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April 10, 2015

​​By Anthony J. Fredella

NEW YORK, New York - Sports debates. I love them. They're great, right? The best team ever. The best shooter ever. The best backcourt in the league. The best big man. They can go on forever – and they usually do. That’s why I love them. Right now, the hottest debate is this season’s NBA MVP. Is it the Houston Rockets’ James Harden? The Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry? Or perhaps the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook? It’s a great argument because strong cases can be made for each of these guys. Curry is the best player on the best team. Harden is leading the league in scoring (27.6 ppg) and his team is 53-25. Westbrook has recorded 11 triple-doubles so far this season and has single handedly been carrying the Thunder to the fringe of the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference. So who's the MVP? Well, it depends on what criteria you want to use in choosing the winner of this prestigious award. If you want team success, maybe Curry should get your vote because the Warriors are 64-15 right now, which is tops in the NBA. If you want mind-blowing stats, well than Westbrook might be your man since he’s averaging 27.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 8.6 apg and 2.1 spg. And if you're looking for a combination of the two, then you are probably a Harden supporter since his stat line is 27.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.9 apg and 1.9 spg, while his Rockets are 53-25, presently good enough for 3rd in the Western Conference.

Too often, however, people equate MVP awards with whomever the best player was in a given season - whomever had the best statistical year. And that would be fine if MVP did not stand for the "Most Valuable Player" award. You see, the award was not designed to go to the best player each season, it was designed to go the player who meant the most to his team in terms of its own success. Do you understand the distinction here? Best Player vs. Most Valuable Player. They are too completely different things. It is not all about which player had the best statistics for the season. That would be a very easy award to give out. Just give me the box scores. But it is not about that, and that is what drives these debates. It is certainly driving the current debate. Good thing I am here to clear matters up.

First off, let me illustrate the distinction between the best statistical player, and the most valuable player. For that, we go back to the 1961-1962 NBA season. No doubt, the greatest statistical season in the history of the league. That year, the Cincinnati Royals' Oscar Robertson, in just his 2nd year in the NBA, averaged 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg. Yes, you read that correctly - the Big O averaged a triple double for an entire season. Also that same year, the Los Angeles Lakers' star center, Wilt Chamberlain, averaged 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg. Huh? Yes, Wilt the Stilt went for 50 & 25 on a nightly basis that year (he even dropped 100 on the Knicks). Equally impressive, the Royals finished 2nd in the Western Division with a 43-37 record, topped only by the Lakers, who won the West with a 54-26 record. That's a tough call for the MVP award, right? It sure was, because neither player won the award. Instead, the MVP was given to the Boston Celtics' center Bill Russell, who averaged 18.9 ppg, 23.6 rpg and 4.5 apg. Now those numbers certainly pale in comparison to those of Robertson and Chamberlain, but it was determined that year that Russell, whose Celtics set the record for wins in a season by going 60-20, was the most valuable player due to a number of factors, which included his scoring and rebounding ability, his defensive prowess, his shot blocking skills and the way in which he altered the shots of opponents, and how all of that contributed to his team's ultimate success. True value. ​

So how does all of that correlate to the present season? Well, no one is going for 50 & 25 and we will probably never again see a player average a triple double for an entire season. But the lessons we learned back in 1961-1962 are still applicable today. In determining, voting for, and arguing over this season's Most Valuable Player award, we need to look at true value, not just statistics. Simple overall stats, as illustrated above, can be misleading. You need to really analyze the statistics within the statistics. The MVP award should be given to the most valuable player in the league. After all, that’s what the trophy stands for does it not?

So for this season, while team success is definitely a critical factor, and while I am a big numbers guy, I really do not care about Curry lighting up the Knicks. Or Westbrook dropping 49 on the 76ers. Or Harden going for 38, 12 & 12 vs. the Pistons. Instead, tell me about what these guys have done against the best teams in the league. I want to know how well Harden, Curry and Westbrook have performed against the top 10 teams in the NBA. I want to see their team's records vs. the upper echelon teams. I want to see their stat lines against the best of the best. And I want to see if they can perform at that same level on the road vs. playoffs teams. Tell me those things, and then I'll tell you who the most valuable player is this season. ​

Well, lucky for you, we've already comprised that data and analyzed the statistics that really matter. Now we'll break it all down, step by step, in agonizing detail.

First, let's take a look at the overall records. The Houston Rockets are currently 53-25, sitting in the 3rd spot for the upcoming Western Conference playoffs next week. They're 28-10 at home vs. 25-15 on the road. They're also 31-18 vs. the Western Conference and 22-7 vs. the East. The Oklahoma City Thunder are 42-36, presently tied for the 8th and final spot in the West (although they lose the tiebreaker with the New Orleans Pelicans). They are 27-12 at home vs. 15-24 on the road. They're also 22-27 vs. the West and 20-9 against the East. Lastly, the Golden State Warriors are 64-15, equalling the best record in basketball. They are an unbelievable 36-2 at home and 28-13 on the road. They are also a league beast 39-10 vs. the mighty Western Conference and 25-5 vs. the East. ​

Against the top 10 teams in the NBA, however, the Rockets are a below average 13-16 in games in which Harden has played. This means that Harden and the Rockets have earned 40 of their 53 victories to date against the bottom 19 teams in the league, and only 24.5% of their wins vs. the top 10. Even more disappointing, Harden and the Rockets are only 4-8 on the road vs. those same top 10 teams. For Russell Westbrook, the numbers are even more pathetic. Granted, the Thunder are without last season's MVP Kevin Durant, thus making the Thunder a borderline playoff team. But still, when you're talking Most Valuable Player in the National Basketball Association, your team cannot have numbers like the ones we're about to reveal: the Thunder, in games in which Westbrook has played, are a measly 8-18 vs. the top 10 teams in the NBA. Even worse, Westbrook and the Thunder are 1-14 on the road in those matchups.

Now for Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, the numbers look a little - just a little - different. In fact, the numbers are quite impressive. Curry and the Warriors are 21-7 vs. the NBA's top 10 teams. That's a winning percentage of .750 against the league's best competition. And on the road, well, Curry and Co. are a staggering 10-5 vs. the top 10. Don't let me lose you yet. We're just getting started.

Let's move on now to individual statistics. To date, the stat lines of the 3 MVP candidates are as follows:

James Harden: 27.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, & 6.9 apg

Russell Westbrook: 27.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, & 8.6 apg

Steph Curry: 23.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, & 7.8 apg ​

Now while those are phenomenal numbers by any stretch of the imagination, to determine true value, we have to dig a little deeper. Let's start with Harden, again. While he's dropping a league leading 27.6 ppg on the year, that average dips to 24.7 ppg against the league's top 10, while his rebounds and assists stay just about the same. Now I know what you are thinking - it's tougher to score against better competition. But hold it right there. We're are talking about value here, not just stats. If James Harden's stats dipped a little, but he was still leading his team to victories, that would be one thing. But the Rockets are below .500 vs. top 10 teams on the season and Harden's numbers dip. It's hard to make a case for a valuable player when both the team's success and the player's performance fall during the games that mean the most. Want some more numbers crammed down your throat? Harden's stat line falls to 24.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg & 5.8 apg on the road vs. the top 10. No wonder the Rockets are only 4-8.

On to Russell Westbrook. Impressively, Westbrook's numbers stay just about the same vs. the top 10 as they do against the rest of the league: 27.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg & 8.3 apg. With that being the case, I just can't get past the fact that the Thunder are a lowly 8-18 vs. top 10 opponents, with only 1 road win against 14 losses. While it is quite notable that Westbrook has recorded 5 of his 11 triple doubles vs. top 10 talent, only 2 of those performances resulted in victories for the Thunder. And in the January 16th victory over Golden State, wherein Westbrook went for 17, 15 & 16, he had a little help from Durant (36 pts, 9 rebs) and Serge Ibaka (27 pts, 8 rebs). So while Russell Westbrook is certainly filling stat sheets this season, his efforts are not resulting in wins for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is, without a doubt, an incredibly valuable piece to the Thunder franchise, especially in the wake of Durant's season ending injury. But he can't be considered the most valuable player in the league if he's not winning basketball games. Staying with me? Good, on to Steph Curry.

We've already given you the Warriors win/loss totals and Curry's overall statistics. But here is where things get even better: when Stephen Curry faces the top 10 teams in the league, not only do the Warriors win 3 out of every 4 of those games, but Curry's scoring actually increases to 24.8 ppg, while his rebounds and assists stay exactly the same. On the road, his scoring and rebounds are still better than his season averages: 24.1 ppg and 4.7 rpg, while his assists drop to 6.9 apg. But the most important factor through it all is that Curry rises to the occasion during big games, increasing his production and winning games. Remember, the Warriors, led by Curry, are 21-7 vs. the top 10, including a 10-5 road record. ​

So you want to talk about value? You want to talk about what a player means to a team? Look no further than Stephen Curry. Not only is he filling up box scores, but his numbers are equating to more important numbers, and those are wins for the Golden State Warriors. And when the money is on the line, when the best competition is before him, Curry rises to the occasion like no other. That's why he's this season's MVP, because he's the most valuable. Period. ​Debate over.