The case for each NBA MVP candidate

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In the grand scheme of things, MVP awards are largely meaningless. Last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo was awarded his second consecutive Maurice Podoloff Trophy remotely in Athens, weeks after his team was eliminated in the second round by the Miami Heat. However, when you can throw down some hard-earned shekels on who will win the award, the race takes on a whole new meaning. 

This year’s MVP race has been incredible. There are seven players with legitimate cases to win the award, and if you speak to anyone with a ticket on one of those seven men, you will likely hear an impassioned case as to why they deserve the title of Most Valuable Player. So, let’s evaluate those cases.

I have led the charge on James Harden’s candidacy this season, but I am not so close-minded that I refuse to see the path for each player to win the award. In fact, on Thursday night my colleague Tim Murray asked me who the MVP would be if the season ended that day, and my answer was quick: Joel Embiid. But, the season does not end today. 

Harken back to the 2018-2019 season: James Harden went on a torrid stretch of 25 games in which he averaged 41.9 points per game while shooting 43.8 percent from the floor and 37.1 percent from deep. His odds to win the MVP sky-rocketed to as high as -500 to win the award. Yet, it was Giannis who would ultimately hold the award by season’s end.

With a deep field, and so many of them bunched together, it would not be a shock to see a player come from the pack and win this race, so let’s evaluate each case up this point. I've listed players in order of the shortest odds to win the award. Please note, the price next to each player is the best odds found, and where you can find those odds, should you want to place a wager.

Joel Embiid (+ 250, BetMGM)

Case For

Embiid is the best player on the best team in its conference. It’s a pretty simple qualification, but it is the most obvious one for a MVP candidate. Not only do the 76ers currently hold the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but without Embiid they have been a mess. Philadelphia is 1-5 this season in the games he did not play, and struggles in his minutes on the bench. According to Cleaning The Glass, when Embiid is on the floor Philadelphia outscores opponents by 10.9 points every 100 possessions. But, when he rests the 76ers are outscored by their opponents by 8.5 points every 100 possessions. He is, quite literally, one of the most valuable players to his team in the league. 

Case Against

While Embiid means the most to his individual team’s success he is not himself a statistical marvel. He does not lead the league in any one category. That’s not to say he isn’t high up on the leaderboard in a few categories though. Embiid is second in Player Efficiency Rating (31.19) and scoring (30.2). He is just inside the top 20 for Defensive (2.23) and Offensive (4.17) Real Plus-Minus as well. The problem is, fellow candidates for the award rank higher than him in each of those candidates except for scoring, where it is Bradley Beal who sits on top. Then there is the anecdotal case to be made. Some voters view team success as a barometer for MVP, and while the success has been there for Philadelphia, there have been some low points with Embiid on the floor. They lost a game to Brooklyn early in the season, before the Harden trade, when both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant did not play. They lost both games to a short-handed Portland team and suffered a loss to Cleveland at home just over a week ago. How much will voters take unacceptable losses, such as those, into account?

LeBron James (+ 260, FanDuel)

Case For

Much like Joel Embiid, LeBron James means everything to his individual team. With James on the floor this season the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 9.9 points every 100 possessions. With him off the floor their net rating freefalls to -5.7 every 100 possessions. Many will try to make the case that he has a fellow superstar, Anthony Davis, and that his presence alone eats away at James’ MVP candidacy, but a quick look at the numbers dispels that ridiculous notion. First, the obvious: Davis has played in just 23 games this season. Second, when he was on the floor and James was off the Lakers were outscored by 5.9 points every 100 possessions. Compare that to the + 4.7 net rating when Davis is off and James is on, and it is clear that Davis needs James, not the other way around. James also leads the league in Real Plus-Minus (8.85) and RPM Wins (9.26). He’s also been available, playing every game for the Lakers but one, something that some voters find appealing. Especially when you consider the frequent absences of his teammates like Davis, Dennis Schroder and Marc Gasol. Where would the Lakers be without him?

Case Against

How much does a four-game sample size alter the perception of LeBron’s value to his team? After Davis was ruled out with his calf injury Los Angeles went on a 3-6 slide into the All-Star Break, and that included a four-game losing streak in which James looked less than enthused about his team’s level of play. During that four-game stretch his numbers were fine (25.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists), but his shooting bottomed out at 17.2 percent and he scored less than 20 points in two of those contests. In basic statistics James does not lead in any category. He is the 12th leading scorer (25.8), 21st in rebounds (8.0) and ninth in assists (7.8). For any individual player those are fantastic numbers, but for an MVP, not so much. James is also flat-out struggling in some areas of his game as well. He’s shooting just 69.2 percent from the free throw line, the third-lowest percentage of his career, and averaging 3.8 turnovers per game. There is no denying his value to Los Angeles, but his petulance during the team’s losing streak and the below average aspects of his game could ultimately hold him back.

Nikola Jokic (+ 600, SuperBook)

Case For

Eight out of the last nine MVPs have ended the season as the league leader in PER (Player Efficiency Rating), and that is where Jokic currently resides (31.61). Much like the other candidates on this list, his team suffers when he does not play. When Jokic is on the floor Denver outscores opponents by 7.4 points every 100 possessions, but the team gets outscored by 1.5 points when he is off. Clearly it is not as dramatic as some on this list, but where he surpasses the others is with his statistical profile. Not only does he lead the league in PER, but he ranks in the 100th percentile at his position in assist rate (37.8percent) and has the highest field goal percentage (56.7) of every candidate on this list. Oh, and he is also the leader in eight other statistical categories such as made field goals (379), offensive win shares (6.5), overall win shares (8.3) and Value Over Replacement Player (4.4), just to name a few. Jokic is also improving on some career statistics. As of the All-Star Break he is posting career-highs in effective field goal percentage (60.9percent) and 3-point shooting (42.1percent) all while averaging the highest usage rate (31.1percent) and minutes per game (35.5) of his career.

Case Against

The problem Jokic has when it comes to his case to win this award is team success. Despite all of those wonderful numbers I laid out his team is only the sixth seed in the Western Conference with a 21-15 record. He also actively contributes to his team’s biggest weakness: defense. With Jokic on the floor the Nuggets allow 4.2 points more per 100 possessions, the worst mark of his career. According to Cleaning The Glass, when he is on the floor Denver allows 113.9 points every 100 possessions, but when he is off that improves to 109.7 per 100 possessions. He is almost useless in rim protection, as the Nuggets give up 69.1percent within four feet of the basket when he is on the floor, and he is 67th among 82 qualified centers in Defensive Real-Plus Minus. Overall, his team ranks 16th in defensive efficiency, and he does nothing to improve them on that end of the floor. MVPs make their teams better, and Jokic surely does on offense, but when a player actively contributes to his team’s biggest issue he cannot be considered the most valuable player in the league.

Luka Doncic (+ 1800, FanDuel)

Case For

When you lead your team in points (28.6), rebounds (8.4) and assists (9.0) you have a case to be the Most Valuable Player in the NBA, so Luka Doncic deserves to be in the illusive “conversation” for the award. He ranks in the 100th percentile at his position in multiple categories as well, such as usage (40.2 percent), assist rate (43.5 percent) and assisted make rate (16 percent). He is also in the 99th percentile in non-shooting fouls drawn as well! His importance on the offensive end is incomparable to most in this race as well. With him on the floor the Mavericks average 117.2 points every 100 possessions, their effective field goal percentage as a team improves 5.0percent and their 3-point shooting jumps by 4.8percent as well. There is a massive 11.6 point difference in their offensive rating when he is on and off the floor. That is obviously huge for a team that is reliant on their offense to win games. Dallas’ net rating of -3.9 with him off the floor is just better than Washington’s net rating for the season, giving you an idea of just how valuable Doncic is to the Mavericks.

Case Against

Having said all of that, there are some massive holes in Doncic’s resume that will likely keep him from sniffing this award. First, it was the start to his season. Doncic was an inefficient mess during the early part of the year, averaging 27.2 points on 46.1percent shooting from the floor and 29.1percent from deep. He averaged 3.9 turnovers per game as well, and this lasted through the first 21 games of the season. In a 72 game season, that is 29.2 percent of your games! That alone is enough to rule him out, but there is more. Like Jokic, Doncic actively contributes to his team’s poor defensive play. Did you notice how I left out Dallas’ net rating with Doncic on the floor when I was making the case for him? That’s because they only outscore opponents by 0.5 points with him playing! They might score 117.2 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the floor, but they give up 116.7 over the same stretch. When he rests their defensive rating improves by an astounding 7.3 points per 100 possessions! Analyze the other statistics as well, and you realize how far he is from the pack for this award. He is 22nd in Offensive Real Plus-Minus (3.55), and 447th of 479 players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. That alone, should be enough to knock him out of contention.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (+ 1800, FanDuel)

Case For

Milwaukee is just two games out of first place in the Eastern Conference, so being the best player on the best team is a designation still in the cards for the Greek Freak. Much like Luka Doncic, Antetokounmpo leads his team in each key category of points (29.0), rebounds (11.7) and assists (5.9), but unlike Doncic, he also leads his team in blocks (1.4). His offensive game has improved, as shocking as that sounds, in some areas as well. He is shooting a career-high 78.7percent at the rim this season, and he is getting to the line much more frequently than in years past. Currently, he leads the league free throw attempts (363), having averaged a career-high 10.4 free throw attempts per game in the first half of this season. He also has quite the impact when he is off the floor. When Antetokounmpo is on the floor the Bucks outscore opponents by 10.1 points every 100 possessions, but when is off they are outscored by 2.8 points. The biggest change comes to their defense, which goes from 108.9 when he is playing to 120.1 when he is resting. It’s even more amazing when you consider the fact that Milwaukee still finds itself inside the top half of the league (13th) in defensive efficiency! 

Case Against

The biggest thing working against Giannis is the same thing that works against me when I hit the gym: fatigue. Coming off of back-to-back MVPs the voters will likely gravitate to fresh candidates, but there is a statistical case to be against him going for the threepeat. While The Freak leads his team in those four categories, his overall numbers are down from a season ago. His assist rate has gone from 33.0 percent to 27.9 percent and as a result his assist-to-usage rate is down to 0.81 which is the lowest it has been since the 2017-2018 season. If you watch him play he is clearly working on parts of his offensive game, which has caused his numbers to suffer somewhat. Last year, 43 percent of his attempts came in some form of a jumpshot (23 percent mid-range, 20 percent 3-point), but this season his mid-range attempts are up (26 percent) specifically from the floater area of the floor (4-to-14 feet from the basket). He is shooting just 28.7 percent on those attempts, and his percentage from deep (28.1 percent) is much lower than a season ago. Antetokounmpo also needs work on those fouls he’s drawing. He might be leading the league in free throw attempts, but his And-One percentage (The percentage of shooting fouls drawn that the player also makes) ranks in the 59th percentile among players at his position. 

Stephen Curry (+ 2000, BetRivers/DraftKings)

Case For

Let me count the ways. Curry is clearly the most valuable player on a team that lacks punching power on offense. The two-time MVP leads the league in Offensive Real Plus-Minus (9.93), by a wide margin, and 3-points attempts per game (11.7) while still shooting 41.1 percent from deep. By the way, that percentage is best in the league among players who average at least 10.0 attempts per game! This won’t come as a shock if you’ve made it this far, but his team is also terrible in his minutes on the bench! With Curry on the floor the Warriors outscore the opposition by 2.7 points every 100 possessions with a 115.3 offensive rating. When Curry takes a seat that net rating plunges to -10.5 per 100 possessions and their offensive rating is a disgusting 95.0 points per 100 possessions. Curry is the best offensive player in the league right now, and he is playing on the 22nd-ranked offense! Think about the burden he bears on a night-to-night basis. With that net rating the Warriors post without Curry, Golden State would be even worse than the Minnesota Timberwolves. That shows in the advanced metrics too, as he ranks second behind only LeBron James in RPM Wins (8.44).

Case Against

Most will hold his team’s success against him. Golden State is just 19-18 and currently in control of the ninth seed in the Western Conference. Personally, I would argue that if this team even finishes a game above .500 that is a testament to Curry’s greatness, but most will likely not see it that way. He is also a subpar defender. Golden State ranks ninth in defensive efficiency this season, according to Cleaning The Glass (110.6). But, when Curry is on the floor the team allows a staggering 7.1 points more every 100 possessions. He might lead the league in Offensive Real Plus-Minus, but he is 468th among all qualified players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. That is the worst mark among each player in this article. It makes for a fascinating case for Curry. He clearly elevates this team beyond its means, especially on offense, but he is also a liability on defense which is the team’s overall strength. He also has history working against him. Only two players, Bob Petitt in the 1955-1956 season, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-1976, have won the MVP and missed the postseason. If Curry can drag his team to the postseason he has a chance, but it’s a slim one.

Damian Lillard (+ 2100, FanDuel)

Case For

Anecdotally, there really is not a better MVP case than Dame D.O.L.L.A.’s. CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have been sidelined due to various injuries, playing a combined 36 games this season. That did not matter to the league’s most clutch scoring guard who went on to average 31.1 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting (39.0 percent on 3-pointer) with 8.7 assists. He dragged Portland to a 12-9 record in the games since McCollum’s injury, and that included a six-game winning streak. Think about it, the Trail Blazers are just three games out of second place in the Western Conference, and they’ve been without two of their top three players! Lillard also has the statistics to back up his MVP case as well. He is second in Offensive Real Plus-Minus (6.90) while placing in the 92nd percentile or higher in both points per shot attempt (1.245) and usage (35.7 percent). He does not lead the league in any one statistical category, but what happens when Portland returns to full strength, and they capture a top three seed in the Western Conference? In no world does that happen without Lillard keeping the ship together while his fellow stars were on the mend.

Case Against

Much like Steph Curry, who he is often compared too, Lillard does not do much to contribute to his team’s defensive efforts. Unlike Curry, he does not have a team that can mask his issues on that end of the floor. Portland is 28th in defensive efficiency, giving up 117.1 points every 100 possessions, and Lillard’s play actively contributes to largest issue his team has. When he is on the floor, the Trail Blazers give up 5.2 more points every 100 possessions, and he is 454th among 479 qualified players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (-1.99). That really leads to the biggest flaw with Lillard’s MVP candidacy; it really is mostly anecdotal. He might be second among shooters who take more than 10 attempts per game, but he is behind a fellow MVP candidate. He is sixth PER, but three other candidates on this list rank above him in that category. He is seventh in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), but yet again, each player ahead of him in this category is an MVP candidate. There is no denying his worth to Portland, but it is hard to say he is the best player among every one of the candidates on this list.

James Harden (+ 2500, DraftKings/BetRivers)

Case For

Much like a couple of guys on this list, Harden has the potential to be the best player on the best team. When Brooklyn acquired Harden they were just 7-6 heading into a game against Orlando. Since that day the Nets are 17-7 with the best offensive rating in the league (120.4), and Harden has been a driving force behind this improvement. Kevin Durant has played in just 10 games since Harden has become a Net, one of which was the tumultuous loss to Toronto in which he did not start. Harden also has the statistics behind him as well. He leads the league in assists (11.1), is third in Offensive Real Plus-Minus (6.42), seventh in RPM Wins (5.64) and currently averaging a career-high 1.312 points per shot attempt. With him on the floor the Nets are outscoring opponents by 7.7 points every 100 possessions, and when it is Harden without either Durant or Kyrie Irving the Nets those lineups still rank in the 72nd percentile of offensive efficiency (115.7). He also thrives running their small-ball lineup without Irving and Durant, outscoring opponent by a whopping 7.5 points every 100 possessions when in command of those units. Should Harden maintain his pace in the second half, and Brooklyn takes the top seed from the Philadelphia 76ers, there is no question he has a claim for his second MVP.

Case Against

The obvious place to start here is his time in Houston at the start of the season, the first thing out of anyone’s mouth when cutting down Harden’s candidacy. In the final five games with the Rockets Harden was nowhere near himself, averaging just 17.4 points per game on 37.8 percent shooting with 10.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game. His final days culminated in him telling the media his team was “not good enough” after a loss to the Lakers in which he scored just 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting. People say Harden quit on Houston and should be disqualified from the award (No idea if that punishment lasts until next season). The other factor here actually has yet to happen, but it is the return of Kevin Durant. If Durant finally returns from injury in the second half, what does it do to Harden’s resume? Most will disqualify his numbers as a result of playing next to two superstars, and his scoring numbers could potentially dip as he returns to his role as a facilitator. As we know as well, he has his issues as a defender as well. However, I believe that won’t play as big of a factor with some given the known limitations of this team overall.

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