2017 NBA MVP race Vol. 2: Breaking down candidates’ offensive games

In contrast to our blog post last week, this week we are not predicting outcomes using statistical analysis, neither we are guessing who the most likely 2017 regular season MVP is. This time we are simply breaking down offensive possessions of, in our opinion, the top 5 MVP contenders this season: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. But why are we putting offensive game and MVP award in the same sentence? Because we argue that most MVPs have won the award mostly because of their offensive and not defensive contribution.

To break down their offensive games in detail, we had to use both traditional as well as advanced offensive statistics, provided by Stats NBA.com website, namely:

  • 3 point field goals made (3P made)
  • 3 point field goals missed (3P missed)
  • 2 point field goals made (2P made)
  • 2 point field goals missed (2P missed)
  • Free Throws Possessions (FT, calculated as FTA*0.44, as in possession equation)
  • Assists (AST)
  • Secondary Assists (2nd AST)
  • Other Potential Assists (P-AST, calculated as Potential Assists minus Assists)

Those statistics are basically offensive possessions actions and, in this case, half of them end a possession. The other half of them do not end a possession and that is why we cannot equal them to possessions. For example, a missed field goal can lead to an offensive rebound, which can lead to a potential assists, which can lead to another offensive rebound and a field goal, and all those actions can happen in one offensive possession. However, we did not focus on offensive rebounding, neither on screen assists, since none of our players regularly plays PF or C positions in a traditional way. Consequently we initially split our MVP contenders’ offensive games into scoring, passing and turnovers.


These pie-charts represent distributions of players’ offensive possession actions. For example, if a player averages 50 possession actions per game and 25 of them are scoring actions (FG, FT), then scoring represents 50% of his offensive game (see LeBron’s pie-chart). The results indicate that Stephen Curry’s, Russell Westbrook’s and LeBron James’s offensive games generally do not differ much, if we look at these basic distributions of possession actions. James Harden is more focused on passing and slightly less on scoring, while Kawhi Leonard is significantly more focused on scoring than any other analyzed player. His turnover possession actions represent a smaller part of his offensive game, especially when compared to James Harden’s and Russell Westbrook’s offensive possession actions distributions. To go deeper into the stats, we should have a closer look at more detailed distributions, taking into account that the sizes of pie-charts represent players’ involvement on offense.


More detailed distributions, presented by two advanced pie-charts, tell a slightly different story. For starters, Westbrook’s pie-chart is bigger than LeBron’s, since Russell averages more offensive possessions actions than the four-time MVP. While their passing distributions look similar, their scoring distributions differ, especially in terms of their 2-point field-goal percentage. Most of LeBron’s shots are two-point shots and he makes them at a high percentage – he scores 8.2 per game while missing only 5.4. Westbrook on the other hand misses 1.4 two-point shots more than he makes.


Stephen Curry on the other hand averages even less offensive possession actions than LeBron. Although his ratio scoring-passing is very similar to Westbrook’s or LeBron’s, his offensive game is, not surprisingly, focused on three-point shooting, which makes a lot of sense since he averages more than 4 three-point goals made per game. With probably the best supporting cast in the league, he averages league best 2.2 secondary assists per game, almost twice as many as Russell Westbrook. However, he does not shoot many free throws for a player of his quality.


James Harden averages almost the same number of offensive possession actions as Westbrook, but is, as already explained, focused on passing more than the other analyzed players. Out of all those MVP contenders, his offense seems to be the most evenly distributed. He shoots roughly as many 3-pointers as 2-pointers, averages slightly more assists and other potential assists, and shoots a significant number of free throws. He, just like Westbrook, on the other hand averages a high number of turnovers, which must be a consequence of their high involvement on offense.


Kawhi’s pie-chart looks like a midget next to Westbrook’s giant. While their made shots values do not differ that much, Russell averages a lot more missed shots, but also significantly more assists of different types. He actually averages more assists than Kawhi assists, potential assists and secondary assists combined. Kawhi’s pie-chart in a way looks like LeBron’s, but with almost two-thirds less passing and half less turnovers.

To conclude, our visual presentation of offensive possession actions reveals much more than traditional offensive stats such as points-per-game and assists-per-game, or advanced stats such as Usage %. Among the top 5 MVP contenders there are significantly different players in terms of the types of their offensive games, their involvement and efficiency. Westbrook and LeBron seem to be the most similar, although the first one is more involved in offensive possessions and the second one is much more efficient. While it does not shock us that Harden is more pass oriented and Curry is (long-distance) shooting oriented, it is surprising how little Kawhi is involved on the offensive side, but how efficient his game is. He seems to be more of a Robin than a Batman, but also more of a Finals MVP then a regular season MVP.

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