NBA Most Valuable Players (06/09/17)

By Sean Pyritz @srpyritz

The NBA playoffs are nearing a very disappointing conclusion this week, so disappointing that they have wiped away much of the excitement surrounding the Most Valuable Player race at the end of the regular season. It also certainly doesn't help that the NBA decided to push back the announcement of the award until June 26 at their ill-fated awards show. Regardless the time has come to pick the most valuable player from the 2016-2017 season.

Near the end of the season, we spent several weeks comparing the top four candidates for MVP – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James - investigating the makeup of their respective offensive burdens and their regular season head-to-head matchups. The purpose was to understand how they fit within their respective teams and against one another. In order to decide on most valuable, however, we will phone in for some assistance from a mysterious friend: RPM (real plus-minus). Officially, RPM is the “estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents, and additional factors.” Basically, RPM tries to capture who adds the most value to their team, a useful tool for this here discussion. As an added bonus, RPM can be broken into separate offensive (ORPM) and defensive (DRPM) components.

Using internal RPM data, we can stage our four candidates against one another once and for all.

MVP Pick: LeBron James. The numbers don't lie. LeBron James, almost universally regarded as the best player in the world, even after all these years, was the most valuable player in the NBA this season. These numbers bear out the story from our earlier discussions as well as fill in the missing pieces. Westbrook and Harden shoulder the heaviest offensive burdens, making the most valuable impacts of our candidates on the offensive end. However, that offensive burden appears to have dragged them down on the other end – they each had negative impacts defensively. Leonard made up for his lower offensive burden and impact with a positive contribution on defense, but significantly less than his sterling reputation would imply (a possible limitation of these numbers). The man left standing is LeBron James, who carried the Cavaliers on both ends, leading the league in RPM. The final column (WIN/82) is simply a conversion of RPM into wins over an 82 game season. His 22.129 wins per 82 games also led the league and validates what everyone knows: LeBron James is the best and the most valuable player in the NBA.

Injured Reserve

When the All-NBA teams were released in May, two familiar names were left off from the previous year's team: Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. These two men have a few things in common beyond exclusion from prestigious year-end honors. First, they both missed over 20 games due to injury this season. Second, they were both in the top ten in RPM – each finishing ahead of James Harden in fact. Injuries removed these men from even a mention in the MVP conversation, but they both deserve recognition for their remarkable, albeit shortened, seasons.

Without a doubt, this was Kyle Lowry's finest season. He increased his scoring load – scoring a career high 22.4 points and hoisting an astonishing 7.8 three-pointers per game - while simultaneously increasing his efficiency – posting career-bests in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and true shooting percentage. Ranked 10th in RPM and 7th in WIN/82, Lowry's injuries certainly robbed him of proper recognition. For Paul, this might not have been his finest season to date, but it was darn close. In the same vain as Lowry, Paul shot a career-high 5.0 threes per night at a career-best percentage. What made this season so special for Paul can only really be validated in the RPM numbers. Paul finished in the top ten of defensive RPM, a remarkable feat for a point guard – the next closest point guard was Patrick Beverly at number 32. Thanks to this great defensive impact, Paul actually finished second in overall RPM this year. With a full healthy season, both of these men would have deserved mention in the race discussed above.

MVR (Most Valuable Reserve)

Throughout the season we shined a spotlight on the 6th men across NBA benches, handing out a 6th Man of the Week award in recognition of unheralded performance to a total of 19 individuals. But the question remains, which one brought the most value off the bench throughout the entire season. While 6th Man of the Year has become a proxy for “bench player who scored the most points” award, here we are interested in impact on winning. To help separate the points from the value, we will turn again to the RPM data. Two candidates emerge from the pack immediately: James Johnson and Andre Iguodala. Johnson resurrected his career with a slender frame and an all-around disruptive game in Miami, but Iguodala was just a bit more valuable. As hard as it is to divvy up credit on the all-time pile on team that is the Golden State Warriors, Iguodala was undeniably a very positive contributor. A glance at Iguodala's box score statistics certainly would not impress, but his impact is undeniable, if not indescribable, when watching the Warriors actually play. Thankfully, his place atop the RMP leaderboard for bench players gives credence to the latter. Andre Iguodala will not win 6th Man of the Year and may not even finish top five, but he was deserving of the Most Valuable Reserve this season.