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When the NBA handed out its first-ever Most Valuable Player award to Bob Petit 63 years ago, the league probably thought it was seeing the beginning of a trend.
Petit led all players in scoring that year with a robust 25.7 points per game, one of only five men to average over 20. Given that the primary objective of the sport was ostensibly to put the ball in the basket, it made sense that the person who did it more often than anyone else would get the season’s top individual prize.
Now, of course, we’re smarter than that. We live in Brooklyn, eat kale, and scoff at those who would trot out points per game as the primary measure of a player’s greatness. That Ingolf chair in our kitchen nook might look minimalist, but it’s a complex design built on true shooting, effective field goal percentage, Box Score Plus-Minus and on/off net ratings. Take your box score stats to wherever it is they still serve gluten. We’re all stocked up here.
These are the ethos coursing through our veins as we consider the latest MVP debate, one that promises to be as tightly contested as any. At 36.2 points per game, James Harden currently has the highest scoring average the league has seen in over 30 years and is a full eight points clear of Paul George in second place — the same as the gap between George and Lou Williams, 34th on the scoring list. If that gap maintained, it would be the largest in history by anyone not named “Wilt” or “Michael.”
Still, he seems ever so slightly the underdog in this race to Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Freak is averaging nearly nine points less than the Beard, but the Bucks are nearly 10 points better per 100 possessions when he plays, whereas the Rockets are barely two points better with Harden. Antetokounmpo also has the highest true shooting percentage of anyone in the NBA averaging over 20 points. Defensively, Milwaukee is nearly four points better than its own league leading defense with Giannis on the court, while James’ on-court number is about the same as his team’s – good for 21st overall.
Here’s the odd part: it’s going completely against the recent trend.
Last season marked the first time in NBA history where the league’s leading scorer had won the MVP award three seasons in a row, and Harden’s win made it four times in five years that it occurred, following Russ in 2017, Steph in 2016 and KD in 2014.
Before Durant(‘s mom) won five years ago, a leading scorer hadn’t won the prize since 2001 when Iverson took it home. It capped a stretch of seven wins in 14 years for the leading scorer, most of which were taken home by Michael Jordan. Prior to his win in 1988, you have to go back to 1975 and Bob McAdoo to find a high point man that was named most valuable.
In fact, after Petit’s initial win, the leading scorer and MVP were the same only 6 times over the next 31 years. Overall, it happened just under once every four seasons throughout league history…until Durant started bucking the trend in 2014.
So while we may fancy ourselves more sophisticated than the dullards who first pioneered assessing this sport way back in the dark ages, perhaps we’re giving ourselves a little too much credit. Points may be blasé, but they seem to be moving the needle of late. If Harden can finish strong and get the Rockets out of the Warriors bracket in the playoffs, maybe his scoring will be convincing enough once again.
Or maybe we’re all just jealous of his beard.
#Content you can’t miss
Speaking of Harden, here’s betting the Rockets are still the greatest threat to the Warriors in the playoffs. But besides their leading man, who else can they trust?
Here’s an in-depth look at Elfrid Payton and how his dad has been instrumental in getting his son through a career filled with ups and downs.
Always read Howard Beck, especially when he talks about two of the greats and their connection to each other.
New Yahoo draftnik Spencer Pearlman gives us the first of what is sure to be many mock drafts leading up to June 20.
Finally, a nice recap of the Chris Bosh retirement ceremony.