The MVP Race: (Advanced) Numbers Never Lie
In recent years, statistics have become a significant part of sports culture. Basketball in particular has become one of the most analytics-driven sports in the world. More and more, advanced statistical categories have been created to give us a deeper understanding of each player’s individual contribution while they are both on and off the court. Advanced statistics such as Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares, Player Impact Estimate (PIE), and True Shooting (TS%) are all relatively new statistical categories that give us insight into each player’s full contribution. We can now measure facets of the game that we never thought possible and even compare players from different generations more accurately than ever. But what do all of these numbers and statistics actually mean. Most casual fans don’t really understand what information these numbers represent. So let’s take a closer look into some of the more popular advanced metrics used by the NBA.
Player Efficiency Rating (PER) PER measures a player’s production on a per minute basis so that there is no bias between starters and rotation players. The formula to calculate PER essentially uses all of a player’s positive production (made field goals, assists, steals, etc.) and subtracts all of their negative production (missed field goals, turnovers, etc.). An important thing about PER is that it is adjusted for the pace that each team plays with. This means players from the 1987 Showtime Lakers won’t have an advantage over the 2004 Detroit Pistons, just because their style of play results in more possessions per game. The stat is also standardized so that the league average for PER is always 15. Currently Russell Westbrook leads the league with a PER of 30.2 while the all-time leaders are Michael Jordan (27.9), LeBron James (27.8) and Shaquille O’Neal (26.4). Win Shares (WS) / Win Shares per 48 Minutes (WS/48) Win shares breaks down the number of wins a single player is responsible for. Total win shares tells us the total number of wins a player produces whereas win shares per 48 minutes tells us what percentage of a win each player is personally responsible for. Theoretically, if you were to add up each player’s win shares at the end of the season, it would be equal to the team's actual win total. The league leader in win shares per 48 mins this season is Chris Paul at 0.295 and the all-time leader in win shares is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 273.41.
True Shooting (TS%) / Effective Field Goal (eFG%) True shooting and effective field goal percentage are simply two advanced ways to measure a player’s shooting efficiency, but it is important to distinguish the difference between the two. Effective field goal percentage is similar to the traditional field goal percentage, but adjusts for the fact that 3-point shots are worth more than 2-point shots. True shooting, on the other hand, takes into account free-throw, 2-point field goals and 3-point field goals, producing one percentage that accurately represents a players overall shooting effiency.
Rudy Gobert currently paces the league in true shooting (68.2%) while DeAndre Jordan is leading the league in effective field goal rate (66.9%) for the fifth year in a row. Offensive Rating (O-Rtg) / Defensive Rating (D-Rtg)
Offensive rating is simply the number of points either scored or assisted on, per 100 possessions. A player with an offensive rating of 115 for example, produces 1.15 points per possession. Defensive Rating measures the player’s ability to prevent the opposing team from scoring. It is the number of opponents’ points scored per 100 possessions. Therefore, if a player’s defensive rating is 115 they are allowing the opponent to score 1.15 points per possession. So far this season, only six players (Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond, Draymond Green, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, and DeAndre Jordan) have D-Rtg below 100, meaning they are allowing opponents to score less than 1 point per possession. Player Impact Estimate (PIE)
NBA.com recently created a new advanced statistic called PIE. In basic terms, the PIE formula totals all of the positive and negative things a player does in a game (points, rebounds, assists, missed shots, turnovers, etc.) into a single number, and then compares that number to everyone else in the same game. Since the comparison is relative to each specific game it reduces bias created by style of play, pace, and era (to a degree).
The current league leaders in PIE are Russell Westbrook (22.8), Anthony Davis (19.5) and James Harden (19.4). Now that we’ve gone over what these statistics can tell us, let’s take a look at our MVP candidates and whether the advanced metrics help or hurt their case.
1. James Harden (8.4 WS, 27.9 PER, 19.3 PIE) Two impressive streaks ended for James Harden this week. First, the Rockets’ 9 game winning streak was halted in Minnesota and just 2 days later Harden’s streak of 12 straight games with double digit assists ended against Memphis. Regardless, Harden has been on fire since the start of the new year and he has the Rockets in a position to potentially contend for a championship this season. He has been averaging 30.8 PTS and 10.4 AST over his last 5 games but he’s also been a little careless with the ball, averaging 6.6 turnovers over the same stretch.
2. Russell Westbrook (6.2 WS, 29.7 PER, 22.6 PIE) The Thunder are still scrapping away to win games in the West and Russell Westbrook continues to produce triple doubles. Over the last 5 games, the Thunder have gone 4-1 and Westbrook has averaged 26.8 PTS, 12.2 REB and 11.8 AST, missing the triple-double mark only once. With the all-star break approaching, now would be a very advantageous time for OKC to go on a winning streak. Once again, the Thunder’s record is the only things stopping Westbrook from becoming the 2017 league MVP.
3. LeBron James (6.2 WS, 26.4 PER, 18.2 PIE) Cleveland went through a rough stretch after acquiring Kyle Korver from the Atlanta Hawks, but things were looking a lot better on Friday night in Sacramento. Before beating the Kings, however, the Cavs had lost 2 straight games with LeBron posting rather pedestrian performances. Their West Coast road trip ends tonight against the Golden State Warriors, so expect LeBron to end the trip out West with a bang. The Cavaliers have won 4 straight games against the Warriors with King James averaging 35 PTS, 12 REB, and 8 AST on 51.4% shooting over the streak.
4. Kevin Durant (7.9 WS, 27.3 PER, 18.7 PIE) Kevin Durant will be looking to make up for his late game slip-up (pun intended) against the Cavs on Christmas Day. Coming into the match-up the Warriors have won 7 of their last 8 games, a span over which KD has averaged 25 PTS and 9 REB. With that being said, KD has a 1-7 record against LeBron over the last 5 seasons (KD is 4-18 when going head-to-head with LeBron over their careers). Golden State will be hoping this trend doesn’t continue for much longer.
5. Isaiah Thomas (6.1 WS, 26.7 PER, 15.7 PIE)
Isaiah Thomas continues to light-up the league this season and he’s leading the Celtics to plenty of wins along the way. The Celtics have won 8 of their last 10 games and a lot of it has to do with how well Isaiah is scoring the basketball (31.5 PPG over those ten games). The diminutive guard is accomplishing things that we haven’t seen since Allen Iverson was in the league. For the record, Iverson won the MVP trophy in 2001 after leading the 76ers to a 56-26 record, averaging 31.1 PTS and 4.6 AST on 42% shooting. This year Thomas is averaging 28.2 PTS and 6.2 AST on 46% shooting and the Celtics are on pace to win 52 games.
6. Kawhi Leonard (7.3 WS, 28.1 PER, 17.0 PIE) The Spurs hit a bit of a rough patch this week after dropping two games to the Phoenix Suns and a Giannis-less Milwaukee Bucks. Kawhi played well offensively in both losses, but the Spurs had no answer to Michael Beasley or Devin Booker. Luckily for the Spurs they had room to slip a little in the loss column, and with Kawhi shooting much better as of late (65% FG over his last 3 games), they will likely get back on track with games against Minnesota and Denver comping up next.
7. DeMar DeRozan (5.1 WS, 25.2 PER, 15.7 PIE) It looks like the Raptors are back on track, winning 3 straight following a mini slump. DeRozan has been great, averaging 31 PTS over their 3 game winning streak and needing only one three-pointer to do so. He’s averaging a career-high in points, rebounds and steals, justifying the massive contract he signed in the offseason. DeRozan, along with fellow guard Kyle Lowry, will look to make a push to catch the Cavaliers in the standings, as having home court advantage in the playoffs could possibly lead to the franchise’s NBA Finals debut.
8. Gordon Hayward (5.6 WS, 23.0 PER, 16.8 PIE) The Jazz seem to finally have it all figured out. They’ve won 7 of their last 10 games and could potentially end up with home court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. They’re one of the hottest teams in the West right now and Hayward has been arguably the hottest shooting player in the league as of late. Over his last 3 games, Hayward is averaging 24 PTS on an unbelievable 74% shooting from the field and 60% shooting from behind the 3-point line.
9. Giannis Antetokounmpo (6.0 WS, 28.3 PER, 18.6 PIE) Giannis’ streak of 20+ point games ended at 14 against the Spurs after being forced to leave the game early. But that doesn’t change how great he has been all year long. He has the third highest PER in the league and is fifth in win shares per 48 minutes. From running the offense to protecting the rim, Giannis has done everything for the Bucks this season, and the team is back in the playoff hunt because of it.
10. Anthony Davis (6.0 WS, 28.3 PER, 19.7 PIE) The Pelicans are coming, and so is Anthony Davis. After struggling through a very rough start, the addition of both Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans has the Pelicans fighting for the 8th and final playoff berth in the Western Conference. With how dominant Davis has been so far this season (37 PTS, 16 REB, and 2.7 BLK over his 3 games), a strong run after the all-star break for the Pelicans could potentially shake up this year’s MVP race.