It’s time to reevaluate what’s “valuable.”
You read the title, and I know what you’re thinking: Has this guy watched James Harden play this year?
Yet as “The Beard” continues to dazzle for the Rockets, his fellow All-Star in a neighboring state is carrying an overachieving team with monstrous numbers.
Here’s why Anthony Davis, your friendly neighborhood “Brow,” should be the frontrunner to win Most Valuable Player. Let’s start with Davis’ numbers.
He’s averaged 28.4 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.2 BPG, and 1.4 SPG this season, shooting 53.5% from the field, almost nine points higher than Harden (44.7). And, since DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles’ in late January and was lost for the season, Davis has responded by carrying the Pelicans to the fourth seed in the loaded Western Conference. His numbers in the month of February were staggering, as he increased his scoring output to 35 points and his rebounds to 11, while nearly doubling his steals (2.5).
The month’s highlight came against the Suns, when he put up 53 points, 18 rebounds, and five blocks in one of the five games in February in which he scored 40 or more points. With Cousins gone, Davis has led one of the NBA’s biggest surprises into contention for a first round home-court advantage in the playoffs. His response to the Cousins injury is, or at least it should be, an example of the NBA’s true definition of “value.”
With the Cousins injury, the talent gap between the Rockets and Pelicans increased even further. Keep in mind that 17 teams have better Vegas odds to win the NBA Title than the Pelicans, and they aren’t even favored to finish second in their own division.
Houston has seven different players averaging double figures in scoring, while New Orleans has only four. And two of New Orleans’ four, Nikola Mirotic and E’Twaun Moore, are averaging fewer than 15 PPG. This lack of scoring ability means Davis has much more of an offensive burden than Harden. And, as Davis goes, so go the Pelicans.
The Pelicans have lost 14 games this season in which Davis has scored fewer than 25 points; Harden’s Rockets have lost only four under those same conditions. As a consequence for the Pelicans having less offensive talent, Davis draws more defensive attention on a nightly basis, yet he’s managed to deliver the goods consistently.
In addition, Davis’ team has benefited more on the scoreboard this season with him in the lineup than has Harden’s. When considering the 20 most common lineups played by both teams, the Rockets are a combined +24.4 against their opponents when playing lineups that exclude James Harden. The Pelicans have been much more vulnerable without Davis; they are a combined -12.8 when Davis is on the bench.
I still know what’s going through your head: “But they’re both great offensive players, what’s the big deal?” However, it’s the defensive end that truly separates the two.
Davis has a better defensive rating at 104, compared to Harden’s 106. As a versatile, 6’10” big, he’s an elite rim protector; his 2.2 blocks per game dwarf Harden’s, who averages fewer than one per game. With Harden being a perimeter player, one would think that he would have a huge advantage in steals, but his 1.9 steals only barely eclipse Davis’ 1.5.
However, the stats don’t tell the whole story. Observation of Anthony Davis night after night will make you privy to his eye-popping athleticism. His unique skill set allows him to not only excel at defending the basket, but also step out onto the perimeter and defend guards. Davis is the kind of gifted defender that can carry a team on that less-glamorous, but crucial end of the floor. Here’s an example from a random December night against the 76ers:This brings up an interesting point in regards to awards voting: Why don’t we ever consider defense when discussing the MVP? Not just give it lip service, but to actually factor it into our abstract calculations of “value.”
If two players are both excellent offensively, the next logical step is to check the defense. Even if you think Harden is a tad bit better offensively, he’s clearly not better enough at offense to make up for the significant gap in defensive ability between the two. That should automatically make Davis more valuable. Defense is half the game, but we don’t treat it as such. We search for ways to justify our infatuations with what’s trending, and become enamored with endless offensive highlights, subconsciously elevating the value of scoring.
What happening with this year’s MVP race happens all the time. Instead of treating the two ends of the court as equals, we make it more complicated. How many times have we listened to pundits say things like, “The best player for the best team should win the MVP.” It’s nonsense. Yes, the Rockets have arguably the league’s best team right now and are playing the best basketball, but being on a better team shouldn’t win Harden the award either.
The NBA Most Valuable Player award should go to the player who actually has the most value, the most “bang for your buck.” The player who makes the greatest contribution to their team’s success.
Davis’ all-around game and his stellar play since the team’s second best player went down with injury is MVP-worthy. He’s the only player in the league that is top-two in points per game, player efficiency rating, and blocks per game. He’s top-three in win shares and eighth in rebounds per game. He’s No. 14 in the NBA in field goal percentage, while having a top-20 defensive rating, and he’s been a workhorse, playing the fourth-most minutes per game in the league. Think of it this way: the jobs that Harden (31.2 PPG) and Capela (2.3 BPG) do for the Rockets as a duo, Anthony Davis does by himself for the Pelicans.
We need to stop overvaluing one side of the court over the other, and start attaching more “value” to players like Davis, who have an amazing impact on both sides of the ball.
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