How Does This Season's NBA MVP Race Compare to the Great Race of 1962?
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
That is the most famous quote from Spanish philosopher and novelist George Santayana, who first wrote the words in his book The Life of Reason. It's evolved into the more common saying, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
It is often incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill, the great Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. On the other hand, Churchill did have his own words on the subject of history, stating "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."
Whether to repeat history is damning, or whether there's no such thing as repeating it -- believe it or not -- these are the types of philosophical considerations NBA MVP voters will have to tap into this season.
Why? Because James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and others are making voters' jobs quite difficult this year. It's hard to pick just one player who is most deserving of the award. But the question in front of the voters is whether or not history should repeat itself. The question in front of us all is whether it will.
With the way the 1961-62 MVP race shaped up and shook out, we have before us a comparable historical precedent to examine. This reference point should allow us to understand better what might be different and what might be similar about this year's race and its many candidates.
Before we begin to analyze and compare the two races, let's first take a look at who the past and current competitors are, starting with 1962 winner Bill Russell and the rest of that season's vote-getters.
Each player is listed, along with his team and MVP Share, a number calculated by dividing a player's number of points received by votes by the maximum number of points possible (425 in the 1961-62 voting).
|Bill Russell||Boston Celtics||0.699|
|Wilt Chamberlain||Philadelphia Warriors||0.358|
|Oscar Robertson||Cincinnati Royals||0.318|
|Elgin Baylor||Los Angeles Lakers||0.193|
|Jerry West||Los Angeles Lakers||0.141|
|Bob Pettit||St. Louis Hawks||0.073|
|Richie Guerin||New York Knicks||0.012|
|Bob Cousy||Boston Celtics||0.007|
To determine the top eight MVP candidates today, we'll utilize Basketball Reference's MVP Tracker, which ranks candidates based on a model built using previous voting results. It helps to suggest which candidates voters are likely to target this season based on past tendencies.
|James Harden||Houston Rockets||38.9%|
|Kevin Durant||Golden State Warriors||20.2%|
|Russell Westbrook||Oklahoma City Thunder||14.4%|
|LeBron James||Cleveland Cavaliers||7.1%|
|Kawhi Leonard||San Antonio Spurs||6.8%|
|Stephen Curry||Golden State Warriors||5.8%|
|Isaiah Thomas||Boston Celtics||2.3%|
|Kyle Lowry||Toronto Raptors||1.8%|
Basketball Reference's model tells us that James Harden is the front-runner, with Kevin Durant an unlikely second and Westbrook right up there in the top three, as expected. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry round out the top eight candidates while Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Lowry make up the fringe contenders.
Here, we'll concern ourselves with the top candidates, past and present.
What type of numbers were the league's most valuable players putting up more than five decades ago? Feast your eyes and see.
With all five players averaging more 41 minutes per game, they managed some unthinkable numbers for today's NBA. From Chamberlain's scoring, to Russell's rebounding and Robertson's distributing, there's really no one doing that in today's game.
Without the same possession data we have access to today, we can't perfectly compare players from this era to those of the '60's. What we can do is see which current candidate's per-game production most closely relates to that of Russell, Wilt, the Big O and so on.
Let's get the easiest one out of the way. Westbrook is the modern-day Oscar Robertson. If he maintains his current averages, he will become the only player since Robertson to average a triple-double for a season. The volume of his across-the-board production is unmatched.
As for Harden, he has produced big-time numbers in two of the three main statistical columns. Wilt Chamberlain's averages in points and rebounds, rather than assists, are most comparable, all things considered. And the two are the iron men of their respective groups, with the most games played among them.
On the opposite side of that same reasoning, Durant's production this season mimics Elgin Baylor's. Like Baylor, Durant has scored at a high level and ranks among the top three in rebounding in this season's set of candidates. Unfortunately, he's also played the least amount of games, thanks to a knee injury.
In a similar way to West, James is in the top three of the subset in both points and assists per game. He's also in the middle of the pack in terms of games played.
Then, there's Leonard, who is left with Bill Russell. Russell and Leonard are both at the bottom of their groups in point production. However, the peripheral production isn't as identical. As we know, Kawhi adds to his stat-sheet with steals as well, making for a quite overall game, a la Russell.
Again, because of limits set by the parameters of play at the time -- most notably, the absence of a three-point line -- we can't very accurately compare efficiency measures like player efficiency rating.
For what it's worth, we're left with win shares (WS), a very effective indicator that provides us with an estimate of the number of wins a player has contributed over the course of a season.
We can also separate win shares into offensive (OWS) and defensive (DWS), and even break it down to a 48-minute sample size (WS/48) -- in other words, per game.
What parallels do today's players draw through the view of this advanced metric?
A lot of the same similarities can be made again. Yet, while Durant has tallied the most win shares per 48 minutes this season, his total is fourth of the five players. And the fact that he has a fairly even distribution draws comparisons to Jerry West's contributions.
By way of the breakdown of value, James best matches Robertson, who averaged the same amount of win shares per 48 minutes and was geared more toward offensive contributions than defensive contributions like LeBron seems to be this season.
For Westbrook, it's almost crazy to say but Baylor is the better match -- not Robertson. Baylor had the most evenly-balanced win share totals, between both ends of the floor. Westbrook has done the same, with just 3.7 win shares separating his offensive and defensive values.
Again, Harden is best compared to Chamberlain. Both players lead their groups in win shares and offensive win shares while they are both certainly skewed toward that end of the floor.
In regards to Leonard, it's quite the opposite. He leads the current MVP contenders with 4.3 defensive win shares, just like Russell led his group. Further, he's second in win shares per 48, something he also has in common with Russell in comparison to his MVP camp.
What happens when we look beyond the box score and individual advanced statistics toward team success?
Back in 1961-62, Russell's Boston Celtics had a record of 60-20 in the regular season, the best mark of the top five vote-getters. By that alone, Durant would be most like Russell, as his Warriors lead the league with a record of 61-14.
Next would be West and Baylor's Los Angeles Lakers, who piled up 54 wins in 80 games that season. They're most analogous to Leonard and James. Leonard because Spurs slot in second behind the Warriors with 57 wins this season, and James because -- like the Lakers that year -- his Cleveland Cavaliers are considered the best team in the conference opposite the team with the best record in the NBA.
By looking at positioning and wins, Harden would undoubtedly match Chamberlain for the third time. His team's record places them third in the NBA and is a distance off (10 games) from the first place Warriors. In his day, Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors were also third in the league with 49 wins and trailed the Celtics by 11 games at season's end.
Once more, Robertson and Westbrook's historic seasons most resemble one another's. In '61, Robertson's Royals had a win percentage of .538 with 43 wins on the season. Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder are close in that their win percentage is .581, and they have exactly 43 wins to this point. They're not at the top of the league, but they're a sure thing for the playoffs all the same.
It's a little bit of a mixed bag for Durant, but I think it's safe to say, with how many games he's missed, Durant is more likely to fall by the wayside come voting time, akin to Elgin Baylor in 1961. And, for James, this probably just isn't the year. Most like West, he and his team have had a really successful season, but it's more likely that he finishes outside the top three in the same way West did.
According to the MVP Tracker, Leonard doesn't have the best of chances to take the award. However, in NBA circles, he's probably in the top three with Harden and Westbrook.
By acknowledging that, we should take seriously the comparisons between he and Russell. They're both at the bottom of their respective groups in point production, but they're the best defenders, and of contenders to play most available games, their teams' success is one of the most positive things going for them.
That brings us to the final two, who most consider to be the main candidates fighting it out for the hardware. Harden, while we could try to liken him to Robertson, is this year's Chamberlain. He's not on the best team but is the leader of one of the top squads in the league. And his per-game and win share production are very similar to Wilt's. His offensive game far outweighs his defensive game as he leads the candidates in games played.
When it comes to Westbrook, it appears history is both the biggest thing going for him but also something working against him. There's no denying the identical nature of he and Robertson's triple-double seasons, but Robertson was third in voting and received the second-most first-place votes.
History says that Westbrook, despite his ridiculous numbers, is a worthy contender but not the ultimate winner. Rather, it says Leonard and Harden, like Russell and Chamberlain, would place ahead of him in final voting.
But, that bring us full circle to whether or not voters will use this as a guide, or if they'll heed the words of Santayana and Churchill. Is there something to learn from this past MVP race? If so, they could find themselves writing a new history for future days.