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How Rockets, Thunder, Cavaliers, Spurs play with and without their MVP candidates

The NBA MVP race between James Harden and Russell Westbrook could ultimately come down to where each team finishes up, according to Steve Nash.

The Rockets play like a 58-win team with James Harden on the court, and the Thunder play like a 52-win team with Russell Westbrook on the court.

A clear advantage for Harden in the MVP race?

Not quite.

Houston still plays like a 51-win team when Harden sits, and Oklahoma City drops to an 18-win pace without Westbrook. How much should each factor – the level a team reaches with a player, how far it falls without him – matter?

And what about about LeBron James? The Cavaliers play like a 61-win team with him and a 19-win team without him. Don’t forget about Kawhi Leonard, either. The Spurs reach a 63-win pace – better than the other three main MVP candidates’ teams hit with them on the court – when Leonard plays.

In the NBA’s most fascinating MVP race in years, the on-off win pace for the four major candidates adds perspective. To calculate win pace, I used Pythagorean win percentage multiplied by 82, the number of games in a standard NBA schedule.

Here’s the Rockets’, Thunder’s, Cavaliers’ and Spurs’ win paces with their MVP candidate off (below the bar) and on (above the bar) and the difference (in the bar):


These are rounded to the nearest win. Hence, Leonard’s seemingly off, but not actually off, marks.

This is meant to be only one piece of a complex picture. Other things to consider:

  • The Rockets have multiple quality guards – Eric Gordon, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams – who usually play when Harden sits.
  • The Thunder’s backup point guard, whether it be Semaj Christon or Cameron Payne, has mostly stunk.
  • LeBron often plays with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and those All-Stars play less without him.
  • Spurs’ opponents have shot much lower percentages on 3-pointers and free throws – two areas where defense holds major control on volume, little control on efficiency – when Leonard sits.

Should backups matter? Should rotations matter? Should luck matter?

These are not easy questions, but MVP voters must reconcile them.

I see win pace as a useful reference point when comparing these players with elite individual production. Then, it’s about placing the win paces into the appropriate contexts – and going back to individual production, then back to on/off-court impact, then adding adding more context, then…

There’s no easy answer here.

There’s also no easy choice for fifth on the MVP ballot, but I made a similar chart for the main candidates:

  • Stephen Curry (Warriors)
  • John Wall (Wizards)
  • Isaiah Thomas (Celtics)
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
  • Jimmy Butler (Bulls)
  • Anthony Davis (Pelicans)
  • Rudy Gobert (Jazz)