2018-19 Updated NBA MVP Model: The Race Is James Harden’s to Lose

2018-19 Updated NBA MVP Model: The Race Is James Harden’s to Lose article feature image
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Photo credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: James Harden

  • James Harden is on one right now, seemingly putting up 50-plus every night without several of the Rockets' usual starters in the lineup.
  • Has his historic run put him as the frontrunner in the MVP race? Is there anyone who can catch him?

At the beginning of the season, I built an NBA MVP model to predict this year’s race. It has a few more variables than the Rookie of the Year one, and I think narratives come into play more with MVPs than rookies, but there are still a couple of key metrics that have done well in predicting past MVP races.

Throughout the year, I’ll be sharing the results of the model and where players stand in the race.

There’s been a lot of shifting early in the season, with Stephen Curry taking an early lead but dropping after he missed a chunk of games with an injury. In his absence, teammate Kevin Durant jumped up the leaderboard.

Both Warriors are now down the list a bit, and last year’s winner, James Harden, has soared up the leaderboard thanks to a historic last couple of weeks. He now has a commanding lead in my model, and his odds at Westgate SuperBook now sit at a ridiculous -500 (83.3% implied probability).

Before we completely dive in, though, here are the MVP ratings (from 0 to 10) as they stand today.

2018-19 NBA MVP Ratings

MVP Race Notes

This does seem to be Harden’s race to lose, although it is notable that the Rockets are getting healthier. He’s shot up in the betting market mostly because of his historic raw production: He leads the entire NBA in total points by 282 (Durant is second on the list).

He’s using so many possessions: His usage rate of 40.6% would be the second-highest mark in NBA history behind only Russell Westbrook in that infamous 2016-17 MVP season.

And, honestly, I’m not sure it will decrease that much. On the season, Harden has posted a usage rate of 36.1% with Chris Paul and Eric Gordon on the floor. Last year he was at a 39.3% usage with those guys playing. Even when they return — Gordon already has and CP3 could be as soon as tomorrow — Harden will still be Harden.

And it could help them win more games, which is the only slight blemish on Harden’s current resume. The Rockets have gotten up to 27-20 after a slow start, but they’re currently projected for 50 wins, which would be projected to rank seventh in the NBA.

Anthony Davis doesn’t have an argument anymore. The Pelicans are 22-26, he’s likely to miss at least the next week (if not more), and his selling point was that he was statistically the most dominant player for a while. That’s not the case anymore after Harden’s recent run.

The guy that could give him a challenge is still Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks star is now quite a bit below him in raw stats and certain advanced metrics like VORP, but 1) he’s within striking distance if Harden gets injured and 2) he has the benefit of a superior team, as Milwaukee sits 34-12 and is projected for 59 wins.

If Giannis gets his team above 60 and they boast the best record in the NBA? That’s a compelling resume, especially if he’s able to bridge the gap in the raw metrics.

But it seems to be just those two at this point, and really it would take an injury or uncharacteristically bad play from Harden for him not to win back-to-back MVPs at this point. Sure, it’s a long season, but a lot of parts don’t matter when a player is going for 50-plus every night for a month stretch.