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Essay: Gambling On The MVP

On the surface, predicting who will win the NBA’s MVP award is extremely easy. Select a really good player on a really good team, then call it a day. But, unfortunately, as we travel through each new season, a subjective investigation is given to the word “valuable,” and all hell breaks loose. Is it designed to reward the league’s best player? Or should it go to whomever is most important to their specific team—the player most obviously carrying his team towards the playoffs.

If the world we lived in were strictly based on facts and statistics as a means to present logical evidence, the 2012-13 MVP discussion would contain seven players. Here they are, in no particular order: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Dwight Howard, and Andrew Bynum.

It’s certainly up for debate whether or not these seven are the “best” seven in the league (they aren’t), but based on a combination of contextual value, projected room for two-way improvement, and several more points I’ll be covering later on, it’s very difficult to bring anyone else onto the list.

Earlier this week I tried to forecast the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year winner through the eyes of a betting man. Similarly, this ranking isn’t to predict who I think will win the MVP award (that’d be LeBron James), but instead to pontificate on who the most logical option to place money on would be based on a well-balanced mixture of odds and a realistic chance at actually winning. So while I think it’s a virtual lock LeBron will eventually take home his fourth MVP trophy in five years, due to the 9/5 payout I wouldn’t jump to put money on him. Get it? Great!

Before we build a case for these players, lets take a look at those who might feel a little slighted. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker, and Dirk Nowitzki all had better odds than Andrew Bynum (at 40/1), and each could easily receive votes. But for various reasons, I couldn’t possibly see any of them actually winning.

Close, But No Cigar

Kobe Bryant (12/1): Throughout his first ballot Hall of Fame career, Kobe Bryant’s won the award once, in part because he doesn’t necessarily make players around him better, or their lives easier, relative to other elite players in the league. Even with a Dwight Howard safety blanket, his individual defense will continue to slide, and his 2011-12 offensive numbers that weren’t good enough to put him in contention for the award last season aren’t getting any better. Kobe’s 34 years old, and the additions of Howard and Steve Nash will only further diminish his already shrinking role.

Dwyane Wade (22/1): He finished 10th in the voting last season, receiving 0 first place votes and finishing a point behind Steve Nash. With playoff basketball standing in as the sole purpose both he and his team are trudging through the first 82 games, don’t expect Wade to work his hardest or play his best until May rolls around.

Russell Westbrook (16/1), Steve Nash (16/1), Blake Griffin (25/1): Along with Kobe and Wade, you can sum up why these three aren’t serious contenders in one sentence: they aren’t the most valuable players on their own team.

Tony Parker (25/1), Deron Williams (25/1), Dirk Nowitzki (30/1): These three narrowly get the boot in part because the chances of them having career years is significantly smaller than the seven prime candidates—and in the cases of Deron and Dirk, they play for teams that probably won’t be competitive beyond the regular season, which is a huge factor in determining the MVP. (Going back 15 years to Michael Jordan winning the award in 1998, no MVP has ever not been the best player on a team that’s finished in second or first place in their respective conference. The Mavericks and Nets are not finishing in first or second place in their conference this year).

Diving a little deeper into Parker’s situation, last year was statistically the second best of his career, and he finished fifth in the MVP voting. He’s now 30 years old, and the chances of him duplicating—let alone exceeding—last year’s campaign are pretty much zero (especially when you factor in the probable emergence of Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio’s offense.) I love Parker, and there’s no question his team depended on him last season (84% of his fourth quarter shots were unassisted) but I can’t realistically say he’s worth the money.

Carmelo Anthony (25/1): You might as well fill a garbage bag with money, then light it on fire.

 

The Top Seven

 

7. Kevin Love (20/1)

Love is here not only because he’s the best power forward in the world, but given his team’s situation, if the Timberwolves were to make the playoffs with very little contribution from Ricky Rubio (who’s recovering from a serious knee injury), all eyes would be locked on Love as the sole remarkable reason why. Unfortunately, as we just covered with Deron Williams and Dirk Nowitzki, this point stands as a dual edged sword; the reason Love is ranked as the worst bet is entirely based on the team he plays for.

Barring a fortuitous conclusion to the Derrick Williams situation (via trade or him somehow, someway thriving at small forward) and Rubio displaying Hall of Fame worthy point guard play sooner than later, Minnesota’s chances at finishing first or second in the Western Conference are virtually impossible through the life of Love’s current contract. Still, a player of his ability can’t be discounted; what he does for his basketball team’s chances of winning are unquantifiable. Kevin Love’s too good not to be included.

6. Andrew Bynum (40/1)

Those who believe Bynum doesn’t belong on this list based on who he is as a player will find no objection from me. Last year he was occasionally lazy, disappointing as a defender, and a malcontent off the court. When you factor in his questionable knees, Bynum might be the least dependable “franchise player” in recent league history.

But man, oh man. Just look at those odds! The Eastern Conference is anorexic, with only two real teams capable of breaking through into the Finals. But with both of those teams (Miami and Boston) prone to caring more about health and rest than the importance of home court and posting an impressive win-loss regular reason record, it doesn’t take the most imaginative mind to dream up a scenario that sees the Sixers leapfrogging one of them for a two seed (and then promptly getting destroyed against either in a seven game series). In order for this scenario to materialize, Andrew Bynum would have to run away with the MVP award. At 40/1, it’d be silly to ignore the possibility.

5. Dwight Howard (16/1)

Heading into this season, Dwight Howard will be one of the league’s most scrutinized players. He’s also the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. From the foul line in, a healthy Howard fortifies the court like few players of my lifetime, and the two or three who compare are headed straight to the Hall of Fame when they retire.

Those who insist on debating the merit of any other big man being the game’s best center are either ignoring stout defense as a major ingredient in winning basketball games, or simply love hearing the sound of their own voice. And wouldn’t it be strange for the greatest center of his era to never win one MVP?

According to NBA.com’s stat service, when Howard was on the court with the Magic last season, Orlando’s defensive rating was 99.3 points per 100 possessions. When he came off, that number rose to 106.2. That’s nearly a seven point difference, which is sort of a big deal. Last year, opponent’s attempted 1559 shots in the restricted area against the Orlando Magic, which was lowest in the league. (The Lakers saw 1797.) Also a sizable difference.

If Howard controls the defensive glass like he’s come accustomed to doing, Los Angeles’ defensive efficiency numbers teeter at a top 5 level throughout the year, (after the All-Star break last season, L.A.’s defensive rating was 23rd in the league) and the Lakers steamroll through the regular season, there’s a possible chance Howard could run away as the MVP.

4. Kevin Durant (15/4)

Nobody makes scoring the basketball look easier than Kevin Durant. Most fresh in our minds (or at least mine) was his absolute bludgeoning of the red hot San Antonio Spurs in a must win Western Conference Finals Game 4, scoring 36 points on just 20 shots (including 7-9 in the fourth quarter) with a barrage of soul crushing mid-range daggers. It was one ridiculous show among a slew of others.

Durant received 24 first place votes for MVP last year, and if it weren’t for LeBron James, he might’ve grabbed them all. The fact that he’s just 23 years old stands as significant when we look to his development as a defensive weapon; given his body type, that metaphor could end up being a gigantic understatement as soon as this season ends. His rate of improvement at both ends of the floor is downright terrifying for opposing players and coaches.

Durant is valuable to his team because no defensive strategy short of a triple team can stop him from scoring the ball. In the same way Michael Phelps was born with the perfect body for swimming, Kevin Durant is the prototypical basketball player. This award was made for players like him to win.

3. Chris Paul (20/1)

The NBA’s best point guard might also be its best closer. When there’s five minutes left in a close basketball game, the Clippers rely on Chris Paul’s on-court leadership more than any team leans on any one player in the same situations. (An eye-popping 90.4% of all Paul’s made shots in the fourth quarter were unassisted last season.)

The bad news? Despite being so close to flawless, Paul comes with a major blemish: balky knees. Even though he’s just 27 years old, there’s a very real clock hanging over his head, ticking down the minutes he has left to play at this unbelievably elite level. The good news? It appears he’s adapted to the problem. If healthy, Paul will play amazing basketball this season. And if the Clippers can surprise the general masses by surpassing the likes of the Spurs, Thunder, and Lakers after 82 games, Paul could finally take home his first MVP award.

2. LeBron James (9/5)

I don’t care that his odds won’t even double your money, this is like betting on Joaquin Phoenix to take home a Best Actor trophy at this year’s Oscars. A full head and shoulders above everyone else, LeBron James heads into 2012-13 as not only the world’s best player, but also its most confident. The reigning winner of this award, James defines the word valuable with his overall play. As one of basketball’s three best passers (and, Larry Bird aside, the greatest passing small forward in the history of basketball), he’s capable of making those around him substantially better on offense, and double teaming him is nearly impossible when you factor in the fluid ease in which he gets others involved. On the defensive end he epitomizes selfless behavior, locking down whichever opposing player his team needs stopped in order to win. LeBron James is a pick your poison basketball player. And more times than not, all the answers are extremely painful.

1. Rajon Rondo (28/1)

Rajon Rondo spent the last two seasons waffling back and forth as Boston’s most talented and most valuable player, but not until the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami did we see both labels lock in at the same time.

Rondo’s weaknesses have always turned himself into his own greatest opponent. The faulty jumper and penchant to fear free-throws were two reasons why he could never quite elevate himself into an undisputed territory of elite superstardom. It’s why he was dangled in trade rumors despite having one of the league’s best contracts, and why for all his incredible court vision and creative flair, the Celtics offense was continuously stagnant.

I know it’s just preseason, but Rondo’s game has been a motivated, singularly focused laser beam, unlike any we’ve seen from him before. He’s sinking free-throws, pulling up for mid-range jumpers with confidence (while draining nearly all of them), and recognizing his own importance as the best player on one of basketball’s six true contenders. With greatness expected from him on a nightly basis, and a slew of incoming toys to play with, like Jared Sullinger, Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and a full season of Jeff Green, at 26 years old this should be the defining season of Rondo’s career. If Boston’s offense improves to above average efficiency levels this year, it’ll be because Rondo is nearing his ceiling as a basketball player. It’s a truly scary thought for the rest of basketball, and at a 28/1 payout, the odds are too good to be true.

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