What just happened?
Once we get past the noble need to honour every single player who had an above average season – ‘Craig, let me tell you why Gordon Hayward deserves MVP consideration’ – there are six legitimate MVP candidates for the 2014-15 season MVP: Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
I was lucky enough to see all of these guys in person this season except for Davis. So using the eye test, statistics and history, here’s how the MVP race should break down.
6. Anthony Davis
The Brow has dealt with a lot of adversity on this season, foremost of which is the fact that Monty Williams is his coach and Tyreke Evans is the second best player on his team. When he’s on the court, in terms of pure individual output, Davis might be the best player in the league.
He just turned 22 and he’s putting up 24-10 with three blocks a game, shooting 54 per cent from the field and 81 per cent from the line, leading the league in PER while being one of its best rim protectors. He’s improved out of sight in his three seasons, going from one of the worst mid-range shooters in the league to one of the best.
His stat-line and style of play are eerily reminiscent of peak Kevin Garnett, which is nice because KG is one of the twenty greatest basketball players of all time. It’s only a matter of time before Davis succeeds LeBron as the universally regarded ‘best basketball player in the world’.
For now though, he’s not an MVP. He’s been otherworldly on the court, but he’s missed 14 games and his team is only 41-35. In a race this tight, that’s a deathblow.
5. Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook is Allen Iverson. He’s a warrior, a physical freak and a fearless leader who never shies away from pain or responsibility. But Westbrook, like A.I., is quantity over quality. He gets his stats, and they’re insane, but he gets them at the expense of efficiency.
He leads the league in points per game but he’s ranked 215th for true shooting percentage. He takes four threes a game but shoots a paltry 28.9 per cent on them, below Anthony Bennett, Brandon Bass and Rajon Rondo. In spite of all this, he’s still one of the five best players in the NBA.
His usage rate of 38.3 per cent would be the second highest in NBA history, but he’s not selfish. With Westbrook on the floor, OKC has the fifth best offence in the league, with him on the bench it falls to 27th. He gives his team a chance to win every single night.
He’s ferocious and unrelenting; he’s the most competitive player in the league. But he’s missed 15 games, comfortably leads the league in turnovers, is overrated on defence (OKC are significantly better on D with Russ on the bench) and in an age of efficiency, no player shooting 41.9% deserves to win the MVP.
4. LeBron James
It’s a testament to LeBron that he effectively took the first three months of the season off and is still in the heart of the MVP discussion. I saw James in person twice in early December. There were tantalising flashes of ‘LeBron James’, but for the most part he was on cruise control.
He snapped out of it after his ‘vacation’ but he’s still having his worst statistical season since his rookie year. However, ‘worst statistical season since his rookie year’ for LeBron James still means 25.6 points per game, 7.3 assists and 5.9 boards on 49 per cent shooting and the Cavs have the best offence in the league when he’s on the floor.
Regardless, his free throw shooting has been terrible, he missed 12 games, his turnovers are at a career high and he did take three months of the season off. No player, not even the best player of the past twenty years, deserves to win the MVP after that.
3. Chris Paul
The forgotten man of the MVP race, CP3 has quietly had his best season since 2009. He’s averaging 19-10 with shooting splits of 49-40-90 while playing some of the best perimeter defence in the league.
He’s second only to Harden in win shares and his team falls off a cliff when he’s on the bench. The Clippers are 18.3 points per 100 possessions better with Paul on the floor. That’s ridiculous.
His team is winning. When Blake Griffin went down in February many predicted that it would sink the Clippers but Paul kept them afloat, going 9-6 against a tough schedule. What gives Paul an edge on Davis, Westbrook and James is durability.
For the first time in his career, Paul is set to play every game this season. He’s changed his style of play, taking more threes than ever before and hitting them at an elite near-career best rate. He’s still the best all-round point guard in the game (and perhaps in history) and 2015 has seen the Clippers re-emerge as ‘Paul’s team’.
2. James Harden
1. Steph Curry
If you replaced Steph Curry with a league average point guard (say George Hill), Golden State would still be a playoff contender. If you replaced James Harden with a league average shooting guard (say Avery Bradley), considering Howard’s injuries, Houston would be one of the six or seven worst teams in the league. By that definition, James Harden is more ‘valuable’ than Steph Curry. But ‘value’ is abstract.
Zach Lowe put forward the best argument for why Curry is more valuable than Harden. Harden’s value comes in elevating a bad team into a very good team. Curry’s value comes from elevating a good team into a historically transcendent team. It’s a question of taste, but to me the latter jump is more impressive, and more to the point, more valuable.
The Warriors are on pace to finish with one of the five or six best win-loss records in NBA history. They’re about to finish with the highest point differential in 18 years. Not since Jordan’s Bulls has there been a regular season team this dominant. And here’s the kicker; with Curry on the bench Golden State is the 27th best offence in the league and the second best defence. With him on the floor they’re number one in both.
Harden has been phenomenal this year. He leads the league in win shares, value over replacement player (VORP) and times a dude has pulled a pair of free throws from nothing. He’s virtually tied for the league lead in scoring yet he’s still incredibly efficient.
He’s the fun-house mirror reflection of Westbrook. The Rockets are a top five offence when he’s on the floor and only better than the Sixers when he’s off it. He is everything to Houston. But he’s not Steph Curry.
The raw stats for Curry are sublime; 24-8-4 on 48-43-92 shooting splits. He’s taking an insane eight threes a game and making them at the third most efficient rate in the league (behind Kyle Korver and Eric Gordon).
He’s shooting threes at a quantity and quality that is historically unprecedented; he’s already hands down the greatest shooter in NBA history. He’s improved dramatically on defence, he leads the league in Real Plus Minus and he’s in the top three in PER, win shares and VORP.
Objectively, it’s near impossible to separate Curry and Harden. On a subjective level though, this is Curry’s award because it’s been his season. He’s emerged as the most exciting athlete in North America, the guy who most consistently breaks Twitter with Vines of him breaking ankles (see: #3 on this list) and swishing threes from the suburbs.
He’s the heart, soul and engine of the best team in nearly two decades. His energy, swagger, skill and selflessness is contagious and it’s infected all of Oakland. Being in Oracle earlier this year to see Curry delicately but mercilessly put Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka to the sword bordered on a religious experience.
Sitting in the stands that night and feeling the reverence and awe that Curry inspired in the fans reminded me of being in the Camp Nou and having those same feelings about Lionel Messi.
Steph Curry might not be the best player in the NBA and he might not be the player who added the most wins to his team’s total this year. But he’s the most exciting player in the league, the most skilled, the most tantalising, the most breathtaking and above all, the most memorable of the 2014-15 season.
There’s value in that.