MVP Race: Quarter Report

by December 23, 2008

by John Krolik

Hey all, I’ll be taking over the MVP rankings here at SLAM. My credentials are as follows: I love making lists, love talking about players, and think more about the MVP than any human who considers himself sane rightly should.

Real quickly, here are my three main criteria for the MVP, all weighted more or less equally: 1) Size of role on team, 2) Efficiency in performing said role, and 3) Success of team. And know that I use my criteria rather than going off past MVP awards and trying to adapt to the “established” criteria of those who vote for the MVP. I haven’t agreed with an MVP pick in the last four years. So without further ado, let’s get to the candidates:

1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Pros: If the vote was held today, he’d be the near-unanimous pick. Only his lack of minutes due to how many fourth-quarter blowouts the Cavaliers have accumulated are preventing him from attaining numbers the likes of which are rarely seen: last year he posted a historic 30/8/8, and this year his points per 40 minutes are up nearly a full point, and his assists and rebounds per 40 remain the same.

On top of that, more time spent in the paint and in transition, as well as a dramatically improved free throw stroke, have bumped his scoring efficiency to 60 percent true shooting, which would be his career best by a full 3 percent. And his turnover ratio would be the best of his career. And his defense is all-NBA quality: The best player on the NBA’s second-best defensive team, he’s become a feared shot-blocker (especially in transition), he’s averaging more steals than ever, and his opponent PER is 10.7 despite taking on the other team’s best scorer more often because of Delonte West’s position as the starting shooting guard.

And did I mention he’d comfortably have the single-season PER record in hand if the season ended today, a record currently held by Wilt Chamberlain? Oh, and his team is 22-4 and leads the League in margin of victory. Simply put, this is what dominance looks like.

Cons: Alas, the curse of being perhaps the most talented player ever means there will always be holes that can be fixed. When LeBron sets his feet and gets a good look at the basket, he’s a good shooter (see: International Play), but on the Cavaliers he tends to settle for off-balance looks from 20+ feet and still doesn’t have many shots in the 8-15 foot range that work for him: as a result, his eFG% on jump shots is an average 40 percent-other than Dwight Howard, that’s lower than anyone on this list, including Duncan, by a fair margin. When the lightbulb goes off on the perimeter, you could well be looking at the greatest player of all time.

2. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
Pros: Offensively, Chris Paul is playing the point guard position just about as well as it can be played. By my gorilla math formula for points created, which is (PPG+APG*2), Paul is creating 44 points a game, which is straight freakish: that would match Kobe’s points created in his historic 2005-06 season.

And then there’s the efficiency. Scoring 20 points a game, he’s 12th in the entire league in true shooting with a 62.9 percent mark, thanks to his ability to finish inside or set up a sweet little short jumper. And he’s sixth in the League in assist/turnover ratio. And for the love of God, the little man only trails Jason Kidd in rebound rate among point guards despite being one of the league’s smallest guards. And he leads the league in steals, and the fact the Hornets are 11 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor would suggest that’s not just a reflection of him taking stupid gambles. Statistically speaking, I’m hard-pressed to tell you how any point guard could be playing better than Chris Paul.

Cons: But somehow he’s not your MVP. More than anything, that’s because the Hornets are “only” 4th in the West with a 16-7 record. The feeling here is that it’s the Cavs, Lakers, Celtics and everyone else at this point, and if a player from one of those three teams is putting up an individual line that’s MVP-worthy, he should get the nod.

With LeBron putting up career-best lines and on pace to break Wilt Chamberlain’s PER record on one of those teams, it’s hard to advocate Paul over LBJ. I could say that the issue is that assists, which require a teammate to make a play to finish, are less tricky to get than points, which you do all yourself, or that Paul’s defense doesn’t make nearly the same impact on the game as LeBron’s (in fact, advanced stats continue to show him as a liability at that end, which isn’t definitive but isn’t encouraging), but really it’s only his team’s lack of a stellar record and their slight underperforming of their lofty expectations that’s kept Paul’s near-perfect play out of the limelight so far. I mean seriously, look at this box score. He’s been doing it all year.

3. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Pros: League’s leading scorer, and doing it efficiently. Ninth in the League in assists. 2.2 steals and a block and a half per game. Right now, the League’s biggest threat to drop 40 on a given night. And the team may be 14-12, but this was the League’s worst team last season. Getting to the hole at will and has developed an absolutely deadly elbow pull-up from the left side of the Wade > Kobefloor to keep defenses honest. Absolutely playing to the best of his considerable ability right now.

Cons: I had the no. 2 spot all nice and warm for D-Wade before last weekend’s three-game crapfest, where he went 19-56 from the floor with 16 assists against 11 turnovers in losses to Atlanta, Memphis and Milwaukee. That would be as many games as Kobe and the Lakers had lost all season at that time, so putting Wade ahead of Kobe just didn’t seem right, and he was in the no. 4 spot. Then he beat Kobe in an early Christmas present of a showdown and went on a mini-rampage while the Lakers looked vulnerable, and now he’s in the three-spot. For me, this was easily the toughest call in the Top 5, as it’s your classic “stats vs. record” debate, but this time I’m going with the hot hand. Ultimately, I see it as a little moot because as good as Wade and Kobe have been, LeBron and CP3 are on a whole other level, scary as that may sound.

4. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Pros: Well, of the three teams clearly head and shoulders above everyone else at the quarter poll, two have clear-cut best players, and Kobe’s one of them. Hard not to ignore that. Defensively, he’s stepped up his game: He’s earning that All-Defensive selection he’s been given by reputation in the past, and both his opponent PER (12.5) and the Lakers’ resurgent defense reflect his renewed commitment on that end of the floor. And offensively, he’s still Kobe freaking Bryant, and has started to peel off a few of those games that make it seem like he can just decide to drop 35 on you on any given night.

Cons: He is Kobe Bryant, yes. But he’s not playing at the level he has in the past. Reduced numbers are fine—the team around him is better, and he’s playing less minutes. But there’s no reason either of those factors would cause his efficiency to fall off, which it has. His true shooting is down two full points from last year and, at 56 percent, is as low as it’s been since 2002-03. His assist ratio is as low as it’s been since 2005-06, and his rebounding rate is slightly down. A lot of this is because of a slightly worse touch from the perimeter, with a 30 percent 3-point percentage, and a reduced willingness to get to the stripe, although that’s been offset by Kobe shooting a career-best FT%. All in all, Kobe isn’t playing for the MVP this year: He’s thinking ring or bust. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is an MVP column. Of course, none of this means he couldn’t explode at any point this year and claim back-to-back awards. There’s no doubt he’s got the ability.

5. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Pros: With 4 blocks and 14 rebounds per game for a team that starts Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis at the forward spots and is still 3rd in defensive efficiency, Howard is the clear-cut DPOY at this point. And the League’s best rebounder. And scoring 21 points per game and the offensive focal point for the 21-6 Magic. And just had his 23rd birthday two weeks ago. Yipes.

Cons: It’s ridiculous how much better Howard could be on the offensive end. That he’s putting up 21 points as one of the League’s worst free-throw shooters, with a shaky post game (a decent 53.3 percent on “inside” shots), with no jumper whatsoever and no mid-post abilities to speak of is a testament to just how physically gifted he is. Just a solid free-throw stroke would make him the League’s best big, hands-down. With some fundamentals on the offensive end, he’d start exploding brains. The Shaq parallels are creepy—was he secretly in a motorcycle accident?

6. Kevin Garnett, Boston Celtics
Pros: This may seem high for KG. Here’s my justification: The Celtics are on an 18-game winning streak and the best team ever at the quarter-mark. Someone needs to be up here. The Celts are doing it with the League’s best defense. There’s no doubt KG is the Celtics’ best defensive player. Adjusted +/- backs this up by showing him as the League’s best defender and, in fact, the best overall player in adjusted +/-. CP3 got my no. 2 spot for flawless offense and being a possible liability on defense—Is the no. 6 spot for KG, as the leader of the League’s best defense and its best team, that much of a stretch?

Cons: Pretty obvious—he’s only average offensively, both in production and efficiency. And on that Celtic team, one of four players could be their best on a given night: Allen’s the best offensively this year, Rondo’s the sparkplug, plays killer D and can take over games now, and The Truth is their most well-rounded guy and their crunch-time scorer. But KG does it every night on the defensive end, and while that may not be apparent on the stat sheet or on first glance, it’s the reason the Celts are winning and why he deserves this spot. That said, it’ll be a cold day in hell when someone averaging 16.5 ppg actually wins the MVP, unless Bill Walton is given unilateral power over the League.

7. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Pros: Very quietly, he’s 8th in the League in PER. And putting up 21-11 every night. And he’s carried the injury-ravaged Spurs to the 3rd seed in the West. The sentimental favorite here is Never leaves the Top 10Chauncey Billups, but here’s why I put Duncan first: Who’s carried a bigger load for his team? (Duncan.) Who’s bringing more leadership”? (Duncan.) Who’s giving you more on the defensive end? (Duncan.) Right now, would you take the now-healthy Spurs or the still-on-honeymoon Nuggets in a playoff series? (Spurs.)

Cons: He was there when the Spurs were looking like a doormat, which is tough to excuse from an MVP. Other than that, he’s Tim Duncan. It doesn’t get much more solid than that.

8. Chauncey Billups, Denver Nuggets
Pros: The unquestioned leader of the League’s surprise success stories, going from what looked like a fringe playoff team to 2nd in the West, he’s completely galvanized that team on both ends of the floor. Thirty-three points created every night is nothing to sneeze at. And the efficiency is as good as we’ve come to expect from Billups: 60.5 percent True Shooting and he only trails Chris Quinn, Boobie Gibson, Derek Fisher, and Bobby Jackson in turnover ratio among point guards, and those who trail him are really spot-up shooters.

Cons: Doing as good as can reasonably be expected, but he doesn’t have the raw ability to take over a game on a nightly basis like the guys ahead of him do. That’s really not a diss—Chauncey has played as well as can be expected of a point guard, he’s just not the guy to go deus ex machina on you and pop a 30 and 7.

9. Brandon Roy, Portland Trailblazers.
Pros: When the first draft of this was sent in, I had him, in my own words, “sneaking into” the 10 spot and “keeping it warm” for Joe Johnson, Amare, DWill, Dirk or Yao. Then on national TV, B-Roy kicked it up ANOTHER NOTCH! (Note: I was looking for a clip of Emeril saying this, but couldn’t find it and got that instead. It is so bizarre I feel I must share it with you, as this is the true purpose of the internet.) He’s the clear-cut alpha dog on a playoff team nobody wants any part of, which is always good for a spot on my list.

Cons: You know, you get a week-long grace period for a clutch 50-point game on national TV. Mostly, I’m just afraid he’s going to make me look stupid again, even if only Ryne saw the original draft. I’m sure he silently judges me now.

10. Devin Harris, New Jersey Nets
Pros: In terms of points and efficiency, one of the NBA’s best scorers: He’s putting up 24 on 60.8 percent True Shooting. He’s another one of these hyper-quick guys who’s compensated for his lack of a great natural shooting stroke by never settling for deep jumpers and getting a nice little pull-up jumper from midrange that really uses his quickness to set it up instead of trying to prove to everybody how good of a distance shooter he is. And he’s running a team that many thought had given up on the next two years nicely, propelling them to a 12-11 record, which is better than DWade’s team. His defense is a strength.

Cons: Team’s not good enough; he’s not quite dominant enough. This field is ridiculously deep when someone 5th in the League in PER isn’t going to sniff the trophy as one of the League’s best two-way players.

Well, that’s it for this installment. The e-mail is I’m sure you’ll all want to tell me how great of a job I did and how vehemently you agree with me.