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Editor’s note: It’s MVP Week at Bleacher Report, which means each day we’ll examine the NBA‘s most prized award from a different lens. In part 1 on Monday, B/R looked at the most important factor placing Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden at the front of the MVP conversation.
For most of this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have rightfully dominated the NBA’s MVP conversation. Giannis is putting up a raw stat line that looks like prime Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Harden is scoring at a level we haven’t seen since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1986-87.
But, as you may have noticed, individual numbers are up all over the league. And this season alone, there are 15 players (and arguably even more) who are playing at what we used to know as an MVP level.
How do we know that? Well, first we need to know roughly what “MVP level” is. At the risk of never getting out of the weeds we’re about to dive into, let’s explore those two words.
Step 1: We need a list of every league MVP since 1974. Thanks, Basketball Reference.
And why since 1974? That’s when the league started tracking steals and blocks. It’s also when Basketball Reference starts tracking box plus-minus (“a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team,” according to the site) and per-possession stats.
Step 2: We need to know the average pace (estimate of the number of possessions per game) over those 45 MVP seasons. And that’s pretty tedious, but it was necessary to look all of them up individually so we could account for this season’s uptick.
Believe it or not, this season’s league-average pace of 100 possessions per game isn’t a whole lot higher than the 96.5 from the average MVP season.
Step 3: Figure out how many of those 96.5 possessions were actually played by the MVPs themselves.
All 45 played an average of 38.1 minutes per game. That’s 79.4 percent of the game. And 79.4 percent of 96.5 possessions is 76.6 possessions. Voila.
Step 4: Now, we can compare the average MVP’s numbers per 76.6 possessions to a handful of players today per 76.6 possessions.
That puts everyone on a more level playing field.
Step 5: And speaking of level playing fields, we need to find the league-average true shooting percentage from 1974 to 2018.
The three-point revolution has inflated true shooting percentages over time. And this era’s players shouldn’t be penalized for playing smarter, but a 55.9 (average today) would have been far above average 20 years ago. So, instead of listing true shooting percentage, we’ll list points above true shooting percentage.
Does this whole process sound too complicated? Well, it’s pretty simple when you can just see the final results.
Without further ado, here is the average NBA MVP since 1974: 26.86 PTS, 9.4 REB, 5.86 AST, 1.55 STL, 1.4 BLK, 5.5 Relative TS% (rTS%), 8.3 Box Plus-Minus, 22.86 Game Score
Now, here is the average MVP compared to 31 players from this season (2018-19’s top 30, according to the average of their ranks in 10 catch-all metrics, plus Luka Doncic, just for the heck of it). The entire table (found in the following hyperlink) is sorted by game score per 76.6 possessions, which puts the “Average MVP” in the No. 11 spot.
Yes, pace is up in 2018-19, but that shouldn’t be seen as the only reason for some of these crazy stat lines. As explained by Nylon Calculus’ Ben Taylor, rule changes like this season’s emphasis on freedom of movement, as well as the embracing of the three-point shot, help.
But let’s not discount the fact that the NBA is just flat-out loaded with talent. There are even four players who didn’t qualify for the table above who have a 20-plus game score per 76.6 possessions: Jonas Valanciunas, Lou Williams, Boban Marjanovic (yep) and John Collins.
And there are at least 15 guys whose 2018-19 stat lines could just be dropped into a random season between 1974 and 2018 and compete for an MVP.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 29.81 PTS, 13.64 REB, 6.51 AST, 1.46 STL, 1.61 BLK, 8.4 rTS%, 10.8 Box Plus-Minus, 28.29 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +2.95 PTS, +4.24 REB, +0.65 AST, -0.09 STL, +0.21 BLK, +2.9 Relative TS% (rTS%), +2.5 Box Plus-Minus, +5.43 Game Score
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Giannis isn’t just better than the average MVP. He’s dominating him. As you can see, the only category where Giannis isn’t outperforming the average is steals, and he’s darn close there.
He literally does everything for the Milwaukee Bucks.
“Coming into the league, I never saw myself as one of the best players in the league and being that LeBron type of player,” Giannis said, per Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “That’s the truth. I could say, ‘Yes, I always thought I could be like LeBron James or better or whatever,’ but that’s not the truth.”
He may not have seen it coming, but Giannis has absolutely grown into a player worthy of carrying the mantle as LeBron approaches the twilight of his career.
Basketball Reference gives him a 54.9 percent shot at winning the MVP award this season. Even if he doesn’t, his evolution into “that LeBron type” suggests he might secure a few of these before he’s done.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 36.71 PTS, 6.51 REB, 7.59 AST, 2.15 STL, 0.77 BLK, 5.2 rTS%, 11.4 Box Plus-Minus, 27.3 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +9.85 PTS, -2.89 REB, +1.73 AST, +0.6 STL, -0.63 BLK, -0.3 rTS%, +3.1 Box Plus-Minus, +4.44 Game Score
Harden’s MVP case doesn’t begin and end with scoring. As has been the case with him for years, his all-around game is reflected by his stat lines. But let’s be honest. The nearly unprecedented scoring is his exclamation point.
If we apply the same pace and minutes modifiers used for the average MVP to the top 500-points-per-game seasons in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain’s 1961-62 campaign (approximately 39.6 points per 76.6 possessions) is the only one ahead of Harden’s 2018-19 (36.7).
And, obviously there’s no guarantee Harden’s body could handle this, but if he played as many possessions per game as Wilt did in 1962 (approximately 131, according to Basketball Reference), he’d be averaging 62.7 points per game.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 27.44 PTS, 7.89 REB, 3.99 AST, 2.07 STL, 0.46 BLK, 2.7 rTS%, 5.6 Box Plus-Minus, 22.2 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +0.58 PTS, -1.51 REB, -1.88 AST, +0.52 STL, -0.94 BLK, -2.8 rTS%, -2.7 Box Plus-Minus, -0.66 Game Score
Paul George’s momentum has slowed significantly over the last month or so, but in February, FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring pointed out that George was essentially replicating Kevin Durant‘s 2014 MVP campaign.
And where George still has a bigger feather in his cap than either Giannis or Harden is plus-minus. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s net rating (net points per 100 possessions when that player is on the floor) is 17.7 points better when George is on the floor. Among players with at least 250 minutes, that’s No. 1.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 24.22 PTS, 12.88 REB, 8.97 AST, 1.53 STL, 0.84 BLK, 2.9 rTS%, 9.6 Box Plus-Minus, 23.78 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: -2.64 PTS, +3.47 REB, +3.11 AST, -0.01 STL, -0.56 BLK, -2.6 rTS%, +1.3 Box Plus-Minus, +0.92 Game Score
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The Denver Nuggets lost a play-in game on the final night of the 2017-18 season that cost them a playoff berth. Now, they’re neck and neck with the Golden State Warriors for the West’s top seed.
That this is happening in spite of Will Barton, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap missing a combined 75 games is a credit to Jokic, whose passing is altering the way the game is played.
From 1974 through 2016 (Jokic’s rookie year), all seven-footers combined to average 1.9 assists per 36 minutes. Over the last three seasons, all seven-footers are averaging 2.5 assists per 36 minutes. For his career, Jokic is at 6.5. This season, he’s at 8.5.
That kind of passing has been transformative for his team as well. Essentially, Denver is able to play two shooting guards in Harris and Jamal Murray, because Jokic is more than capable of handling the traditional point guard duties.
And his ability to find the right player the moment he’s open, or even pass the teammate open himself, makes the Nuggets remarkably difficult to defend.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 27.97 PTS, 12.95 REB, 4.22 AST, 1.69 STL, 2.61 BLK, 3.8 rTS%, 8.5 Box Plus-Minus, 27.81 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +1.11 PTS, +3.55 REB, -1.65 AST, +0.14 STL, +1.21 BLK. -1.7 rTS%, +0.2 Box Plus-Minus, +4.95 Game Score
Off-the-court stuff will keep Anthony Davis out of the real MVP discussion this season, but his numbers are absolutely absurd.
And this piece is more about showing how many players are at an MVP level than it is about determining who this season’s MVP actually is.
Like Giannis, when you adjust AD’s numbers to account for pace and playing time, his 2018-19 campaign starts to look like something off of Kareem’s Basketball Reference page.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 18.24 PTS, 14.95 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.92 STL, 2.61 BLK, 12.3 rTS%, 7.1 Box Plus-Minus, 21.15 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: -8.62 PTS, +5.54 REB, -3.56 AST, -0.63 STL, +1.21 BLK, +6.8 rTS%, -1.2 Box Plus-Minus, -1.71 Game Score
Rudy Gobert doesn’t have your traditional MVP resume. And outside the Utah Jazz fanbase, he won’t get any real consideration for the top five. But he is No. 10 on Basketball Reference‘s MVP Award Tracker, and the advanced plus-minus numbers love him.
According to ESPN, the only players who have a higher offensive real plus-minus than Gobert’s league-leading defensive real plus-minus are James Harden, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Paul George. And even Gobert’s offensive real plus-minus is nearly top 100 (101, to be exact).
On the defensive end, he is the system. Much like Curry or Harden are capable of doing on the other end. And offensively, Gobert’s rim running and offensive rebounding pull defenses inward, giving his teammates far more space to operate on the perimeter.
Only three MVP campaigns since 1974 came from players who averaged fewer than 20 points (Bill Walton and Steve Nash twice), but Gobert’s 2018-19 Box Plus-Minus is equal to or better than all three.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 27.29 PTS, 4.75 REB, 7.13 AST, 1.15 STL, 0.46 BLK, 3.4 rTS%, 5.7 Box Plus-Minus, 21.99 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +0.42 PTS, -4.65 REB, +1.27 AST, -0.4 STL, -0.94 BLK, -2.1 rTS%, -2.6 Box Plus-Minus, -0.87 Game Score
After making first-team All-NBA last season, Damian Lillard is putting up nearly identical numbers in 2018-19. And once again, he’s one of the league’s best performers in big moments.
“When you are in a clutch situation there are just (a few) guys, him, Steph (Curry), KD (Kevin Durant),” teammate Al-Farouq Aminu said, per USA Today‘s Martin Rogers. “He is a top five guy, then there is his natural ability to score in crunch time situations.”
Among players with at least 100 minutes in clutch situations (game within five in the final five minutes), Lillard’s eighth in points per 36 minutes.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 24.76 PTS, 14.49 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.23 STL, 1.38 BLK, 1.4 rTS%, 6.7 Box Plus-Minus, 22.68 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: -2.11 PTS, +5.08 REB, -1.26 AST, -0.32 STL, -0.02 BLK, -4.1 rTS%, -1.6 Box Plus-Minus, -0.18 Game Score
Nikola Vucevic’s placement here may surprise some, but just look at how close those numbers are to the average MVP since 1974.
This is another example of how deep the league is right now, since it’s pretty hard to imagine many fans or writers writing “Vucevic” and “MVP” in the same season.
Again, this isn’t about who will win in 2018-19, but rather whose numbers would have a good shot in most seasons across history.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 27.82 PTS, 6.82 REB, 5.9 AST, 0.77 STL, 1.15 BLK, 6.8 rTS%, 4.1 Box Plus-Minus, 23.18 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +0.96 PTS, -2.58 REB, +0.04 AST, -0.78 STL, -0.25 BLK, +1.3 rTS%, -4.2 Box Plus-Minus, +0.32 Game Score
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We now enter the inevitable Golden State Warriors section of this article with 2014 MVP Kevin Durant, who is likely to finish the season as the team leader in win shares for the West’s No. 1 seed.
Honestly, we may be taking this guy for granted at this point. With so much talk about his fit with the Warriors and where he might play next season, his numbers have almost flown under the radar.
He’s in the middle of his eighth season with a 60-plus true shooting percentage and a 25-plus scoring average. He’s already the all-time leader in such seasons, according to Basketball Reference. Adrian Dantley, LeBron James and James Harden are all tied for second with six.
And across those eight Durant seasons, the numbers are fairly consistent. He’s essentially been at an MVP level for his entire career.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 29.58 PTS, 5.75 REB, 5.59 AST, 1.46 STL, 0.38 BLK, 7.8 rTS%, 6.1 Box Plus-Minus, 23.11 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +2.72 PTS, -3.65 REB, -0.27 AST, -0.09 STL, -1.02 BLK, +2.3 rTS%, -2.2 Box Plus-Minus, +0.25 Game Score
Like his teammate, Stephen Curry has been playing at an MVP level for a while.
And, since one good list deserves another, how about the most seasons with a 20-plus scoring average and a 40-plus three-point percentage. The all-time leader there is Curry and his seven. Larry Bird is second with six.
Curry’s at an MVP level this season, but this isn’t new for the two-time winner.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 27.36 PTS, 13.87 REB, 3.68 AST, 1 STL, 1.84 BLK, 6.8 rTS%, 7.3 Box Plus-Minus, 24.05 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +0.5 PTS, +4.47 REB, -2.18 AST, -0.55 STL, +0.44 BLK, +1.3 rTS%, -1 Box Plus-Minus, +1.19 Game Score
“Like any great player, whatever your strategy is, the end of the night when you look at the boxscore, he’s going to have a bunch of points and rebounds,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per Chris Hine of the Star Tribune.
That’s been especially true of Karl-Anthony Towns since the All-Star break.
Over that stretch, KAT’s at 29.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, four assists, 2.7 threes and 1.1 blocks in just 32.9 minutes, with a 64.7 true shooting percentage.
He’s up against his team’s record in these debates, but a Third Team All-NBA selection wouldn’t be surprising.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 29.58 PTS, 14.72 REB, 3.76 AST, 0.77 STL, 1.99 BLK, 3.8 rTS%, 3.9 Box Plus-Minus, 24.88 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +2.72 PTS, +5.31 REB, -2.11 AST, -0.78 STL, +0.59 BLK, -1.7 rTS%, -4.4 Box Plus-Minus, +2.02 Game Score
Some of the advanced numbers may not love Joel Embiid as much as the masses (hence, his placement this late in the article), but the basic ones sure do.
And while he won’t challenge Giannis or Harden for the season’s ultimate individual honor (like everyone else here), he has a very real shot at first-team All-NBA.
Nick Kosmider of The Athletic broke down the debate:
“As real as Jokic’s candidacy is for the honor, so too is his competition for the top all-league spot. Joel Embiid, the former No. 3 overall pick having a career-year in Philadelphia, is different from Jokic in more ways than you can count. Calling himself ‘the most unguardable player in the league,’ Embiid’s bravado and impressively unassailable confidence match a game that is played with a volume on 10. He’s as physically imposing a big man as the game has seen since Shaquille O’Neal and, like Jokic, has changed the fortunes of a franchise.”
Typically, a player posting the kind of numbers Embiid is (as seen in the table above) would be a lock for first team, and maybe even MVP, depending on the season. But not in 2018-19, when multiple centers somehow top Embiid in a handful of catch-all metrics.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 27.67 PTS, 8.66 REB, 8.35 AST, 1.38 STL, 0.61 BLK, 2.8 rTS%, 8.1 Box Plus-Minus, 24.53 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +0.81 PTS, -0.74 REB, +2.49 AST, -0.17 STL, -0.79 BLK, -2.7 rTS%, -0.2 Box Plus-Minus, +1.67 Game Score
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There’s sure to be loads of think-pieces on what exactly went wrong with the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers. The season didn’t go the way many fans anticipated.
But if you step back and just look at what LeBron James did individually, his season maybe doesn’t come off as quite as big a disaster, missed games notwithstanding.
As the table and comparison to the average MVP show, the numbers are about as wild as ever. And according to Cleaning the Glass, L.A.’s net rating is 9.9 points better when LeBron’s on the floor, which puts him in the 94th percentile.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 26.6 PTS, 5.67 REB, 7.89 AST, 1.76 STL, 0.61 BLK, 3.3 rTS%, 6.6 Box Plus-Minus, 22.58 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: -0.27 PTS, -3.73 REB, +2.03 AST, +0.22 STL, -0.79 BLK, -2.2 rTS%, -1.7 Box Plus-Minus, -0.28 Game Score
It’s been a tumultuous season for the Boston Celtics. And Kyrie Irving has brought plenty of the tumult on himself with his quotes about the “young guys.”
But on the floor, he’s been as ridiculous as ever. He’s posting a career-high box plus-minus, thanks in large part to the fact that he’s above average in defensive box plus-minus for the first time ever.
2018-19, per 76.6 possessions: 28.89 PTS, 7.89 REB, 3.53 AST, 1.99 STL, 0.46 BLK, 5 rTS%, 5.2 Box Plus-Minus, 24.03 Game Score
Compared to the Average MVP: +2.03 PTS, -1.51 REB, -2.34 AST, +0.45 STL, -0.94 BLK, -0.5 rTS%, -3.1 Box Plus-Minus +1.17 Game Score
Like LeBron, Kawhi Leonard is eliminated from top-five consideration by virtue of the time he missed this season. Right now, he’s on pace to play fewer than 60 games. But he’s been stellar in the minutes he has played.
Leonard is posting career highs in points (27) and rebounds (7.4) per game. And when he’s sharing the floor with Kyle Lowry, the Toronto Raptors are plus-8.4 points per 100 possessions (91st percentile), per Cleaning the Glass.
You’re more than entitled to your qualms over which of the 15 players got a write-up here. I thought about excluding players on teams with losing records. I thought about including the guys who just had the craziest counting numbers, like Russell Westbrook. In the end, I opted to just go with the top 15, according to the average of their ranks in 10 catch-alls.
The ultimate takeaway here isn’t what a top-15 MVP ladder should be. More generally, this is just a demonstration of how lucky the average NBA fan is today. Almost nightly, they’re being spoiled with a level of play around the league that was far less common in the past.
Humans typically get better at what they do over time. And that applies to basketball as well. The trend will probably continue as long as the game does. In 20 years, the level of play may be even higher than it is now. But we could still look back on this season as a high point in one of the sport’s most talent-packed eras.