The Eclectic Quill

March 23, 2009

And the 2009 MVP Is….

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kelly @ 7:01 pm

As the regular season winds down the MVP talk is starting to heat up. Normally there’s a sort of debate over what constitutes “MVP.” Is it the best player in the league? Is it the best player on the best team? Is it given to the guy with the best stats or the guy who helps his teammates be better? Do you give to the guy whose “turn” it is or the guy who deserves it the most? Rarely has it been the case that the same person is probably the most valid answer to all these questions, but this year it is. It’s my conclusion that this year it’s Lebron James and I’d like to explain in detail exactly how I arrived at that conclusion.

Now I want to emphasize that word again, conclusion. I use it purposefully, as opposed to a word like “opinion. People with “opinions” tend to start with an opinion, often based on subjectivity and bias, and then set about assessing how to defend it. That’s now what I’ve done here. I’ve started assessing what the various arguments and reasons are, weighed them against the facts, and from that drawn a conclusion. My conclusion is based on research, objectivity and logic. I have no special love for Lebron and no special hate for Kobe or Wade; I enjoy watching all three players and regard them all as among the best of all time at their positions (key word there is among, MJ is still the best 2 ever). I want to set the field for you and the reasoning behind my conclusion. If you want to point to a flaw in my logic, you’re welcome to. I only ask that you check profanity and hate rhetoric at the door.

My first inclination was to assess the field. Which players were even worthy of being in the conversation? I wanted to assess a larger field, not a smaller one. The field for me does not start with “Kobe or Lebron” and end there. I wanted to detail the top five candidates. I honestly think the field stops there, but I’m willing to consider alternatives if you have them and make a case for them. Here are my top five, in alphabetical order, and why I think they deserve consideration.

  • Kobe Bryant—He’s widely considered to be the leader on the Lakers, one of two teams vying for the best regular season record. The Lakers have gone 2-0 against the Cavaliers, the other team in contention, and are usually affixed at the top of the various power polls out there. He is athletic, creative and has an astounding ability to make shots for himself. Oh yeah, he’s also the one who currently holds the title.
  • Dwight Howard—The most dominant big man in the game right now, he leads the league in rebounding and still is scoring over 20 points a game. He’s kept the Magic in the playoff hunt even after the only other All Star on the team went down.
  • Lebron James—Arguably the best all around player in the game right now, he has the court vision and athleticism of a point guard but on a power forward’s body. He’s big, strong, athletic, and has the competitive fire you see in the best winners in the game’s history. The league leader in efficiency rating.
  • Chris Paul—The best at the point guard position at a time when the position itself is very strong, perhaps as strong as it’s ever been. He really does everything for a highly underappreciated and unpublicized
  • Dwayne Wade—He was spectacular before the All Star break but since the break he defies the very existence of known adjectives! He’s scoring in the mid 30s on average, his FG percentage is well over 50 percent, and his efficiency rating is a “stratospherific” (I had to make up one since one didn’t exist) 38+. If play down the stretch enters into this discussion at ALL then Wade needs to come into it.

So before I went any further I wanted to take a look at some factors and see how these five players stack up against each other on a purely statistical basis. Now on this I want to make a point that will, without a doubt, go utterly ignored by at least one person. There are those who discount “statistics” with some sort of platitude or saying by a Star Trek character. Statistics are not the sum of my argument but they are the foundation of any good argument. There’s a big difference between explaining away stats and explaining stats. Normally people who do the former have “opininions” instead of conclusions. Let’s try and stick with conclusions shall we? But before we draw conclusions we should do some due diligence and gather the facts. I want to take the normal key stats and rank the players accordingly. I then totaled the ranks and ordered them lowest to highest (lowest being best) in terms of totals.

Now before anyone gets too excited understand I’m not saying anything definitive here, I’m just beginning an objective analysis. There are a few things that leap out at you though. First, Wade has the lowest total score, which suggests that he perhaps should get more credit than the distant third most of the conversations give to him. Second, Bryant and James are the only two of the three that are not last among the five in any of the categories, as well as being the only two who lead in none of the five categories. Also intriguing is that Paul and Howard are opposite ends of the spectrum in everything but scoring. Most of this is little more than in the “humph” category of argument though, meaning it’s interesting but not that definitive in terms of anything meaningful. Paul and Howard are really good at what they are really good at and the rest are pretty much good at everything. What I do find relevant is this, in none of the major statistical categories is Bryant first, or even second. Again, we’re just getting started though; we’re just collecting data, so hold off before you start hurling a profanity laced tirade at me about me being a Kobe hater.

The problem with all of this is that it doesn’t offer weight to any of the ranks, it only shows how they stack up against one another in the different areas. It also shows that you can’t use any one measuring stick above the others because it’s not intellectually honest. Otherwise you can get into these arguments “Well Kobe gets more rebounds” and “Well Wade gets more assists than Kobe. So for that we’re going to take a look at the official NBA stat for overall production, “Efficiency”, and see how they stack up against one other in it. Here are the top 10 with our five candidates highlighted in yellow. I’ve highlighted Pau Gasol as well as he is the only other player in the top 10 who is a teammate of any of the five.

There are two things worth noting here. First, the top 5 are among the top 7 in the NBA, which makes for a pretty qualitative argument both for the stat and for these five to be among the five. The other two players listed have a couple of reasons for not being in the consideration. Gasol is out because the Lakers’ would agree, Kobe is the leader of that team. Jefferson is out, in part because he is out for half the season, but even if he weren’t the T’ Wolves have been out for the whole season if you catch my meaning. These are the right five to be in the conversation. It also points out that in terms of efficiency there’s a pretty good sized gap between James and Kobe though. The difference, 6.14 is equal to the distance between Kobe and Chauncey Billups, who is ranked 46th in the NBA. I say this to point out that it’s a very wide gap. Efficiency is not a familiar stat to a lot of people so they might not appreciate what a lead of 6.14 means, and I just want to give you something to compare it to. I’d also like to point out that as far as goes back in terms of keeping track of the stat to 2004-05, the only player that has done better is Kevin Garnett in that season. Finally I just want to say that Paul and Howard get the short of this stick as assists and rebounds only count one point each

An alternative to this rating is PER which is a much more complicated formula, which in all honesty, is beyond me. It’s not the kind of formula that lends itself to calculating in your head. Lest you think I’m just not that bright, here it is, have at it:

Here’s the formula for PER– PER = [uPER*(lgPace/tmPace)]*(15/lguPER)

In order to get ot that though you need to know the uPER . Here’s the formula for that:

uPER = (1/Min)*(3P+[(2/3)*Ast]+[(2-factor*(tmAST/tmFG))*FG]+[FT*0.5*(1+(1-(tmAst/tmFG))+(2/3)*(tmAST/tmFG))]-[VOP*TO]-[VOP*DRBP*(FGA-FG)]-[VOP*0.44*(0.44+(0.56*DRBP))*(FTA-FT)]+[VOP*(1-DRBP)*(TRB-ORB)]+[VOP*DRBP*ORB]+[VOP*STL]+[VOP*DRBP*BLK]-[PF*((lgFT/lgPF)-0.44*(lgFTA/lgPF)*VOP))]

Of course to get to that you need to “factor, which is (2/3)-[(0.5*(lgAST/lgFG))/(2*lgFG/lgFT))], VOP, which is: [lgPTS/(lgFGA-lgORB+lgTO+0.44*lgFTA)], DRBP which is [(lgTRB-lgORB)/lgTRB]. So if you can figure that out in your head, you’re a genius. Heck if you can even understand it you’re a genius!

So if it’s so complicated that you need a computer to figure it out what’s the use of it? There’s actually a good reason for it. It’s Hollinger’s stat and the reason that it’s so complicated and what all that uPER stuff is all about is this, it adjusts for different paces, different styles of offense etcetera. It establishes a league norm, factors the percent of what you do for your team, and then determines what you would do on the quintessential “average” team. It has the big advantage of making all teams neutral, so by looking at PER we can get a truer notion of who the “best” player is. Here’s the top twenty in PER.

And hey, what do you know, our top five are the five candidates for MVP. Some people might look at chagrin with things like Roy being ranked above Duncan, or Parker getting the nod over Bosh, but that’s sort of the point of the stat. It neutralizes things like varying offenses and game paces which give some players advantages over others in the typical accrued stats. In the end, for the purposes of our discussion though, it makes very little difference. The only distinction between the two is that Wade and Paul swap spots for 2 and 3. Again though, I want to emphasize a similar gap. James, Wade and Paul are all bunched together, sitting between 31.6 and 30. Then there’s a big drop to Howard, and another drop of almost another point to Kobe. A drop from Lebron to Kobe would be a player with a PER of 18. Hollinger only has the top 50 listed on ESPN so I can’t tell you a comparative drop, but I can tell you that Calderon is 50th at 18.46. Again, I’m making a point, there’s a huge difference between 31 and 25, even if there’s not a huge difference between 1 and 5. In fact, Lebron’s PER for this season is the best of any player not named “Wilt” or “Michael” in the history of the game. Those two occupy the top 5 spots and he will occupy the sixth at the rate this season is going. I also want to reiterate that those who are ready to respond with all kinds of “but he’s in the triangle offense” defense that this is adjusted for things like that. I’d also like to point out to people that Jordan, you know that guy who all the Kobe fans want you to know was the first Kobe, had no problem putting up huge all around numbers in the exact same system. And, just because Kobe fans are hard to get through to, I want to remind you that the only stat he has a shot at leading the league in is shot attempts, not the earmark of someone who doesn’t get to touch the ball enough.

When assessing how these players stack up against each other on a purely statistical basis, in the end, here’s how I rank them according to how I see it, putting everything together and just coming to a decision. Note, this isn’t how I rank them for the MVP, but according to statistical measures. I also want to say again, that statistical measures are measures of production, so please, do not try and remove statistics from the discussion.

  1. James
  2. Wade
  3. Paul
  4. Howard
  5. Bryant

Now there is more to the game that just putting up numbers, I’ll gladly accept that premise. However I’d also like to say that much of that discussion is actually irrelevant because the nuances get reflected in actual production, which is to say stats. Let me give you an example of what I mean by this. People will talk about what you do away from the ball and how important that is. It’s true, what you do away from the ball is very important. Karl Malone would be very prone to agree with you as he was spectacular at moving without the ball. Everyone talks about how Stockton and Malone were the master of the pick and roll, but the roll is the part where you have to move without the ball. The proof that Malone was the master of it is in the fact that he’s the NBA’s second all time leading scorer. Ergo, what you have is an intangible manifested into a tangible. A lot of the so called intangibles are like that, and one of them is one of the really important factors which we need to look at in considering the MVP, heart. Now you can’t measure heart, but you can measure performance in crunch time, and has done a fantastic job of compiling those stats. I’ve taken the liberty of using those stats to compile how they stack up in Efficiency in crunch time. They define crunch times as “4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.”  Here are the results.

Once again there’s a few things that jump out. First our five are al among the top 20, though Howard is lagging back at 14th while the others are all top 5. Also, once again we see a huge gap from James to Bryant, though this time Bryant is second. I don’t know how to say this with enough emphasis, so I’ll just understate it. An efficiency rating of 61.48 in crunch time is very high. Heck, 49.24 is very high, 61.48 is flat out sick-ridiculous. When the game is on the line Kobe is a player you’d love to have on the court, but ‘Bron is a player you’d love to have even more. Wade and Paul ain’t none too shabby either. Howard though is “eh”.

Having said that though there’s two kinds of crunch time. There’s the kind in the game, and there’s the kind down the stretch of the season. We need to take a good look at those stats too. To do that I want to show the post All-Star game splits for efficiency.

Here we see a couple of things. First, Wade’s numbers are ridiculous since the All Star break. When you factor in the fact that he’s basically had to adapt to a new key supporting cast because of the trade it makes it even more impressive. James has also picked up his game, as have Paul and Howard. Kobe on the other hand has really trailed off. If we look at it on a per game basis Kobe gets huge marks, but when we look at the overall play since the break it looks like Pau, not Kobe is picking up the Lakers. Now I will grant you that Kobe’s minutes are less, but not enough to make that big of a difference. Still, you can’t dismiss what he’s done with the closing minutes of the game.

But this does bring up another intangible that’s brought into the discussion—that age old question of “value” and what it means. The first thing I’d like to point out is that Kobe has pretty much the best supporting cast of any of the five. It’s so obvious it hardly bears mentioning. If you don’t believe me, answer this question for me. Imagine that the second and third best team on the Lakers, which we’ll say is Pau and either Bynum or Odom, your choice, is traded straight up for two teammates of any of the other four, and your reading it in the paper the next day. You’re a “hypothetical” Laker fan and you’re happy about the trade. Please tell me, which two players did you get? While Kobe is actually SECOND on his team in efficiency BEHIND Gasol, none of the other players even have a teammate in the top 25, and only Paul has a teammate in the top 50. In short the others are dealing with a much less impressive supporting cast than the Kobe.

Being even about this though, it’s not like the Lakers are on the same caliber as the Heat, the Magic or the Hornets. They are a much better team and Kobe deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. This is one of those things where you have to be careful when you consider the MVP discussion. On the one hand you don’t want to dismiss anyone out of hand just because their teammates aren’t good enough. Sometimes people will argue that “X” deserves the MVP because his team had the best regular season record or something like that. You have to ask yourself though, how much of that success is because of the player and how much of it is because of the rest of the team? In other words you don’t want to present an argument that’s the logical equivalent of “X is a more valuable because his teammates are better.” That’s hardly a sound argument. On the other hand you don’t want to handicap someone simply because of having better teammates. You have to measure the player and the team and then conclude how much the team wins because of the player. Fortunately, by taking percentages of what the player contributes to his team in winning games we can present that in a nice crisp, clean number. Heck, it even takes into account defense by measuring what his opponent at the same position does in the game. It’s called Win Shares and here are the ranking in that category.

Once again we’re seeing some of the same things. Our five are right up there at the top five, Lebron is the runaway winner, and Pau is right up there with Kobe. Here’s the thing though, the Lakers are on a different level than any team in the league except the Cavs. There’s no getting around the fact that team success is factored into the MVP race and the Lakers are successful and especially when you consider how Kobe plays in the clutch he is a huge part of the reason for that success. While Pau might be a little bit higher than him statistically speaking, none of the Lakers would say Gasol is the on-court leader. Kobe is the biggest reason for the Lakers success, not Gasol, which is why he, and not Pau is in this conversation.

However, having said that, the Cavaliers have to enter into this conversation too. They have the best record and the best point differential of any team in the league, even if it is in the Eastern Conference. It could honestly be argued back and forth all day and night about which team is better, and if the playoffs treat us right the answer will be found when the finals are over. However, this argument doesn’t need to be settled in order for us to say who is the MVP. There’s two schools of thought on MVP, most productive player and best player on the best team. The only player in the NBA that can be reasonably argued from both perspectives is Lebron, and that’s a pretty decisive argument for James. It’s my assessment that Lebron is not just having the best season in the league this year, but arguably one of the five or six best in the history of the game and he is this year’s MVP. For now, I’d give second to Kobe, because the Lakers really are on another level and he really does deserve the most credit for that. However, if Wade keeps going the way he’s been going and the Heat get to the 4th spot I’d be almost inclined to move him up a spot. It’s hard to punish him too much for not having any teammates. I guess it’s hard for me to believe that if he were in Kobe’s spot the Lakers wouldn’t be at least as competitive as they are now. The fourth spot would go to Paul and with some genuine and sincere apologies. I truly want to give him the award outright, I just can’t justify moving him any higher. He is having however, the best 4th place finish ever as far as I’m concerned. Howard just isn’t doing enough when the game is on the line. He’s a better starter than finisher. It’s been like that the last two seasons. He needs to learn to finish the season if he wants to win MVP at some point.

And there you have it, feel free to leave a comment, I just ask you be respectful and leave the profanity out of it.




  1. though LeBron seems to be the front runner, the Heat would be NOWHERE without DWade

    the Cavs are a playoff team without LeBron in the weak East

    that speaks MVP to me

    Comment by 3rdStoneFromTheSun — March 24, 2009 @ 2:35 pm | Reply

  2. dude?

    could you check out my latest post and join in on my mission?

    I’d appreciate it

    Comment by Crazy Canton Cuts — March 25, 2009 @ 5:18 pm | Reply

  3. So, 3rd stone, you agree that James should have been the MVP the last three years, then? Cool. But, in both criteria (team record and player stats) this year, James is ahead of Wade, so, no this year it’s James’ award.

    Comment by RFN — March 31, 2009 @ 3:02 pm | Reply

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