2014 NBA MVP Race – 1/3rd Season Mark

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We are 28 or 29 games into the NBA season now, which gets us just past the 1/3rd mark. The early going has 5 purported MVP candidates, the most in a long time. They are:

LeBron James

Kevin Durant

Chris Paul

LaMarcus Aldridge

Paul George

All of these players have had tremendous early season success, and their teams are all winning big. I’m sure fans of the Heat, Thunder, Clippers, Blazers, and Pacers could all make good arguments in favor of their candidates. I, however, cannot. I only see three real defensible options in that list: James, Durant, and Paul. They are 1, 2, and 3 in WS/48 and PER and have a hefty separation from LaMarcus and George.

Aldridge’s real claim is that he’s playing fantastic ball for a team that is significantly better than anyone predicted, and George’s claim is that he is the best player on the winningest team. A determined man could draw out the arguments for either of them, but I don’t think there’s enough support. I just wanted to include those two because I think they deserve the recognition and a clever proponent could make a case. Consider them honorable mention.

So in descending order of who I think the early season MVP has been…

3rd Place – Chris Paul

PER

WS48

+/-

Win%

27.2

.289

5.6

.655

If you want to develop a narrative for why Chris Paul deserves to be MVP over LeBron and Durant, you need to focus not on his metrics, which are good enough to qualify but not better than theirs. You also can’t focus on team success because the Clippers haven’t been as good as Miami or OKC.

But you can focus on player role and just how good Chris Paul is at being the best point guard in the league. Paul is currently averaging 11.2 assists against 2.6 turnovers per game for an assist to turnover ratio of 4.3:1. That is crazy good. The next highest assist per game players are Stephen Curry and John Wall who “boast” AST/TO ratios of 2.36:1 and 2.45:1 respectively. LeBron’s AST/TO ratio has dropped to a career low 1.9:1, which is on the low side for a wing player averaging better than 5 assists per game. Durant’s is even worse, but he’s not much of a passer in general.

That being said, Chris’s shooting percentages are down this year, and while his team’s SRS is top 5, they are a good deal behind the Heat and Thunder. For the job Paul has done running his team, adjusting to Doc River’s coaching philosophy, and helping DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to have career years, he has a genuine case for the MVP. However, he doesn’t’ quite stack up to the next two guys.

2nd Place – LeBron James

PER

WS48

+/-

Win%

29.7

.293

5.0

.786

I can’t write enough about the season LeBron James is having. His scoring efficiency is confounding and astounding (I have to pay Walt Clyde Frazier $1.33 for the use of that line). You can look up the box score stats and the metrics, but just take a look at the shooting percentages.

FG% 59.5

2P% 64.6

3P% 39.8

TS% 67.4

eFG% 63.6

Those figures are impossibly great. But I stumbled across some even more staggering numbers. LeBron is currently 2nd in made field goals this season behind only LeMarcus Aldridge. LeBron is tied for 19th in field goal attempts. LaMarcus is first in field goal attempts. LaMarcus has taken 132 more shots than LeBron, and he has made 9 more shots than LeBron. Let that sink in for a second. Not impressed? Not surprised that LeBron is drastically more efficient than LA? Okay, try this one on for size:

Player

FG Made

FG Attempted

LeBron James

259

435

Kevin Durant

251

512

James has made 8 more shots from the field this season than Durant has and taken 77 fewer shot attempts. That’s insane.

The argument in LeBron’s favor is simple. He’s the best player in the league. He’s the player most teams, coaches, fans, and political leaders fear. He’s a basketball demigod who cannot be killed by conventional weapons. Also he’s having the above impossibly efficient season while sitting 4th in point per game, 9th in assists per game, first in PER and first in WS/48. Not to mention he’s by far the best defender of the top 3 MVP candidates and the most versatile player in the game. He’s less a 2 and more a 1a at this point.

1st Place – Kevin Durant

PER

WS48

+/-

Win%

27.9

.290

6.3

.823

The argument for Durant is that he is having a more productive season than LeBron even if he is less efficient in his per minute / possession performance. KD is first in scoring and his efficiency numbers are also outstanding with a 62.8 TS%. Kevin is actually ahead in raw +/- per NBA.com. He’s +6.3 while LeBron is +5. Some of that difference is minutes played, but some of it is that the Thunder with Durant on the floor have been slightly better than the Heat have been with LeBron on the floor. The Thunder also maintain a better winning percentage and higher margin of victory than the Heat, and they do so despite a more difficult schedule and the early absence of Russell Westbrook. Durant also has a better ORtg – DRtg net difference and a higher usage rate.

So, per the +/-, the Dean Oliver metrics, and the team stats, Durant is having the best season, and he’s playing more minutes, which means his per possession stats, while slightly lower than LeBron’s are of greater value because he actually plays more possessions (his team pace is faster too).

This is the first year since 2009 that anyone has had a really solid argument to take the MVP title from LeBron. Durant was great last year with his Larry Bird-like 50-40-90 shooting season while coming in 2nd in points per game, but James was even better, and the Heat were phenomenal. This year James is the more efficient one (though his TO% is atrocious), but the case can be made that Durant is doing more for his team, and his team is better. Sounds like an MVP to me.

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