MVP Race: Early Impressions
Who’s been the class of the League so far?
by John Krolik
Hey everyone, I’m back for another fun season of the SLAMonline MVP Race. Part of the fun of the MVP award is that everyone has a slightly different definition of what it means, and not one of them is the absolute truth or absolutely wrong in any kind of objective sense. (Personally, I hate the “Best Player on The Best Team” criteria with a passion I reserve for very few other things, and likewise never need to hear the phrases “Take him off the ____,” “Switch ____ with ____,” or “It’s most VALUABLE player, not ____,” for the rest of my natural life.)
My criteria is based on three factors, all of which I weight more or less equally:
1. Size of role on team. How much raw offense (points, assists) is the guy expected to produce on a nightly basis? Is he the go-to guy during crunch time? How much of the team’s offense is dependent on this player? How much responsibility does he have on the defensive end?
2. Efficiency in performing said role. How efficiently does the guy score the ball? How much does he turn it over? How well does he rebound for his position? How well does the guy defend in his role?
3. Success of team. Pretty self-explanatory.
So without further ado, here are the MVP rankings early in the season:
1. Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers
Without their best second-best player in Pau Gasol, the Lakers have still gotten off to a fantastic 7-1 start, including a dismantling of the upstart Suns and gritty overtime wins against the Thunder and Rockets. What’s more, they’ve done it with Kobe doing more than he’s been asked to do in years. With no Gasol to make the offense hum the way it did for the last two seasons and the Laker bench looking awfully thin, Kobe’s needed to absolutely take over on offense, and he’s responded. He’s scoring 33.6 points per game by taking it to the post more than he ever has before — he’s been one of the best post players in the League for a few years now, but this season he’s working the mid-to-low post better than anybody I’ve seen since KG’s MVP days with the Timberwolves.
It’s not as pretty as the Laker offense was (and likely will be) with Kobe and Gasol whipping the ball around and playing the triangle to perfection, and the Lakers have gone from an offensive juggernaut to the No. 12 team in the League in terms of offensive efficiency. And Kobe’s only averaging 2.6 assists per game, with an assist ratio less than half of what it’s been in the last two seasons-in fact, right now Kobe has the same assist ration as Dwight Howard. It’s probably not how Kobe would want to play, but it’s been necessary with the Lakers missing Gasol, and more than that, it’s been working as well as anything else any other team in the League is doing.
Maybe the best part? Kobe’s defensive impact has been just as significant as his offensive impact in the early going. The Lakers have actually had a better defensive efficiency mark than offensive efficiency mark thus far, and a big part of that is Kobe averaging a career-high 2.6 steals and an absolutely insane -15.3 plus/minus rating on the defensive end. Basically, what that means is that the Lakers have given up 15.3 less points per 100 possessions when Kobe’s been on the floor, which is in another stratosphere from Kobe’s defensive numbers over the past few years. For some context, the best defensive +/- mark in the entire NBA last season was 10.1 points per 100. Will that number normalize? Absolutely. (The same numbers also show the Laker offense has played slightly better with Kobe off the floor, and that’s DEFINITELY going to normalize as the year goes on.) But while the number is too inflated to be taken at face value, what it does show is that Kobe is bringing it defensively this season in a major way. Kobe’s been asked to take on a larger role than any player in the NBA, and his team is tied for the best record in the NBA, and that’s why he’s on top of the initial rankings.
2. Dwyane Wade | Miami Heat
To be honest, I was hoping that Thursday night’s games would make the top of this list easy for me, because I had no idea how I was going to choose between Kobe and Wade Thursday afternoon. Fortunately, I got some help with Kobe beating the Suns convincingly and Wade’s Heat getting beaten by the Cavaliers, but this ranking is more a product of poor timing for Wade than a reflection of Wade being significantly worse than Kobe, or for that matter anyone else, at this point in the year. Wade’s scoring 30 a game to go along with 5 assists, and he already has two 40-point performances under his belt. He’s kept his turnovers down while scoring at a very solid level of efficiency-his field goal and 3-point percentages are down from last season, but he’s absolutely living at the line again, shooting 12 free throws a game while knocking them down at an 80 percent clip. Free throw rate actually tends to be a fairly stable stat, so I’d expect his scoring efficiency to go into the stratosphere as he starts to knock his jumpers down at a better clip.
And just like with Kobe, a huge part of Wade’s effectiveness this year has been at the defensive end. The reason behind Miami’s surprise start is their defense-they’re at the middle of the pack offensively, but they’re the 3rd-best team in the League in terms of defensive efficiency. A big part of that is Jermaine O’Neal looking revitalized on that end, but Wade has been absolutely instrumental in the Heat’s defensive improvement as well. Wade’s cut down on his gambling for blocks and steals, but his advanced defensive numbers have been off the charts. He’s holding his counterparts to a PER of 6.6; that’s Desmond Mason territory. But Wade’s +/- numbers have been the most shocking thing in the early going; again, these numbers will almost certainly normalize as the season goes on, but they’re still insane. Last year, the best +/- mark in the League was LeBron James, at +21 points per 100 possessions. Wade has a higher +/- than that on both ends of the floor in the early going-the Heat are 21.3 points per 100 possessions defensively with Wade on the floor, and 25.3 points better offensively, for a mind-boggling overall +/- of +46.6 points per 100 possessions.
If the Heat can play defense like this all season, they’re for real-keeping the score low and then unleashing a superstar down the stretch will give a team a good chance to win any game. If the Heat continue to play like this, expect them to stay at the top of the standings and Wade to stay near the top of these rankings.
3. LeBron James | Cleveland Cavaliers
There’s very little LeBron James can do in the regular season to impress us anymore. He’s got a PER above 30 again, he’s got what would be a career-best True Shooting Percentage of 62.1%, his assist ratio would be slightly above his career high, and he’s averaging 28/7/7. The only area he’s gotten worse in is his turnover ratio, where forced passes have given him what would be the worst turnover rate of his career. The Cavs’ somewhat slow start is keeping him out of contention for the top spot at this point, and the fact his season-high in points came in a loss as well as his biffing of a game-deciding layup at home against Chicago hurt him here as well.
Cleveland hasn’t been nearly the kind of juggernaut it was in the early going of last season; they’ve struggled to integrate Shaq, Delonte West’s issues have been hurting the team, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas has struggled mightily coming off the bench. But LeBron’s been playing at essentially the same level as he did in last year’s MVP campaign, and in fact his jumper has looked significantly better than it ever has in the early going. If Cleveland’s back-to-back wins on the road against Orlando and Miami were a sign of turning the corner and not a brief flash from a team that’s still struggling to make everything work, LeBron’s back-to-back MVP campaign could start rolling very soon.
4. Dwight Howard | Magic
This is where it gets into apples-and-oranges territory. Dwight obviously doesn’t have the ball in his hands offensively as much as most of the other guys on this list, won’t put up the same kind of scoring performances, and isn’t going to take over games the way the other guys are. But he’s having a fabulous season, with a career-high 67% True Shooting percentage and one of the best rebound rates in the League. And he’s held the injury/suspension/new-player-addled Magic together and led them to a very soild 6-3 start, despite ugly performances against the Cavaliers and Thunder-Dwight’s +/- is a fantastic +34.3, with an equally gigantic impact on both sides of the floor.
Defensively, Dwight hasn’t been himself this season-his blocks have been cut in half from last season, and much more importantly the Magic, the League’s best defensive team last season, are only 17th in defensive efficiency thus far. Dwight gets a lot of credit for leading a very thin team to a good start, but if the Magic don’t turn things around defensively, his ranking here could plummet with his team.
5. Carmelo Anthony | Denver Nuggets
Anthony is another guy getting credit for an absolutely torrid start, when the Nuggets surged to a 5-0 start behind some absolute scoring explosions from Anthony. Like Wade, Anthony has made a home at the line this season, averaging 12 FTs a game and knocking them down at an 85% clip. His True Shooting percentage of 55% isn’t setting the world on fire, mostly due to his inability to finish around the basket so far. (Anthony only makes 44% of his non-dunk shots from “inside” and only 77% of his dunks, mostly due to the fact that 20% of his “inside” attempts get blocked.)
Making matters worse is the fact that the Nuggets have dropped three of their last four, with Anthony having ugly shooting nights in two of the three losses. Anthony’s start was one for the ages, but as he cools off it’s looking like there’s still one more little gap between Anthony and the League’s ultra-elite.
And there’s also this, which is one of those stats so completely bizarre I almost hesitate to report it because it goes against common sense so completely that its mere existence threatens to make people hate this statistics, and all statistics, forever. In the early (and I emphasize early) going, Carmelo’s plus/minus rating is at minus 28.4 points per 100 possessions. Now, that will normalize, and I expect a lot of it is noise from garbage-time, or something. (Boston’s +/- numbers are seriously wonky right now because of the garbage time effect.) But that is seriously weird. I want to impress upon you that this is not something that is commonly seen in plus/minus rankings. The Kevin Durant case, where a very good player on a bad team had a bad plus/minus, was an extremely rare case in its own right, and not something that generally happens on even the worst of teams. Again, it is really early in the season, but all the other top players have impossibly good +/- rankings. And I have never, ever seen a negative plus/minus rating from someone considered the best player on a winning team (other than the Celtics thing, but that’s every starter), at any point, in all the years I’ve been obsessively checking 82games, let alone a plus/minus that abysmal. All Anthony’s “damage” is on the defensive end, and Denver has been a below-average defensive team this year, so how he’s playing on that end might be looking into.
To make it crystal-clear: I am not taking this at face value, or anything moderately approaching face value. If I did, I clearly wouldn’t have Anthony on this list at all. But this is curious enough that it deserves mention-in all likelihood, everything normalizes in a week or two. But if not, this is something I’ve never seen before. Just something to keep an eye on, that’s all.
6. Steve Nash | Phoenix Suns
Hey, it’s this guy again! The Suns are rolling again, even with their setback against the Lakers on Thursday night, and Nash is back to his massive assist totals and insane scoring efficiency, averaging 12.6 assists per game and scoring 18 a game with a 67% True Shooting percentage, running around, firing passes, and bringing the Suns back into serious contention after many had written them off. And yes, I realize that there is no possible way Steve Nash will ever win another MVP award.
7. Dirk Nowitzki | Dallas Mavericks
Big German! Averaging 26.5/9, one of the games of the young year with his fourth-quarter explosion against the Jazz, absurd and comical (but good) plus/minus of +44 (I love small sample sizes early in the year), PER of 25, Mavericks of to a 5-3 start. You go, Dirk.
8. Paul Pierce | Boston Celtics
Boston, clearly the League’s best team, needs a representative, and Pierce has been the guy so far. It’s such a team affair that it’s almost ridiculous to pick one player-KG is probably the most important part of the defense, Rajon is a great defender and makes the offense run, Allen gives everybody the space they need. But it’s been Pierce who’s been the best all-around Celtic, averaging 18/5/4 on a fabulous 66.6% True Shooting and taking part in the Celtics’ crushing defense.
9. Chris Paul | New Orleans Hornets
Last season, a lot of this column ended up me railing about how Paul wasn’t considered one of the best players in the game despite his absolute statistical dominance by every conceivable measurement. Well, Chris hasn’t made my life any easier this season. Not only has his team gone from contender to playoff qualifier to below .500, Paul has continued to make leaps in his game, and is, so far, having one of the best statistical seasons of all-time.
His 36.6 PER threatens to actually break the statistic, and he’s averaging 26 points per game and 9 assists per game with one of the 10 best turnover rates of any point guard. Oh, and he’s a point guard shooting 62% from the field. Impossibly, that actually underrates how efficient of a scorer Paul has been. His free throws and 65.5% 3-point accuracy make his True Shooting Percentage 74%. That’s just something that’s never been approached by a high-volume scorer. 65% true shooting for a 20+ point scorer happens about once every generation, and perimeter players just don’t do it. And it may be easier to rack up stats on a bad team, but it’s harder to be efficient. And Chris Paul has been uber-efficient.
Unfortunately, the Hornets are just too awful, and the fact they fired Byron Scott, didn’t tell CP3, and replaced him with their GM so they wouldn’t have to pay another coach is less than promising. The only knock on CP3 is that his defense has gone back to being pretty poor, and it’s contributed to the Hornets’ awfulness, but in a world where it would be criminal to surround such a great player with such an awful supporting cast, CP3 would be right at the top of this list.
10. Chris Bosh | Toronto Raptors
Another guy with absolute monster numbers on a mediocre team. Bosh’s PER of 33 is only behind CP3′s, and he’s averaging 29/11.5 with a 63% True Shooting Percentage. However, defense is the issue here as well. The Raptors have been the best offensive team in the League this season, but they’re right at the bottom of the defensive efficiency rankings. I’m a little harder on Bosh than I am on CP3 because power forwards have a lot more defensive responsibility than point guards, and Bosh clearly isn’t getting the job done on that end. But if either Bosh or Paul’s teams can find a way to support their stars by getting some stops, they’ll skyrocket up these rankings.
Well, that’s all for now-as early as it is, a lot of the rankings are going to be matters of taste, so try to keep that in mind and stay civil. Until next time, everyone.