MVP Race: Post All-Star Break
Are Mamba and Bron all that different, anyway?
Well friends and readers, after our little vacation in which we celebrate individual brilliance in the NBA, it’s time to get back to the time-honored practice of arguing about individual brilliance in the NBA. So, without further ado, it’s MVP race time!
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Wow, this pick now requires explanation, as LeBron’s had some extremely rough shooting nights in high-profile games and the Cavaliers are now behind the Lakers in the power rankings, and Kobe’s had a few of his patented scoring explosions. So here we go:
– LeBron’s team has been even more injury-ravaged than the Bynum-less Lakers up to this point, losing 2nd-best player (despite the Mo Williams hype) Zydrunas Ilgauskas for extended time and having him struggle upon his return. Integral starter Delonte West continuing to miss time with a broken wrist, but the Cavs are still one of only three 40-win teams at this point because of LeBron’s increased workload.
– LeBron is still right at the PER record, with a narrow edge over MJ’s best statistical season at this point and a tie with Wilt Chamberlain’s second-best statistical season, and barely behind Wilt’s all-time record. The gap between LeBron and the best ever is 0.12. The gap between LeBron and Kobe is 6.64. This gap exists because LeBron is scoring more efficiently, passing better on a per-possession basis, and rebounding better on a per-possession basis, all while using more possessions. Kobe’s lone advantage is turning the ball over slightly less.
– If head-to-head is a deciding factor now, why wasn’t it during the Cavs’ 5-game winning streak against the Lakers that preceded their current two-game losing streak?
– LeBron’s defense is a significant advantage—the Cavaliers are a better defensive team by a significant margin, LeBron’s opponent PER is far lower, and the Cavaliers play 9 points per 100 possessions better defensively with LeBron on the floor while the Lakers play slightly worse defense with Kobe on the floor.
– LeBron’s +/- may be even more compelling than his record-setting conventional stats-with LeBron off the floor, the Cavs’ point margin is +15 points per 100 possessions, making them easily the best team in the League. The Cavs’ overall point margin leads the League at +9.82. When LeBron is off the floor, the Cavaliers are -8.5 points per 100 possessions—only the Kings have a worse overall margin. The result is that LeBron leads the League in net +/-, as well as conventional and advanced individual statistics. For Kobe, the Lakers are a very good +10 points with him on the floor and a solid +2.2 points with him off it. A Kobe-less Laker team would be about as good as the Hornets or Hawks, according to the numbers. While I won’t penalize Kobe for having a great team around him, LeBron’s team being a cellar-dweller without him on the floor and having the best margin in the league when he’s on it is an astonishing achievement and should be recognized.
2. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Don’t sleep on the Mamba. I’d all but written him out of the MVP race this season, and all of a sudden Kobe’s dropping 61 on you. While this isn’t the Dirty 30 and the separation is important to note, wins over the Celtics and Cavs in consecutive games definitely merits some attention here at TBF Imperial Palace. This race is far from out of his hands, as the Lakers’ tremendous success matched with his unparalleled ability to turn a great game into a game you tell your kids about gives him the kind of blend of personal and team success that tends to stick in voters’ heads come ballot time. If he continues his success against elite teams while LeBron continues to struggle against them, it will be very difficult to keep him out of the one spot, even as TBF tends to favor empirical evidence over the anecdotal.
3. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
He’s generally placed much lower in current MVP polls, and it makes me a little sick to my stomach. After finishing a (very, very, very) close second in the MVP voting last year, Paul goes ahead and steps his game up, bringing his rebounding to a whole new level while rising his scoring efficiency to a level above James, Bryant or Wades, keeping his passing up so that he accounts for more points than any player in the NBA, all of which put his conventional numbers (AT 24!!!!) on par with any point guards’ best season, ever, and his 29.75 PER is good for second in the League (in a metric biased against smaller players), and the best mark of any guard not named Michael Jordan (or Tracy McGrady in 2002-03, if you count him as a guard).
If you don’t like numbers: He’s generating more points than anyone on this list and doing it with a higher level of efficiency, all while rebounding at the top level for his position. That’s good.
Oh, and remember +/- from a few minutes ago? He’s second only to James with a margin of 21.2 net points against LeBron’s 22.6, and the No. 3 player is at +15. So that statistic is pretty much LeBron, CP3 and everybody else. So how bad are the Hornets with CP3 off the court? -10.7, which would make them the worst team in the League by a full point. The Heat are better with Dwyane Wade off the floor than the Hornets are with CP3 off the floor. In fact, the Kings are better with Kevin Martin off the floor than the Hornets are with CP3 off the floor. That Paul is not getting props for this season is one of the biggest travesties that I can remember in the long history of MVP race travesties. It’s not CP3′s fault that everyone dramatically overrated David West, thought Peja was back, thought James Posey was made of magic, didn’t think Tyson Chandler could go back to playing the way he had for the first half-decade of his career, and didn’t see that having no guards outside of Paul might be a bad thing. They start Rasual Butler.
So why isn’t he over Kobe? His injury saved me from having to potentially make one of the least popular calls in MVP race history and force me to make sure that Ryne wasn’t giving out my home address to keep me from insane Kobe sycophants, but ultimately with Kobe’s team’s record, it’s tough to say that he should be doing something drastically differently in terms of how he’s using his possessions. With the point guard position being so closely tied to team success, there’s more room above CP3′s head than Kobe’s to be doing something different. It’s not on any stat sheet, but I think it’s there.
4. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Fourth-best team in the League, fourth highest PER—the No. 4-spot seems about right for Dwight Howard. Free-throw line dunk decision was a colossal error. With Oden still waiting to explode, Bynum hurt again and an Amar’e fire sale, Howard seems to have locked up unofficial “big man of the next generation” honors. Dwight’s in danger of a free-fall in these rankings if Jameer Nelson, who was threatening to make an appearance in the top-10, was as vital to this team as many think he is.
Bonus Discussion Question: Amar’e Stoudemire combines top-level athleticism with an offensive skill-set as good as there is among true big men—particularly when facing up—and combined scoring volume and efficiency as well as any big since Barkley and McHale. Dwight Howard has a severe lack of offensive finesse and is completely ineffective outside of the paint, but is an absolute physical marvel and is a superior all-around player. One hundred out of 100 observers now consider Howard the more valuable player. Why is the discussion regarding the value of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James so radically different? (Note: Not a statement of opinion here, just looking to get opinions. Is it about the different things required of bigs and wings?)
5. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Filled with righteous anger that he’s in the race because he’s “carrying” a subpar team to a mediocre record while CP3 is carrying a worse team to a better record… Stats are certainly good, but scoring efficiency is a full 5 percent lower than Paul’s and fairly easily the lowest of anyone on this list. If you want to really be in the hunt with a mediocre team, it had better be a sure thing that the reason your stats are so good isn’t because you’re just putting up a lot of shots. With Marion experiment now a failure, we’ll see if Jermaine O’Neal and Michael Beasley (who it’s far too early to give up on) can find a chemistry that gets the Heat back at the contender level.
6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Nearly got the No. 5 spot, especially with the Spurs slowly getting their contender status back as Manu starts to round back into form, all while Duncan continues to be quietly effective. As Duncan stays, so stay the Spurs.
7. Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
Signature performances conspicuously absent recently, but he’s still a top-10 PER player and an alpha dog for a 32-20 team. Kevin Pritchard’s refusal to move small pieces and get another All-Star for Roy to play with keeps him from invading the true upper echelon. Between him, Jameer and Kevin Durant, young kids who want to learn how to score from the perimeter without choking out the offense have a lot of great role models to watch right now.
8. Yao Ming, Houston Rockets
As McGrady and Artest threaten to crumble around him, Yao played 50 games, anchored the defense, kept Houston in the playoff hunt, and has the best scoring efficiency of any player on this list. Keep going, big guy.
9. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
The leader of the team with the best record in basketball, who really should probably have a representative up here, and actually has some stats to his credit. Despite the fact that his value comes from anchoring the League’s best defense, his PER, which doesn’t take defense into account, is better than that of individual standouts like Danny Granger and Kevin Durant. Seems enough for a No. 9-spot for me.
10. Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
A very small dash of love here for the League’s best second banana; No. 15 in the League in PER, is an integral part of your No. 1 in the power rankings Lakers, and had the quietest consecutive 31-15 games on 12-17 shooting in the history of ever as Kobe exploded in both of those games. With Bynum out and his side of the floor cleared, you can really see how absolutely deadly Pau is offensively; he can score with his back to the basket, face up and get by you, or hit the mid-range J. He’s really unstoppable one-on-one, and just gorgeous to watch. After a slow start, Pau is coming on extremely strong.