To be named the league’s Most Valuable Player after a season of NBA basketball is a rare feat. Not only because one must distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other players who take the floor each season, but also because only 34 have ever managed to do so. In the context of a league that has employed over 3,000 athletes throughout its existence, it’s a truly unparalleled achievement.
However, it would be irresponsible to forget that, contrary to the beliefs of those who would like sports to remain secluded from the rest of society, they are a part of a world that hosts about 7.7 billion people. Sure, the population has spiked quite a bit since Bob Pettit won the inaugural NBA MVP award in 1956, but the fact of the matter is that the 34 winners represent roughly one ten-millionth of a percent of mankind — which is a very, very tiny number.
As a result, the collective basketball memory of even the most rabid fans across time is characterized largely by these iconic players who took home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, whether it be Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in the ‘60s, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar in the ‘70s, Moses Malone, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the ‘80s, Michael Jordan in the ‘90s, and Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Stephen Curry in the 21st century. Inevitably, this means an outsized majority of NBA players do and will continue to exist merely on the periphery of the league’s overarching legacy. Unless, of course, they manage to win an MVP award of their own.
Can Jrue Holiday do it?
David Griffin seems to think so.
Perhaps most front office executives think this about their best player, or in the case of teams like those in Los Angeles and Houston, players, but going out of the way to make that opinion known to the masses as Griffin did, especially given Holiday’s lack of previous MVP consideration, is indicative of at least some semblance of true, unabashed confidence.
Entertaining the thought at all likely results in a salivation that, for Pelicans fans, may be rivaled only by that caused by Popeye’s chicken sandwich. The “if” aspect of this conversation is easy (and quite fun) for all of those reasons, but it is the “how” that requires an enhanced effort. How can Holiday walk away from the 2019-20 season as the 35th member of one of the NBA’s most exclusive clubs? The answer may lie with the 21st century MVP guards that have come before.
Seven backcourt players have combined to win nine of the league’s 19 MVP awards since the turn of the millennium: Allen Iverson, Steve Nash (twice), Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry (twice), Russell Westbrook and, most recently, James Harden. The strengths of the individuals in this group vary some, but each is aligned in the dominance they exerted over the rest of the league. Four of these campaigns were anchored by at least 30 points per game, three resulted in Win Share totals above 15, two were capped by league championships and one featured the first averaging of a triple-double since 1962.
Though the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (or trophies) sit safely and privately on these players’ shelves, fans can share in the revelry by worshiping these stats and many others that continue to characterize their favorite of these all-time seasons. For our purposes, the signature per game figures like Iverson’s 25.5 field goal attempts and Nash’s 11.5 assists (and accompanying 3.5 assist-to-turnover ratio), as well as season-long stats like Curry’s consecutive 44.3 and 44.5 three-point percentages and Westbrook’s 41.7 usage rate will combine their power into one collective stat line representative of the 21st century’s MVP guards, one that looks like this:
Average 21st Century Backcourt MVP Stats
Just three players in the last five seasons have reached the above thresholds for points, rebounds and assists per game in a single season (LeBron James thrice, James Harden twice and Russell Westbrook twice). Though both Westbrook in 2017 and Harden in 2018 were able to also reach 1.6 steals and 0.4 blocks in those seasons, neither were able to simultaneously match or surpass those shooting splits. In fact, only 12 players who scored at least 20 points per game in that same five year time frame, without consideration for rebounds or assists, were able to shoot that well over the course of a season, and 5 of those 12 seasons belong to Stephen Curry. In short, reaching these statistical benchmarks is no World 1-1.
So how does Holiday compare?
Jrue Holiday vs. 21st Century MVP Guards
|Average MVP ('01-'19)||26.1||8.1||5.1||1.6||0.4||46.7||38.8||87.2|
|Best Single Season ('19)||21.2||7.7||5||1.6||0.8||47.2||32.5||76.8|
His career as a whole is not immediately indicative of an MVP-caliber player, Holiday’s most recent campaign marked the best he’s had during his decade in the NBA. Some individual stats peaked in other seasons, like his assists per game (2013), field goal percentage (2018) and free throw percentage (2015), but 2019 was host to the best culmination of all of these numbers to date.
In assists, rebounds, steals, blocks and field goal percentage, Holiday was sniffing MVP territory, but his relative struggles from three-point range and the free throw line, and the not entirely unrelated shortage in points, fell short of those standards. The rate at which he took these single- and three-point shots is also worth noting. His 31.3 percent three-point rate is a tick above 2017 Westbrook’s 30, but below the 34.1 percent average that is propped up by 3 marks from Curry and Harden that are all above 48 percent. While spikes in deep perimeter volume are a recent development, the knack for getting to the charity stripe often dates back to Iverson. Holiday’s 23.4 percent free throw rate marked a personal career high, but one that would still rank below each of the nine MVPs.
In the eyes of some, a lower free throw rate may signal either a decreased willingness or a physical disadvantage to drive into the paint, to draw contact and to bang with the bigs that will be waiting beneath the rim. Those who have watched him play, especially recently, know that neither applies to Holiday.
His listed measurables (a six feet, four inch height and a 205 pound weight) undersell the strength he’s exhibited both on and off the court, and given that he took 31.8 percent of his shots from within three feet of the rim, a rate higher than any of the MVPs in question did during their award-winning seasons, tentativeness is certainly not to blame. The James Hardens and Dwyane Wades of the world have made clear to entire generations of basketball connoisseurs that drawing fouls at a league-best rate is a legitimate skill, and perhaps it is one that Holiday simply cannot harness.
Fortunately, the correlation between league-best best players and league-best free throw rates is not one to one. Curry proved that in his back-to-back MVP campaigns with an impressive but not world-beating 25.1 and 25 percent marks, and so too did Nash with his slightly higher rates of 27.8 and 26.4 percent.
Nash’s game throughout his career differed greatly from what Holiday’s has become at this decade’s end, but it is the former’s trajectory that Griffin cited when considering the latter’s potential MVP candidacy. The question of Holidays ability to emulate Nash’s Dallas-to-Phoenix leap in his first post-Anthony Davis season in New Orleans is crucial not only to the feasibility of this exercise, but also the Pelicans very real postseason hopes in 2020. Here is a table that compares Holiday’s 2019 to Nash’s pre-MVP 2004 season, his MVP-winning 2005 and 2006, and the average MVP season:
Jrue Holiday Comparison to Steve Nash, MVPs
|Nash Pre-MVP ('04)||14.5||3||8.8||0.9||0.1||47||40.5||91.6|
|Nash MVP ('05)||15.5||3.3||11.5||1||0.1||50.2||43.1||88.7|
|Nash MVP ('06)||18.8||4.2||10.5||0.8||0.2||51.2||43.9||92.1|
Nash was no slouch before joining the Suns, a fact that should not be taken for granted. His 47/40.5/91.6 shooting splits from 2004 are incredible, and though 10.8 field goal attempts per game isn’t prodigious by any means, its volume enough to prove that touch was no fluke. Somehow, he bumped his field goal and three-point percentages higher still in the following seasons, which in conjunction with slight increases in shot attempts (11.4 per game in 2005, 13.4 in 2006), boosted his scoring average to 15.5 and then a career-high 18.8 in 2006, all while leading the league in assists.
A handful of percentage points may not seem like a precipitous leap, but moving going from 47 and 41 percent to 50 and 43 percent is a different beast than going from, say, 40 and 29 percent to 43 and 32. Nash was already and then further established himself as one of the best shooters basketball has ever seen, and while a slight improvement doesn’t seem totally out of the picture, given that he’s shot as well as 39 percent from deep in the past, expecting Holiday to develop a hall of fame-caliber shooting stroke in one summer is simply not a fair bar to set.
Of all of the basic counting stats, the one that could feasibly improve somewhat significantly and push Holiday’s MVP candidacy into the realm of possibility is assists. No matter the pace of play, the creators that tally double digit assists on a regular basis cannot help but stand out in the box score, and for a player whose contributions are not always obvious among the stats at the center of this piece, the bump in recognition would certainly be welcome.
Holiday’s assists peaked at eight per game in 2013, his final year in Philadelphia, but his injury-shortened 2014 featured a 7.9 mark buoyed by his career-best 38.9 percent assist rate. In both seasons, Holiday was tasked with being the team’s primary facilitator. Unfortunately for him, the pool of players to facilitate to was far from ideal.
The top four non-Holiday scorers on that Sixers team were the trio of Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, all 24 years old, and a 32-year-old Jason Richardson. Fine NBA players, to be certain, but not a group renowned for their scoring ability by any means. The company he shared in New Orleans the following season was better, certainly, with Davis scoring 20 points per game for the first time, Ryan Anderson at the peak of his flamethrowing powers and Eric Gordon rediscovering his perimeter game. The talent was there, but asking a 23-year-old guard to guide a group of young players still figuring out their own strengths, is tough, and given Holiday’s hopes in recent years of having someone else head the offensive attack, it’s clear the experience weighed on him.
That last point is important to note. On the surface, Holiday not being the primary ball handler (a responsibility that will likely belong primarily to Lonzo Ball) may seem like a detriment to his assist potential, but if last season was any indication, it may not be that simple. Holiday averaged 7.7 assists per game last season in this role, still creating for his teammates but in a manner that was much more aligned with the rhythm of the offense.
It is very possible, though, that Holiday’s assist numbers go down, but hopefully any drop would be made up for in terms of scoring volume and efficiency. Keeping his offensive production close to that of superstars past is crucial to remaining in the conversation, but the true calling card of his candidacy is his defensive prowess.
Over the course of the last two seasons, Holiday’s defensive reputation has buoyed his climb from underrated contributor to legitimate franchise piece. The anecdotal evidence is strong, headlined by his signature performance against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 Western Conference Playoffs (sorry, CJ!), but the numbers add a welcome spice to the final product. Last season, only two players in the entire league, regardless of position, averaged 1.6 steals per game and 0.8 blocks per game in addition to at least 18 points: Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis. Kawhi Leonard was routinely hitting those same benchmarks and nurturing a similarly impressive reputation on that end throughout his final few seasons in San Antonio, but Holiday’s position may enable him to get the votes that Kawhi could not.
Holiday’s ability to remain elite defensively while defending up a position or two, whether it be against Paul George, Kevin Durant, or some other star forward, could be the perfect narrative to put his season over the top. With the Pelicans scheduled for 30 (!) national television appearances, strong performances against the league’s signature stars will go unnoticed by the broader basketball public no longer.
Would maintaining his defensive prowess while putting up 25 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game be worthy of consideration? If the Pelicans make a legitimate push into the playoff picture, it would be a hard case to dismiss.
The “underrated” label has long served to give credit to athletes whose impact transcends what the box score says. Jrue Holiday has commanded a certain level of respect around the league that has garnered similar recognition, but this season, the conversation could change. Stingy defense and slight statistical improvement could shift the perception of the Pelicans star from a player any team would be happy to have to one that every team should fear, and that is a quality every league MVP has shared. Griffin has said time and time again that this is Holiday’s team, but maybe he wasn’t shooting high enough.
Maybe this is his league, too.