Why Chris Paul is a Better MVP Candidate than James Harden

I posted this on reddit yesterday, so I figured I’d put it up here as well (with minor edits).

Exhibit A: Points Created

I combined standard points per game stats with the points created by assists numbers from stats.nba.com. I also added points for free throw assists (assuming a league average FT shooter). Then I adjusted for minutes per game and pace to get points created per 100 possessions. Here’s what I got:

Harden Paul points created

So Paul creates 3.3 points per 100 more than Harden, a nontrivial difference. You can argue that points scored (especially unassisted ones, which make up 70% of Harden’s points and 77% of Paul’s, excluding FTs) are more “valuable”, but I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Paul produces at least as much for the Clippers’ offense as Harden does for the Rockets’.

Exhibit B: Efficiency

These guys are neck and neck in shooting efficiency. Paul gets the edge in effective field goal percentage, 54.3% over Harden’s 51.3%. But Harden’s voracious appetite for free throws pushes him above Paul in true shooting percentage, 60.5% over Paul’s 59.5%. Basically, both guys have very good (but not mind-blowing) efficiency.

Turnovers are a different story though. Paul is a freak at not losing the ball considering how much he has it. He’s averaging 3.4 TOs per 100 possessions. Compare that to other “high involvement” players:

  • James Harden – 5.3 TOs per 100
  • LeBron James – 5.7
  • Stephen Curry – 4.7
  • Russell Westbrook – 6.4
  • John Wall – 5.5

Paul effectively buys the Clippers an extra couple shots per game. He’s a huge part of why they have the 2nd least TOs per 100. Meanwhile, Harden turns it over a lot more and the Rockets give up the 3rd most TOs in the league. This difference gives Paul a small edge in efficiency.

If you want to get really fancy, Paul and Harden are very close in true usage, which measures how many possessions a player is involved in by shooting, earning free throws, turning it over, or assisting. Paul has a true usage of 54.4% while Harden is at 53.7%. In other words, Paul is involved in just 0.7 more possessions out of every 100 while creating an extra 3.3 points. If you compute points per true possession, you get 1.158 for Paul against 1.112 for Harden.

Exhibit C: Defense

Chris Paul is a better defender than James Harden.

Oh, you want me to defend that claim? Okay, sure. Harden has certainly improved from last season, but he’s still not good. He’s prone to losing his man away from the ball, especially if someone sets a screen on him. Even when he’s focused, he’s not exactly a lockdown defender.

Paul might not be as impactful as his reputation suggests, and sometimes he coasts, but he doesn’t make many mistakes. His anticipation makes him a great on-ball defender. He’s physically limited as a help defender, but he knows how to make himself a pest. When Paul locks in on D, he’s really tough to beat (this play notwithstanding).

In summary, Harden is still a slight minus on D while Paul is a solid plus.

Closing Argument:

So I’ve established that:

  1. Paul has been at least as productive on offense as Harden.
  2. Paul has a small offensive efficiency edge over Harden.
  3. Paul has played better defense than Harden.

From 1 and 2 I conclude that Paul has been better than Harden on offense, and 3 states that Paul has been better on defense. Let’s do the math.

Better offense + better defense = better season

Even if you’re unconvinced Paul has been better on offense (a reasonable position), I challenge you to make a sound argument that Harden has been better on that end. So as a lower bound I propose:

Equal offense + better defense = better season

If you believe that the MVP should go to the player who has had the best season on a good team (which I think best captures the spirit of the award), then Paul is a better candidate than Harden.

Additional thoughts:

Their teams have almost identical records, so that’s not a factor here.

Paul has played in every game. Harden has missed one. So that’s not a factor here.

The conventional thinking is that Harden has had less help than Paul. I think that’s true, but overstated. The Rockets have a team full of average-ish players who fit well together. The only legitimately poor players to get minutes are Dorsey and Papanikalou. The Clippers have more talent starting, but they’ve also given 1200 minutes to Spencer Hawes, 900 to Glen Davis, and 800 to Austin Rivers (in only 40 games!). These guys have no business in a contender’s rotation.

I also think Paul is at least partially responsible for making DeAndre Jordan a star. Without Paul’s (and Griffin’s) playmaking, DJ wouldn’t be shooting 71%. A full 47% of his shots have been dunks!

In terms of wins, the Rockets have probably overachieved and the Clippers have probably underachieved. Based on their offensive and defensive ratings, we’d only expect the Rockets to win 50 games compared to the Clippers expected 58. Make of that what you will.

Here’s a full table for points created for the MVP candidates besides Anthony Davis. “EFF” is points created per 100 true usage possessions.

Full MVP Points Created