This week in sports: What makes an NBA MVP

Pro Sports guru Andrew VanWazer breaks down what goes into determining an NBA Most Valuable Player through a comparative analysis of the top three picks.

By Andrew Vanwazer

Earlier this week, the NBA awarded the title of Most Valuable Player to Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. The 27-year-old point guard collected 100 of the 130 first-place votes after leading his team in scoring en route to the best record in the NBA (67–15). But the second and third leading vote recipients, James Harden and LeBron James, respectively, also produced incredible stats while leading their respective teams to high seeds in the playoffs.

So why did the 130 writers who decide on the award choose Curry in such an overwhelming fashion?

Looking purely at the numbers, here are the rankings of Curry, Harden, and James in a number of key categories:

Points Per Game:

James Harden   27.4

LeBron James   25.3

Steph Curry       23.8

Rebounds Per Game:

LeBron James   6.0

James Harden   5.7

Steph Curry       4.3

Assists Per Game:

Steph Curry       7.7

LeBron James   7.4

James Harden   7.0

These numbers may not appear fair because the three players play different positions. If we take a look at more advanced metrics, though, we can draw better apples-to-apples comparisons.

Player Efficiency Rating:

Steph Curry        28.0

James Harden    26.7

LeBron James     25.9

Usage Percentage (Percentage of team possessions used by the player):

LeBron James    32.3

James Harden    31.3

Steph Curry        28.9

Win Shares (Estimated number of wins contributed by the player):

James Harden   16.4

Steph Curry       15.7

LeBron James    10.4

Value Over Replacement Player:

Steph Curry       7.9

James Harden   7.8

LeBron James    5.9

From these figures, we can see that Curry was the most “efficient” and the most “valuable” player from a statistical basis. However, the Cavaliers decided that LeBron was their best offensive option over 32 percent of the time. Meanwhile, James Harden helped the Rockets win more games than *any* player did for his team in the NBA. All in all, even with these new complex metrics, there is no clear-cut statistical method or number that can determine MVP status. One could make the argument that LeBron is clearly the MVP, seeing that the Cavaliers won 20 more games than they did without him last year. Similarly, whereas Stephen Curry has top-10 scorer Klay Thompson beside him, James Harden is by far the number one threat on his team, scoring about 27 percent of the Rockets’ points this year.

So why was Curry such a dominant selection in the eyes of the voters? The answer: hype. There is a level of bias associated with the hysteria behind Curry. Not only did Curry put up amazing numbers, but he also did it with style. Two of his defining plays were against the Clippers, one in which he made Chris Paul fall down after a few dribbling moves. The fact that Curry’s ankle-breaking skills made some of the most “replayed” and “GIFed” plays this season definitely helped his cause. Additionally, it would be boring to hand LeBron his fifth MVP award, and it wouldn’t be as good of a story to hand Harden the trophy as it is to see the 6 foot kid out of Davidson turn out to be an NBA MVP. We can’t blame Curry for being on a team with talent around him, but it begs the question: is he really the most “valuable” player in the league then? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for certain: Curry is the best player on the best team in the NBA. Maybe we just need to not take the wording of Most “Valuable” Player so literally.