia 76ers 1
1999-2000 Shaquille O’Neal Los Angeles Lakers 1
1998-1999 Karl Malone Utah Jazz 2
1997-1998 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1996-1997 Karl Malone Utah Jazz 1
1995-1996 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1994-1995 David Robinson San Antonio Spurs 1
1993-1994 Hakeem Olajuwon Houston Rockets 2
1992-1993 Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns 1
1991-1992 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1990-1991 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 1
1989-1990 Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 1
1988-1989 Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 1
1987-1988 Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls 3
1986-1987 Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers 1
1985-1986 Larry Bird Boston Celtics 1
1984-1985 Larry Bird Boston Celtics 1
1983-1984 Larry Bird Boston Celtics 1
1982-1983 Moses Malone Philadelphia 76ers 1
1981-1982 Moses Malone Houston Rockets 2
1980-1981 Julius Erving Philadelphia 76ers 2

If we were to only consider candidates for MVP whose teams are first or second in their conference, Harden and Westbrook would both be eliminated. Given that Westbrook’s relentless triple-doubles have broken NBA records, some may assume that this year could see a break from the pattern of past MVP picks to recognize his truly historic achievements. However, all past NBA picks indicate that this will not happen.
The greatest outlier in the historical data is clearly Jordan in ‘88. This award, was in fact, recognizing a herculean effort; Jordan led the league in both points and assists and ended up winning Defensive Player of the Year in addition to MVP, while managing to win 50 games, earning the Bulls the third spot in their conference. While this may seem encouraging for Westbrook, it is important to note that Westbrook has not been playing like Jordan. In comparison to Jordan’s dominant performances on both sides of the court, Westbrook’s defense has been below average.
Examining Jordan’s 1986-1987 season also yield disappointing precedents for Westbrook. In this season, he became the first person not named Wilt Chamberlain to score over 3,000 points in a single season, while also recording 125 blocks and 236 steals. Despite this, the Bulls only won 40 games and were eighth in the conference and Jordan lost out on MVP to Magic Johnson, which is not promising for Westbrook. In fact, although both Westbrook and Harden are displaying amazing offensive ability this season, neither are comparable to Jordan in ‘88 due to their below average defensive performance. The disparity is evident in the stats: Jordan’s ‘88 performance included the seventh most in steals in a single season, while Harden and Westbrook this year have notched the first and second most turnovers in a single season.
A more hopeful comparison for Harden is Nash’s ‘06 MVP win. Just like Harden, Nash led the season in assists that year. Harden is actually putting up better stats than Nash did that year. Although Nash was shooting better from the line, Harden has almost twice as many rebounds and just over 10 more points per game. Nash didn’t have the best stats of the season; just like Harden, Nash was given credit for adept leadership of a powerful offense beyond what is reflected in his stats. In fact, they’ve both led blistering offenses architected by the same man, Coach Mike D’Antoni. Nash’s MVP wins are still somewhat controversial, however, if he had Harden’s stats, they probably wouldn’t be. One factor that may work against Harden is that in the last 10 years, MVP voters have demonstrated a stronger preference for winning teams, selecting only two MVP’s whose teams did not finish first in their conference.
Although James is averaging more assists and rebounds than he ever has, historical records indicate that his MVP chances are small. His stats are good but worse than Westbrook and Harden, in addition to being worse in many ways than his own past stats. When James won the MVP award in the past, he was scoring more points, putting up better defensive stats, and winning more games. The Cavs’ current win percentage is not only lower than any of James’ win percentages when he won MVP, but lower than all MVP win percentages except Jordan in ‘88.
The one contender boosted by historical evidence is Kawhi Leonard. Although his 25.7 points, 3.5 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game may seem low in comparison to Westbrook and Harden, they represent significant growth in offensive capability for Leonard, who won Defensive Player of the Year the past two years. Leonard has been able to maintain strong defense while increasing scoring capability making him the one of the best all around players in the league. Although MVP considerations seem to largely revolve around offensive performance, defensive play is certainly a factor, as shown by Jordan’s anomalous ‘88 win. More importantly, perhaps, Leonard is winning. Not only on are the Spurs winning, they’re winning because of Leonard. Leonard ranks fourth in Win Shares, a measure of teams wins contributed by the player, behind Harden, Rudy Gobert, and Jimmy Butler. Leonard’s Player Efficiency Rating, a standardized stat representing per-minute production, is beats out all three of the players who contributed more wins than him. The only player who played more than 40 games to have a higher PER than Leonard is actually Westbrook. These advanced stats go to show despite his lower P/A/R, Leonard’s contributions to his team are absolutely on the level of the other MVP candidates, while winning more games than all of them.
Of course, predicting an MVP pick with greater emphasis on winning games to reflect historic trends also opens up the possibility of Steph Curry picking up his third year MVP in a row. For this reason, many sports journalists have been including Curry as a fifth potential MVP candidates and some include the first-in-the-Eastern-Conference Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas as a sixth. However, given that the MVP is chosen by sports journalists, it’s entirely possible that the best indicator for the MVP choice is simply hype and the past trends simply reflect the fact that people are normally more excited about winning teams. If this is true, than the MVP hype train behind Harden may very well carry him to becoming a new outlier point on the MVP team win percentage graph.

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