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The MVP & Me

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A strange combination of outrage and deep ambivalence.

NBA: Award Show
Same award, different suit, if there’s any justice.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Another Rockets season, another year filled with fraught conversations over who should be considered the Most Valuable Player in the NBA.

I’m in a Hegelian position here. I’m both ambivalent, and simultaneously, outraged. Is there synthesis to be found?

My normal, (distant?) past approach to this award is to shrug and say “It’s a beauty contest, and therefore subjective. There really is no accounting for taste, and I’ve been happy with my own preferences all along. I don’t require outside validation, and I don’t particularly value it anyway.” Yes, I’m that guy.

Now, however, it feels like I’ve not just got a dog in the fight, but maybe, a relative. I’d go so far to say I’d consider James Harden a family relation. One who never calls, sure, but I’m still there for him.

So now, while I am convinced that the award has no deeper meaning, and the people making the choice are occasionally shallow, uninformed, biased, smug and mendacious, I’ll be damned if I simply accept a decision that slights my darling James. I don’t really care about the award, but those people had best choose the right person. The one who truly deserves it. It’s not so much the award, it’s justice.

First, straight off, the MVP is an individual award. One player. Uno. Singular. So team me no teams. Record me no records. Not if you don’t have to, and certainly not as a primary reason.

There is already a “Best Team” award. It’s derived through a two tier system, and features “NBA Regular Season Standings” and “The NBA Championship”. This elaborate, extensive, and (usually) objective method for determining that award reliably delivers a winner every season, with little help from sports writers or broadcasters.

I believe using team success as a major criteria of the MVP award is thus misguided. It should only be employed if there’s not any better way of distinguishing the winner, as a very last resort. (A bit like consequentialist philosophy.)

If you want to rule out losing teams, fine. You can make a decent “value” argument there, although “value” seems a deliberately slippery concept. If you want to make availability a criteria, that makes sense. “Value” clearly diminishes if there isn’t much of it.

It’s also a regular season award. There is, again, an award system for individuals in the playoffs already in place. Looking at playoff performance for a regular season award is sort of like basing the award on personal bias for or against a player, or his play style, irrespective of accomplishments. It should be out of bounds, if a voter is intellectually honest.

So, let’s look at a recent award, one largely beyond dispute. In 2015-16 Steph Curry swept the MVP ballot. That means no matter how partisan a voter might be, that voter concluded that Curry was the best player that season. If you accept that reasoning, then you should accept that what is a better season in most traditional respects should similarly be an unambiguous vote.

Steph Curry in 2015-16 ( in what seems to be his career peak season, at the standard age of 27, going by stats both before and after) did this:

30.1 points per game. 6.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals.

He posted 2375 points, with stunning efficiency, in 79 games.

James Harden (at 29 and somehow still accelerating) is doing this:

36.2 points per game, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 2.1 steals.

Harden has scored 2568 points, in 71 games, with 7 games remaining. At his current scoring average that could bring Harden to 2821 points.

Here are players who have surpassed 2800 points in a season in the past history of the NBA (since 1946 - 73 years):

Wilt Chamberlain

Bob McAdoo

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Michael Jordan

Kobe Bryant

Go on, tell me those guys didn’t play “The Right Way”, I dare you.

The list of players who have come close to that somewhat arbitrary 2800pt cut-off (though it seems to be a cut-off of pure scoring greatness) are also very few, with none outside the HoF.

You’ll note in no traditional statistical category is James Harden worse than Steph Curry’s unanimous MVP season. So it’s being suggested by some that James Harden should lose the award in a season where he surpasses a unanimous MVP, in what are the usual criteria for selection?

Curry’s season is historic, and a deserving winner. So is James Harden’s.

Some might argue advanced metrics favor Curry’s season, with efficiency numbers. They do, but perhaps not by as much as you think, particularly if you believe that usage matters. Harden is maintaining high efficiency, at close to peak all-time player usage. To compare, Curry’s 15-16 saw him used 32.6% of plays. Harden this year? 40.5%.

This is stunning. Harden is being used on around 41% of Rockets plays, yet is still notching more assists per game than Curry’s unanimous MVP season. That’s your “selfish” player, right there.

Similarly, “Volume Shooters” are denigrated as being lower efficiency players that make up for that lack with volume. They shoot worse, but more often.

What, then, do you call a player that shatters most usage marks, while maintaining almost the same level of efficiency that won him the previous season’s MVP award?

What do you call a player so dangerous that other teams game plan for him, specifically, and often, bizarrely? Who is so frightening to opponents that they will change their whole defensive scheme simply to account for him?

What do you call a player that single-handed engenders rules debates, and elicits refereeing dictums centered solely on him? A player so good at scoring that the league changes the rules, to slow him down?

What do you call a player that may well do what only five other players, inner circle Hall of Famers all, with some true candidates for Greatest of All Time, have done in the past seventy-three years?

I believe you should call him the Most Valuable Player.

Also, you may call him my dear cousin, James.

Note to Giannis Antetokounmpo MVP Supporters - In an average NBA season, Giannis is a worthy MVP. He’s fun, he’s efficient, and he puts up great numbers. But none of his accomplishments, not one, is truly historic. It is, to be honest, an average level of greatness. A level that someone pretty much notches every year in the NBA. What seems to have people’s hearts racing is the size of the player, his methods, and, frankly, pure novelty.

Harden’s numbers are comparable in most respects and better in others. He’s also doing something that is seen once a generation of players, if that. Something that only the very finest NBA players ever do.

Absurd counting and usage stats are one thing (looking at you Russell) but highly efficient absurd counting and usage stats? Vanishingly rare.

Perhaps Giannis will do the same. He’s young, he’s not even at what is a typical player peak.

For this season, though, Giannis is not even having a significantly better season than Paul George, who seems to have been dropped from the conversation. Giannis is big, fast and dunks a lot. He plays good defense. He passes. He’s a Truly Valuable Player. He is absolutely worthy of consideration for the top individual award. I support him for a TVP award, this very season.

I believe he’ll win an MVP soon, and he’ll likely deserve it. But dislike of Harden or Harden Fatigue isn’t a good reason for not bestowing an award. Giannis could end up the Karl Malone of his day, in such a case. Personally, I wouldn’t want my favorite player to share a cab with Karl Malone, let alone a designation like that.

Poll

Are you convinced?

This poll is closed

  • 61%
    I was already convinced.
    (121 votes)
  • 14%
    I am. Your logic, like your writing, is immaculate.
    (28 votes)
  • 4%
    I’ll never be convinced. I’m an illogical hater. A cretin, if you will.
    (8 votes)
  • 5%
    But, dunks!
    (11 votes)
  • 14%
    Harden merely warms the seat for St. Luka. He’s like James The Baptist or something.
    (28 votes)
196 votes total Vote Now