by Lang Whitaker

While I was glad to see so many of you chime in on the MVP post I wrote the other day, I didn’t expect there to be over 400 responses. Man. So I fired up one of the new Radiohead remix CDs and read through your comments…all 409 of them (as I went to type). And I want to read and react here.

Before we get into that, though, I should say that yesterday afternoon I watched both the Cavs/Mavs and Hawks/Lakers game, and one thought that jumped out at me is that while Kobe Bryant is probably the best offensive player in the NBA, LeBron, at least yesterday, seems like the most versatile player.

(And just after I typed that sentence, my official awards ballot arrived! Is that a sign?)

Anyway, here’s a few comments and emails…

Co Co wrote…
Look Lang, don’t try to be some go against the grain type of guy. The award is LeBron’s. It was his to lose and he hasn’t lost it. Just fall in line and vote for the King.

I’m assuming that was written with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Either way, the reason I’m trying to make this a dialogue is because I don’t want to just fall in line like everyone else. It’s my vote, but it’s also SLAM’s vote, and it’s also your vote, because without you guys, our readers, we don’t get a vote. And I don’t want to be one of those columnists/writers who is always telling you what you should be thinking. So I’m listening. Next!

A1 commented…
I agree that the race is a close one, but I dispute your premise that the East is a “much weaker conference.” Respectfully, I think you’re stuck in last season on that one.
Without question the East has 3 of the 4 best teams.  The West clearly has a lot more teams that will finish with 50 wins.  The East has a 226-208 record (.521) in inter-conference games.  It seems pretty hard to navigate those facts in any way that makes either conference “much stronger” or “much weaker.” Since you were writing about the relative challenges facing the Cavs and Lakers, however, it might be instructive to look at those teams’ comparative records against the West and the East.  The Cavs are 35-9 (.795) against the East and 25-4 (.862) against the West.  The Lakers are 20-8 (.714) against the East and 38-7 (.844) against the West.  It is pretty clear that as between those two teams, both of which are utterly dominant against Western Conference opponents, it is the Lakers that have an advantage playing more games against the “weaker” conference. Good luck deciding on your vote!

You know why I say the East is a much weaker Conference? Because the Hawks, MY Hawks, are solidly in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. HOWEVA!, if they were in the West, they’d be battling for the 8th seed. Both Conferences have a lot of flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of the standings, but look at the BETcats — seven games under .500 but only two games out of the Playoffs in the East. Maybe the West has a more clearly defined top and bottom than the East, but to me the East has a lot more mediocre teams.

The Seed wrote…
I feel Kobe is the MVP, because his team will have the best record and he has taken a back seat to help the team win. Just wait until playoffs start and Kobe like last year, increase his scoring per game and assists and rebs. People wait up and see we are going to give a player who fundamentals suck, playing with just brute force an MVP award. Whats wrong with America.

Well, we’re not voting on the Playoffs. We’re voting on regular season.

Rue Morgue Avenue wrote…
Just want to start by saying I’m a lifelong Laker fan, but also a fan of the NBA in general. Obviously, I’m gonna try to convince you to vote for Kobe as MVP. For me the biggest argument in his favor is that the Lakers play in the tougher Western Conference, where they have to play teams like the Spurs, Rockets, Jazz, Blazers, Hornets, etc. on a regular basis multiple times a year. Over in the Eastern Conference, LeBron and his Cavs get to beat up on the likes of the Knicks, Pistons, Pacers, Bucks, Bulls, Nets, etc. on a nightly basis. I know that there are some awful teams in the West like the Kings and the Clippers, but the difference is that there are still the other eight good teams fighting for playoff spots, while the teams I mentioned from the East are all sub .500 teams that are fighting for the last 2 playoff spots in the East. LeBron does have a weaker supporting cast in general, but the Lakers bench is a bit overrated as of recently. While they’re going through their slumps, while Lamar Odom is going through his moments, while Andrew Bynum is injured, Kobe (and Gasol, but more on him in a sec) is the guy that’s got them winning games. Also, Kobe makes the guys around him significantly better too. I’m not too familiar with Gasol’s career with the Grizzlies, but he’s putting up all-NBA caliber numbers this year. Playing with Kobe has made guys like Ariza, Farmar, Walton, Vujacic, and Powell improve significantly…both because playing with him leaves them with great looking shots and because his work ethic rubs off on them. LeBron has been playing great as well…he’s a freak of nature and it pains me to stay that at some point he’ll probably overtake Kobe as the best in the game today, but I don’t think he’s there yet. Also, don’t forget the Lakers are the only team to beat the Cavaliers at home, at the end of a long road trip, about a week after Bynum went down, two or three days after an emotionally draining battle with the Celtics in Boston. I think that ought to count for something.

Hey, tell that to The Seed. Good point about the head-to-head match-ups.

Darksaber wrote…
my two cents Lang? Don’t overthink it, oh great thinker. You have scaled both awards down to 2-3 candidates each. Even have your arguments, and are still unsure. So, who do you like watchingthe most. Who makes you leave your seat during games? Who is the most awe inspiring? The big 3 are all mvp candidates for different reasons. So who is Whitaker down with? And ROY is quite clearcut no? Rose.

No, not quite clearcut. Getting clearer, though. And thanks for recognizing my great thinking ability.

NBK wrote…
The only reasonable argument anyone can possibly have to why Kobe would be MVP has not even been said yet, Kobe is the only player who has not lost to the top teams in the league this year. He beat Cleveland twice and is the only team to beat them in Cleveland (to my knowledge), and they beat Boston twice. If anything Kobe’s MVP argument hinges on him beating his championship competition.

Dude above made a similar point, but the more I think about, the more I think we should make clear that we’re not voting for best team. We’re trying to pick the one player who has the most value to his team.

Tommy from over at Hoopsworld emailed to say…
per your recent post – I don’t think CP3 get enough love.
I wrote about it here. The premise: “While intangibles such as leadership and nebulous concepts such as “making your teammates better” are difficult to measure, the one thing we can clearly quantify is the statistical bottom line.”

Sure. And I love CP3. But he’s not the most valuable player in the NBA.

Finally, Dr. Brent Brossman sent this thesis along…
The attachment below is a detailed analysis of your question and (I think) proves conclusively that LeBron James is your MVP. I’ve attached a Word version as well, which may be easier to read and also has links to the relevant articles.

This is new to me.  I follow basketball closely, but I don’t write to voters or columnists.  However, since you asked for input, I’ll gladly provide it.  I hope you will take the time to read it, because I put a lot of thought into answering what I perceive to be a legitimate question on your part. I  think I can conclusively prove that LeBron James is the MVP.

You start with the assumption that it’s a three man race between Kobe, Dwyane and LeBron.  I’ll agree to limit the debate to those three guys.  Additionally, I’ll argue for the use of statistics for determining which one is best because they cut through the personal biases of watching (or rooting for) some players more than others.

There are several statistics that I believe are the most important because they measure specific things. First, there is John Hollinger’s PER.  Hollinger claims it “sums up all a player’s positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player’s performance.”  It appears to be the best evaluation of a player’s overall contribution to his team.  It does not take into account the intangibles like leadership, but I think we’ll all concede that LeBron, Kobe and Dwyane are great leaders for their teams. It doesn’t take into account some defense (which is still subjective), but there seems to be a general consensus that all three of these guys belong on the first team All Defensive Team. Additionally, it does account for rebounds, blocks, steals, etc. So, what do they do in the rest of the game?

According to PER, the top 5 players – in order, are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant.  It assumes that an average player who is worthy of 500+ minutes per year is valued at 15.  On that scale, Kobe is 24.77, while LeBron James is 31.67 and Dwyane Wade is 30.34  In other words, while LeBron and Wade are close, Kobe isn’t.  In fact, if Tim Duncan were .10 better this year, Kobe wouldn’t be in your top 5.

Those numbers replicate themselves in more traditional stats as well.  Kobe is behind LeBron and Dwyane in scoring, assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, etc.  He’s great; but not as good as the other two.

Now, I know your answer is, “but Kobe plays in the tougher conference.”  Except, he doesn’t.  In years past that was true, but now the East is the tougher conference.  I know it doesn’t look like that given that the East has two teams with losing records in the top 8 and the West will have a team at close to a 60% win-loss record who doesn’t make the playoffs.  However, it is the teams below that that artificially inflate the West. The worst team in the NBA (Sacramento) and 6 of the 7 worst teams overall play in the West.  Assuming you play a team 3.5 times a season (you play all teams in your conference EITHER 3 or 4 times; 2 if they are in the other conference), that’s 23 games against the worst teams in the NBA if you are in the West, but only 15 or 16 if you are in the East.  That 7-8 game difference makes a huge impact in the standings.

How do we know that it is the bottom dwellers pushing records up and not the better teams forcing the lower teams down?  The statistics prove that again.  In head to head competition, the East and West have played 430 games against each other including the games of March 27.  The EAST leads the season 223-207 for a .519 winning percentage.  I don’t see how the West can be better if the East is winning the head to head games.  However, there is additional evidence.

There are clearly 4 elite teams this year – Cleveland, Los Angeles, Boston and Orlando. Their records are in a different stratosphere than the other teams. But, that also means they are driving down the win-lose records of their opponents. Eastern teams have to play those 4 teams an average of 13-14 times, while the West plays them 9-10 times. That’s another 4 game swing in the standings. Given that three of those teams are in the East, they have a disproportionate impact on the standings, making the East look worse than it is.

And, how do those teams do against the other conference?  Through March 27’s games:
Team           East W    East L    East %    West W    West L    West %
Cleveland          35           9           .796           24          4              .857
Los Angeles      38           7           .844           20          7              .740
Orlando             33          11           .750           21          7              .750
Boston               35          10           .778          20          9             .690

Of the four, only Boston has a better record against the East.  Both Cleveland and Los Angeles are SIGNIFICANTLY better against the West.  So, I do not accept your argument that “Bron also plays in a much weaker conference.”  LeBron plays in the stronger conference.

Given that, there is no real case to be made for Kobe this year unless it’s the “best player on the best team” philosophy.  Even then, the Cavaliers have the best record in the NBA at the moment; although the Lakers could easily have that by the time the season is over.  Still, in a world in which those two teams will clearly have the best records, and those records will be significantly better than any other team and very close to each other, there is no justification for giving the award to Bryant over James.

As for James v. Wade, the debate is more interesting.  Wade actually leads LeBron in both scoring and assists, the first time Wade has led James in any of the “big three” categories in their careers. Wade has been an unstoppable force, and has almost single-handedly kept his team respectable.  However, you were right-on in your argument that Wade’s team is only 4 games over .500. That doesn’t deserve MVP honors.  It would certainly be unfair to change the criteria and award it to Wade this year after LeBron should have won a year ago and Kobe two years ago if we used that standard.

However, even by that standard, Wade doesn’t win.  It’s easy to say that Wade is obviously more important to the Heat than James is to the Cavs, but the statistics don’t support that either.  The obvious statistic to use is EWA – an assessment of the estimated number of wins each player is responsible for.  Wade does amazingly well with an Estimated Wins of 27.0.   In other words, without Wade, we could expect the Heat to drop from 38 and 34 to a lowly 11 and 51.  Clearly, Wade is ESSENTIAL to the Heat. But, James’ Estimated Wins is even better – a league high 28.8.  So, even in this category, NOBODY is more important to a team’s success than LeBron James. For comparison, Kobe’s EWA is 18.6.

And even in the traditional statistics, Wade is second to James. First, while Wade does have more points and assists (barely in both counts), they are only two of the many statistical categories in basketball.  PER balances those two statistics with rebounds, steals, blocks, turnovers, etc., and demonstrates that LeBron is the better player by a significant margin – although Wade’s PER is 2nd in the league. How good is LeBron?  He’s having the second best season ever since the advent of the modern statistics in basketball; second only to Michael Jordan’s best year (31.89 to 31.67).  Hollinger has an important two-part series as to why LeBron is clearly the MVP.

LeBron James is your MVP. Hope I helped. Thanks for reading.