On NBA Tuesday this week, we take on perhaps the strangest season in league history, one interrupted by a pandemic and one with a weird playoff-qualification system put in place to adjust to the impact of the pandemic. Therefore, theoretically, we could have 20-plus teams be in “contention” rather than the usual 16 teams. How will this affect our candidates for the MVP?
Read on to find out what happened just last year (ha ha) …
2020 NBA MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo (original), Damian Lillard (revised)
Four players stood out sabermetrically this year: Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13.12 WS, 29.08 PER), Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (11.14 WS, 31.86 PER), Los Angeles Lakers power forward Anthony Davis (11.11 WS, 27.44 PER), and Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (11.58 WS, 26.92 PER).
Davis got our MVP nod in 2018, while Harden got it from us last year. The Greek Freek won the vote in both 2019 and 2020. Now that we’re caught up there, let’s begin this analysis: Harden was the value leader, as the other three bunched up behind him in the weird season. Antetokounmpo was the best player, overall, in terms of individual performance. So, we have to go to the standings.
Remember, only a handful of teams did not restart after the pandemic break, so those were the teams the NBA deemed “out of contention” anyway. That was basically two teams in the Western Conference and six teams in the Eastern Conference. As a result, the Bucks basically had a 32-game cushion in the East, for example, which is problematic for Antetokounmpo to keep his hardware. Yes, he may have been the best player in the league, but value is missing.
The Lakers had an 18-game edge in West, in contrast. That still renders Davis somewhat low on the value chart, however. The Rockets had a 10-game cushion out West, while the Trail Blazers were the last team in the Western Conference to make the postseason with just 35 victories. This means the MVP comes down to Harden or Lillard. Surprise!
Harden rates out as both more individually valuable and individually superior to Lillard with the sabermetrics: We cannot ignore that. We also cannot ignore that both players were the difference between playing in the postseason and staying at home for a longer offseason. Maybe Houston makes the playoffs, though, with someone else playing Harden’s minutes. But we definitely know that Portland does not make it with anyone replacing Lillard.
And that has to be the difference in this analysis: We’ve seen this before, where the “better” players don’t win an MVP Award, because of the weighted value a specific player has to his specific team. And in this case, Lillard is that player who was the difference between the postseason and the offseason.
His traditionals: 30.0 ppg, 8.0 apg, 4.3 rpg, and 1.1 spg with a 56.3 eFG percentage. Lillard also topped the league by playing 37.5 minutes per game, and his 10.9 offensive WS mark was also the best in the league. It’s the old joke: What do you have to do to win? Get buckets. And Lillard’s ability to do that carried Portland to the playoffs.
2020 NBA ROTY: Ja Morant (original), Brandon Clarke (revised)
We have three contenders for this award: Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant (3.8 WS), who won the award vote; his teammate, power forward Brandon Clarke (5.0 WS); and Toronto Raptors shooting guard Terence Davis (3.1 WS). Memphis was just edged out by Lillard and Portland for the final playoff spot in the West, while the Raptors posted the second-best record in the East. So this comes down to the two teammates, strangely.
Morant won the vote because of his traditional numbers, and he did play almost 9 minutes more per game than Clarke did while playing in 9 more games overall, as well. That’s a lot of usage … so why the lower WS mark? A lot of this comes down to PER: Clarke led there 20.9 to 17.4, which is significant. Morant gets the highlights, but he also produced a lot more lowlights: a 50.9 eFG percentage and 3.3 turnovers per game hurt his line.
Meanwhile, Clarke posted a 64.2 eFG percentage (!) to be a lot more efficient on offense. This comes down to that volume argument again that we love so much. No, Clarke isn’t the guy “carrying” the Grizz to the playoff fringe, but he’s obviously more of a reason for Memphis’ overall success than Morant is, even if the mainstream media doesn’t understand that—nor does the average fan.
Does this come down to bad coaching? Morant was the second overall pick, while Clarke was just picked at No. 21 overall. Clearly, the coach should have been playing his lesser-touted rookie more often, and then maybe the Grizzlies would have made the postseason instead of Portland. We have done this before: stripped the flashier player of his hardware to reward the grittier, more-valuable rookie. We will do it again here, in Clarke’s favor.