Digging Deeper: A Case For Each MVP Candidate

It’s still a month away, but now that three finalists have been named for the NBA’s Kia Most Valuable Player award, let’s take a look at who has the best case for taking the 2018 trophy home this year.

The Case for Anthony Davis

First and foremost, Anthony Davis is a defensive force. At 6’10”, blocks aren’t exactly hard for Davis and he tallied 193 of them this year – the second highest total of his career and easily the top mark for the 2017-18 season (57 more than Clint Capela who had the second-most this season). The Brow was among league leaders in rebounds also. His 832 rebounds and 11.1 rebounds per game were both the fifth best marks of the season. Davis even finished with 115 steals, which was one less than guys like Jimmy Butler and LeBron James.

Offensively, Davis put up some career numbers this season. He played over 70 games for the second consecutive season and set career highs with a 34.0 3PFG% and a 55.2 eFG% (which weights two- and three-pointers equally). Davis led the league for the most two-point field goals made at 725 – 17 more than LeBron James – allowing Davis to put up over 28 points per game for the second consecutive season. You didn’t want to send Davis to the line a lot this year either as he finished second in the NBA with free throws made at 495.

In looking at advanced stats, I looked at all players that posted at least 22 minutes per game and played at least 58 games this season to evaluate each player’s PER, WS/48, Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating (according to Basketball-Reference.com). Davis performed well in each category, hitting a 120 Offensive Rating, which was tied for 12th in the group of players I evaluated, including James Harden. Davis’ 102 Defensive Rating was even better as it was tied for 6th with the likes of Ben Simmons and Pau Gasol.

Anthony Davis finished fourth in total Win Shares this season at 13.7 just behind Harden and LeBron. Davis’ .241 WS/48 was just as good and ahead of Lebron’s mark, but still behind Harden’s. Lastly, Davis’ PER (Player Efficiency Rating) was 28.9 – the second best mark in the league.

Bottom Line
Anthony Davis is a force to reckon with at either end of the floor. He’s up for Defensive Player of the Year and it’s hard to argue against him there. He absolutely deserves to be in the MVP conversation and has a decent chance to bring home both awards this year.

The Case for LeBron James

What is there to say for a once-in-a-generation type of player? LeBron James in his 15th season is still setting the bar for NBA players. This year, James’ 54.2 FG% was the fourth best of his career and ninth best among players that played in 58 or more games and had at least 700 field goal attempts.

James stepped it up a notch this year from beyond the arc this year as well, shooting 36.7% in three-pointers. He attempted 406 such shots this year which was a career high, 64 more than the previous season and his most since the 2009-10 season. His excellent shooting percentage from beyond the arc led to his most three-pointers made (149) in his career, beating his previous high of 132 from the 2008-09 season.

I love efficiency and James’ efficiency was outstanding. His 59.0 eFG% was the fourth best of his career and the 12th best in the NBA among players that played in 58 or more games and averaged at least 22 minutes per game. James also finished with the most points of the season, logging 2,251 over his 82 games.

It didn’t stop there for James though. He managed to grab 8.6 rebounds per game this season, which tied his career high. James has also managed to set career highs in assists per game in each of the last two seasons. In 2016-17, James had 8.7 assists per game, the most since 2009-10. This year, he picked it up even more, setting a new career high of 9.1 assists per game.

Not only did Lebron improve many facets of his already outstanding game play, he finished with a 118 Offensive Rating, tied for 23rd in the league, and a decent 109 Defensive Rating. The Defensive Rating isn’t among his best numbers of his career, but with another uptick in Usage Rate at this point in his career, it’s not a surprise to see the defensive side of his game suffer just a little; his 347 turnovers this season (second most in the league) didn’t do him any favors either.

LeBron James was well above average in WS/48 this season to, hitting .221 WS/48. It wasn’t the best mark of his career, but it was still good for eighth best in the league. And while it was not as good as Harden or Davis’ mark, it’s still a remarkable number as he played in all 82 games versus Harden’s 72 and Davis’ 75 games and played 1.5 minutes per game more than either Harden or Davis. His incredible efficiency despite playing so much this season is reflected well in his 28.6 PER, which was good enough for the third best mark in the league (behind Harden and Davis) and still only 1.2 points off of Harden’s mark.

Bottom Line
LeBron James will always be an MVP consideration. He continues to improve and morph his game as evidenced this season. He’s a forward that can run the point and get 45 points and a triple double in the same night. He’s a once-in-a-generation player isn’t anywhere near close to the end of his playing career. Lebron is only one of 4 players to put up at least 27 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists per game in a season; the other three include Oscar Robertson (five different times), James Harden (in 2016-17) and Russell Westbrook (also in 2016-17). If that’s not MVP worthy, what is?

The Case for James Harden

James Harden benefited greatly from the addition of Chris Paul to the Rockets this year. If we look at his counting stats, you might say that Harden took a big dip this year in rebounds and assists per game. He did — his rebounds per game in 2016-17 were 8.1, the highest of his career; his assists per game were 11.2, also a career high and league leading number in 2016-17. His 2017-18 numbers: 5.4 rebounds per game and 8.8 assists per game. His rebounding numbers fell back to more in line with his career rebounds per game and his assists per game, while down from last year, were still the second best per game average of his career. In fact, even with Chris Paul around, Harden still bested Paul in assists per game, though part of that may have had to do with Paul only playing in 58 games this season.

But while Paul ate into some of Harden’s counting stats, Harden was actually able to become more involved in the offense and ended up leading the league in scoring at 30.4 points per game. Harden saw his highest field goal attempts in his career with 20.1 per game, half of which were three-pointers every night. But having a guy like Chris Paul allowed Harden to become more efficient in his shooting, posting a 54.1 eFG% — his highest since his days as the sixth man in Oklahoma City in 2011-12 when he was taking just 10.1 shots per game.

All of this can be backed up by his advanced stats as well. His total Win Shares for the season were 15.4, best in the league. His .289 WS/48 was also best in the league (and second was teammate Chris Paul). His 120 Offensive Rating was the highest it has been since his first season with the Rockets and was tied for 13th best in the league. His 105 Defensive Rating was third best mark of his career and was also tied for 13th best in the league this season. Last, but certainly not least, is Harden’s PER, a measurement of his efficiency. His 29.8 PER was not only the best of his career but also the best mark of the 2017-18 season.

Bottom Line
We’ve seen Harden progressively improve his game in each of the last four seasons with Houston. Harden led the league in points and got better with a true point guard playing with him as evidenced by PER and other advanced stats. Harden was still the heart and soul of the Rockets even with the addition of Paul and the “loss” in some of his counting stats, leaving James Harden as an MVP contender for the foreseeable future.

My MVP Pick

Based on the cases above, it’s between LeBron James and James Harden for me. Harden had his most efficient season yet, but LeBron dialed back the clock a little bit in his 15th season in the league to improve yet another facet of his game. In a battle of the tiniest details, and rare air with his points, rebounds and assists per game this season, I have to side with LeBron James as my 2017-18 MVP.