Houston Rockets, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Signature games and the MVP race

You can be forgiven if James Harden’s 57-point, 8-assist, 7-rebound performance Wednesday didn’t exactly capture your attention. It was against the lowly Memphis Grizzlies. Harden scored nearly half his points against Justin Holiday, not exactly known as a defensive stopper. Oh, and the Rockets still lost. Still, nothing takes the shine off a legendary game than a season in which it’s not really an outlier.

This was the fifth time this season Harden had scored 57 points or more. He’s hit 50 or more seven times this season, including a 50-point triple-double. Lay all of that on top of three 40-point triple-doubles and it’s pretty clear that Harden is redefining what qualifies as an incredible box score.

On most hypothetical ballots, Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George top the list of MVP candidates in some order. While Harden’s case runs deeper than just a dozen or so signature games, it is certainly one of the unique aspects of his profile, strengthening his argument and separating him from his peers.

DRE is a linear-weights player metric developed by Kevin Ferrigan and the bulk productivity version of the metric is a great way of measuring a player’s impact in a single game. Harden has had 15 games this season with a DRE of 20 or greater, and five games with a DRE of 25+. For comparison, Giannis has been over 20 in just eight games, and over 25 just once. George has 11 games over 20 and two games over 25.

If you look at an overall season-long measure of performance, the list is reordered. By ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, the George is ranked first, Harden second and Giannis fourth (behind Nikola Jokic) in per-possession impact, with Giannis leaping over Jokic in the cumulative RPM Wins measure, by virtue of having played more minutes.

Another way to look at this difference between average impact across the entire season and single-game ceiling is to look at the distribution of each player’s DRE across all games this season.

In Harden’s curve, we can see more of these signature, explosive, high-volume performances. However, both his and George’s curves stretch into the negative, which Giannis does not. George’s mean is slightly lower but both he and Giannis are clustered more around very-good-but-not exceptional games. One of the most obvious explanations here is that George and Giannis both contribute much more than Harden outside of the scoring column. For example, if you adjusted each player’s average per-game DRE for the season to remove all points scored and field goals and free throws attempted, Harden’s would drop from +13.7 to +3.0. Giannis would decline from +13.4 to +5.1. George’s would drop from +12.5 to +5.0.

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A player’s statistical resume is a major factor in the MVP race but a significant portion of the final vote is also influenced by how compelling each player’s narrative is. George finding a balance with Russell Westbrook and Giannis helping the Bucks unlock their best selves are certainly fascinating stories. But the aesthetic of Harden’s ability to regularly supernova and torch the box score may be the thing that ultimately clinches MVP for him.

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