Once a day, the Basketball Reference Twitter account sends out a message like this one:
If you click on the link, it takes you to the Basketball Reference MVP projections. Using a model based on previous voting results, the MVP Tracker projects the odds that every player has of winning the 2016 NBA MVP race, if voting were held today. Here's how it shapes up today:
Invariably, that Tweet gets replies like this:
Or, when it pulls from the bottom half of the Top 10, ones like this:
At the risk of making things awkward during Sports Reference lunch breaks, I largely agree with the replies. Stephen Curry could probably sit out the rest of the season, declare that he believes Seth Curry would beat Oscar Robertson one-on-one, and announce that his favorite Star Wars movie is The Phantom Menace and still win the NBA MVP Award.
At the same time, I think these projections do tell us a lot about which players voters have targeted in the past and why certain candidates might or might not be catching on.
So, with that said, let's go through some of the major candidates, what their case for MVP is, and what our projection system thinks of them. I'll try to apply my own, imperfect human brain to the matter and see if I can bridge the gap between man and machine.
So let's start with Stephen Curry. The model gives Steph a 76.2% chance of winning MVP. His case is simple: he's the best player, on the best team, having one of the best seasons of all-time.
Curry's eFG% of .643 is not only the best ever by a 30 PPG scorer, it's also the first time a 30 PPG scorer has even broken .600. His Player Efficiency Rating is the best ever, while his WS/48 are merely the 2nd best ever. Oh, and his team has already clinched a playoff spot, 2 months out. So, what the heck, computer?
For starters, the best player doesn't always win. MVP voters are very smart, but they aren't necessarily looking at stats like PER. Steph would hardly be the first 30 PPG scorer to lose MVP and, even if you factor in his bonkers efficiency, the 1990 MVP race featured 2 players (MJ and Malone) scoring 30+ PPG and shooting over 51% from the field and neither won.
Of course, neither of those players were on the best team in their conference that year, let alone one that would challenge for the best record in history. The MVP projection accounts for the Warriors' record, but not the historic implications of it or the fact that they have a shot at the best record of all-time.
This gets at, perhaps, the biggest difference between the projections and the perceptions: there's no way a model can adequately account for narrative. On paper, the Warriors are just 4 games up in their conference, yet that dramatically undersells their once-in-a-generation dominance.
They have the best record in NBA history through 59 games, they haven't lost to a title contender all season, and they blew out the Spurs the one time they played. Because none of that is going into the model, the Warriors' lead seems larger to us than the projection can recognize.
It also can't account for the tactical advantage that Steph's off-the-dribble shooting gives the Warriors. When someone can do this, it bends defenses past their breaking point, creating easy looks for teammates. Steph's jump shooting is the flux capacitor that powers the entire Warriors Machine.
At the same time, I don't want to undersell the model. Weird things happen, voters do get MVP wrong sometimes (just ask any Kobe or LeBron fan about the 2006 MVP race), and the model wants to account for that. 76.2% seems low to me, but it's still very, very high for a (rather conservative) projection system.
A Sound of Thunder
2nd and 3rd in the projections are Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, which is in itself another reason why Steph's chances are higher than they may appear. If there were a convincing 2nd option (say, KD putting up his numbers on a team with the Spurs record), we might be more willing to accept the idea of Curry's odds sitting at 75%.
However, KD and Russ are running so close that neither one has a huge advantage to us as observers. The projections don't account for the fact that they're teammates, but that will likely lead to vote-splitting, further solidifying Curry's lead. Seeing which one you prefer, however, presents a fascinating Rorschach Test.
Westbrook's famously reckless game is among the NBA's great aesthetic joys. However, after Durant's injury, Westbrook found a way to amp up the production without sanding down his edges. The result is that Westbrook has risen from supporting actor to lead.
He has 9 triple-doubles this year, trailing only Draymond (and he's the first player since Jason Kidd in 06-07 and 07-08 to have 2 seasons in row with at least 9). He's 2nd behind Rajon Rondo in Assists Per Game, while also scoring twice as many points as The Yoga Instructor and out-rebounding him. Barring a slowdown, Russell Westbrook will be the 1st player not named Oscar Robertson to average 24 PPG, 10 APG, and 7 RPG in a season.
Durant's game is less like a Swiss Army Machete and more like a lightsaber. He's scoring 27.9 PPG with an eFG% of .575 and a True Shooting Percentage of .635, both of which are historic achievements we'd be able to more fully appreciate if Steph weren't regularly lighting basketball courts on fire.
KD's precision and efficiency mean that some advanced stats, like Offensive Rating and WS/48, prefer him to Westbrook. Of course, Westbrook leads in PER and the Thunder's Net Rating is 13.7 points per 100 possessions better when Russ is on the floor, versus 11.2 for KD
Durant's getting blocks while Russ is getting steals; Westbrook crashes the boards on offense while KD cleans the defensive glass. The question, as it is, seems to come down to quantity vs quality. You could say that Westbrook does (ever so slightly) more, while KD does less, but does it all (ever so slightly) better.
In that case, the projection backs Westbrook because, traditionally, the voters are looking for that quantity. Only 4 players have won MVP while putting up numbers at or below KD's mark of 8.1 rebounds per game and 4.6 assists. 3 of them outscored Durant in points per game, 3 played all 82 games, and 3 played more minutes per game than KD is averaging.
Westbrook and Durant are as close to a true elite partnership, without a clear alpha dog, as we've seen. Unfortunately, that fact will probably cost both of them any kind of shot at MVP.
How Much Should Defense Matter?
Despite being ranked 4th, Kawhi Leonard may have a clearer path to 2nd in the MVP voting than either Westbrook or Durant, thanks to context. In his favor are two things that our model can't really account for.
First, Leonard is probably the NBA's best defender. However, he does it in ways that are largely absent from box scores. His 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks are impressive, but Paul Millsap actually has better box score numbers.
What Millsap doesn't do is hold opposing teams to 96.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. That's Kawhi's mark and the only one that's better this year is Tim Duncan, who's spent roughly 2/3 of the time on the floor this year that Leonard has. And that's what's quantifiable by advanced stats. Watching the games, it's clear that Leonard's hard work and shutdown-D is the linchpin of the best defense of the last 10 years.
What's important to note, however, is that ignoring defense is probably the correct approach for a projection system to take. For instance, here are three candidates from a recent MVP race:
Player 1 is LeBron James, just months removed from The Decision and the "Not 4, Not 5, Not 6" pep rally. Player 3 is 2010-11 MVP Derrick Rose. And Player 2 is Dwight Howard. Given how close the race is on the numbers, Dwight's earth-shattering defense (he had a 94 Defensive Rating that year) should have put him over the top, but voters largely ignored it, in favor of Rose's superior offensive burden.
In general, voters emphasize offensive production over defense. You can argue this is changing, or that Kawhi's once in a lifetime talent could transcend this pattern, but the projection system can't hear you.
The second factor is a more tactical one. The race between KD and Westbrook is so close that, even if a voter were likely to pick one, it's not clear which one they'd pick. It's not hard to see them splitting the vote, or even that lack of a clear choice pushing voters to Kawhi.
It's also unlikely that a voter would pick one member of the Thunder and then turn around and vote for the other in 3rd place. Since the MVP award was created in 1956, only one pair of teammates -- Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in the 1972 MVP race -- have both finished in the top 3.
Our model is trying to predict who will win, not necessarily predicting the Top 5 in order, which means it isn't interested in accounting for the fact that MVP voters tend to spread the love among multiple teams as they work their way down the ballot.
Kawhi's MVP case is even more interesting when set against someone who isn't getting very much buzz at all: LeBron James.
LeBron is currently in 6th in the MVP projections, with just a 2.2% chance of winning. Yet he looks a lot more like a traditional MVP than Kawhi. Here they are, side by side:
You can see Kawhi's only real advantage on box score numbers is his efficiency. LeBron is scoring more, rebounding more, and assisting more. He's running fairly close on steals and blocks. What about the narrative that LeBron is somewhat coasting through the regular season to save his production for the playoffs? That could be true, but he's playing more minutes per game, and more games, than Kawhi.
What we have is basically the KD-Westbrook debate with 2 new variables, one that the model picks up and one it doesn't. On the one hand, Kawhi has a massive advantage in defense, which historically hasn't factored in voting that much. On the other, there's the fact that Kawhi's team is 8 games ahead of LeBron's, something which has historically mattered a great deal to voters. As a result, the model has Kawhi ahead, matching the conventional wisdom.
But wait, there's one more multi-positional defensive wizard who needs to have a say in this discussion. The model gives Draymond Green a 2.8% shot at the trophy, which paradoxically feels both high and low to me.
It's high for the simple reason that Steph is going to beat him in MVP voting. With that out of the way, however, I'd like to argue that Draymond is more deserving of consideration than he's getting. It's Green's freakish positional versatility that fuels Golden State's Death Star lineup. Green leads the league in triple-doubles, is the first player in nearly 20 years to average 13/9/7, and has played more minutes this year than Curry.
The model doesn't consider the fact that Green and Curry are teammates (other than the fact that it won't include more than 2 players from any team), but it's helpful to look at the Bulls. In years where both Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were eligible, and both received votes, Scottie finished 9th, 5th, 11th, and 10th in the MVP race. The only year he cracked the Top 8 was 1995-96, a year when the Bulls finished with a record you might be familiar with.
Like Pippen, Green's contributions are largely off the box score and secondary to the transcendent scorer he plays with. Kawhi gives us a look at what it would look like if a Pippen/Draymond type player was the best player on a transcendent team. While the model is probably underrating his ranking relative to the competition, it is also correctly assessing that his defensive contributions aren't typically valued highly enough by voters to make him a real threat to Steph's coronation.
Some years you get a close MVP race, and some years Stephen Curry does things no one has ever seen on a basketball court before. But there's value in projecting out an MVP field that's 10 candidates deep, just like there's value in voting for a Top 5 for MVP, instead of just a winner.
Durant, Westbrook, and Leonard are all having historic seasons in their way. LeBron is adding another amazing year to an astonishing career. Draymond is the glue that holds the Warriors beautiful art project in place. And that's not to mention what guys like Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul are doing.