The MVP Race: Defense Wins Championship, Not MVP Trophies
We’ve all heard it before. It’s the old, clichéd sports adage: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
The reason that it is so overused is because, for the most part, it has remained true for many years. Regardless of the sport or the era, very rarely have we seen teams triumph at the end of a season having played little to no defense.
The same cannot be said when it comes to the MVP trophy.
For whatever reason, MVP voters don’t quite see elite defenders in the same light as elite scorers. Defensive performance tends to act more as a tie-breaker than a legitimate consideration. Of the 26 players who have been named MVP since 1968, only 12 were named to the All-Defense 1st Team in the same year they were named the Most Valuable Player. In fact, of the previous ten players to be named MVP only four (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan) were considered genuine two-way threats.
Some players that have won the award were actually infamous for their poor defense. Stephen Curry, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose and Magic Johnson are only a few who were criticized for being below-average defenders during their MVP seasons. The 1990s seem to be the only outlier in that three MVP winners had also named Defensive Player of the Year (Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson) and all but two were selected to the All-Defensive teams in the year they won the MVP award.
This is good news for players like James Harden, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. As long as they continue to rack up the offensive numbers and win games, voters are going to completely forget about their poor defensive abilities. Last season alone, James Harden was constantly criticized for his lazy play on that end of the floor. This year, however, his offensive performance has been so impressive that no one has even noticed that he has been a statistically worse defender this season.
At the end of the day, whether or not this is a fair assessment of the league’s Most Valuable Player is up for debate. But with the direction that the league is heading toward, it looks like defensive ability will become less and less important in determining a player’s value.
1. James Harden (28.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 11.9 APG, 28.3 PER) As the season heads toward the All-Star break, James Harden is starting to tighten his grip on this year’s MVP trophy. No one in the league has really been able to match his combination of statistical performance and team success now that the Rockets are only one game behind San Antonio for the West’s number 2 seed and 3.5 games behind Golden State for the number 1 seed. They are currently the hottest team in league, amidst a 5 game winning streak.
2. LeBron James (25.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 8.6 APG, 26.3 PER) Before the loss to the Bulls, the Cavs had won the last 13 games LeBron had played in, losing games to the Grizzlies and Pistons (by an average of 12 points) in which he sat out. He was arguably the top performer in the Christmas Day victory over the Warriors and single-handedly kept them in the game during the third quarter. Over his last 5 games he’s averaging 28.6 PTS, 7.4 AST and 8.4 REB and has the Cavs sitting with the best record out East.
3. Russell Westbrook (30.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 10.5 APG, 30.1 PER) He’s either recorded a triple-double or double-double in 27 of his 35 games this season. He leads the league in scoring, efficiency, and is second in assists per game. His usage rate is reaching historically high levels. He has been otherworldly all year, but the Thunder are stuck down at the number 7 seed in the West and the team is on pace to win less than 50 games this season. At this point their team record is the only thing holding Westbrook back.
4. Kawhi Leonard (24.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 26.9 PER)
Speaking of defense, no player on this list takes on more of a challenge at that end of the floor than Kawhi Leonard. Perhaps due to the increased offensive workload, Kawhi’s staunch defense has regressed slightly this year but he is still regularly tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best wing player night in and night out. Over the last 10 games Kawhi has averaged 23 PTS while holding the opposing team’s starting small forward to an average of 11.3 PTS per contest.
5. Kevin Durant (25.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.7 APG, 27.4 PER) During the Christmas Day rematch of last year’s Finals, Durant was arguably the top performer through 3 quarters. Fumbling the ball the way he did in the dying seconds and shooting 2/7 in the fourth quarter has allowed his critics to point a finger in his direction and say ‘I told you so’. Since that game he hasn’t quite looked like himself averaging 20.6 PTS in three games the Warriors won by 10 or less points.
6. Isaiah Thomas (27.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 6.4 APG, 26.7 PER) Isaiah Thomas has been absolutely terrific since coming back from injury in mid-December. Since his return he has averaged 31.7 PTS and 6 AST per game and the Celtics have gone 7-2 over that same stretch. His 52 point explosion against the Miami Heat was a performance of the year candidate and is perhaps the greatest performance in NBA history by a sub-6-foot player. The fact that he was criticized for not recording an assist is simply ridiculous considering he shot 10% better from the field than the rest of the team combined.
7. DeMar DeRozan (27.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.0 APG, 24.8 PER) Despite continued high-level production on the offensive end, DeMar has slipped a little in this week’s MVP race for 2 reasons. Firstly, Kyle Lowry has completely shaken his slow start to the season and is slowly edging closer to an MVP candidate himself. Secondly, the Raptors have been playing sloppy basketball recently, going 1-3 in their last 4 games. Over that same stretch DeRozan has a net rating of -54 despite averaging 27.5 PTS on 46% shooting.
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo (23.8 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 5.9 APG, 28.8 PER) The Bucks have won 4 of their last 5 games and are making a big push for home court advantage through the first round of the playoffs. The Greek Freak has been leading the charge averaging 27.2 PTS, 8.8 REB, 5.8 AST, and 2.4 BLK over those 5 games and hit a the game winning shot to beat the Knicks in MSG. He should be an all-star this season and a perennial MVP candidate in the seasons to come.
9. Gordon Hayward (22.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 23.1 PER) The Jazz are finally playing like the team we thought they would be a year ago. They have won 8 of their last 12 games and are currently sitting in 5th place behind the Clippers who have a one game advantage. After missing the early part of the season recovering from injury, Hayward has been Utah’s best player. He can be inconsistent at times, but when he’s having an on-night, he has been unstoppable. If the Jazz continue to win games and Hayward can improve his consistency, expect his name to climb further up this list.
10. Chris Paul (17.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 9.5 APG, 27.1 PER)
It was supposed to be do or die time for Chris Paul and the Clippers when Blake Griffin went down with an injured right knee. They started off well by winning the next two games, one of which was against the San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately, disaster struck once again for the NBAs unluckiest franchise as Paul suffered an injury of his own. A 6 game losing streak followed, as did a tumble in the standings. He is expected to return Friday and the Clippers will be hoping his return will spark a winning streak that will help the team catch up with the other Western Conference elites.