A case for Isaiah Thomas as the NBA MVP

All the talk surrounding the NBA’s MVP race has focused on Russell Westbrook and James Harden out west. That makes some sense considering these two guards have put up electrifying performances throughout the 2016-17 season.

It’s also a bit slanted towards what many would call “left coast bias.” The Western Conference is seen as more competitive with a larger number of actual NBA title contenders than the Eastern Conference. It’s been that way for some time now.

Despite this, the reigning NBA champions actually reside east of the Mississippi. They are also being put to the test in a big way by Isaiah Thomas and the Boston Celtics.

Isaiah Thomas

Why shouldn’t Thomas get some real play for the top individual honor the Association has to offer? Heck, why shouldn’t he win the award outright?

Here’s a look at Thomas’ MVP candidacy and why we believe he should win the award over both Westbrook and Harden.

MVP stands for Most Valuable Player. It’s not (nor should it be) best player. If that were the foundation upon which votes were cast, LeBron James would win the award going away every single season. It’s not. Hence, Stephen Curry coming away with the league’s top individual honor the past two seasons. In no way are we saying that Thomas is as good as Harden or Westbrook. That would be utterly foolish.

Instead, he’s simply more valuable.

Consider this: Boston heads into the final week-plus of the season as the top seed back east. This, despite the fact that Thomas and Co. have the eighth-best point differential in the Association. What exactly does that mean? Well, even the untrained eye could tell us that Thomas is stepping up big time when it counts the most. He’s playing at an elite level in the final stanza. He’s stepping up and willing his team to victory in the close games.

Boston has 22 wins in games that have been decided by two possessions or less. For comparison’s sake, the Rockets and Thunder have combined for 25 such wins. This tells us a story of a team that knows how to win the close game. And in reality, Thomas has been the little engine to makes this thing go.

Here’s a guy that’s averaging 9.9 points and shooting at a 47 percent clip in the fourth quarter this season. Let’s contrast this with Russ and Harden once again. Thomas compares very well to the former, averaging the same 9.9 mark in the final stanza. Though, he’s doing so in an average of 2.4 fewer shot attempts per game in that final quarter. For his part, Harden comes in at under six points per game in the fourth quarter while shooting at just 40 percent from the field.

By all measures, Thomas has been more clutch in these specific situations than his counterparts. He’s simply shown a higher level of control with the game on the line. That’s something both Russ and Harden have struggled with to an extent. Efficiency.

Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) hugs Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) after the Rockets defeated the City Thunder at Toyota Center. Houston Rockets won 118 to 116. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

He’s also been more clutch by the pure definition of the term. As to where Harden is shooting 16 percent and Westbrook is at 43 percent in the last three minutes of two possession games, Thomas is shooting at a 55 percent mark in like situations.

This is one of the primary reasons Boston has found a way to win the close games while not being nearly as talented as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards of the world. It’s also why Brad Stevens’ squad could very well enter the playoffs as top seed back east.

Though, one of the most absurd advanced stats we should utilize when making a case for Thomas is just how well he’s performed on short rest. At 5-foot-9 and 189 pounds (soaking wet) some might figure that Thomas would struggle with usage. That simply hasn’t been the case.

Boston boasts a 9-6 record in the second half of back-to-backs on the season. In those 15 games, Thomas is averaging 32.7 points and 5.7 assists. He’s also shooting at an a 48 percent from the field, including a 41 percent mark from distance. Both Oklahoma City and Houston are under .500 in the second half of back-to-backs this season. Russ is averaging 32.2 points, but finds himself at a negative 1.4 plus-minus in said situations. For his part, Thomas is plus a point in these games.

As has been the case when looking at advanced stats to draw a conclusion here, Harden simply doesn’t hold up in comparison to the other two. He is averaging 29.9 points on zero days rest, but the All-Star is turning the ball over at a higher clip than his season averages. Considering Harden leads the NBA in turnovers, this most definitely isn’t a good sign.

We can continue to compare stats all day long. This isn’t a fantasy basketball contest. Instead, it’s all about who is the most valuable. In terms of pretty much every barometer we use here, that has to be Thomas.

More than anything, it’s all about consistency and efficiency. This is where Thomas stands above the rest.

That right there is the clearest indication that Thomas deserves to be bandied about as a top MVP candidate as the regular season draws to a conclusion.

Is it likely that Thomas will come away as this season’s NBA MVP? No. Most of the coverage we have seen around the Association has surrounded Harden and Westbrook. That has to be taken into account when it comes to votes actually being cast.

The problem here is narrative. As to where Thomas might not be as well-known as these other stars, he’s done more to put his team in championship contention than any other player in the NBA.

Courtesy of Kevin Jairaj, USA Today Sports

Look at it this way. Golden State is still the odds on favorites to win the Western Conference. Steve Kerr’s squad is in the midst of an 11-game winning streak without its own MVP (Kevin Durant) in the mix. If not the Warriors, then surely the San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard are favored to come out of the west.

Listen. Harden has been tremendous in helping Houston take that next step to elite status. But last week’s performance against these very same Warriors should really put the breaks on MVP talk here.

After all, the Beard was vastly outplayed by Stephen curry in the Warriors’ two wins against Houston. While Harden shot a combined 9-of-38 from the field with 12 turnovers in the two games, Curry went off for 56 points on 50 percent shooting.

On the same note, does anyone here really expect Oklahoma City to contend for a conference title when the playoffs come calling? None of that can be placed on Westbrook. He’s doing everything possible. But the Thunder are among those in the second tier out west.

Courtesy of USA Today Images

The same simply can’t be said for a Boston team that heads into the final week-plus of the season as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Thomas ┬áhas upped the level of play of those around him, enough so that there’s legitimate talk that the Celtics might in fact be favorites to earn a trip to the Finals.

We really can’t say the same thing about Houston or Oklahoma City.

Now, when you factor in the statistics provided above, it’s reasonable to draw the conclusion that Thomas should in fact take home the hardware this spring.

Whether that happens is anyone’s guess. But if we’re willing to go away from the narrative, Thomas as the Association’s most valuable makes too much sense.