Culture of Hoops

NBA MVP Shares: Part Two

In Part One of my MVP Shares column, featured on Tuesday, I explained my somewhat radical NBA MVP Shares idea and announced my honorable mention candidates. As promised, I’m back today to give away my 125 MVP Shares (up from last year since there are more voters for the award this year), but first here is the rest of my NBA Awards ballot:

Coach of the Year: Steve Kerr
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard
Most Improved Player: Hassan Whiteside
1st Team All-NBA: Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol
2nd Team All-NBA: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan
3rd Team All-NBA: Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Blake Griffin, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan

Three thoughts before I moving forward: First, I think this is going to be my last year including Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year on my awards ballot. Sixth Man of the Year is just silly; who is the best player in the league who doesn’t start for his team or even play 30 minutes per game? Do great bench players deserve recognition? Yes. Do they deserve an entire award? No. And why should we give an award to players who do exactly what they’re supposed to do in the offseason? Every year there are at least fifteen guys who have a good case for this award. Nine times out of ten it’s a second year player who makes a big jump from year one to year two or a player who takes advantage of a better situation than they were in the previous year. Whiteside is a legitimate MIP candidate this year, though. He wasn’t even playing in the NBA last year and now he’s one of the best shot blockers and rebounders in the NBA. I beg you, please don’t forget that I built the Hassan Whiteside bandwagon back in 2010:

Image Courtesy of Sonny Giuliano

Image Courtesy of Sonny Giuliano

Second, any time a team is having a historically great season their coach is grandfathered into the Coach of the Year conversation. In this situation, Kerr is a runaway winner. The improvement in Golden State’s offense from last year to this year is easy enough to see just based on the eye test, and it can’t be forgotten that Kerr is a first time head coach. Remarkable. After Kerr, it goes Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer (led Atlanta to a franchise record number of wins and has turned the Hawks into San Antonio East), Boston’s Brad Stevens (I don’t care if they aren’t even above .500, they overachieved to startling levels) Gregg Popovich (because the best coach in the league should be grandfathered into the Coach of the Year conversation too) and Cleveland’s LeBron James (whoops, I mean David Blatt).

Third, those All-NBA teams were killer. It really bummed me out having to leave John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, the Atlanta Hawks starting five, Zach Randolph, DeMarcus Cousins and Damian Lillard off the list. Go ahead and file that away in the manila folder labeled Holy shit, the NBA is totally stacked right now.

Alright, 125 MVP Shares are up for grabs and six guys are grabbing them. Remember, the purpose of MVP Shares are to help future generations better understand who mattered during the NBA season in question. We need to know who the top guys are that respective season and how much better the MVP was than those other top guys. It’s too easy for those two things to get lost in a regular MVP vote. So without further ado:

6: Chris Paul (14 Shares) 19.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 10.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 49/40/90 shooting splits
At this point you know Chris Paul’s M.O.; he’s going to give you right around 20 points, 4 rebounds, 10 assists, and 2 steals per game. He’s going to bark at refs, teammates and opponents alike, get everyone involved for 42 minutes and take over late if he needs to. He’s probably still the best defensive point guard in the league and his late game go-to shot (a brutally efficient elbow jumper that he can get almost at will) is still one of the best crunch time weapons in the league.

As you can see above, he narrowly missed out on the opportunity to join the 50/40/90 club, but what you don’t see is that Paul played his best ball while his Lob City running mate Blake Griffin was out for over a month. In that mid-February through mid-March stretch without Griffin, Paul averaged 20.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 12.0 assists, 1.7 steals, and shot 51 percent from the field. Somehow, in those 14 games the Clippers went 9-6 despite playing San Antonio, Memphis, Golden State, Portland, Chicago, Dallas twice, Houston twice, and Oklahoma City twice. I’ve said it before and I don’t mind saying it again; Chris Paul plays the point guard position better than I’ve ever seen anyone else play it. And five guys are receiving more MVP shares than him this year. Another file for the Holy shit, the NBA is totally stacked right now manila folder.

T5: Russell Westbrook (18 Shares) 28.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 43/30/84 shooting splits
I hope there aren’t any animal rights activists out there reading this because I’m about to kill two birds with one stone. It’s time for a history lesson, and a case for Russell Westbrook as the MVP.

Westbrook’s post All-Star break triple-double spree got a lot of people making some Oscar Robertson comparisons and it turns out they are well-deserved. Even though the majority of Westbrook’s work came late in the season, I want to use his entire body of work for this point. For what it’s worth, Westbrook has averaged 31.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 10.0 assists per game post All-Star break, slightly better than his full season totals. I bring this up because I don’t want to hear anybody say “Well Oscar did it for a whole season.”

Oscar did average a triple-double for an entire season. Impressive indeed. But I’m here to tell you what Westbrook has done is more impressive. And that’s not just a matter of opinion.

During the 1961-62 season Oscar Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. He played an insane 44 minutes per game and his Cincinnati Royals averaged 125 offensive possessions per game. That means Oscar was on the floor for roughly 115 possessions per game.

Russell Westbrook averaged 28.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists this season. He played 34 minutes per game and the Thunder averaged 100 offensive possessions per game. That means Westbrook was on the floor for roughly 71 possessions per game.

Before I continue, let me squash one point any old timer will try to make. Yes, Oscar averaged 44 minutes per game, ten more per game than Westbrook. There is no way that Oscar or anyone from that era played as hard as Westbrook does in those 34 minutes. I refuse to believe it, and if you can find any video clip that proves me wrong send it my way and I will offer a public apology. Leave it in the comments, send it to my Twitter, whatever. Prove me wrong. I dare you.

Anyway, if we put Westbrook’s numbers on a per 115 possessions basis, they would come out to 45.3 points, 11.8 rebounds and 13.9 assists per game. Of course, that wouldn’t be sustainable because Westbrook plays harder than any other guy in the league. He throws his body around with no regard for his well-being, and genuinely gives a shit on every single possession, offense or defense.

So what lessons have we learned? Don’t get too wrapped up in any numbers up until the NBA/ABA merger, and never forget how good Russell Westbrook was this season. Part of my MVP criteria is determining if I will remember watching a player ten or fifteen years from now. For the 2014-15 season, Westbrook will probably be the top guy, even if he couldn’t lead his team to the Playoffs.

T5: Anthony Davis (18 Shares) 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.9 blocks, 54% FG, 81% FT
I promise I’ll give you guys about 2,500 words on Davis this fall in his Top 50 NBA Players section, but I’m just too shaken up right now that a 22-year-old just posted the 11th best PER in NBA history. He’s a God damn cyborg. If he can stay healthy he’s probably going to end up one of the twenty best players in NBA history. Just give me a few months to process all of this.

3: LeBron James (19 Shares) 25.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 49/35/71 shooting splits
LeBron cracks the top three in the MVP shares yet again, his seventh or eighth top three finish depending on how you feel about his 2007-08 season (30.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 48/32/71 shooting splits). It’s his worst season statistically since his rookie year (and yes, it’s ludicrous that we’re talking about a 25.3/6.0/7.4 season as the second worst of a 12 year NBA career). I’ve watched as much of LeBron James over the last decade as any and this season he’s been about 85 percent of the player he was three years ago when he was at his absolute apex. Still, it would be a tough task to point at any one player and say, “He’s definitely surpassed LeBron James as the best player in the NBA.”

We know that LeBron makes a tangible difference for the Cavaliers. Without his input, Cleveland wouldn’t have acquired Kevin Love in the offseason or J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert later in the year. My bad, I forgot that this isn’t a GM of the Year column. Cleveland struggled badly during LeBron’s two week sabbatical in January, and proceeded to win 17 of their next 20 games after he returned to action. Every player on the team has fallen in line and accepted the role that best suits LeBron’s game. As a result, Cleveland is one of the Vegas favorites to win the NBA Title this year. Even if he’s just 80 to 90 percent of the player he was when he was in 2012 when he won his first title, he’s still plenty good enough to win a third this June.

2: James Harden (26 Shares) 27.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 44/38/87 shooting splits
His game is obnoxious and repetitive, but kudos have to be given to Harden shouldering an insane burden every night. He’s played the majority of the season without his best teammate, and he’s the only perimeter player on the Rockets roster who can consistently create good looks for himself and teammates. He wills himself to the line ten times a game, and, stop me if you’ve heard this before, he’s the only guy on the Rockets roster who consistently gets there and converts at a high rate. It’s maddening to watch him flop all over the place when there is the slightest bit of contact, but if the refs are going to fall for it why shouldn’t he keep doing it? He’s by no means an elite defender, but at least he gives a shit this season, a huge improvement in that category.

Harden makes an otherwise mediocre team very good. There isn’t a single shooting guard in the league that you can replace Harden with who would be able to lead the Rockets to 40 wins, let alone 56. And it’s not like any other shooting guard would even be able to make Houston more watchable. The iso-beard routine gets old in a hurry, but it’s still fun to marvel at Harden’s singular ability to take Houston to a different level.

1: Stephen Curry (30 Shares) 23.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 49/44/91 shooting splits
And while we’re on the subject of guys taking their team to a different level … we love when great players make a mediocre team very good or make a good team great. What about the guys, like Curry, who make very good teams historically great? Why does that transformation go largely unnoticed in comparison to the efforts of Harden and Davis?

I would bet my life’s savings that without Curry, the Warriors wouldn’t be as successful as people would like to think. I doubt they would win 45 games. Defenses bend so much just because of the idea of Stephen Curry. His presence alone is enough to get teammates open looks because all five defenders have to know where he is at at all times if he’s off the ball. He doesn’t even need to touch the ball. And when the ball is in his hands he’s a fucking wizard who can do literally anything on a basketball court.

As NBA fans, we’re lucky to have this season and these six MVP candidates. All six of these shareholders are generational talents who have changed, or will change, the landscape of the league and how the game of basketball is played. Curry might be the most influential of the six. What Curry does wasn’t really conceivable before he did it. A top five ball-handler and passer can also be the greatest shooter the game has ever seen? That wasn’t supposed to be a thing.

But nothing about Curry is conventional. The way he plays (like I said, with the ball in his hands he’s a fucking wizard), his path to the top (he received only three Division I scholarship offers, all from mid-major schools) or his numbers. Just take a look at his stats since the All-Star break, minus the Warriors final game of the season:

24.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 50/52/94 shooting splits

Kyle Korver has flirted with 50/50/90 shooting splits this season but he’s been running off of screens and getting open looks created for him by teammates. Curry is putting up those same shooting splits over a third of a season, and he’s creating most of those looks for himself off the dribble. Meanwhile, he’s running the league’s highest scoring offense and keeping everyone else on the team happily involved. You want to talk about heavy burdens? Look no further than the one Curry carries each night. We just don’t notice how much of a task it is because he’s been making carrying it look so effortless, just like an MVP does.

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