Essay: The Maddening Race For MVP
For a majority of this lockout shortened 2011-12 season, LeBron James was a solid five or six strides ahead of everyone else in the always entertaining race for MVP. The Miami Heat looked unbeatable when they wanted to be, and the biggest reason for that was James’ consistent magnificence.
Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul joined him in early season conversation, but eventually LeBron simply pulled away, looking like a man on a mission. Playing in a condensed season that posed a lose-lose situation for both him and his team (the Heat could have gone 66-0 this season and nobody would care unless they won the championship), James began to put up historical numbers. When Dwyane Wade went down for an extended stretch, the question was posed as to whether Miami was actually a better team with LeBron running the show by himself. Wade is one of the league’s 10 best players on an off night. This train of thought was insane and intriguing at the same time.
I don’t recall anybody ever saying the Bulls were better without Scottie Pippen, or the early 2000 Lakers were better without Kobe Bryant. This was hard evidence for just how other-worldly LeBron’s season was earlier this season. There was a Bryan Cranston at the Emmys type of feel about LeBron and the MVP award this year. It was his to lose. Nobody was close.
Then March 20th happened. In a game against the Phoenix Suns, with the outcome already decided, James and Grant Hill crashed into each other diving for a loose ball. The collision was so violent, there was talk James might have suffered a concussion. Three nights later, he had a surprisingly subpar effort against Detroit, going 6-15 from the field for a puny 17 points. Granted LeBron had 10 assists, four steals, and his team won, but with LeBron the expectations are always higher than everyone else’s.
Two days later, in a much anticipated Sunday night matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder—and more importantly, prime rival MVP candidate Kevin Durant—both LeBron and his team floundered. The result was a seismic shift in the race. LeBron went head to head with Durant and was badly outplayed. For the first time, LeBron’s five fingers appeared to be slipping off the trophy.
Exactly one week later, the Heat were handed their worst loss of the season, and James recorded 0 assists (passing is the largest advantage his game has over Durant’s) while the Thunder handed the league’s best team (record wise) their worst beating in recent memory.
Between the win against Phoenix on March 20th and last night’s 41 point demolition of Philadelphia, Miami was 3-3, playing like an average basketball team at best. And LeBron’s MVP candidacy is on the ropes like a popular politician enduring a sex scandal in early October.
The trophy is officially up for grabs.
As we go into the three main components that decide who should be named MVP, it should be noted that for the rest of the season, this is a two horse race; it would be “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson has been nominated for an Osacr” type shocking if either LeBron James or Kevin Durant did not win. They’re the two best players in the league, and until further notice, their respective teams are headed on a probable collision course this June.
But this column isn’t about them so much as it is the award’s selection process. Each year, or so it seems, the requirement to win is altered. One year it could be awarded to the best player, another year it could be given to someone dragging his team by the scruff of its neck into playoff obliteration. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency?
(Quick Tangent: It’s absolutely INFURIATING to hear former players, analysts, and reporters speak about the MVP on television as if it’s a little child swaying back and forth on a swing. When there’s a month left in the regular season it makes absolutely no sense to say one guy has “passed” another just because he outplays him in a single game. This award is supposed to validate an ENTIRE season’s body of work. Right? It doesn’t matter who you think should win, please, for the love of God, just present your case with some logical evidence and move to the next topic of discussion. Thank you.)
There are so many different paths that can be taken to receiving the MVP award. Here, in my opinion, are the three most important: Narrative, Statistics, and Value.
Narrative: From Game 1-82 (66), what’s the story of this player’s season?
It’s unfortunate for both the sport of basketball and those who enjoy watching actual games in their rawest form that the narrative of one player’s seasonal journey is firmly entrenched as a major factor in discussing who’s most deserving of being named MVP.
As long as writers have a vote, don’t underestimate the power of a good story. It can be a tale of great perseverance, “the underdog” who somehow, someway, has turned his team into a fire breathing dragon (Steve Nash), or one man’s complete annihilation of those we were told to be his peers (Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal). Every player has a narrative, and after stats and value have separated the exceptional from those who are exceptionally good, it’s that personal story that has the power to push two or three of the selected few over the edge and leave one champion standing at the crest.
When this season started there were seven true superstars in the NBA: Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. These players not only entered the year as the league’s seven best and most popular talents, but they’re also capable of directly and indirectly making everyone around them better.
By virtue of being a superstar, these seven players are automatically entered into the MVP discussion. Everyone talks about them all the time. Their every move is tracked, re-tracked, traced, analyzed on thousands of blogs across the internet, then regurgitated.
Somewhere along the way, Kevin Love was welcomed as an eighth member in this exclusive fraternity. His impact on offense is overwhelming in that he’s just as effective keeping possessions alive with incredible intensity on the offensive glass as he is in the pick and pop game 24 feet from the basket. (David Khan signed J.J. Barea to a four-year, $18 million deal with dreams of Love playing the Dirk Nowitzki role in the high pick and roll. Defenders are now so terrified to step away from him that Barea can waltz into the paint. This would happen more often if the little guy could stay healthy, but alas, the idea still has legs.)
Love’s narrative might be the most compelling because it’s also the most improbable. He began the season as the reigning Most Improved Player. Typically, winners of that award don’t develop into franchise players, but Love has.
Granted, the addition of Ricky Rubio helped a great deal, but Minnesota transformed itself from basement dweller to a fringe playoff team in large part because of Love’s ascension into another stratosphere. His usage rate went up six points from last season to now, as have his points per game. In the weeks leading up to last year’s All-Star game, Charles Barkley physically threatened a handful of influential NBA employees in order to get Love selected. This year violence was unnecessary, and Love went on to score 17 points in 18 minutes.
When we talk about LeBron and Durant, the public loves pitting the two against one another as two larger than life ethical illustrations. One represents disloyalty, egotistical arrogance, and, in a slightly exaggerated way, everything that’s wrong with professional sports. The other symbolizes the up and coming “good guy” who doesn’t chase fame or big market endorsement deals. He lets his play do the talking, allowing everything to come to him. He’s humble and cool; an easy man to root for.
I’m not here to assess these perceived story lines as fact or fiction. But the truth is they do exist. Some will reason voting for Kevin Durant by saying he’s the best player on the best team, and they’ll mean it. This is fine. However, others who have difficulty deciding which player is more valuable will likely resort to narrative as a convenient tie-breaker, and in this case LeBron James has literally no chance at winning. This is an unfixable problem.
Stats: The use of metrics to showcase exactly how fantastic a player really is.*
Vince Lombardi once said statistics are for losers. When placed in the proper context that statement still holds some validity, but realistically it was 50 years ago. Right now statistics are the most useful tool organizations have in assessing a given player’s performance. Each year millions of dollars are on the line, in every sport, with regards to player acquisitions and how to accurately tag someone with an appropriate market value. In today’s world of professional sport, statistics are for winners.
When used in the MVP debate, statistics can become skewed and/or ignored. Here are a few relevant numbers that should shine prominently when voters are casting their ballots.
- The highest PER in NBA history was Wilt Chamberlain’s 31.84 in 1963. Right now LeBron’s is 30.2, which leads the league by a wider than wide margin. But PER isn’t everything. Last season Derrick Rose’s was lower than Russell Westbrook’s. Rose finished 9th in the league while LeBron was first. Also, last year Rose was fifth in win shares and ninth in win shares per 48 minutes. LeBron was first in both categories, so clearly the aforementioned “narrative” aspect of MVP voting outweighed “statistics” last season.
- With true shooting percentages that both hover around 60% (the league average among players who log 30-plus minutes and have appeared in 40-plus games is 54.3%) James and Durant are both scoring the ball with unthinkable efficiency. The two are virtually equal in accuracy, but the Heat forward has been assisted 7% less on his made baskets. He’s doing more on his own without forcing shot attempts or wasting possessions (see, Kobe Bryant), and thus helping his team by displaying more singular dominance. In my opinion, it’s a stat that gives LeBron a significant edge over Durant.
- James is a smart basketball player who’s realized that if he makes the strengths of his game any stronger, nobody can stop him, and right now LeBron’s greatest strength is getting to the basket. This season he’s taken 923 shots. 339 of them have come from five feet and in. That’s over a third of all his offense. In those 339 shots he’s shooting 74.6%. Defensively, he’s fourth in the league in steals per game, which barely taps the surface of just how dominant on that end he’s been this season.
- Durant is second in points, second in win shares, seventh in defensive rebounds, fourth in PER, and third in made free-throws. I believe if LeBron wanted to be the most dominant scorer in the world, he would be. But since he doesn’t play the game that way—and Carmelo Anthony appear to try only when it’s in his best interest—Durant is the sport’s most unstoppable scorer.
- When he’s on the court, LeBron scores a third of his team’s points, comes up with one out of every four steals, and blocks one out of every five shots. Durant is similar, but has slightly lower percentages in each category.
- The Miami Heat score 7.55 more points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the court as opposed to when he’s off it. Defensively, the Heat allow 4.64 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. The Oklahoma City Thunder score 0.67 more points per 100 possessions when Durant is on the court as opposed to when he’s off it. Defensively, the Thunder allow 1.20 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. These numbers speak for themselves.
- Since we’re talking stats, here’s some quick props to Kevin Love. Right now he ranks in the top five in free-throws (1), three-pointers (5), minutes (3), win shares (4), PER (5), total rebounds (2), and, last but not least, points (3). That’s pretty good. With Luke Ridnour, Derrick Williams, Martell Webster, and Wesley Johnson surrounding him in the starting lineup, he recently beat the Charlotte Bobcats on a 40 point, 19 rebound effort (the rest of his team scored 48 points and grabbed 31 rebounds).
Value: A player’s direct contribution to his team’s winning of basketball games. A calculation of his total responsibilities.
There are numerous stats out there to help analyze how valuable a player is to his team, but unfortunately they don’t go as far as we’d like them to. No number can evaluate the intricate relationships that play out over the course of 100 possessions.
Last year, Chicago’s record was four games better than Miami’s, and Derrick Rose was named the MVP. Rose was brilliant for much of the season, knifing through defenses and forcing team after team to scratch their head in amazement. But despite the fact that Rose was the best player on the best team, it’s debatable as to whether he had a larger impact on the outcome of games than the system he excelled in, let alone LeBron James or Dwight Howard. (Not to take anything away from Rose, but for my money, Tom Thibodeau was/is Chicago’s most valuable commodity.)
Now, when we get into the nitty gritty of hypothetically removing a single player from his team and then weighing how far that group would fall in relation to a different team that’s also had its best player taken away, it’s a never ending argument. The Heat and the Thunder would both not be championship contenders if it weren’t for LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The Orlando Magic would not be a playoff team without Dwight Howard. The Minnesota Timberwolves might be the worst team in the league if not for Kevin Love.
In this race, the argument that Dwyane Wade will take votes away from LeBron is invalid due to the emergence of Russell Westbrook, a probable second team (possible first team) All-NBA point guard, thriving beside Durant.
LeBron can play four positions on offense, and guard all five positions on defense. He has a stunning ability to make those around him better with his mixture of unselfish play and unusual court vision. It’s for these reasons I would vote for him over Durant, although they both are more than deserving.
What makes this award so fascinating is also why it’s so irritating. Everyone has their own primary reason for why someone should be MVP. It’s an incredibly important award in that the winner ends up forever representing an entire season in the record books, and yet it’s decided in such an unscientific process. It’s so maddening, yet we can’t look away.
*All statistics used in this column came from NBA.com, Hoopdata, BasketballValue.com, or Basketball-Reference.com