We won’t find out who won until late June, but the 2018-19 NBA season treated basketball fans to one of the great MVP battles in recent memory. Several worthy players hung around the race for large portions of the season, including Paul George and Nikola Jokic. But in the end, there were two: Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden — each of whom has several arguments working in his favor.
Antetokounmpo is the best player on the best team1 in the league, and he led the 60-win Bucks to the best defense and fourth-best offense in the NBA. He averaged an unheard of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. He is also one of the best defenders in the league — a top-tier candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Harden, meanwhile, carried an offensive burden unlike any in modern NBA history. His 40.5 percent usage rate is the second-highest of all time. He finished the season averaging 36.1 points per game, eighth-most in league history and the most since Michael Jordan ticked off 37.1 per game in 1987. Harden boosted his deep attempts far beyond what previously seemed either possible or reasonable, taking 13.2 triples per game and connecting on them at a 37 percent rate.2
Really, though, the argument between the two players is less about who had the better season and more about the definition of “valuable.” Is it just the best player in the league? Is it the best player on the best team? Is it the player whose performance was most outstanding, whatever you decide that means? Is it the player whose team needs him the most? Is it some combination of all of those things, as well as a few others? Different players, coaches, executives, fans and media members have different definitions.
What if we took the word “valuable” as literally as possible, though, and tried to identify the player who provided his team with the greatest bang for its buck throughout this season? After all, what’s more valuable than performing at a level that far outstrips your salary, allowing your team to spend those surplus dollars on more talent elsewhere?
The first step to answering this question is to quantify the dollar value of a win in the NBA. There were 1,230 games played this season, which means there were 1,230 wins up for grabs. According to Basketball-Reference.com, NBA teams handed out more than $3.6 billion in salary this year. Dividing that figure by 1,230 means that a single win was valued at $2,949,908.82.
We can then turn to ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus and specifically RPM wins, a stat that uses a player’s RPM and his possessions played to estimate his contribution to the number of his team’s wins. Not all players qualified for the RPM leaderboard, so there was a slight shortfall of wins produced by the 514 players who did qualify. We applied a multiplier to each of those player’s totals in order to account for the shortfall. Then, we multiplied the dollar value of a win by the number of adjusted RPM wins each player produced to pinpoint the dollar value of that player’s production. Subtracting his actual 2018-19 salary from that number yields a surplus, meeting our goal of identifying the best bang-for-buck player in the league this season.
|RK||NAME||RPM WINS||Adjusted WINS*||WINS VALUE||ACTUAL SALARY||SURPLUS VALUE|
It should come as no surprise that both Antetokounmpo and Harden ranked among the league leaders in both the value of their production and the surplus value they provided their teams. The Rockets received more than $27 million in surplus value on Harden; the Bucks got nearly $23 million in surplus on Antetokounmpo. Neither player, though, led the league in surplus value. Harden ranked sixth, while Antetokounmpo ranked ninth (and second on his own team).3 Fellow MVP candidates George ($30.22 million) and Jokic ($19.49 million) also ranked highly in surplus value, but again, neither of them led the league.4 Instead, the league leader was do-it-all Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, with a surplus value of nearly $36 million.
Siakam is quite good, obviously, but he’s not nearly as good as the MVP types just yet. By any traditional MVP definition, he doesn’t really fit. But we’re not looking for a traditionally defined MVP here — just the player whose value most exceeded his salary. And that’s why Siakam makes perfect sense.
Siakam broke out in a huge way this season, emerging as both the favorite for Most Improved Player and a candidate for one of the All-NBA teams. He averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 combined steals and blocks per game while getting to the line 3.8 times a night and canning 36.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He is a wonderful defender, capable of handling himself both in space and on the block, wreaking havoc in passing lanes and containing ball-handlers off the dribble. He also served as the point man in the Raptors’ league-best zone defense and the one of the primary drivers of their defense-to-offense transition attack. Toronto outscored its opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor, per NBA.com, the eighth-best figure among the 353 players who appeared in at least 40 games. He carried the Raptors in several games when Kyle Lowry and/or Kawhi Leonard sat out because of injuries or load management; he was also a rotation mainstay, playing in 80 of 82 games, all but one of which he started.
And Siakam did all of this while drawing a salary of just $1,544,951, as a former No. 27 overall pick playing in the third year of his rookie-scale contract. He produced like a star — Siakam ranked 11th in production value per RPM wins — while being paid less than 391 other players in the league. Add it all up, and he produced by far the most surplus value of any player this season, with the difference between him and No. 2 Nikola Vucevic slightly exceeding the difference between Vucevic and No. 7 Danny Green, Siakam’s teammate in Toronto. Considering that neither Siakam nor Green is even Toronto’s best player, it’s no wonder the Raptors are among the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in this year’s NBA Finals.5
If that is indeed how these playoffs play out, Siakam will almost surely have played a valuable role — maybe not the “most valuable” by popular definitions, but one that far exceeds the value of his paycheck.
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