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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Wages of Wins Weighs in on the MVP Race

I have always believed that statistics are a very powerful tool that can be used to help us understand basketball (and many other things as well)--but statistics are a tool, not a perfect, all-knowing force, and a tool is only useful if it is the right one for a given job and if it is wielded skillfully by a knowledgeable person; a construction worker using a jackhammer would not do a good job detailing a car. In the past few years a dichotomy has developed between a group of people who believe that numbers tell us all we need to know about sports (a trend that started in baseball with Bill James and "sabermetrics" and has since spread to other sports) and a group of people who primarily trust what they learn from firsthand observation of players. I believe that statistics are most helpful when they are utilized by an informed observer who has actually seen the players/teams in question play. Players are not robots and they are not accumulating statistics in isolation; a play that results in a slam dunk may have involved multiples screens, passes and defensive switches but the boxscore only records a made shot and possibly an assist. There is a big difference in quality between a player who beat his defender off of the dribble, soared over a rotating defender and dunked and a player who was wide open because his team's superstar was double-teamed, enabling him to catch an easy pass and dunk all by himself. Yes, a season's worth of statistics evens out some of these discrepancies but the bottom line is that proper player evaluation cannot be done entirely with a spreadsheet. As Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey told me, statistics are important but the "eyeball is number one."

David Berri and his Wages of Wins partners produce some interesting work but I fundamentally object to one of their basic premises, namely that basketball and other sports can be understood at a deep level without even watching the game. In fact, they believe that watchers are inherently biased, unable to differentiate between flashy, memorable plays and solid, unspectacular plays that are just as effective; they fail to consider that statistics and the methods to evaluate them are the products of human minds and thus also contain biases and imperfections. A knowledgeable basketball observer certainly can utilize statistics effectively but the kind of detachment from the world of sports that Berri and his group propose does not lead to greater objectivity; rather, it leads to bizarre conclusions such as performance-enhancing drugs don't enhance performance or--regarding the 1996 Chicago Bulls--"Per 48 minutes played, Rodman's productivity even eclipsed Jordan." The truth about PEDs--and why there is erroneous information about their effectiveness--can be found here. I trust that most serious NBA fans realize that although Rodman was a great player only a statistical system that vastly overrates rebounding would suggest that he was more productive than Jordan. Rodman was a very valuable member of five championship teams for two different franchises but you could not build a team solely around his talents.

Berri and company recently weighed in on the MVP debate. Since they are much more interested in crunching certain numbers than considering the totality of what happens on the court, they are oblivious to the fact that the MVP race is likely going to come down not to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James--as they suggest--but rather Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. James is probably going to be "disqualified" by virtue of his team not winning 50 games, much like Bryant was "disqualified" the past two years (I disagree with this kind of "disqualification" but that is another story). Starting with the faulty Bryant/James premise, WoW eventually concludes that Bryant should not get this year's MVP for three reasons:

- Yes, Kobe is a great player. He just isn’t the most productive player in the NBA.

-The Lakers improvement this year is not about Kobe.

- Kobe, who has not been voted MVP in the past, is actually not much different from what he was in the past. He just has better teammates.

You can click on the above link to read the arguments that they use to support those three points. My response to those three points is simple:

1) Measuring the "productivity" of a basketball player is not an exact science. For one thing, statistics do not capture everything that happens on the court. Second, per-minute numbers make assumptions about how productive a player would be if he played more minutes but those assumptions cannot be proven. Third, "productivity" is interactive: a player who draws double-teams can make weaker players seem more productive, while four weaker players surrounding a great player can make the great player seem less productive. Bryant is a more skillful player than LeBron James and Bryant has fewer weaknesses. James is not a good free throw shooter or three point shooter and his defense, although improving, is not as good as Bryant's. The Spurs capitalized on James' inability to shoot outside by constructing a wall and keeping him out of the paint in the NBA Finals. Granted, not too many teams have the mindset and personnel to carry out such a plan but that showed that James, as great as he is--and I rank him as the second best player in the league--still has weaknesses.

As for the second and third points, here is a comment that I posted at WoW:

Someone else already pointed out the fallacy in comparing Kobe this year to Kobe in previous years, namely that this year’s MVP should be the most valuable player of this season; Kobe’s performance in other seasons is not relevant and does not disqualify him from winning the award this season if he is the most qualified candidate.

Here are three relevant issues that the author failed to consider:

1) When looking at the Lakers’ record with various player combinations (with Bynum, with Gasol, etc.) did you factor in the home/road balance of those various schedules and the quality of the opponents that the Lakers faced? As I pointed out in my article about the Lakers’ "three seasons" (Breaking Down L.A.'s Three Seasons), their schedule without Bynum and Gasol has been heavily slanted toward road games and/or games against good teams. Their 11-9 record with Kobe and without either Bynum or Gasol is very impressive considering that fact, even with the two recent losses to poor teams (Fisher has come up lame now as well).

2) The author claims that Kobe should not be the MVP because most of the team’s improvement has come from the other players but he fails to consider how much of that “improvement” is the result of playing with Kobe. For instance, the Lakers have spot up shooters who get wide open shots because Kobe must be double-teamed; Kobe’s presence gets them open opportunities whether or not Kobe is credited with an assist on those shots. Kobe is the victim of a form of “double jeopardy”: when those players failed to make those shots the past two seasons he was “disqualified” for MVP consideration because his team did not win enough games; this year they are making those shots and he is being “disqualified” because he supposedly has such a strong supporting cast. Nash’s supporting cast of Amare, Marion and others was not held against him, so why should the improvement of Kobe’s supporting cast be held against him?

3) Paul’s top two big men have been healthy and played together for the entire season. Kobe has played with Bynum, then without either big man, then with Gasol without Bynum and now has endured another stretch without either big man. Yet, despite all of this turmoil, Kobe’s team is right in the thick of the race with the Hornets. Last year, the Hornets and Lakers both had injury problems and the Lakers had two starters (Kwame and Smush) who would not have even played for any other playoff team, let alone being starters; Kobe guided his team to the playoffs, Paul did not. Yes, last season does not directly relate to this season but if we are going to compare Kobe this year to Kobe in previous years the above analysis is much more to the point and highlights the fact that Kobe consistently has done more with less talent around him than Paul has. Put Kobe with West and Chandler for a whole year and give Paul the proportions of Bynum, Gasol and Turiaf/Mbenga that Kobe has had this season and do you really believe that Paul would do as much with that group as Kobe has?

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:53 PM

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At Wednesday, April 02, 2008 4:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

- Mike (guy that posted the caps of hotzones a little while ago, heh)

I'm a Laker fan (so i'm obviously pretty pro-Kobe), and it really annoys me when people make out that Kobe has a way better supporting cast than Paul and therefore, since the Hornets are ahead of the Lakers that Paul is doing more with less/is the MVP over Kobe (Nash has now just said this, too).

As you've stated in a fair few of your articles and comments, people, often when saying this, seem to only look at what we have on paper, and discount the fact that Bynum has missed a ton of games, and Gasol did not play with us before the trade and has now gotten injured and been out for 9 games. Along with the fact that we have yet to play a game with Gasol and Bynum upfront yet.. Which is, again, fairly frustrating.

Not to be a suckup but just wanted to say i really enjoy reading this site and your articles and agree completely with pretty much 100% of them. Your articles just tend to ooze knowledge of the game that i hope to one day have..

PS. About that Nash comment, again, it's pretty clear that he'd have to be going off 'on paper' to make those comments, which is fairly funny to me since 'on paper' the 05-06 Suns technically had Amare Stoudemire, didn't they (even though he only played 3 games), so they under-achieved, right?

 
At Thursday, April 03, 2008 6:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Mike:

Thanks again for posting those hotzones regarding Tim Duncan's shooting--very interesting stuff.

I am mystified by some of the comparisons that people make between the various supporting casts out West. Even Hubie Brown, who I consider to be the best NBA analyst on TV, was pumping up CP3 for MVP (during the Celts-Pacers game), talking about the Hornets' lack of bench depth but completely ignoring how much time the Lakers' bigs have missed (not to mention injuries to Lakers' bench players Ariza, Mihm and Radmanovic).

Maybe for Nash if CP3 wins the MVP this year it "validates" the reasoning that led to Nash winning previously. I did a post about this before, but guys like Stockton and Mark Price put up numbers like Nash's for good teams and did not even sniff an MVP Award; the big men on their team got more recognition. Somehow, that has switched around and Nash, CP3 and Deron Williams seem to get more credit than Amare, West and Boozer. CP3 at least does not have to be hidden on defense--unlike Nash--and I would put him third in the MVP race behind Kobe and LeBron.

I truly believe that in about 10 years or so people will look back in disbelief that Nash won those two MVPs over Kobe; I realize that Kobe was not second either year but the voting in those seasons will never make sense to me. I think that Kobe was left entirely off of at least one ballot one of those years and that is simply insane. Sure, Nash deserved to finish in the top five of the MVP voting and to make the All-NBA First Team but Kobe carried a team with Kwame, a young Bynum, Smush and a bunch of spare parts to two playoff berths. The first of those playoff teams pushed Nash and his vastly superior PHX team to the brink of elimination (one defensive rebound by Odom or one good closeout on Tim Thomas would have done the trick--in a game six in which Kobe ultimately scored 50 points and the Lakers still lost).

It's amazing--having Amare, Marion, Bell, Diaw, etc. did not "disqualify" Nash from winning MVP but suddenly Kobe gets a one-time All-Star for 19 games (20 counting Wednesday's win) and his team is too stacked for him to win the award.

The interesting thing about this is that there seems to be some sentiment that if the Lakers finish ahead of the Hornets then Kobe should get the award. That could come down to the LAL-NO game near the end of the season, so it will be fun to watch what Kobe does if that turns into a one game duel for the MVP Award. I think that is a stupid way to decide a season-long honor but perhaps Kobe will drop 50 that game in a Lakers' victory and wrap up the top seed and the MVP in one fell swoop. At this point, though, it would not surprise me if Kobe does that and then someone says that Kobe shouldn't win the MVP because he shot too much.

 

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