Kobe Bryant: 2006 NBA MVPKobe Bryant's scoring average has hovered around 35 ppg for most of the year and, with one exception, every player who has averaged 34-plus ppg has finished in the top five in MVP balloting. One could argue that the previous 34 ppg scorers should not have received such strong MVP consideration and that a lot of players could score 34-plus points if they took a lot of shots--but this line of reasoning is faulty because very few players could consistently get off 25-plus field goal attempts a game in the NBA, let alone convert enough of them to score 34 points while also rebounding, passing and defending. It may be true that there are a lot of NBA players who are capable of scoring 34 points in a game but very few are capable of averaging 34 points per game for a season.
The criticism that all Bryant cares about is scoring and that his style of play is not conducive to team success is refuted by the fact that the Lakers have a better winning percentage when Bryant scores 40-plus points than when he scores less than 40 points. He is carrying what otherwise would be a Lottery team to the playoffs. Here is my complete take on this year's MVP race:
The NBA regular season is winding down and it will take about two months for the ultimate reality TV series--the NBA playoffs--to determine the 2006 NBA champion. Before that happens, approximately 125 members of the media will cast ballots to select the 2005-06 NBA Most Valuable Player.
The NBA has never defined the criteria for the regular season MVP award--should it go to the best player on the best team, the most statistically productive player or the player who is most indispensable to his team? My standard for selecting an MVP is simple: if I were choosing up sides among all players in the NBA, which player would I select first on the basis of his play during this season (not during his career), disregarding age, salary and any other factors that do not relate directly to his current on-court performance.
There are several worthy MVP candidates, but I would pick Kobe Bryant. Some might object, based on his team's record or the high number of shots that he attempts. Watching the Lakers play without Bryant—either when he is on the bench or during the two games that he missed, both of which the Lakers lost—it is clear that this team would struggle to win 20 games without him. The Lakers are one of the youngest teams in the league and have a promising future, but right now Bryant's prolific scoring, clutch play and will to win are carrying the team. As for his high scoring average and high number of shot attempts, history shows that Kobe Bryant must receive strong MVP consideration. He almost certainly will finish the season with a 34-plus ppg average, something that has been accomplished only 15 times in NBA history and just twice in the ABA. Only once has a player averaged more than 34 ppg and finished outside of the top five in MVP balloting—Wilt Chamberlain scored 44.8 ppg for the 31-49 San Francisco Warriors in 1962-63 and trailed Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Bob Pettit, Jerry West and Johnny "Red" Kerr in that year’s MVP voting. Bryant's Lakers will have a better record than 31-49 and, to paraphrase Rick Pitino, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and the others are not walking through the door, so if Bryant does not finish in the top five in MVP voting this year it will be an upset of historic proportions.
Chamberlain averaged 34-plus ppg a record six times, winning one MVP and finishing second in MVP balloting two other times during those seasons. Elgin Baylor had three 34-plus ppg seasons, each of them happening in a year during which Chamberlain also averaged 34-plus ppg. Baylor finished second, third and fourth in MVP balloting; in his fourth place year he played in only 48 games due to a military service commitment. Michael Jordan is the only other NBA player to have multiple 34-plus ppg seasons, winning an MVP in 1987-88 when he scored 35.0 ppg for the 50-32 Chicago Bulls and finishing second to Magic Johnson when he averaged 37.1 ppg for the 40-42 1986-87 Bulls. Rick Barry, the only player to win a scoring title in the NCAA, NBA and ABA, is also the only player to have a 34-plus ppg season in the NBA and the ABA. He finished fifth in NBA MVP balloting in 1966-67; in 1968-69 injury limited him to 35 games for the ABA's Oakland Oaks, but his 34.0 ppg average earned him a berth on the All-ABA First Team (Mel Daniels won the ABA MVP that year but I do not have access to ABA MVP balloting totals to determine how many votes Barry received). The only other ABA player to average 34 ppg, Charlie Scott, also did not play a complete season; he jumped to the NBA's Phoenix Suns before the end of the 1971-72 season and was placed on the ABA's suspended list. This perhaps explains why he only made the All-ABA Second Team despite posting the highest scoring average in ABA history (34.6 ppg) and after making the All-ABA First Team the previous year when he averaged 27.1 ppg and shared Rookie of the Year honors with Dan Issel.
Bryant's MVP resume includes a 34.8 ppg average (first in the NBA), 41.1 mpg (fifth in the NBA), 1.81 spg (tenth in the NBA) and .850 free throw shooting (15th in the NBA). He ranks third in the NBA in free throw attempts and first in free throws made; by drawing so many fouls he not only adds to his own point total, he also gets the opposing team in foul trouble and enables the Lakers to get in the bonus early in quarters, which provides more free throw attempts for his teammates. On January 22, he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, an individual single game scoring explosion that ranks second in NBA history behind only Chamberlain's legendary 100 point game. Bryant also had a 62 point game against Dallas in which he outscored the entire Mavericks team for the first three quarters of the game before sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Those are the two highest scoring individual games this season; the next best game is a 53 point effort by Allen Iverson. Bryant owns four of the top ten highest scoring games this season and has a league high 21 games of 40-plus points, eight more than Iverson. The Lakers are 14-7 in those games, reinforcing the point that they need Bryant to shoot and score a lot in order to be successful. If Bryant pushes his average over 35.0 ppg he will finish with the ninth highest season scoring average in NBA history and as long as he stays at or above 34.8 ppg he will rank in the top ten all-time.
My MVP ballot would look like this:
1) Kobe Bryant
2) Steve Nash
3) Dirk Nowitzki
4) Tim Duncan
5) LeBron James
Here are my thoughts on the remaining players in my top five and some other players who have been touted as MVP candidates:
Steve Nash won the 2004-05 MVP and is having an even better season this year. He leads the league in apg (10.6) and free throw shooting (.924) and has increased his scoring average from 15.5 ppg to a career-high 19.5 ppg. Nash is having the best rebounding season of his career (4.3 rpg). Most significantly, his Phoenix Suns have seemingly not missed a beat despite the absence of All-Star Amare Stoudemire. Nash's supporters point out that several of his teammates are having career best numbers playing alongside him—but that can be looked at in two ways: it is certainly true that Nash makes his teammates better but he is also playing with some really good players. As Michael Jordan liked to retort early in his career when critics said that Magic Johnson did a better job of making his teammates better, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. If Nash replaced Bryant on this year's Lakers he would not be averaging 10-plus apg because a lot of his passes would be fumbled out of bounds or lead to missed shots. Nash is also, to put it charitably, a less than stellar one-on-one defensive player.
Dirk Nowitzki is averaging career highs in points (26.3 ppg), field goal percentage (.480), free throw shooting (.898) and three point shooting (.417). His stellar play is the biggest reason that the Dallas Mavericks are fighting neck and neck with the San Antonio Spurs to have the best record in the Western Conference.
Tim Duncan has had an off year by his standards, but his numbers are still good (18.8 ppg, 11.0 rpg and 1.9 bpg) and his Spurs may very well finish with the best record in the West. He has been slowed by a lingering foot injury but his impact is undeniable; the defensive attention that he demands makes Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili—good players in their own right—even better by providing them with open driving lanes to the hoop. Duncan's shot blocking and rebounding are the cornerstones of the perennially tough Spurs defense.
LeBron James is having a wonderful season--31.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 6.7 apg--and his numbers look even more stunning when one considers that he is only 21 years old—but Bryant is more productive individually and Nash, Duncan and Nowitzki have all led their teams to significantly better records. James certainly looks like a future MVP, but if I were choosing up sides today based on this season I still would not take him ahead of those guys. In Billboard terms, he is number five with a bullet—rising up the charts with each breathtaking performance.
Dwyane Wade's statistics rank with any player's in the league and his Miami Heat are firmly entrenched in the number two position in the Eastern Conference—but when Shaquille O’Neal was out of the lineup due to injury the team looked very ordinary. Therefore, although his team has a better record than Bryant's Lakers and James' Cavaliers, a significant portion of the credit for that belongs to O'Neal.
Allen Iverson is a four time scoring champion who is enjoying a career year, which is remarkable in itself; it is even more noteworthy considering that he is almost 31 years old and is shorter than his listed height of 6-0. He is averaging more points, assists and rebounds than he did in 2000-01, the year that he won the MVP, but his team is struggling to stay afloat in the playoff hunt.
Chauncey Billups has been mentioned a lot in MVP discussions this season, but I disagree that he belongs in the same category with Bryant, Nowitzki, Nash and James. He is not even clearly the best player on his own team, let alone being MVP of the NBA. The Detroit Pistons have the best starting five in the NBA and could probably absorb the loss of any one starter and still be a very strong team; Ben Wallace is likely the most indispensable part of that lineup because of his rebounding, defense and tenacity. Billups deservedly made the All-Star team and should make the All-NBA Team, but he is not the MVP.
Elton Brand is having a very good year and is helping to lead the Clippers from the doldrums into the playoffs—but, other than his career high scoring average, he has had similar years statistically in the past and the Clippers went nowhere. The difference this year for the Clippers is the steadying presence of Sam Cassell in the lineup. Brand is a perennial All-Star caliber player but not a true MVP candidate in my book.
Five guys who are flying under the radar deserve to at least be mentioned: Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. They are not going to win the award or even finish in the top five, but they merit strong consideration for the All-NBA Team. Marion is having a wonderful all-around season as a scorer, rebounder and defender; Kidd just shut down Billups and Nash in leading the New Jersey Nets to victories over Detroit and Phoenix; there is a lot more to Carter’s game than flashy dunks—he is rebounding, passing and hitting clutch shots; Yao—particularly since the All-Star Break—is establishing himself as the best center in the league.
Some kind of award should be invented for what Tracy McGrady has done this season. His statistics are down from their usual levels and he has missed a ton of games, but if we define "value" purely by how a player affects wins and losses, Tracy McGrady might win the MVP in a landslide. His Houston Rockets are 27-20 with him in the lineup and 3-20 when he doesn’t play. In other words, with McGrady the Rockets look like a solid playoff team and without him they resemble the woeful 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers from 1972-73—despite having an All-Star center in Yao Ming. Has one player ever had that dramatic of an impact on his team’s record?
posted by David Friedman @ 7:53 PM