As the NBA All-Star break approaches, the debate of who is deserving of mid-season awards, thus far, is going to continue to heat up. When it comes to NBA awards, and all sports awards in general, there is one award that trumps the rest: Most Valuable Player (MVP). There is the MVP, and then there is everything else.
In the common perception of sports analysts, commentators, and fans there are two finalists out in front: Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
This debate is at the forefront of sports, as both are putting up historical numbers. However, when it comes down to it, neither Harden or Westbrook is the “Most Valuable Player.” The most valuable player in the NBA is LeBron James. In fact, James has been the Most Valuable Player for roughly the last ten years, and arguably longer.
This is because LeBron does everything. He is an elite scorer, he is fierce on the boards, he has superb court vision— dishing out assists left and right, he is a stellar defender, and he is extremely efficient. He is the most well-rounded player in the world, and that is why he has been in the last 6 NBA finals. The “value” of a player rarely fluctuates year to year, instead it diminishes over a long period as the player gets older after he or she passes their prime. If you were to have an NBA team for one year, and you had to pick one guy to build your team around, it is LeBron James.
While this is true, the answer to the question is caused by the fallacy that the NBA, and all other professional sports leagues, embedded in this particular award. The award that has “Most Valuable Player” written on it, is for the player who leads a quality team, and does so with flashy and impressive stats. If the award truly stood for its name, LeBron James would have gotten it the last 10 years—minimum. However, the award, in reality, goes to the “Player of the Year,” and that is what it should be called.
Now, with how the NBA awards the MVP (as the Player of the Year) in mind, the answer to the debate is undoubtedly Westbrook. Westbrook is leading a decent team with mind-blowing stats. Averaging a triple-double this far into the season in the modern NBA is only dreamt about—so we thought. Additionally, the success Westbrook has led the Thunder to is a great achievement. The rest of the Thunder’s roster, apart from Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, and Enes Kanter, is atrocious. What Westbrook has done this year, so far, is truly historical, and he is deserving of the award.
Nonetheless, James Harden is more valuable than Westbrook. While Westbrook’s basic stats are much more flashy, Harden is far more efficient and his style of play results in more wins. The advanced stats prove this. According to Basketball Reference, Harden is shooting 1.6% better from the field, 4% better from deep, and 6% better in effective field goal percentage (an advanced metric measuring field goal percentage that accounts for three pointers being more valuable than two pointers). Harden also accounts for 2.2 more win shares than Westbrook (an advanced metric that calculates how many wins a player earns for a team). When it comes down to that hypothetical NBA team you are going to run, Harden is the guy to build around, between him and Westbrook.
Due to the misnaming of the award, “MVP,” the debate is more complex. Nonetheless, Russell Westbrook deserves the trophy, although he is behind both Harden and James, among others, for most valuable player in the league.
By Brandon Pollack Photo Credit: fanragsports.com