Who is the Real MVP? The Race by Advanced Metrics

When Kevin Durant made his famous MVP acceptance speech last year and called his Mother the “Real MVP”, it was a heartfelt moment that served to recognise the sacrifices made to get KD to where he was.

There was no question based on the numbers that Durant was the deserving recipient last year. He dominated offensively, leading the league in scoring by nearly 5ppg. He shot over 50% from the field, while also producing 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 dimes and his Thunder won 59 games, good for the #2 seed in the West.

That phrase – the Real MVP – has since become synonymous with recognising contributions that may not be obvious to all, but also as a popular catchphrase.

What is obvious this season is that the MVP race is tighter than Sam Hinkie. There are several players making very obvious contributions, and as a result, there’s a lot of debate about exactly who this year’s “Real MVP” should be.

We all know Russell Westbrook is leading the league in scoring, CP3 dishes the most dimes and Anthony Davis heads up the blocks list. Everyone talks about how Stephen Curry is the best player on the league’s best team. There’s been a lot of chatter about not forgetting about LeBron James, and James Harden seems to be the choice of player who means the most to his team should you take him out of the line-up. However, those simple measures are not enough to make a case. We need another way to analyse this race; a more advanced way.

The use of advanced metrics is commonplace today. While embraced more in other sports, metrics such as PER, TS% and USG% are part of everyday conversations about basketball, so why leave them out of this discussion?

The six MVP candidates being discussed the most by the media and fans are (in alphabetical order) Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Those are the only players being assessed here.

I looked at 5 different advanced metrics that I believe give the best indication of a player’s individual performance as well as his value to his team. All stats were taken from basketball-reference.com as of the completion of Wednesday’s games (Australian time).

Before we dive into the numbers and what they mean in assessing the MVP debate, here’s a quick explanation of the metrics chosen:

PER (Player Efficiency Rating): A measure of per-minute production standardized such that the league average is 15.

WS (Win Shares): An estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player.

WS/48 (Win Shares Per 48 Minutes): An estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes (league average is approximately .100).

BPM (Box Plus/Minus): A box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team.

VORP (Value over Replacement Player): A box score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level (-2.0) player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season.

Player Efficiency Rating

This is possibly the most commonly used advanced metric used when wanting to assess a player’s all-around contribution and the efficiency with which they do so. When the top 10 PERs of all time are held by Wilt (3 of the top 10), LeBron (3) and MJ (4), you know it’s a pretty good measure of greatness.

Anthony Davis leads the way out of our six candidates with a PER of 31.4 in just his 3rd NBA season. To put that in perspective, that would rank as the 8th best PER for a full season of all-time. Davis is contributing with nightly double-doubles, nearly 25ppg while also leading the league in blocks. All this with a USG% that ranks 5th out of this group we’re looking at. Westbrook comes in second here with 29.7, while Steph Curry ranks third with 27.7.

Win Shares

How successful does this player make his team? How is his play translating to the win-loss column? That is what Win Shares tells us. If you guessed that Steph Curry would be leading the way in this column, I wouldn’t blame you. However, the correct answer is James Harden with 13.9 win shares. Curry isn’t far behind at 13.5, while Chris Paul has 12.8.

What this tells us is that these guys are extremely important to their team’s success. When you think about the fact that James Harden is doing this without Dwight Howard and the Rockets are still winning, it says a lot about his value to his team.

Win Shares per 48 Minutes

I’ve included Win Shares per 48 minutes also, to account for the fact that Westbrook, Davis and LeBron have each missed significant time this season, which may account for a lower Win Share total. On a per 48 minute basis, Steph Curry leads the way with .287 win shares. Davis is right behind him at .282, while Harden comes in 3rd at .263 win shares per 48 mins. This also accounts for the larger volume of minutes Harden plays as compared to Steph Curry.

Interestingly, LeBron brings up the rear in this metric with less than .200 (.197), which tells me he needs to play a much larger role in each win for Cleveland and it took a while to get the Cavs to a winning state this season.

Box Plus/Minus

Plus-Minus is an easy metric to follow in standard NBA box scores. It tells you how the team did on the scoreboard when that player was in the game. BPM is just a more advanced version of that and it tells us the impact in terms of points that a player has per 100 possessions, but in a comparative sense versus a league average.

Not surprisingly, the league’s scoring leader, Russell Westbrook, leads the way in BPM too; and by a long way.

His 11.6 ranks 1st in the league and is well ahead of Curry’s 9.6 in second place. James Harden comes in 3rd with 8.4.

Clearly, Westbrook has a huge impact on the points differential when he’s on the floor for OKC and as that translates to success as a team, it’s a huge reason why he’s in the MVP discussion right now.

Value over Replacement Player

This is a commonly used metric in Major League Baseball, although the basketball version is a little different. It’s actually closely related to BPM, but adjusted to be on an 82-game basis to signal that player’s value above a league average player for a full season. This gives us an idea of the impact this player is having on their team over a full season.

This was the closest advanced stat between our candidates with Curry and Harden coming out on top equally with a 6.7, with Westbrook hot on their heels contributing 6.5 points per 100 possessions over a replacement player.

The Final Tally

So we’ve looked at five metrics for six players and ranked each of them in each category. I have not weighted the metrics at all. Instead, I simply totalled the ranks in each and looked for the player with the lowest total. He should be the MVP by these measures. So how did they fare?

The Verdict

James Harden is right there in the running, but as of now Stephen Curry is the Real MVP.

Interestingly, when I ran these numbers the first time not long ago, Curry and Harden finished equal in first place. It really is very tough to separate them. One could say that Harden has the better traditional numbers with more points and rebounds and comparable assist numbers. However, Curry has been more efficient all year, shooting a better clip from the field, from downtown and from the line.

Curry’s team has more wins; in fact, they have the league’s best record and that is a big part of what separates them right now. However, it’s a combination of better efficiency, a higher WS/48 and a slightly bigger box score plus/minus that gives Curry the edge.

Looking into that final tally a little closer, one thing stands out to me: Curry ranks no lower than third in every one of those five metrics. He seemingly has no weaknesses. Both Curry and Harden lead two of the five stats, but Harden ranks no better than third in the other three. That has to count for something.

Harden also ranks outside the top three in PER where he ranks fourth. In his defence, it’s explainable by the fact that he’s asked to do much more with Dwight out hurt, while Curry has more help from another All-Star in Klay Thompson, so I don’t hold that against the bearded one.

However, why that is the case may be explained by this quote from Andrew Bogut from the Contra Costa times yesterday: “He only needs to play 25, 30 minutes, and we’re winning games by 15, 20 points,” Bogut said. “If he had to play 45 minutes for us, I’m sure he’d be averaging greater numbers, so in a way, it’s kind of flawed. He’s the MVP in my opinion. We’re the best team in the league. We have the best record in the league. I don’t think it’s close in my opinion.”

Bogut makes a great point. When trying to separate Curry and Harden, these metrics illustrate just how special this season has been (and continues to be) for the Warriors’ franchise guy. He IS the best player on the best team and continues to lead them to big wins night after night.

But Harden is right there and doing it with much less help, which is perhaps why this is such a hot debate. The final 10 games may just serve to decide this race once and for all, but then again, it may already be decided.

It’s extremely unlikely the official vote will end in a tie, and while that may be the most just outcome, based on advanced metrics, Stephen Curry is the real MVP. Isn’t that right Chuck?


Follow me on Twitter @tomhersz

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When you’re introduced to the NBA as a 6 year old in 1984, staying up late to watch Bird, Magic and Dr. J, it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with the game. I became consumed with the Association, and as my own game was developing, I tried to emulate as much as I could at an early age and learn how to play “the right way”. I have memories as a teenager of being glued to Saturday Basketball on TV and spending every spare cent I had on basketball cards and replica jerseys and so began my obsession with NBA knowledge and stats. I played my first season of Fantasy Hoops in 2002, as my serious playing days were slowing down. I now play in 5 or 6 leagues every year. To say I’m obsessed with Fantasy Hoops would be an understatement. To say I love nothing more than sharing my opinion on a player’s value would be entirely accurate, and I guess, the reason why I’m here. Follow me on twitter: @tomhersz @downtownball

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