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A Quantitative Look At Who Should Have Won NBA MVP

Steph Curry is this year’s most valuable player, at least according to 100 of the 130 writers and broadcasters that awarded him with their first-place vote.

It was a race that had been hotly debated for months. Five players were considered to be in the running, and it was supposed to be one of the more closely contested votes in NBA history. In the end, it really wasn’t that close at all.

James Harden came in a distant second with 936 points, 262 fewer than Curry and 75 fewer first place votes. LeBron James was an even more distant third, finishing with 552 points, and was the only other player besides Harden and Curry to receive a single first-place vote. Others on the periphery were Russell Westbrook (352), Anthony Davis (203) and Chris Paul (124), all of whom who were in the discussion for the award for most of the season, but apparently stood little chance when push came to shove.

May 5, 2015 - Oakland, CA, USA - Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry acknowledges fans as he receives the NBA Most Valuable Player award before Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 5, 2015

In the end, Curry walked away with the hardware, and it’s difficult to make an argument against him being a deserving winner. He certainly appears to be on the surface. But does that hold true once you begin breaking down his performance and compare it to the relative value added by his competitors? Is he truly the most valuable player in the league? Do his contributions mean more to the Golden State Warriors than any other player? Or is he simply the best player on the best team?

To answer that, let’s first examine the word value.

According to Merriam-Webster, value is the relative worth, utility, or importance of something.

That seems relatively straight forward, but once you begin comparing the value of more than one thing against each other, it becomes an incredibly subjective exercise. Every person that has ever walked the earth has a different interpretation of value.

Value in that sense is almost a purely qualitative attribute. As such, the group of industry experts assigned to cast their votes every year is just that — an informed yet subjectively-driven collection of opinions. But is it possible to break down the winner of this award more objectively? In other words, can value be meaningfully measured?

Scoring

When you think of value as it relates to the NBA, the first thing that comes to mind is typically scoring. After all, the object of basketball is to score more points than the opposing team. It would only make sense then that a player’s contribution to that objective would be the most visible.

But scoring in and of itself shouldn’t be the only dimension. You must also account for the efficiency of that scoring. Two players could both score 20 points per game, but if one is doing so by taking 10 more shots in the process, they are clearly not as valuable. That is inarguable.

In terms of scoring, there are a few statistics that determine a player’s efficiency and overall output. True shooting percentage is intended to measure a player’s shooting accuracy, taking into consideration points scored from three pointers, field goals and free-throws. In theory, it should encapsulate how efficient a player is when considered in combination with the number of shots they take.

Player TS% FGA 3PA FTA PTS PPFGA
Stephen Curry 0.638 16.8 8.1 4.2 23.8 1.42
Anthony Davis 0.591 17.6 0.2 6.8 24.4 1.39
James Harden 0.605 18.1 6.9 10.2 27.4 1.5
LeBron James 0.577 18.5 4.9 7.7 25.3 1.37
Russell Westbrook 0.536 22 4.3 9.8 28.1 1.28
Chris Paul 0.596 14.3 4.3 3.9 19.1 1.34

When looked at through this lense, Curry is head and shoulders above the other five in terms of his overall shooting accuracy. However, he also takes fewer shots, fewer free throws and scores fewer points than any of the six except for Paul, who shoots fewer of both and has a lower scoring average. Westbrook unsurprisingly has the lowest true-shooting percentage out of the six.

However, if you look at how many points each player is contributing per field goal attempt (PPFGA), another great indicator for efficient scoring, the landscape changes a bit. In this instance, Harden is actually more valuable to his team, contributing 1.5 points per field goal attempt compared to Curry’s 1.42. Westbrook again comes out on bottom. Harden has the advantage in this category because so many of his points come from free throws. But as much as I dislike this from a game-aesthetic standpoint, it can’t be disputed that getting easy points while the clock is stopped is beneficial to the team.

March 7, 2015 - Denver, Colorado, U.S - Rockets JAMES HARDEN, left, readies to make a run with Nuggets RANDY FOYE, right, during the 2nd. half at the Pepsi Center Saturday night. The Rockets beat the Nuggets 114-100

All things considered, Harden looks to have the edge in this category, contributing more points per field-goal attempt while coming in second for the highest true-shooting percentage.

Final Order: James Harden, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook

Making Teammates Better

One of the most under-appreciated aspects of what makes someone truly great is how much better they make others. I think this angle often gets overlooked by voters when considering who is most deserving of the award.

This is also one of the more difficult areas to quantify. However, there are certain statistics that lend themselves to this better than others. Assists per game and assist ratio certainly come to mind, but ball distribution isn’t as simple to understand as it seems, nor are they the only indicator for making your teammates better.

Player AST AST% Passes Per Game Secondary Assists Assist Opportunities Points created by assists BPM VORP
Stephen Curry 7.7 38.6 56.1 1.8 13.7 18.2 9.9 7.9
Anthony Davis 2.2 11.6 35.4 0.4 3.9 5.3 7.1 5.7
James Harden 7 34.6 46.4 1.6 13.6 17.1 8.4 7.8
LeBron James 7.4 38.6 52.5 1.2 13.7 18.2 7.4 5.9
Russell Westbrook 8.6 47 56.1 0.9 15.7 19.8 11 7.6
Chris Paul 10.2 47.4 70.2 2.8 19.2 23.8 7.5 6.9

What stands out the most by looking at this comparison is how far apart Chris Paul stands in each category. This shouldn’t be surprising given how much of the Los Angeles Clippers’ offense runs through and depends upon him. It also isn’t surprising that Davis is so far behind in each category. He is the centerpiece of their offense, and the Pelicans depend on him for scoring, not for setting up his teammates.

Another good indicator in this category is box plus/minus. This tells how many points better, or worse, the team is when they are on the floor adjusting for the effects of each teammate and opposing player. When considering this, Russell Westbrook surprisingly jumps to the top and Curry comes in a close second.

However, Paul is so much better in every other category that he has to come out on top when looking at these stats more holistically.

Final Order: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Anthony Davis

Defense

The third dimension taken into account in my assessment is a player’s defensive abilities. If the object of the game is to score more points than the other team, it is clearly a valuable thing to be able to stop the other team from doing so.

There are a number of stats that paint a good picture in terms of a player’s defensive prowess.

Player DBPM STL% BLK% DRB% DWS DRtg
Stephen Curry 0.3 3 0.5 11.4 4.1 101
Anthony Davis 3 2.1 6.2 24.1 4.2 100
James Harden 1 2.6 1.6 14.2 4.2 103
LeBron James 1.2 2.3 1.6 16.6 2.9 105
Russell Westbrook 2.2 3 0.5 16.7 3.2 103
Chris Paul 0 2.8 0.4 12.5 3.2 105

Davis is clearly the most dominant defensive player out of the six. He is significantly better in nearly every category and this should come as no surprise. Steph Curry is also pretty impressive and showed us all how far he has come along as a defender. He is second in terms of overall defensive rating and defensive win-shares.

Final Order: Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul

Conclusion

Now to tally everything up and determine who the real MVP is. I will do this by assigning a descending point value to each player based on how they finished in each category, and then I will total them up across each dimension. The player who has the most total points in theory should be your MVP.

To do this, I will use the same point values used to actually determine the MVP based on votes: 1st place = 10 points, 2nd place = 7 points, 3rd place = 5 points, 4th place = 3 points, 5th place = 1 point. There will be no points assigned to the 6th place finisher.

Player Scoring Making Team Better Defense Sum
Stephen Curry 7 5 7 19
Anthony Davis 3 0 10 13
James Harden 10 3 1 14
LeBron James 1 1 3 5
Russell Westbrook 0 7 5 12
Chris Paul 5 10 0 15

Based on this, Curry indeed adds the most value to his team across the three dimensions I identified.

A few other things stand out. Clearly Paul wasn’t given enough credit for what he was able to accomplish this season. According to this scale, he should have finished second in the voting. Conversely, LeBron was given far too much credit by the voters. He finished in sixth place in my rankings, and he was substantially behind Westbrook, the next closest player.

Obviously this isn’t a perfect analysis of the situation. There are many immeasurables that go into these skills in real life. For instance, it is impossible to measure a player’s leadership skills and this should clearly be considered as a factor in making your teammates better. But based on what could be quantified, Curry not only passes the eye test, he was objectively better. Maybe the voters know what they are talking about after all. I can’t say I saw that one coming.





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