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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The next-highest scoring average belongs to Damian Lillard, whose name doesn’t show up on the chart. However, he is represented by the Portland Trail Blazers’ logo over to the left of Harden. Among players with a PER better than 20 against weak defenses, Lillard improves his the most against better defenses, where he goes from a PER of 25.4 to a PER of 27.9. DeMar DeRozan, Enes Kanter, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Steven Adams are the only other players who actually see their PER go up against stingy squads.

Moving into more of the middle ground and away from the star-caliber players, two shooters who do remarkably well against elite teams are Otto Porter and Nick Young. Porter’s PER rises by 6.6 points, while Young’s skyrockets by 7.4 points. If you’re an Atlanta Hawks fan hoping for better things in the future, there’s some good news: Taurean Prince’s plus-6.8 spike has to be encouraging, as well as John Collins at plus-3.7.

On the other side of the coin, we have Skal Labissiere. His PER against the worst defenses in the league is 20.9, but it falls off a cliff to 6.0 against the upper-tier ones.

Among players more widely-regarded as stars, the worst offender might be a bit of a surprise. Kristaps Porzings’ PER drops by 8.7 points when facing better opponents. Other star-caliber players who struggle the most are Dwayne Wade (minus-7.1), Eric Bledsoe (minus-6.7), and in a shocker, Stephen Curry (minus-6.6).

There might be an inclination on that last one for some fans to defend Curry’s fall-off by saying something about how he doesn’t play fourth quarters in blowouts but remember, PER is a minute-adjusted stat. Furthermore, while Kevin Durant does do “worse” overall against better opponents, he’s well above the line — he’s the Warriors logo two spots beneath Towns.

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And in one additional note about players who ostensibly struggle against better teams, LeBron James falls off precipitously, but he’s also still really, really good against top-tier squads. His PER against the league’s worst is 29.9, while his PER against the elite is 25.4. If he had a PER of 25.4 against everyone, it would be the eighth-best mark in the league. LeBron James is very good at basketball.

One final random observation: It’s interesting that Victor Oladipo is actually slightly higher than Russell Westbrook against both the top-10 and bottom-10 defenses. They are represented by the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers’ logos right next to each other over by LaMarcus Aldridge.

As far as how this affects the MVP conversation, it would seem to reinforce Harden’s case.

While the award tends to go to the player who is considered to have the best year, there is something to be said for the way a player helps their team perform in the games where the stakes are the highest. As this shows, that has been Harden, whose brilliance has been well-documented this year. Additionally, Lillard and DeRozan both deserve to get more love if you think this is something that has to be factored into the MVP race.

The main player that would seem to take a hit is Curry. He’s still an outstanding basketball player, one whose numbers and impact on a team that is almost certainly going to win at least 60 games make it so he belongs in the MVP discussion. But looking at his impact against the best teams in the league is a reason for pause, at least for now, but since he’s Stephen Curry, he probably doesn’t mind what his numbers look like against anyone as long as the Warriors win a title.