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Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Difference Between an MVP and an All-Star

Brandon Roy is an All-Star (or at least he should be as of Thursday night when the All-Star reserves are announced); LeBron James is an MVP-level player. Cleveland's 84-83 victory in Portland on Wednesday night provided a great illustration of the difference between being one of the top 24 players in the league and being one of the top five players in the league. Roy tied with LaMarcus Aldridge for the team-high in points (16), he had a game-high eight assists and he grabbed seven rebounds. Although his team lost, Roy had a plus/minus rating of +6 in nearly 39 minutes of action. Those numbers look pretty good--until you see that James scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning layup over Roy (and several other Blazers) with .3 seconds left. James shoots less than .300 from three point range but he shot 3-5 from behind the arc during the fourth quarter. He capped off his performance by stealing Portland's desperation inbounds lob to ensure the victory.

James leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring and this was the 17th time this season that he scored at least 10 points in the fourth quarter. Not coincidentally, this was Cleveland's league-best 18th fourth quarter comeback (Portland led 81-70 with 4:26 left in the game). James sprained his right ankle just before halftime but still scored 24 second half points, finishing with 37 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots. The Cavs played without two key injured players: starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic and reserve forward/center Anderson Varejao (prior to this game, the Cavs were 14-7 with Varejao and 9-12 without him). No Cav other than James scored in double figures and Cleveland shot just .392 from the field--but the Cavs employed the three pronged formula that I have repeatedly said gives this team a great chance to repeat as Eastern Conference champions: defense (Portland shot just .353 from the field), rebounding (Cleveland won the battle of the boards 49-43) and the brilliance of LeBron James.

Roy assisted on Portland's final two baskets of the game but he scored just two points in the fourth quarter and, even more importantly, his team did not score in the final 2:03. It is not necessarily up to an MVP-level player to score most or all of the points--although it is obviously great if he can do that--but it is up to him to make sure that if the defense contains him then one of his teammates gets an easy, open shot. None of this is meant to denigrate Roy; he played a good game and he even stepped up and took the challenge of guarding James down the stretch (James also guarded Roy during the critical late possessions)--but despite Roy's valiant efforts, James took over the game. On Cleveland's final possession, James faced Roy at the top of the three point arc, drove right past him into the heart of the defense and made a left handed layup with several Blazers draped all over him. Roy missed both of his shots in the final two minutes, a three pointer and a drive. James also missed a drive during that time--he shot 6-13 in the fourth quarter--but when money time came he delivered.

Obviously, one cannot make a comprehensive player evaluation based on a one game snapshot--but this game provides a classic example of the difference between an MVP-level player and an All-Star. Further evidence to reinforce this point can be found by looking at the numbers that James and Roy have put up this season; it is easy to see that what happened on Wednesday was a fairly normal night for both players. James scored and rebounded a bit more than usual and had fewer assists, while Roy's scoring was slightly down but he compensated for that with an excellent floor game. Here are their season averages:

James: 30.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 7.2 apg

Roy: 19.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.6 apg

One of the things that made Michael Jordan great is that he relentlessly attacked his weaknesses. As his college teammate Kenny Smith told me, "...the things that used to be his deficiencies became his strengths as his career went on, which is incredible. In college, he wasn't a great ballhandler, he wasn't a great outside shooter; he was good. Then those things became his strengths in the NBA--his ballhandling ability and his outside jump shot and his turnaround jumpers and his shot on the baseline and pull-up jumpers. That is just a testament to how hard he worked." LeBron James is transforming his game in a very similar fashion. I covered some of the earliest games in his rookie season and I've covered many of his games since then, including almost all of his home playoff games. When James first came into the league he had no idea how to play good NBA defense and the form on his outside shot was terrible--he almost always drifted to the side, backwards or both. He has so much talent that sometimes he makes those shots anyway but then-Cavs Coach Paul Silas instructed James to try to take off and land from the same spot when he shot a jumper. Current assistant coach Chris Jent continues to work with James on this and other shooting fundamentals and when James shoots jumpers in warmups he has great form. During games there is sometimes slippage but it is obvious that James is working to correct this and that is what makes it possible for him to get hot from three point range from time to time. Once he incorporates those fundamentals into his shooting routine all the time his three point percentage (and free throw percentage) will go up.

James has also made strides defensively. There were signs of this in last year's playoffs, when he guarded Chauncey Billups on key possessions. On Sunday, James guarded Kobe Bryant down the stretch. James wants the challenge of guarding the best player on the opposing team--which is significant in its own right--and he is performing better and better at that end of the court. This is very important because it sets a good tone for the entire team and fits in perfectly with the way that Coach Mike Brown wants the Cavs to play. When the best player on a team accepts the challenge defensively, everyone else falls in line.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:27 AM

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