MVP Race: Final Call
It’s all coming down to the wire.
1. LeBron James | Cleveland Cavaliers
I mean, what do I start with?
– Are you a “Triple Crown” stats guy? LeBron leads the League in Points/Rebounds/Assists and, unsurprisingly, triple-doubles, and his LEAST productive month of the new year saw him averaging 30.7/6.7/7.0.
– How about the more advanced metrics? He’s going to come within an inch of the PER record, his TS% is comfortably higher than Wade and Bryant’s, and his by-possession stats are even more impressive than his “raw” numbers.
– Is it the little things you desire? Thanks to KG’s injury, I have LBJ as No. 2 on my DPOY ballot, seeing as he’s become a shot-blocking and weak-side steal force, guarded all five positions, locks down the other team’s best scorer in crunch-time, and is the best defender on one of the three elite defensive teams. Oh, and he comfortably leads the League in +/-.
– Crunch-time performances? He has the best crunch-time stats in the League, the Cavs have only lost two games by three points or less, and over the Cavs’ most recent March tear LeBron scored or assisted on nearly every Cavs basket during the stretch of those games.
– Oh, and record? The Cavs are clinging to the best record in the League with five games to go, but more importantly they’re at the top of the League with a supporting cast that’s seen three starters miss over 50 combined games due to injury and a team that is -9.5 points per 100 possessions when James is off the floor. Even if the Lakers manage to overtake the Cavs and finish a game ahead of them, this shouldn’t really be a contest. Kevin Garnett was much closer to Bryant statistically last year than Bryant is to James this year and had significantly more defensive value, but finished fourth despite his team winning eight more games than Bryant’s.
No one statistic is perfect, and you can talk about throwing them out all you want, but at some point you’re looking for a full-fledged conspiracy if you want to deny that LeBron James should take home the MVP trophy this year.
2. Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers
This is where everything gets tricky for me. The gap between No. 1 and 2 and No. 4 and 5 are both absolute chasms compared to the minute gaps in between No. 2 and 4 on my ballot. My three big characteristics are size of role, efficiency in role, and success of team. Each of these three players is the clear-cut favorite in one of those categories. Really and honestly, I have no argument whatsoever with any of these three being put in a different order—I have my reasons, but there are other valid arguments. Hell, flip a coin.
Statistically, and in a vacuum, Paul and Wade have been better than Bryant. (OMG DOES U EVER WATCH BASKETBALL TRIANGLE OFFENSE MEANS U CANT GET STATS LIKE JUST RACKING UP STATS U DUMZICLE. I live in L.A. I watch a lot of Lakers. Yes, Kobe plays with playmaking bigs. He initiates plenty of possessions and plenty of opportunities to make passes—he prefers to shoot. The fact that he plays with playmaking bigs instead of playmaking guards, like Wade and James do, doesn’t mean all stats should be thrown out the window.) There’s almost no argument—not only is Kobe not taking over games on a nightly basis like those two have, but his scoring efficiency is far behind that of Paul, James and Wade. He seemed to finally run out of gas a little bit in March, as the Lakers lost their grip on the best overall record with Kobe shooting 43 percent for the month and shooting 62-160 from the floor in the Lakers’ six losses. (OMGGGZ IN A TRIANGLE BIGS NEED 2 BE INVOLVED KOBE JUST GIVING THEM OPPORTUNITIES FOR OFFENSIVE BOARDS KOBE MOST SKILLED PLAYER PERIOD. PERIOD!)
Ultimately, I’m putting Kobe above where his numbers say he should be (fourth or fifth) because of his clutch play and the fact the Lakers, and Kobe, have been the best team in the League against, well, the best teams in the League. Kobe’s not as young as he used to be, and he’s saving his biggest punches for when he needs them instead of going out to take over every game like Wade, James and Paul have. I don’t think I should penalize all that harshly for that—he’s done what his team has needed to win, and his team has won a whole lot. If you think his being relatively quiet down the stretch doesn’t mean he’s going to be his old terrifying Mamba self come playoff time, you’ve got another thing coming.
3. Chris Paul | New Orleans Hornets
I know that we’re not supposed to acknowledge that Chris Paul is absolutely having an MVP-worthy year this season, and pretend that putting up huge numbers on a mediocre playoff team is something that didn’t happen with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, two years apiece, with neither of them getting close to actually getting the award. I don’t buy it. Paul’s injury-ravaged, Lohan-thin squad is four games off second place in the West, he’s putting up absolute monster numbers across the board, he’s got an absurd TS% of 60 percent, he’s leading the League in steals and has a better defensive +/- on a better defensive team than Wade, and he’s made up for a lack of explosive super-performances with a plethora of quieter displays of amazing like last night’s 26/9/9/6 line against Wade.
(I wouldn’t dare pretend that tonight’s game had a bearing on this spot, but you do have to laugh when Wade goes from the hero to the goat who missed a game-icing free throw, turned it over on the last possession, and got kicked out of the game, with the change coming because Rasual Butler made an absolute laugher of a three at the buzzer. We like to pretend that the MVP candidates somehow control these things.)
We acknowledge that Paul is the best point guard in the League. The best passer. The best guy for steals. The best combination of raw points and scoring efficiency. The guy playing the biggest role for a Western team. Why are we never willing to make the leap and talk about him as one of the game’s best players, maybe even the best?
4. Dwyane Wade | Miami Heat
Look, “best player on the best team” is stupid. That’s not why I have Wade here. After Wade’s uber-nova beginning of March (five 40-point games in nine outings, with the Heat going 7-2), I had him at No. 2 and threatening for the one-spot. But if we allow a huge stretch like that to color our perception and have Wade surge into the MVP talk, why do we stop paying attention when Wade shoots 42 percent in losses during the Heat’s post-explosion 5-8 skid, with one DNP in a close game? When Kobe has a bad game, it’s a New York Times Magazine article. When Wade does, our low expectations for the Heat allow us to only see the huge performances and forget the 8-21 nights.
Wade’s made a Herculean effort in the size of role he’s taken on and the burden he’s shouldered every night to get the Heat back into the Playoffs, but we do Paul and James a disservice by forgetting just how lost their teams would be without them, and discounting Paul’s clear-cut advantages in efficiency and team success. We can’t imagine the Hornets and Cavs without Paul and James, but we know the horrifying reality of what a Heat with even 50 percent of Wade looks like. Remember in The Aviator, when they figured out you can’t tell how fast the planes are moving unless they have still cloud cover to show their speed? That 15-win season has functioned as Wade’s cloud cover, but it shouldn’t keep us from forgetting just how fast Paul and James are playing and how valuable they are to their teams.
5. Dwight Howard | Orlando Magic
DPOY, with a bullet. Somehow leads the League in rebounds while challenging almost every shot. Can’t be single-covered in the post. Best player on maybe the best team in the League at this very moment. In all likelihood, will absolutely smash the record for First-Team All-NBAs made. But still a level away from the Top-4. With how amazing those four are, you can’t have a hole in your game as absolutely gaping as Howard’s inability to truly take over a game at the offensive end.
6. Brandon Roy | Portland Trail Blazers
And now, another logjam. With KG hurt, nobody from Boston is a clear-cut best player MVP candidate out of that team. Which means we get to choose the final five from the 2-8 bunch in the West, with the Nuggets separated from the Mavericks by only six games.
I’m going with Roy in this spot because he feels like the closest thing to a clear-cut alpha dog from all the teams remaining, with the possible exception of Deron Williams, and Roy’s been healthier, had more late-game heroics, and has better numbers. Nine games is a big deal. And as impressive as Williams succeeding with Utah’s injuries, Roy’s been the mentor to an-always changing cast of young talent.
7. Tim Duncan | San Antonio Spurs
It’s trendy to put Tony Parker here as the Spur, but Graydon Gordian of 48 Minutes of Hell assured me that I’m right in saying Duncan’s still the guy making everything work over there. Duncan’s still a whisper-quiet 5th in PER; I mention this here because it’s surprising Duncan does so well in a metric that would seem to ignore his biggest assets; defense, leadership, keeping the ball moving and the floor balanced on offense without racking up assists, and saving his energy for when he knows his team needs a play. Even putting all of those things above his numbers, Duncan’s put up great numbers and led the Spurs to a quietly fantastic campaign.
8. Yao Ming | Houston Rockets
It was a tough choice to put him ahead of Billups, but I feel like Yao’s played a much more integral role, putting up big numbers without great shooters spacing the floor or T-Mac to create plays; he’s got a huge target on his back every time down the floor, and he’s simply taking the punishment and putting in his absolutely gorgeous/unstoppable jump hook time after time, while serving as the last line of defense on a still top-notch D. And he’s played in 73 games this year! Did you ever think Yao Ming, one of the most hyped and intriguing players in the game on and off the court, would finally break through and lead a team to the Playoffs to the sound of absolute silence?
9. Chauncey Billups | Denver Nuggets
Yes, the Nuggets looked like a mess before he got there, and now they’re the second-best team in the West. So he should have some serious also-ran type momentum going to get in the honorable mention half. But his numbers aren’t nearly where most of these guys’ are, and when you give him credit for the Nuggets’ success, you’re just throwing a lot out, like AI being more washed-up than anybody thought, ‘Melo buying in on both ends more, JR going super-beast, and Nene quietly being one of the best young centers in the NBA—people discount how valuable it is to nearly always be able to put the ball in the basket when you catch it in the immediate area, and Nene might be the best at it. Great season, great player, but some differentiation between causation and correlation might be necessary here.
10. Dirk Nowitzki | Dallas Mavericks
Clinched a playoff spot, still scoring, still getting it done, carrying a team. Has lost a step, and wasn’t a guy I waxed rhapsodic about even when he had all his steps. For the Playoffs, he should get ready to wear Lamar Odom like a second skin for four-to-five games. But he’s had a very good season. Deron has this spot if he’d been healthy the whole year—it should be noted that Deron once again came through in the only important category to grade point guards by—the ability to beat Chris Paul or Deron Williams’ team in meaningless regular season games. (That was so Ryne doesn’t fire me.)