Stephen Curry of the 23-0 Golden State Warriors has been far and away the best and most valuable player in the NBA this season. The eye test has told us this and a plethora of advanced stats confirms the assertion.
Behind him, though, sits a group of seven superstars vying for the No. 2 spot: Kevin Durant, Paul George, Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook. All of them have a strong argument for the first runner-up position, but the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George is the guy who deserves it the most.
Why? He’s carried an otherwise mediocre Indiana Pacers squad to a 12-8 record and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. According to Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, an adjusted point differential number that takes into account schedule difficulty, Indiana is No. 1 in the East.
George has also built a heck of a statistical case with his all-around game, scoring (27.9 points per game), rebounding (8.2), passing (4.3 assists) and defending at a high level.
PG-13 and the other six fighting for that second spot are all some of the very best players in the world and have had phenomenal seasons, but George’s rivals all have cracks in their candidacies that leave the Pacers superstar in pole position for the No. 2 spot.
Before continuing on to why PG-13 should be No. 2, let’s look at a statistical profile of each of the seven candidates for the spot. The non-advanced stats are all per 100 possessions:
Durant and Westbrook Have Each Other
KD and Westbrook might have the most impressive statistics, but they have one key factor working against them that isn’t even their fault: one team having two alpha-dog, MVP-caliber players does take away from the impact aspect of the award.
When KD won the award in 2013-14, Westbrook was out for 36 games with injury and Durant went bananas in those contests to lead the Thunder to 59 wins. We may need a similar thing to happen this season for one of them to finish second behind Curry.
Westbrook got a chance to prove that last season, but wasn’t able to lead Oklahoma City to the playoffs. And this season, Durant has already missed six tilts, but Oklahoma City was 3-3 in those games. All three wins were at home and the combined record of the victims is 19-46. In all, Westbrook’s overall net rating falls from plus-17.9 to plus-5.9 when Durant sits. His ghastly turnover numbers are also a concern.
Durant, on the other hand, is just benefiting so much from the penetration and creation abilities of Westbrook that calling his season the most valuable one in the entire league (non-Steph division) may be a bit of a stretch.
In addition to the “two superstars on one team” stigma, defensive issues may work against these two. Durant isn’t bad, but is sometimes lazy on that end, and Westbrook both gambles and falls asleep off the ball frequently. Media members and fans alike are becoming more aware of that end of the floor, so the fact that neither is an excellent two-way player does work against their chances.
These are two amazing players who light up the scoreboard and dazzle fans with highlights galore, but their candidacies take a hit because of each other.
Griffin and James’s Teams Have Struggled
MVPs rarely play on teams that disappoint, and both the 12-9 Los Angeles Clippers and the 14-7 Cleveland Cavaliers (to a lesser extent) have done so this season. In the past month, there hasn’t been a single game for either squad against a respectable opponent where you’ve thought, “man, the Clippers/Cavs have really played well tonight.”
While James is working short-handed with his starting backcourt injured, it’s a slightly better group than what he had in June’s Finals when the Cavs gave the Warriors all they could handle. Plus, Kevin Love is back, and he’s been a No. 1 option and 26 point-13 rebound guy in the past. LeBron’s defense has been very good this season, but his statistics, like last season, haven’t been as awe-inspiring as we’re used to from him.
Griffin has firmly seized grip on the alpha dog role in Los Angeles and is a do-everything offensive monster. However, in addition to the talented Clippers’ poor start, Griffin isn’t a very good defender. Of the seven players in the discussion for this No. 2 spot, he may be the easiest to weed out here.
Lowry Doesn’t Have One Thing That Stands Out
The remarkable body transformation Lowry made over the summer has made him one of the elite point guards in the game. He’s still super strong, but now he’s quick enough to make more of an impact on defense and get the shots he wants on offense.
So what’s the problem? The 29-year-old point guard has the second-best Real Plus-Minus, but other than that there’s not really one area of the game that he’s super elite in. He’s a great scorer, but he pales in comparison to guys like Durant, Westbrook and George. He’s a solid passer, but his assist-to-turnover ratio is nothing special. On defense, he’s good, but at the Leonard or George level? Nah.
The Toronto Raptors are a better-than-expected 13-9 and Lowry is at the center of it all. At this point, though, his overall skill set just isn’t quite at the caliber of the second-most valuable player in the NBA.
Leonard is the Biggest Challenger
Kawhi just keeps getting better and better, and he’s a pleasure to watch on both ends of the floor. He eats ball-handlers for breakfast on defense while his offense is efficient, albeit slightly lacking in volume compared to the aforementioned players.
He’s been the clear-cut best player on an 18-4 San Antonio Spurs team that would get more attention for their historically great defense if it weren’t for the Warriors. The Klaw and Tim Duncan are the anchors of the unit, contesting nearly every shot and making opponents beat them from inside the arc.
The one weakness in Leonard’s candidacy is the strength of his supporting cast. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are past their prime, but they’re future Hall of Famers and still well-above-average contributors in the league. LaMarcus Aldridge is performing below expectations offensively, but he’s an All-Star talent who’s been the No. 1 guy on a contender before. If Leonard mysteriously disappeared for the rest of the season, the Spurs would still reach 50 wins and have a decent chance at making it out of the first round of the playoffs.
Kawhi isn’t a system player, but there’s no denying Gregg Popovich’s offense gets him good looks he wouldn’t be afforded on most teams.
George Has the Strongest Candidacy
Gaudy statistics? Check. Great start as a team? Yep. Two-way player? Arguably the best. Importance to the team? Massive.
PG-13 is indispensable to the best team in the East (according to SRS, at least) because of the offense he creates and the stingy defense he plays. Sure, he didn’t cover Klay Thompson (39 points) very well when he guarded him Tuesday night, but he’s still allowing his marks to shoot just 37.3 percent from the field, 6.3 percent below their averages.
Aside from George, who really scares you on that Pacers team? C.J. Miles has been Indiana’s second-best player this season, which should tell you something. Miles is a dangerous spot-up shooter and above-average defender who can cover 4s on occasion, but is he a Durant/Westbrook? A Love? A Chris Paul? An Aldridge, Duncan or Parker? Even a DeMar DeRozan?
George Hill is also a solid player, but just that. Monta Ellis’s negative offensive win shares suggest he’s hurt the Pacers offense so far, and Indiana’s biggest threat to score in the post is Jordan Hill (9.3 points per game on a poor 49.3 true shooting percentage).
All of the Pacers’ opponents know who Indiana wants taking the shots and initiating offense, yet George is still cooking. Since the first four games of the season, when PG-13 was still establishing a rhythm after using the summer to complete his recovery from a broken leg, he’s averaged a cool 30.7/8.2/4.1 on a 61.8 true shooting percentage. The Pacers are 11-5 in that span.
I obviously don’t know exactly where the Pacers would be without George. But it says here they’d be much worse, having to rely on Hill and Ellis as their primary ball-handlers and trying to pass off Miles or Solomon Hill as their shutdown defensive wing.
For now, PG-13 should be No. 2 in the MVP race.