For most of the last six seasons, the MVP race hasn’t really been much of a race at all: it’s usually been LeBron James, followed by everyone else. And indeed, for four of the last six years, James has won the award.
So thank god for this year’s race, where James is – at least! – a distant third. It’s like opening the window in spring and having a blast of fresh air.
In one corner is James Harden, who’s led the Rockets to 55 wins in arguably the NBA’s toughest division. In the other corner, Steph Curry, the best player on the NBA’s best team, plus a load of variables. Who’s the MVP? It’s the old argument of waffles versus pancakes, Hawaiian versus Canadian or sausage versus bacon. No matter what you pick, you’re making a good call but can you ever know it was the right call? There are good cases to be made for both, and I’ve made mine for Curry before Harden pulled the Rockets skyward to a comfortable spot in the top 3 of the West, so let’s break them down individually.
This has been a great year for Steph Curry. On a per 36-minute basis, he’s setting career highs in scoring (26.2), three-pointers (3.9), rebounds (4.7), assists (8.5) and even steals (2.2). He’s been on fire nearly all season and leads the NBA’s most potent offence. Remember: the Warriors are averaging over 109 points per game and have an offensive rating of 111.4, both of which lead the league.
They’re pretty good at stopping the other team, too, not just out-scoring them. This season, the Warriors are allowing about 99 points per game and about 101 points per 100 possessions. Although they’re 14th in points allowed per game, they lead the NBA in defensive rating. This year, they’ve shut down Memphis (a 107-84 win on Mar. 27), Washington (a 107-76 win on Mar. 23) and New Orleans (112-85 on Dec. 4).
How much of this is solely on Curry? Certainly more than a little: his 4.1 defensive win shares is second only to Draymond Green on the Warriors and is 12th in the NBA, putting him ahead of Anthony Davis and Martin Gortat, among others.
Meanwhile, over in Houston, James Harden is also having a statement year. Like Curry, his 2014-15 statline is filled with career highs while actually taking a slight drop in minutes played (36.9): 27.5 points, 6.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds. His PER and Win Shares are through the roof, too, at 26.77 and 16.0 respectively.
But Harden’s numbers go a little beyond just career highs. On paper, the Rockets should be a team built around two stars: Harden and Dwight Howard. Harden passes and drives the play while Howard should dominate down low and provide rim defense.
It hasn’t worked quite that way, though. This year, Howard just cracked 40 games played and has been trending downward all season. His rebounding is lower than it’s been in years and his offensive rebound percentage (which measures what he grabbed of all opportunities to grab one) is the lowest it’s ever been.
It all makes Harden’s play the more impressive: he’s the one driving this team. Remember, Harden doesn’t just lead the Rockets in attempted field goals, but the entire NBA. He’s scored more points than anyone, too. And it’s the same for free throws: nobody’s gotten to the line like Harden has this year.
Harden’s had his share of memorable games and like Curry, only seems to be getting better as the season goes on. On April 1, Harden dropped 51 points (on 16-of-25 shooting, no less) on the Sacramento Kings. That wasn’t an aberration: he’s had ten games this season where he scored 40 or more and over 30 where he’s scored at least 30 points.
When comparing the two, it’s interesting to see how similar their numbers are. They’re less than one Win Share apart (16.0 for Harden versus Curry’s 15.5) and also close in PER. Their scoring rates are close, too: Curry is ahead of Harden in Offensive Rating, but Harden scores more per 36 minutes.
The big differences come in philosophy: do you think the MVP is the best player on the best team? Or the player who is most important to their team? With LeBron it was a lot easier, since he was often both at the same time. Here there are two compelling candidates and two compelling cases.
Personally, I’m inclined towards Harden’s case. Partly because Curry has a better cast around him, which is why Curry’s numbers have been so good. Where Curry has Green, Harden is dishing passes to Trevor Ariza and Donatis Motiejunas (who is also done for the year. Good luck in the first round, James).
It also involves context: I think if Curry struggled with injuries this season, he’d still be good and the Warriors would be as well. Certainly not tops of the Western Conference, but with only one Splash Brother, they’d be in good hands. But if the Rockets were to swap injury problems between Harden and Howard, I think they’d be in big trouble: Harden isn’t just powering the fifth-best offense, but largely is that offense.
This awards revels in the ambiguity of the word “valuable,” the result is infinite debate regarding merits unknown. It’s a tough decision and like I said above: there isn’t really a wrong answer here. Sure, it’s a problem if you have a horse in this race, but it’s a good problem to have. With some luck, they’ll meet in the playoffs and then the takes can really start rolling in.