Monday, November 28, 2016

A Tale of the Highest Value

By Jonathan Lowe

Sit back and let me tell you a story. It's a tale of hard work turning into burgeoning talent and opportunity. It's a tale of rising the ladder of success. It's a tale of searching for the recognition that immortalizes you in the arena of your career. Let's go back in time.

In 2012, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were the second and third cogs that helped Oklahoma City reach the NBA Finals. Both played hugs roles in getting the Thunder to that point. However, neither was the main man on the roster (Kevin Durant had that distinction).

That summer, Harden was traded to Houston in what was seen as an effort to keep Westbrook and Durant down the road. In a way, that seemed to be a boon for Harden, freeing him up to be the main man on his own team. Since that time, the shooting guard has been doing his best to show that he can be one of the best players in the NBA.

Meanwhile, about 450 miles to the north, Durant and Westbrook continued to to impress for the reconstructed Thunder. They continued to be a threat to contend, but it wasn't quite the same as that 2012 run. In May of 2014, the former UCLA stud (Westbrook) got to watch as the former Texas star (Durant) was named league MVP.

In the Fall of that same year, the narrative changed again. Durant missed two-thirds of the 2014-2015 campaign due to foot injuries. The Thunder had to lean of Westbrook for the majority of their success. Although the squad didn't qualify for the postseason, that experience gave the point guard the realization that he could be the star of a more than capable NBA team.

Fast forward to this Summer, when Durant decided to leave OKC for the Bay Area. This left Westbrook with something that he appears to have been craving...a shot to lead a team into contention for a title. Harden has been dealing with this for the past few years, even with the large presence of Dwight Howard on the Rockets' roster.

Westbrook and Harden know the feeling of league-wide recognition. Both have finished had at least three top-10 finishes in MVP voting (Harden, of course, was the runner up two seasons ago). Now, the two former teammates have their first real shot to go manu a manu for the opportunity to be called Most Valuable Player. Through the first quarter of the season, both appear to be on track to challenge former winners (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Durant) for this season's award.

During this early part of the 2016-2017, both players have excelled in the traditional, more tangibly statistical, categories. Entering Sunday's play, Westbrook was second in the NBA in scoring (31.2 ppg), second in assists (11.1 apg), and 13th in rebounds (9.9 rpg). For his part, Harden was 4th in scoring (28.3 ppg), a top-35 rebounder (7.8 rpg), and the league leader in assists (12.4 apg). However, there's a more "new-age" statistic that these players want stay near the top of to keep their MVP cases strong.

The P.I.E., or Player Impact Estimate, is pretty self-explanatory. It gives an estimation of how much a player's contributions impact the outcome of the team's games. Since the 2000-2001 season (and possibly before that), this advanced metric has been quite telling when it comes to which player ends up being that year's MVP. Here's the proof:

Chart

Although it's not an exact science, there is one thing that these players have in common. Mainly they all basically stayed healthy. Every MVP registered minutes in at least 85% of that season's contests. (For stats to count in league leader races, players have to play in 58 games.) Among qualified players so far, Westbrook and Harden are of to a good start in this category. Russell led the league going into Sunday (21.9). James resided 4th on that list (19.8). As the season rolls along, keep an eye on this. It could be the deciding factor in choosing this year's winner and one of these players achieving their happy ending.

Of course, the expectations that Anthony Davis will fulfill predestined greatness could start with this year's MVP trophy. However, that's a tale for another day.

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