Over the course of the season, the James Harden-led Houston Rockets have developed into a unit that can’t only be defined as “just another team” that will put up an above-average resistance to the Golden State Warriors. The Rockets have long proven how serious of a threat they are to the Warriors’ attempt for a title repeat.
It goes without saying that the biggest reason why the Rockets have become this good is James Harden, the widely-viewed top candidate to win this year’s MVP award.
There have been countless articles saying that Harden deserves to take home a Maurice Podoloff in 2018. If he wins, he wins. If he doesn’t, then maybe next year he does. We are not here to make a case for Harden or to poke holes in his MVP resume.
We are here to note, in advance, that should Harden wins an MVP plum this year, it would mark the end of a six-year trend in the NBA – one that Jason Lloyd of the Athletic (subscription alert) mentioned in his recent piece that explains why he’s picking LeBron James as this year’s MVP.
In every year since 2012, one advanced metric has correctly predicted the NBA’s MVP. The player who finished first in Value Over Replacement Player each of the past six years, from Kevin Durant to James to Steph Curry to Russell Westbrook, has also gone on to win the MVP.
If Harden snaring the MVP trophy this year is how that streak snaps, then it feels like a good time to look back and recount those six seasons in which the MVP voting and the Value Over Replacement (VORP) stat exactly aligned with each other to determine those respective campaigns’ best players.
But first, let’s breakdown a bit what VORP is.
What is Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)
“VORP? Dude, what are you even talking about?”
Okay. We understand that VORP is not as ubiquitous in basketball as it is in the world of baseball. After all, the concept was initially developed for baseball by Keith Woolner of Baseball Prospectus several years ago. Woolner wanted to have an advanced metric that measures the contribution of a hitter or a pitcher against an imaginary replacement player who owns numbers that are below league averages.
Via ESPN’s Rob Neyer way back in 2007:
And what is the definition of “replacement player”? That’s always going to be a somewhat arbitrary decision. In this case, the short answer is that Woolner defines a “replacement” hitter as being roughly 80 percent as good as an average major league hitter at his position (the number actually varies somewhat, depending on the position).
Lloyd, meanwhile, explains VORP from a basketball perspective:
VORP, while limited to box score data and play by play, also factors in team performance. It is basically an estimate of the points, per 100 possessions, that a player contributed above replacement level.
2011-12 (LeBron James)
LeBron once had an incredible eight-year run in which he paced the NBA in VORP. During that stretch, he won the MVP honors four times, including the one he took home during the 2011-12 season. That season, James was coming off an embarrassing loss in the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks in which the Miami Heat’s Big Three of James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade were all made to eat their hubris whole by Dirk Nowitzki and company.
James ended the 2011-12 regular season with averages of 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.2 assists in 62 games played. His 7.56 VORP that season is his second lowest among the nine times he’s led the league in that department in his illustrious career. But, at least he won his first NBA title when he led the Heat to a triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals.
2012-13 (LeBron James)
Once again, James led the NBA in VORP (9.81) in 2012-13 with better numbers in assists, rebounds, and field goal percentage than the year prior. On top of those, James also won his fourth Maurice Podoloff trophy and capped the campaign with a Finals win against the San Antonio Spurs. It was a good year to be LeBron James.
2013-14 (Kevin Durant)
Enough of LeBron, for the meantime. James saw the end of his personal eight-year dynastic run as VORP king in 2014 when then Oklahoma City Thunder scoring machine Kevin Durant unseated LeBron atop that statistical leaderboard by averaging a career-high 32.0 points to go with 5.5 assists, and 7.4 rebounds in 81 games.
Durant dominated the MVP voting too, finishing with 119 first-place votes, while LeBron, the second placer, only had six.
2014-15 (Stephen Curry)
The first time Stephen Curry won an MVP, James Harden was close behind the Warriors guard in MVP voting and in VORP rating. In 2014-15, Curry averaged 23.8 points with 48.7 field goal shooting percentage while dishing out 7.7 assists per game to finish with a 7.83 VORP and 1,198 total points during the MVP voting process.
Harden? In his second season as the Rockets’ alpha male, he had 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.0 dimes per game, 7.83 VORP, and 936.0 total points in the MVP voting.
2015-16 (Stephen Curry)
This time, Curry left barely anything for critics to downplay his MVP resume. He averaged 30.1 points on a 50.4 field goal shooting percent, he shot 45.4 percent from deep, pulled down 5.4 rebounds, handed out 6.7 assists, and made 2.1 steals in 79 games. With his year-long excellence, Curry was awarded all 131.0 first-place votes, becoming the first player ever to win the MVP in unanimous fashion.
And oh, by the way, he had a 9.81 VORP, well ahead of Russell Westbrook’s 8.31 as No. 2 in that category.
2016-17 (Russell Westbrook)
Prior to the 2016-17 season, no one outside of Austin Rivers had any inkling about the barrage of nuclear statistical bombs Russell Westbrook was going to drop on an almost nightly basis. With Durant leaving OKC, Westbrook played every game as though there was a gun pointed at his head.
Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the entire season with 31.6 points. 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assist in 81 games. His VORP was at an astounding 12.42 mark at the end of the regular season. Behind him was Harden who had a 9.05 VORP.
The MVP voting was closer, however. Russ garnered 29 first-place votes, while Harden had 22.0. If it were not for his trip-dub season, Westbrook could have lost the MVP race to Harden.
2017-18 (LeBron James)
Back to LeBron James. Stop me when you’ve heard this before: LeBron is having an awesome year at age 33 in his 15th season in the league. It’s a narrative that has been replayed and shoved down our throats over and over again this season because James just didn’t stop churning out numbers that force people to remind each other that at this stage of his career, he is not supposed to be playing this well.
And for the first time since 2013, James finished the regular season leading the league in VORP with 8.93. Right behind him is Harden at 8.32.
LeBron and Harden each have cases to support their MVP candidacies this year, but the consensus for most of the season is that Harden is going to get his own MVP trophy — finally. Although it’s not a stretch to think that LeBron is more valuable to the Cavs than Harden is to the Rockets, the greatest argument for Harden is that he and the Rockets simply have been more consistent than Cleveland.
Value Over Replacement Player is not the final arbiter of who gets to win MVP. It’s just one of the many tools voters use to help them make their choice. And if Harden, despite LeBron’s league-wide VORP supremacy, goes on to win the 2017-18 MVP plum, don’t say that it’s unprecedented since the VORP leader hasn’t taken home the award many times prior to this six-year stretch.