By: Colin Chiles (with credit to Darin Stroot and Jon Brogan for help with the food jokes)
This year in the NBA, we’ve been blessed to see some incredible individual performances all season long. The average pace this year is as high as it’s been since 1993, and we’re seeing some really wild numbers as a result. Most seasons, it’s fairly clear who the MVP is. This is not one of those seasons. This year, we have 4 legitimate candidates who each have a compelling claim to the award and which guy you believe should win it says a lot about you. I’m of the mind that there is no clear cut MVP and at some point, you just have to make a decision that comes down to personal preference. In this article I’m going to make the case for each guy, compare each guy to a food (you have no idea how important this is) and then give you my ultimate pick. So let’s dive into it!
Russell Westbrook – the “historical stats matter” crowd
Unless you had acid thrown in your eyes and your ear drums poked out before this season started, you’ve no doubt learned that Russell Westbrook will finish the season averaging a triple double per game. And if you ARE missing your eyes and ears and you’re somehow reading this, then that means you had it translated into Braille and I really, truly respect your commitment to the Dive 35, give me a call and I’ll get you a T-shirt.
Early in the season I took a look at the unavoidable comparison to Oscar Robinson, the only other person to ever average a triple double for an entire season. As I noted, both pace and increase in competition make Russ’s accomplishment more impressive. Oh and not to mention he’s going to lead the league in scoring.
Russ averaging a triple double while leading the league in scoring is insanity. His performance in “clutch time” this year has been something to behold. Clutch time is defined as the final 5 minutes of a game where the score is within 5 points. When you take those averages per 36 minutes to give it a frame that you’re use to…well….his numbers look like this
60 points, 12.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists
To be fair, this is a very inflated look, but the comparing him against the league gives you perspective. The next top 4 per 36 minute clutch time scorers look like this:
Isaiah Thomas – 48.7 points
Jimmy Butler – 41.6 points
James Harden – 40.1 points
DeMar Derozan – 37.8 points
Even though it’s anecdotal, he’s had so many memorable “MVP” moments this season, capped by a fire breathing performance in Denver Sunday night, where he went off for 50/10/16 and just a gigantic three to win the game in the closing seconds. This may have been personal for him, considering his well known past with Rocky, the Nuggets mascot.
But the best argument for Russ as MVP is what OKC would have been this year without him, and we haven’t had to see that because he’s played in every single game so far. There is some talent on OKC but most of it only works as a compliment to Westbrook. This team is engineered around Russ in a way we haven’t really seen…ever. Many people (haters) will note that his stats are inflated, and in the case of his rebounds, they are actually correct. However its team scheme, not stat chasing, that is driving this.
Watch any Thunder game and you’ll often see big men Enes Kanter and Steven Adams boxing their guys completely out of the lane and to the sides. This opens up a gaping hole in the middle that Russ uses to snag boards. They do it this way because the Thunder’s best offense is in transition, and having him grab the rebound while the other two players streak up the court is a great way to jump start a possession. And all of this only works because Russ is a homicidal maniac who feeds on buckets and can vaporize your ankles if you even consider trying to stop him in the open court.
So finally to the most important question of this debate, what food is Russell Westbrook? Westbrook is obviously ghost peppers dipped in lava. Like actual fucking lava that would kill you if you touched it. You could not possibly handle eating a ghost pepper dipped in lava because unlike Westbrook, you are a mortal human.
James Harden – the “wins matter” crowd
For me personally, my opinion of James Harden throughout his career has been on quite the roller coaster ride. I went from desperately wanting OKC to take Ricky Rubio (and being really disappointed when they took Harden), to Harden and his beard becoming my favorite player on those young Thunder teams (I have an OKC James Harden jersey and it’s the only jersey I own).
From there I was devastated when he was traded and quite happy as he became a revelation in Houston. Shortly after I completely turned on him during his 2nd place MVP season, constantly shouting about his defense and lack of caring and that was really only amplified the following year when he came in out of shape and got his coach fired early in the season.
That led us to this season when, you guessed it, I pulled another 180 on Harden and have been thrilled watching him in the D’Antoni offense running point and leading the league in assists.
Maybe that says more about me than it does Harden…
At any rate, this version of James Harden is the best version of James Harden. Bill Simmons use to say that the D’Antoni Suns were a high end sports car that only Nash knew how to drive. I see this Houston team as something very similar. Putting as many shooters around him as possible makes Harden so much more dangerous in the high screen and roll as well as in isolation. There are so many ways they can score on you in the half court when the ball is in his hands. They force defenses to make a decision – stick to the shooters or help in the paint as Harden barrels into the lane and you’re screwed either way.
Similar to Westbrook, this team would be so screwed without Harden. Also similar to Westbrook, Harden has played in every single game so far this season. Also similar to Westbrook, Harden can rack up the triple doubles. The main difference here is that Harden is on a team that is going to win at least 54 games, and has an actual shot at winning a title.
A brief aside here, I want to talk about the triple double backlash I’ve seen online. Yes, I will concede that round number celebrations are a little dumb and entirely abstract. If Harden goes for 25/8/8, that’s more impressive than him going 12/10/10 despite only the latter being awarded the title of triple double. However if that’s your focus then you’re missing the point. To me, celebrating a triple double isn’t about crossing into double digit stats. It’s celebrating that a guy had such an impact on so many parts of a game. Yes, 25/8/8 doesn’t get the fancy title, but I’m just as impressed by 25/8/8 than I am 25/10/10.
But enough of that basketball trash, let’s get to the important question…What kind of food is James Harden? Well, James Harden is sushi. I don’t really have a reason for that but both sushi and James Harden are fucking awesome.
Kawhi Leonard – the “advanced stats and defense matter crowd”
With respect to LeBron, Kawhi Leonard has been unquestionably the best defender in this MVP discussion, and for my money he’s the best defender in the league. On top of that, the offensive load he’s had to carry each season just keeps going up. He’s scoring 25.8 per game this year (4.6 more than last year) as well as dishing out an extra assist per game that last year. He shoots 48% from three, has a 61% true shooting mark and guards the best player on the opposing team only every single game.
My main arguments for Kawhi are twofold. First of all, as Tom Haberstroh noted on twitter, LeBron, Russ, Harden and Paul George vs the Spurs in clutch time are a combined 7/27 (25.9%), their teams are -37 in plus/minus during that time and they have lost 7 out of 8 of those games. You know who guards all four of those guys? Yes, Kawhi “octopus arms” Leonard.
My second argument is that the Spurs are going to finish with more than 60 wins and they really don’t have that great of a team outside of Kawhi. I guess LaMarcus Aldridge is their second best player but who would be third after that? Pau? Patty Mills? Ginobili? The real correct answer is that Pop is their second best or maybe even their best player, but its really hard to define what he does for them and he can’t win MVP of the league.
Kawhi is efficient, an amazing and versatile defender, and one of the most well rounded basketball players we have in this league. And this team won over 60 games! I’m not convinced that this team would have a winning record without Kawhi, although Pop is a magician so they’d probably still end up as the 4 seed.
Finally, the most important factor, what kind of food is Kawhi Leonard? Kawhi Leonard is without doubt brussels sprouts with a side of kale based green juice. He’s the not the hero we want, he’s the hero we need.
LeBron James – the “he’s the best player in the world” crowd
My argument for LeBron is actually going to center around the food choice for him because as I kept going through it, it’s just too perfect.
LeBron James is pizza.
Pizza is the best, and whether or not they admit it, people know that pizza is the best. Pizza is extremely consistent. Pizza is super important to other foods but also it’s a perfectly wonderful meal by itself. It can carry other foods that just aren’t as good, and it’s a great substitute when other foods fail (“oh no I burnt the lasagna” “well fuck it, lets just order pizza”). Pizza gets moody mid season and starts subtweeting fellow foods and owners of the pizza. Wait…that one might not work. But my final one is that even when pizza is bad for pizza standards, it’s still better than most foods.
Ladies and gentlemen, pizza is LeBron James.
LeBron really should win MVP every single year, I mean, he’s the best player in the league and literally EVERYONE agrees on this. So what are we even talking about? I know they’ve been extremely average since January, as their defense has gone through a major slump, but they’re still over 50 wins, most likely securing the 1 seed in the East and absolutely the favorite to make the finals yet again.
LeBron is averaging 26.4 points and career highs in assists (8.7pg) and rebounds (8.6pg) and not for nothing, his 8.7 assists are very nearly 2 whole assists higher than last year when, you may recall, they won the finals.
As I’ve done with the other three candidates, if you take LeBron off of the Cavs where would they be? Well, LeBron sat 6 times this season. The Cavs lost by an average of 18 in those games. To be fair, Kyrie also sat in 3 of those games and Kevin Love sat (or was injured) for 5 of them. But looking at games where Kyrie sat but LeBron played? The Cavs went 5-1 in those games. Similar to the Spurs and Kawhi, I’m not convinced this team has a winning record without LeBron.
So who’s my MVP? It’s an agonizing decision. All of these guys are incredible and have had incredible seasons. I wouldn’t be upset if any of them ultimately won. But if I had a vote, I really think I’d go with Kawhi. His team has more wins than anyone else in the discussion and as I already stated, I think he’s the best defender in the league. Defense is hard to quantify on an individual level and I hate anecdotal evidence but it’s so obvious when you watch him. He’s everywhere. He’s a shark and octopus and orangutan all rolled into one. He’s Kawhi Leonard. And He’s my MVP.