Which NBA Players Help Their MVP Case The Most By Playing Well Against Elite Teams?

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Cliches are bad, but sometimes they do say things the best – and an all-time great cliche is “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” As we wind down the NBA season and the MVP conversation heats up, it got us to wondering how the inverse of this philosophy can apply to that awards race.

Which players are at their best against the league’s most shambolic defenses? Which players shine against the weaker defenses, but fail to show up against the tougher ones? And how do you go about measuring the difference?

RealGM.com has a number of filters you can use to measure teams, including “top 10 defenses” and “bottom 10 defenses.” To start, I compiled the PERs for players against the former and the latter, then put them on a chart. (For an interactive version of the chart, click here).

Via Self

First, a little bit about how to read this chart. The further to the right a player is, the better he is against weaker opponents; the farther up he is, the better he is against stronger defenses. The sloped line running through is a trend line.

Obviously, most players are going to be a little better against weaker defenses. The trendline offers a way of adjusting for that. Players above the line are stronger against better defenses, and those below it are weaker. The further above or below the line a player is, the more that difference is amplified.

Let’s consider some observations from this.

First, James Harden is a beast, and his performance against elite defenses reinforces his frontrunner status as the league’s Most Valuable Player. While he does have a slightly higher PER against bottom 10 defenses, he also has the best PER against good ones (29.5). Regarding raw numbers, he has averaged 30.9 points, 8.8 assists, and 6.0 rebounds per game against teams towards the bottom of the league. Those fluctuate a bit against the best defenses in the NBA: 32.2 points (the best mark in the league), 8.2 assists, and 5.2 rebounds a night.

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