The NBA recently announced that the “seeding games” at the Orlando bubble will not be considered for the annual regular season awards. That means that the MVP race is already over and now it is time to try to predict the winner. Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is certainly in the conversation, as the Bucks sit at the top of the league. LeBron James is also being heavily considered. After a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, James found himself with a better supporting cast and led the Lakers to first seed in the tough Western Conference at 35 years old. Also in the Western Conference, second-year sensation Luka Dončić has led the Mavericks to seventh seed after three years of missing the playoffs.
How do their averages compare?
While looking at the traditional box score averages has been discouraged because it does not provide context, it is also true that they are the most accessible and understood statistics. Figure 1 makes it easy to compare averages between our three MVP candidates.
Figure 1: Comparison of the five most basic averages for Antetokounmpo, Dončić and James
We can see in Figure 1 how Giannis Antetokounmpo leads all of our candidates in rebounds per game, blocks per game and points per game. However, LeBron James holds a comfortable lead in assists per game and a very small advantage in steals per game. Luka Dončić is the balanced candidate here, holding the second position in all averages except blocks per game, which is to be expected when comparing a guard to forwards.
Next, we will take a look at Figure 2, which compares the shooting percentages from the three players.
Figure 2: Shooting percentages comparison for our three MVP candidates
As we can see in Figure 2, all three players are very efficient shooters. Antetokounmpo’s strengths are inside, having the best field goal percentage from two-point territory. Although this is the reason why he holds the best field goal percentage, we then see his inefficiency from three-point range when comparing effective field goal percentage. Here, the lead he holds over James of almost 5% in field goal percentage is cut down to less than 3%. It is LeBron James who appears to be the most balanced shooter, having the second best field goal percentage, the second best effective field goal percentage and the second best free throw percentage while also owning the best three-point percentage in the group. Luka Dončić, who relies heavily on his jump shot, sees only a 5% deficit between his effective field goal percentage and Antetokounmpo’s, while performing the best from the free throw line out of all of our candidates.
Do advanced statistics tell a different story?
Advanced statistics are oftentimes preferred in a debate because they are believed to provide more context. Figure 3 does just that, providing some commonly used advanced statistics.
Figure 3: Advanced statistics comparison for our three MVP candidates
Surprisingly, Figure 3 shows Antetokounmpo leading in all categories observed. He has the highest Player Efficiency Rating (measure of per-minute production) and Usage Percentage (estimate of percentage of plays used by the player while on the floor), which is very impressive. Additionally, he has the highest Value over Replacement Player. Although James has the second highest VORP, it is actually Dončić who has the second highest Player Efficiency Rating and Usage Percentage.
Next, we will take a look at the Win Shares (wins contributed by a player) as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Win Shares for our MVP candidates, divided into Offensive Win Shares (OWS) and Defensive Win Shares (DWS)
James has the best Offensive Win Shares, followed by Dončić. Antetokounmpo is last in Offensive Win Shares but makes up for it in Defensive Win Shares and ends up with the highest Win Shares. James finished second in Defensive Win Shares and overall Win Shares, while Dončić finished last in Win Shares despite having an advantage over James and Antetokounmpo in Offensive Win Shares.
How do their teams compare?
Basketball is a team game, and no comparison is complete without taking a quick look at how each team is doing. Figure 5 shows the Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating for the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers.
Figure 5: Offensive and Defensive Rating comparisons for the Bucks, Mavericks and Lakers.
As observed in Figure 5, the Dallas Mavericks hold an advantage in Offensive Rating, with the Lakers behind them. The Milwaukee Bucks are last in Offensive Rating, but make up for it in Defensive Rating, with a comfortable lead. This makes the Bucks the team with the best Net Rating (difference between Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating). The Lakers are second in Defensive Rating, so it follows that they are second in Net Rating. The Mavericks are last in Net Rating because although their Offensive Rating is highest, their Defensive Rating is also highest.
My pick for MVP is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He leads the group in points and rebounds while being very efficient, with the best effective field goal percentage, best PER and highest Win Shares. However, LeBron James is very likely to receive votes, since he averages the most assists out of the three while being the most balanced shooter and second in Win Shares. Luka Dončić is a step behind the first two since he does not have any eye-catching averages in traditional statistics and his team is behind the Bucks and Lakers in Net Rating. It would be no surprise if he ends up winning the MVP award in a few years though, since he has led Mavericks to the best Offensive Rating in the NBA by posting a 53.1% Effective Field Goal Percentage and a 37% Usage Percentage in his second year in the league.
About the Author
Gustavo Garcia-Franceschini will start his Sophomore year as a Statistics and Machine Learning major at Carnegie Mellon University this Fall. He looks forward to graduate studies and sees himself working for the data department on a sports team.
NBA Official Release. July 2020. ‘Voting begins for 2019-20 NBA Awards.” NBA.com. Retrieved from: https://www.nba.com/article/2020/07/21/2019-20-nba-awards-voting
Smith, Sekou. July 2020. “KIA MVP Ladder: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s improvement makes him our pick.” NBA.com. Retrieved from: https://www.nba.com/mvp-ladder
Basketball Reference. “Player Comparison Finder: Giannis Antetokounmpo (2019-20) vs. Luka Dončić (2019-20) vs. LeBron James (2019-20).” Retrieved on July 20, 2020 from: http://bkref.com/tiny/mhDu0
NBA Advanced Stats. Retrieved on July 30, 2020 from: https://go.nba.com/hmjoc
NOTE: Article written before official finalists were announced.