NBA MVP Analysis: 2015-2016

Edit Note: Sorry for the long delay in posts; work and personal life got better of the previous two months. But let’s do an in-depth NBA MVP analysis to make up for it. 


With the NBA season wrapping up with a surprising Cleveland Cavaliers seven game victory over the Golden State Warriors, questions resurfaced about the most valuable player in the NBA. This year, it was the first ever unanimous vote for Steph Curry. But do some simple analytics back that up? If we look at raw numbers such as points, steals, and so on, it’s very hard to deny Curry his status as an MVP. However, such simple totals don’t paint the whole picture. For instance, Steph Curry led the league in steals for the second year in a row with 169 steals; a rate of slightly over 2 per game (2.14 to be exact), so the natural extension is that Curry is labeled as one of the best on-ball defenders. Which, if you watched majority of the Golden State Warriors games, the Western Conference Finals against Oklahoma City, and the NBA Finals against the Cavaliers, you would find out that Curry’s on-ball defense is one of the worst on the Golden State team.

In fact, in the Oklahoma City series, Russell Westbrook scored on over half of his possessions with Curry on ball. Klay Thompson? less than thirty percent of possessions. Now, you will find this statistic is different than ESPN’s statistics as they do not include free throws due to fouls and do not include switches on screens. Which is a disappointment, as the Oklahoma City (and later the Cavaliers’) game plan was to screen Iguodala, Thompson, and Livingston off their scorer and onto Curry. But Curry led the league in steals…

Curry has established himself as one of the best off-ball defenders and gamblers. Over 100 steals (123 of 169) were obtained by shooting passing lanes. That is, if we take location data into account, the steals that were obtained by over six feet from the player who committed the turnover, we find that Curry decimates the league by and large. For steals within six feet, Curry is sub-par. So combining the fact that Curry gives up points roughly half the time he is on-ball defender on a shooter and steals less than average starting point guards in the league, we would find that Curry is a rather mediocre on ball defender.

So why go into this diatribe on Curry’s on-ball defense? It’s because it cannot be used to say Curry is a premier defender. Curry is still an elite team defender when off-ball defense is included. And he is the top offensive player in the league.

So let’s use a metric that identifies the impact of a player on the court. To do this, let’s consider the role of every player on the team. For instance, does a rebounder fare better than a shot-blocker? Does a three point shooter who is a sieve on defense better than a player who gets five assists a game and fouls out? More specifically, does LeBron James contribute more to his team overall than Stephen Curry?

Here, we break down every possession in the 2015-16 NBA season. For this season, a total of 476 NBA players logged a minimum of one of the 758,759 total NBA possessions. The maximum total number of possessions a player could have played this season was 13,119 (Milwaukee Bucks). The maximum attained was by James Harden (Houston Rockets) with 9,863 possessions.

For each possession, we measure the offensive and defensive contribution of every player on the court. To do this, we use the offense as a positive interaction. This means that if a player gets an offensive rebound, they get a point. If they make a basket, they get a point. If they get an assist, they get a point. If the basket is scored, the points are also added. If the inverse happens: missed shot, defensive rebound, turnover, etc… then a negative point is scored.

For example, if James Harden drives the lane and tosses an oop to Dwight Howard, who misses the dunk, but Harden grabs the rebound and lays it in; the possession is scored as a miss (-1), offensive rebound (+1), made basket (+1), and (+2) points scored for a total possession of 3 points. Now if Harden drives the lane and oops to Howard who is blocked and the ball is rebounded by the defense, the possession is score as a block (-1), a missed field goal (-1), and a defensive rebound (-1) for -3 points. Since the offense is positive, the first possession is 3 points for the offense and -3 points for the defense. In the second situation, the score is -3 points for the offense and 3 points for the defense.

Now, using this scoring system, we calculate the projection of possession scores onto the players on the court. This will result in a heavily correlated scoring system. By adjusting for correlations between players by whitening the data, we obtain a per possession score.

That’s a lot done so far. But basically, this projection just states how many possession points, we expect a player to get on offense and stop on defense. If a player expects a basket and a stop every possession, we expect a score of approximately 10. If they score a basket every two possessions more than than their opponent, we expect a score about 5 points.

Now, if a player averages say 5 points a possession, then we have to identify whether they are a garbage time champion or a key contributor. To distinguish this, we scale the points per possession by the percentage of possessions played. This is a slightly double-edged sword as key players who spend significant time on the disabled list might look worse than their actual value. But then again… we are looking for the MVP for a season. And they are not contributing in games they do not play in.

So with that set-up in mind, let’s take a look at the top 25 players in the NBA:

Rank Player Score Poss. Played Total Poss.   Weighted Score
1 Klay Thompson 5.899544 8496 11626 4.311245
2 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 4.644312 7683 11506 3.101187
3 Paul George 4.158461 9142 12396 3.066848
4 Draymond Green 3.661577 9055 11626 2.851847
5 Chris Paul 3.989267 7638 11536 2.641298
6 DeAndre Jordan 3.716990 8083 11536 2.604407
7 John Wall 3.219782 9339 11630 2.585515
8 Stephen Curry 3.368526 8762 11626 2.538709
9 Courtney Lee 4.287050 7085 12323 2.464802
10 Kyle Korver 4.354199 7104 12643 2.446589
11 Avery Bradley 3.507990 8036 12077 2.334206
12 Ricky Rubio 3.871138 6891 11766 2.267211
13 LeBron James 3.549414 7436 11911 2.215888
14 Otto Porter 3.368622 7519 11630 2.177873
15 Goran Dragic 3.541182 7134 11765 2.147283
16 Al Horford 3.613939 7512 12643 2.147268
17 Khris Middleton 3.376670 8244 13119 2.121905
18 Russell Westbrook 3.039431 8463 12286 2.093660
19 Kawhi Leonard 3.367370 7141 11874 2.025130
20 JJ Redick 3.500626 6627 11536 2.010979
21 Monta Ellis 2.809809 8841 12396 2.003995
22 Isaiah Thomas 2.787105 8543 12077 1.971536
23 Will Barton 3.254294 7026 11624 1.967022
24 Kyle Lowry 2.652005 8036 11102 1.919611
25 Andrew Wiggins 2.653354 8484 11766 1.913229

Here, this suggests that Klay Thompson is the top player in the league. There is a definite argument to be made as he set a record high in three-pointers made for a second-option that would have broken the three-point made record a couple seasons ago for all first-options. That combined with his on-ball defense being tops in the league… it’s no wonder why Thompson tops the list.

The only surprise name in the top 10 is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who puts up pedestrian starting numbers: 14 PPG, 1.4 SPG, 3.7 RPG. However, Caldwell-Pope works effectively well with Andre Drummond on defense, helping lead the Pistons to make the playoffs (despite a sweep to Cleveland).

Here, we find Curry at #8 on our list, which is one of the lowest numbers for our list to win MVP over the past 10 years. The lowest to date is Derrick Rose’s 2011 NBA MVP ranking #13 on our list. Typically the MVP lands on our top five list; three times being the #1 player in the past 10 years.

So let’s look at an example between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In a possession between each starting five: Curry-Thompson-Green-Bogut-Barnes versus James-Thompson-Love-Irving-Smith; we have an expected possession of::

Golden State: 3.368526 + 5.899544 + 3.661577 + 3.421157 + 2.231349 = 18.582153

Cleveland: 3.549414 + 1.751189 + 1.541738 + 2.397047 + 2.726413 = 11.965801

This would suggest that after 10 possessions on both ends of the court, the score should be a difference of about 10 points. Taking the coefficient variances, we find that the probability of being up 10 (despite being expected) is only 53%. However, based on the regular season data, the Warriors had a 84% chance of leading after 10 possessions. The fact that the Cavaliers led or were tied after the first ten possessions of each game serves to show how impressive the Cavaliers played in the NBA Finals.

So let’s take a look at the most valuable player on each team:

Team MVP Score
Atlanta Kyle Korver 2.446589
Boston Avery Bradley 2.334206
Brooklyn Bojan Bogdanovic 1.054078
Charlotte Courtney Lee 2.464802
Chicago Jimmy Butler 1.623912
Cleveland LeBron James 2.215888
Dallas Dirk Nowitzki 1.421595
Denver Will Barton 1.967022
Detroit Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 3.101187
Golden State Klay Thompson 4.311245
Houston James Harden 1.750623
Indiana Paul George 3.066848
LAC Chris Paul 2.641298
LAL D’Angelo Russell 0.620287
Memphis Matt Barnes 1.365299
Miami Goran Dragic 2.147283
Milwaukee Khris Middleton 2.121905
Minnesota Ricky Rubio 2.267211
New Orleans Ryan Anderson 1.785153
New York Carmelo Anthony 1.780164
Oklahoma City Russell Westbrook 2.093660
Orlando Elfrid Payton 1.506645
Philadelphia Nerlens Noel 1.327516
Phoenix Devin Booker 1.585234
Portland Allen Crabbe 1.440331
Sacramento Omri Casspi 1.560439
San Antonio Kawhi Leonard 2.025130
Toronto Kyle Lowry 1.919611
Utah Rudy Gobert 1.075078
Washington John Wall 2.585515

There are a couple surprises, such as Lillard nor McCollum were tops for the Trail Blazers. They were 78 and 80th overall just behind 53rd Crabbe. Similarly, Ryan Anderson scored highest on the Pelicans.

So what do you think of the rankings system?  Here, we considered overall effort on the court instead of individual statistics. How would you improve the model?


One thought on “NBA MVP Analysis: 2015-2016

  1. Pingback: Measuring the NBA MVP Race and Solomon Hill | Squared Statistics: Analyzing Crime, Sports, and People

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