After closing out 2016-17 with 42 triple-doubles, Russell Westbrook helped revive the argument for individual impact over team value in MVP consideration. Westbrook was judged to be the NBA's top player in a year when his Oklahoma City Thunder were not in the conversation for the league's best team; the fact that OKC finished No. 6 in the Western Conference was viewed as a commendable enough achievement to award Westbrook the prize.
Theatrical game-winning performances and underdog feel-good stories that win our hearts (and votes) aside, who leads the MVP race this season?
Win probability added (WPA) can be used to answer the question of who among the main contenders should be taking home the MVP hardware. WPA measures the difference in win probability from play to play for every person involved in a play. Summing those values, we are able to evaluate who our most impactful players are for every game over the course of the 2017-18 season.
Let's take a look at the top performers based on this outlook on value:
(All stats and ranks are accurate through games of March 21.)
Best players, best teams
It's no surprise the best player on the team with the best projected record, according to BPI, is an MVP candidate. James Harden is widely considered the front-runner in the MVP race, and it's because the team that GM Daryl Morey has put around Harden has allowed him to play to the best version of himself. While Chris Paul has certainly been an upgrade over Patrick Beverley on offense, Harden has still managed to post a career-high 36.2 percent usage rate this season. The trophy is his to lose.
The Rockets' chief rival in the Western Conference and NBA title races, the Golden State Warriors, have two MVP candidates to consider. Although Stephen Curry currently has one more MVP award in his trophy case, Kevin Durant edges him out as the most valuable player on the 2017-18 Warriors. Durant's versatility gives him a slight edge over Curry (who has played 51 games and suffered an MCL sprain on Friday), and the Warriors have relied more on Durant this season, increasing his minutes per game and usage rate from 2016-17. In return, Golden State has seen Durant increase his 3-point percentage to 43 percent, and his block percentage has increased by 11 percent.
Kyrie Irving had his wish to be the king of his own team fulfilled during the offseason, and he has taken advantage of that opportunity with the 2017-18 Boston Celtics. Irving has the Celtics positioned as the fourth-best team in the league according to BPI, doing so by accumulating the 12th-most WPA among all players. His usage rate this season represents a career- and team high. At 25 years old, Irving is the youngest guard in this conversation, and he might be a year away from serious MVP contention.
No 'I' in team ... but there are four in 'individual dominance'
Step aside, iso coming through. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo all have one thing in common: The offensive efficiency of their team significantly decreases -- actually crumbles -- without their contributions. With the exception of Davis, much of this production is powered by players who truly perform on their own -- via isolations. According to Second Spectrum, James averages 13.7 isos per 100 possessions (second in the league) with Antetokounmpo fourth with 11.4.
Many of those who resist James' MVP candidacy do so because of the dysfunction surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the numbers also support those sentiments. To this point, the Cavs are performing 1.4 points better in their net rating with James off the court.
Even though hero ball isn't Davis' go-to style, his impact is apparent when noting the Pelicans lose 3.4 points from their offensive rating and allow 5.3 more points in their defensive rating with him off the floor, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Davis' value has been emphasized since DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending left Achilles injury in January. With Cousins off the floor, Davis has a 32 percent usage rate, up 6 percentage points since the beginning of the season.
Bottom line: All about (how much you contribute to) the W's
The six players evaluated above -- James, Antetokounmpo, Davis, Harden, Durant and Irving -- are those first mentioned in any credible conversation about the MVP race. We understand the alarm you might be feeling right about now seeing Harden ranked sixth in WPA, behind Antetokounmpo, Davis and others. But there's at least one reason why WPA sees his value as lagging behind five other players, and (perhaps ironically) it is rooted in the Rockets' dominance.
One of the things WPA identifies is the win probability swings of critical plays, which it then attributes to the most impactful players on those trips. But because the Rockets win by 13 points on average, there are fewer chances for large swings or critical plays. Harden is putting together undeniably amazing numbers for a dominant team that doesn't need those numbers as much as some of Houston's contemporaries need their guys' numbers.
But it's wins that really matter, right? And if it's wins that really matter, how can you not give the MVP award to the player who has had the most responsibility for the team likely to end up with the most wins?
Because, according to WPA, Harden hasn't added as much value to those wins as one of his MVP rivals has to his team's wins.
According to our numbers, it's James who tops Harden in WPA for games his team has won:
James leads the league in overall WPA in team wins, with field goals and assists accounting for roughly 80 percent of his overall WPA value. Harden is the leader in free throws per WPA, and Davis' primary contributions to his team's winning performances have been grabbing boards.
The difference among these three players comes down to only 2.6 game-clinching WPA points, which will have a chance to shift between now and when MVP voting closes at the end of the regular season.
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