The regular season of the NBA is over and the playoffs are in full-swing. When the NBA awards are announced on June 25th, James Harden will undoubtedly win the MVP award. Almost all experts agree that Harden will finally get his chance to hoist trophy after several years of second place finishes.
But even though James Harden is the unanimous choice, and will probably win by a wide margin, he wasn't the best player in the league this year. The MVP in the NBA is one of the more complicated award in all of sports. It is perhaps the only professional single season award that somehow encompasses narratives from past seasons. Not only are the performances of players a driving factor in the award, but so is the guilt of all voters for previous mistakes. For example, Russell Westbrook won the award last year for managing to average a triple-double for the entire season. He managed to do that again this year, but there is a very good chance that he finishes outside of the top-5 this year around.
But who would win the award if it wasn't so complicated?
Harden's numbers are very impressive. He finished the season with the highest player efficiency rating (PER) in the NBA, and by a significant margin. He scored more than 30 points per game, dished out almost nine assists, and had a true shooting percentage of 73%. Better yet, and perhaps most importantly, the Rockets finished with the best record in the league.
Lebron James' basic numbers look diminutive compared to Harden's. James only averaged 27.5 points per game this season and his PER was a whole point and a half less than Harden's. More importantly, the Cavaliers struggled mightily this year, and finished 4th place in the weaker Eastern conference.
But then again, Lebron averaged more assists and rebounds than Harden. In fact, for the first time in his career, Lebron averaged a triple-double for an entire month in February. Better yet, some advanced stats point to the fact that Lebron is playing at an extremely high level. Hollinger has James ranked ahead of Harden in both value-added and estimated wins added. You can get Hollinger's explanation of VA here, but for those familiar with saber-metrics in baseball, it is incredibly similar to VORP (value over replacement player). According to Hollinger's calculations, Lebron is more valuable to the Cavs than Harden is to the Rockets.
But even the basic stats back up Lebron. Lebron James finished with more total points, assists and rebounds than Harden. In large part this happened because James logged minutes in all 82 games this season, a first in his 15 year career. James also shot above 54% from the field, whereas Harden only shot 45%. James even managed to shoot just as well as Harden did from beyond the arc, an area where you would expect Harden to have the edge.
2. Free Throws
The biggest disparity between Harden and James comes at the free throw line. Harden attempted more than 10 shots from the charity stripe this season, whereas Lebron James only visited the free throw line 6.5 times per game. In fact, nearly 29% of James Harden's points during the regular season came from free throws, but this number drops to 17% for Lebron. Some of this disparity can be attributed to the difference in free throw accuracy, but even if Lebron shot as well as Harden did from the line, it wouldn't come close to decreasing the gap in their points.
Lebron often complained this year about the way he was officiated and he has a point. Lebron averaged 8.7 field goal attempts within the restricted area, second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yet, he was 12th in the league in free throws attempted (Giannis was second). Harden, as expected, led the league in free throws attempted, but only shot 6.3 field goals from the restricted area. So despite driving to the hoop more frequently and undoubtedly taking more contact, Lebron shot less free throws.
Of course, earning your way to the free throw line is a skill that cannot be ignored in basketball. Harden's ability to get easy points from the free throw line is unmatched and should be viewed as a strength. But James Harden only made 27 more field goals than he did free throws for the entire regular season which indicates that his only significant statistical advantage over Lebron (points per game) is over inflated by free throws.
James Harden has had an MVP caliber season, it just was not more impressive than Lebron's. Harden was the best player on the best team in the league, but that is not the name of the award. Yes, Harden managed to defeat the Wizards, but isn't it equally as impressive that the Cavaliers only managed one more win last year with Kyrie Irving on the team? Lebron kept together a team after 6 players left mid-season and 4 new players came in. The award should be about the player who is most valuable to his team and Lebron might have shown more value to his team this year, than he ever did with the Heat. He proved that his presence can make a lottery roster into a championship contender. Harden is not there yet.
All stats found on NBA.com and basketball-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.