MVP Race: Familiar Faces
Kobe’s superhero act puts him at the top.
by John Krolik
Hey folks, it’s time for the first SLAMonline MVP Race update of 2010. In case you forgot, my three factors are size of role on team, efficiency in performing that role, and success of team. Without further ado, let’s get to the best of the best:
1. Kobe Bryant | Los Angeles Lakers
A very tight race for the No. 1 spot at this point in the season. I think Kobe’s played a larger role on his team this season, for reasons I’ll get into shortly. LeBron’s efficiency has almost unquestionably been better than Kobe’s thus far, as LeBron has significantly better efficiency metrics almost across the board. And the Lakers and Cavs are both fighting for the best record in the League, with the Lakers having a slightly better winning percentage and the Cavs holding more wins against better teams.
Here’s why I give it to Kobe thus far, despite LeBron’s statistical dominance and his team’s place atop the NBA:
– While the impact of Delonte West missing time shouldn’t be understated for the Cavs, they haven’t had to deal with any hardship on the level of the Gasol injury.
– The Lakers are 11.8 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Kobe is in the game and 8.8 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponents when he sits. Meanwhile, the Cavs are 9.5 points better than their opponents when LeBron plays and only 5.7 points worse than their opponents when LeBron sits. Some of that has to do with the Cavs’ unorthodox strategy of making one of their worst five-man units their starting lineup, but in any case it’s a point in Kobe’s favor.
– Three game-winning buzzer beaters at this point in the season is a good stat. But here’s an even better one for Kobe: The Lakers are 6-0 this season in games decided by 3 points or less. Only two other teams in the League have won as many as five games by 3 or less, and the Lakers are the only team in the NBA without a loss in a game decided by 3 points or less. (To give you some idea of how amazing the Lakers have been at pulling out close games this season, last year the Lakers and the Celtics each won seven games by 3 or less all season, with records of 7-5 and 7-3 in those situations, respectively.)
– Kobe buzzer-beaters have decided three of the Lakers’ six close wins, and Kobe scored the final points down the stretch for the Lakers in two of the other three. For all the debate over whether clutch performance is something that can be quantified or needs to be seen to be understood, the numbers show that Kobe has been an absolute beast this season when the pressure’s been greatest.
– To further the point that Kobe’s baskets have come at the right time for the Lakers this season, LeBron’s had some fabulous statistical performances in Cavalier losses this season, going for 38 points on 22 shots in a loss against Boston, and 34 points on 20 shots in a loss against Washington, 43 points on 29 shots in a loss against Memphis, the only game of the three that really came down to the wire.
Meanwhile, Kobe’s only shot better than 41 percent in one Laker loss (the Phoenix game), and most Laker losses have been blowouts; in fact, among Western Conference playoff teams, only the Suns have more losses by 10 points or more than the Lakers. (The Lakers have six, while the Suns have seven.)
There’s no penalty for being good in losses or prize for being bad in losses, but those numbers reinforce the notion that while LeBron’s overall numbers this season have been better than Kobe’s in a vacuum, Kobe’s good performances have come at far more opportune times for his team at this point in the season.
This is, of course, where the discussion gets interesting; basketball empiricists will say that the above numbers are a sign that the Lakers have been overperforming, and that the law of averages would suggest that they’re due for a fall sometime in the near future. Basketball “purists” would say that the Lakers have made their own luck this season because of their championship mentality and the sheer will of Mr. Bryant. But whatever happens, the MacGuyver act (finger and all) that Kobe’s pulled to keep the Lakers atop the standings at this point in the year deserves commemoration.
2. LeBron James | Cleveland Cavaliers
And now the LeBron folks are probably mad at me. Think about it this way: LeBron has been so good this season that it took me 700 words to fully justify why one of the game’s true greats should be just ahead of him in the MVP Race. No, LeBron hasn’t been quite as good as his numbers would suggest, but seeing as his numbers say he’s having (another) one of the greatest statistical seasons of all time, that’s really not a slight.
LeBron posted the third-best season of the modern era in terms of PER last season, and this year he’s actually improved his scoring efficiency and and assist ratio, with the only reason his PER has taken a slight dip from where it was last year being that his turnover rate has spiked with LeBron adjusting to where the two new big men in his starting froncourt like the ball. (For JJ Hickson, the answer is apparently not his hands.)
LeBron’s jumper has vastly improved. His 44.3 eFG percentage on jumpers would be easily the best mark of LeBron’s career, and is especially impressive considering that 80 percent of LeBron’s jumpers have come off the dribble. LeBron’s midrange game is still a weakness, but he’s utilized his natural shooting range to become one of the League’s best players at making deep jumpers off the dribble; James is making a career-high 36 percent of his threes, and only Steve Nash and Chris Paul take a higher proportion of threes off the dribble than LeBron does.
And LeBron’s racking up assists better than he ever has. And he’s slowly but surely starting to incorporate that elusive post-up game. And he’s playing off the ball better than he ever has, with over 50 percent of his shots at the basket coming off of assists this season. And even though his overall defensive effort has regressed from where it was last season, he’s had some signature lock-down performances to cool off opponents during crucial stretches. And the Cavs might already have more road wins against elite teams than they did last season, even if they already have more home losses than they did in ’08-09. And all of this is coming off of a near-unanimous MVP campaign and, as was mentioned, one of the best statistical seasons ever.
As was mentioned in the Kobe section, LeBron’s timing hasn’t been as good this season as it has been in seasons past; the Cavs are 1-3 in games decided by 3 or less this season, which is as many close games as they lost all of last year. In most of the important ways, LeBron’s just as much of a juggernaut as he was last season, if not more so; if he can get some lucky breaks (or make his own), he could be in position to run away with another MVP award by the time all 82 games are played.
3. Dirk Nowitzki | Dallas Mavericks
The choice between No. 3 and No. 4 wasn’t much easier than the one between No. 1 and No. 2, but I ended up going with Dirk for many of the same reasons. First off, +/- isn’t perfect, and say what you will about it, but Dirk’s +/- is absolutely off the charts. The Mavericks are 23.8 points better per 100 possessions with Dirk on the floor. The gap between the highest and lowest point differentials in the League is currently 19.2 ppg. Now, a lot of that is due to the fact the Mavericks are subjecting basketball fans to the comedy stylings of Drew Gooden when Nowitzki sits, but that is a statistic that warrants some serious attention, even if you’re not willing to take it at face value.
Dirk’s been no slouch on the conventional stats page either, averaging 25 and 8 this season with a very nice True Shooting percentage of 56.7 percent. He’s showing a definite mean streak and has taken over more than his share of games. And remember games decided by 3 points or less? The Mavericks are 5-1 in those games, second only to the Lakers, and Dirk’s the biggest reason why. Add all of that to the fact that Dallas has a slightly better record than San Antonio even though Dallas has played five more road games, and Dirk just got the edge over this next guy.
4. Tim Duncan | San Antonio Spurs
Have Tim Duncan’s wonderful play and the Spurs’ consistent success become so synonymous with each other over the past decade that when the Spurs don’t quite look like the class of the League, we don’t think Duncan can be playing incredible basketball?
The Spurs’ lack of depth was exposed in last year’s Playoffs, and they’ve been ravaged by injuries this season. But they’ve still managed to claw their way to a 21-12 record, because Tim Duncan is having one of the best statistical seasons of his career. Duncan is only playing 32 minutes a game, but when he’s in Duncan has the second-best PER of any player in the League, behind only LeBron. His defense is still all-world quality.
His assist ratio puts him at 14th among centers, and none of the centers better than him in that category are anywhere near the scorer Duncan is. (I won’t touch the “what is Duncan’s position?” debate, but I’m reasonably sure Antonio McDyess is not currently starting at center for the Spurs.)
He’s actually been one of the best jump-shooting bigs in the League this season, with a 50.2 eFG percentage on jumpers. That number would be extremely high for a perimeter player, and is off the charts for a player who doesn’t shoot threes. He’s even shooting free throws better than he has since the ’01-02 season. For all the talk about Duncan’s intangibles, leadership and quiet, team-based success over the years, we forget that he’d have been an MVP-caliber player no matter what team was lucky enough to get him.
5. Steve Nash | Phoenix Suns
Due to how long the first few entries ended up being, I’ve decided to cut this list to five, which will mean a lot of players not getting props who deserve them, but Nash is the best of a huge number of deserving candidates for the fifth spot.
– Carmelo Anthony‘s been a scoring machine and probably would’ve had the No. 5 spot if he didn’t hurt his knee, but his all-around game hasn’t been strong enough for him to get the fifth spot while he’s missing games.
– Dwight Howard is still a beast, but the Magic have stumbled a little bit, Dwight’s offensive game has regressed slightly, and his defense isn’t at the level it was last season.
– If the Raptors can keep their strong play going, Chris Bosh‘s individual production is going to have him surging up this list.
– Brandon Roy‘s been great, and that the Blazers have kept winning through all their injuries is a true achievement. He missed it by the thinnest of hairs.
– Dwyane Wade is still Dwyane Wade, but Miami’s only a game better than .500 and Wade’s True Shooting is below league average, which is a major issue. It might be time for Flash to try evolving his game. He’s still more comfortable driving right and pulling up to his left, with the vast majority of his jumpers coming from the left side of the floor, and he’s not making many of them. His eFG percentage on jumpers is at 38 percent, which is not a strong number by any stretch of the imagination.
– Meanwhile, Phoenix is still playing good basketball, Nash is running the show with panache and an extremely high True Shooting percentage, Channing Frye has a new lease on life, and the Suns still have the best offense in the NBA, with Nash at the steering wheel.
– Well, that’s all for now. Sound off (in a civil fashion) in the comments, and let’s see what the NBA’s best do as the season goes on.