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Friday, December 19, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part III

Will the "Big Three" teams have to admit a fourth team to their exclusive club perched above the rest of the NBA? Should Dwyane Wade be mentioned in MVP discussions this year by anyone who did not vote for Kobe Bryant for MVP in 2006 and 2007?

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 24-2
2) L.A. Lakers, 21-3
3) Cleveland Cavaliers, 21-4
4) Orlando Magic, 20-6
5) New Orleans Hornets, 15-7

The "Big Three" may have to make room for a fourth team at the top: the Orlando Magic are only 1.5 games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Magic are 10-3 both at home and on the road and have won three games in a row and seven of their last eight games, including road wins at Utah and Portland. There is a perception that New Orleans has had a bad start but the Hornets have the second best record in the West and the fifth best record in the league.

The Denver Nuggets just missed cracking the top five. They are heading into an interesting portion of their schedule: after fattening up their record against sub-.500 teams they earned a split in back to back games in Dallas and Houston and now will play four games in five nights against quality teams: Cleveland, at Phoenix, Portland and then at Portland. There are six teams within two games of the Nuggets in the standings, so a few losses could dramatically change Denver's position in the standings.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.0 ppg
2) LeBron James, CLE 27.3 ppg
3) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 26.4 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 25.0 ppg
5) Danny Granger, IND 24.4 ppg
6) Devin Harris, NJN 23.8 ppg
7) Chris Bosh, TOR 23.6 ppg
8) Kevin Durant, OKC 23.2 ppg
9) Joe Johnson, ATL 23.0 ppg
10) Vince Carter, NJN 22.5 ppg

17) Dwight Howard, ORL 21.1 ppg

20) Tim Duncan, SAS 20.8 ppg
21) O.J. Mayo, MEM 20.8 ppg

25) Chris Paul, NOR 19.7 ppg

31) Paul Pierce, BOS 18.6 ppg
32) Ray Allen, BOS 18.5 ppg

43) Kevin Garnett, BOS 16.5 ppg

Dwyane Wade maintained his perch atop the scoring chart, though his lead over LeBron James shrunk a bit. There is talk that Wade should be an MVP candidate based on his superb individual numbers and how much his Heat have improved this year. There is no question that when he is healthy Wade is an MVP level player. However, if he is going to get credit for Miami's record this year doesn't he deserve some blame not just for last season but for how quickly Miami collapsed from being a championship team to being the worst team in the entire league? That is a stunning fall, even factoring in the injuries suffered by some players, including Wade. The Heat are currently sixth in the East with a 12-12 record; before the season I predicted that they would be the seventh best team in the East, so from my perspective they are not doing much better than expected. After all, the cupboard is hardly bare: Marion is a former All-Star, Beasley is a lottery pick, Haslem started for the championship team, Chalmers has been solid. When Kobe Bryant won back to back scoring titles--in the process setting numerous records and posting the eighth best single season scoring average of all-time (35.4 ppg in 2006)--he led the Lakers to the Western Conference playoffs with the likes of Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton in the starting lineup. None of those players would start for this year's Heat. Bryant was supposedly not a legit MVP candidate because his Lakers did not win 50 games (they won 45 in 2006), but he did more with less than what Wade has done so far this season. Since I base my player evaluations on their skill sets, I have no problem with saying that Wade is an MVP caliber player--but anyone who did not vote for/support Bryant for MVP in 2006 and 2007 is being hypocritical and inconsistent if he votes for/supports Wade this season.

From my perspective, Bryant is still the most complete player in the NBA. His per game numbers are only down a bit this year because he is playing fewer minutes; his field goal percentage and free throw percentage are both up (his three point percentage is inexplicably at a seven year low but he has slashed his three point attempts). As I have documented in several posts, when push has come to shove for the Lakers this year they have needed his production late in games in order to win and he has almost always come through. That is what an MVP does. Obviously, LeBron James is having a fantastic season. He has increased his free throw percentage and improved his defense, so he is a valid MVP choice as well. I would not argue with anyone who picked either player at this point. There is still three fourths of the season remaining, which will provide a lot of time to see if James maintains his free throw percentage and defensive improvements and if the Lakers will need Bryant to have a string of 30-40 point games to maintain their position in the standings.

It is now 12 games since interim Thunder Coach Scott Brooks shifted Kevin Durant from shooting guard to his natural position, small forward. While it is true that in certain situations the small forward and shooting guard have interchangeable roles it is also true that Durant had never played shooting guard in his entire career prior to entering the NBA--and that means that the aspects of that position that are not interchangeable with playing small forward are completely alien to him. Why would anyone take a rookie out of his comfort zone? That makes no sense and I said so from day one.

I spoke with Durant prior to his second game at small forward. When I asked him about the position shift he initially gave a politically correct answer--"Wherever coach puts me I just want to come out and play hard." However, when I gently probed a little deeper and suggested that playing a position he had never played before must have been an adjustment, he told the real story: "Exactly. Playing against the smaller guys, guarding them on defense, and then having little guys who could reach up under me and guard me--it was an adjustment. It was something I had to go through but I'm glad I'm at my natural position now."

When you watch Durant on TV, perhaps you just see a very talented player who dominated college basketball but when you see him up close you realize that he is still just a kid--a gifted kid, but a kid nonetheless. He is earnest, hard working and soft spoken but--like all gifted kids--he needs the right support system around him in order for his gifts to fully mature. Putting him in the right position is an important first step; obviously, the next step is assembling a better supporting cast to complement his game.

In the past 12 games, Durant has had 10 or more rebounds three times after only reaching that level once in his rookie season (in the final game of the year). He also had a 41 point outing that was one short of his single game career-high. Here are some of Durant's numbers after 12 games as a small forward:

24.7 ppg, .466 field goal percentage, .511 three point field goal percentage, 6.3 rpg.

Compare that to his rookie production at shooting guard:

20.3 ppg, .430 field goal percentage, .288 three point field goal percentage, 4.4 rpg.

Considering the superficial quality of NBA analysis in many circles, it does not surprise me at all that some people still dismiss the significance of Durant's position change. Occam's razor suggests that, all things being equal, the simplest solution is usually correct. I have said all along that Durant should play small forward. As soon as Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo as Coach, the first and most significant change that Brooks made was moving Durant to small forward--and Durant's production has improved dramatically. If the position change is irrelevant, then why did Brooks do this immediately and why has it borne such dividends?

Considering those facts, it makes no sense to go searching for explanations other than the obvious one: I was right about this from the beginning.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.1 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, LAC 12.4 rpg
3) Andris Biedrins, GSW 12.0 rpg
4) Zach Randolph, LAC 11.2 rpg
5) Troy Murphy, IND 11.1 rpg
6) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.0 rpg
7) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.8 rpg
8) Andrew Bogut, MIL 10.7 rpg
9) David Lee, NYK 10.6 rpg
10) Al Jefferson, MIN 10.2 rpg
11) Yao Ming, HOU 9.9 rpg

15) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.5 rpg
16) Pau Gasol, LAL 9.3 rpg

17) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 9.3 rpg

19) Andrew Bynum, LAL 9.0 rpg

31) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.6 rpg

45) LeBron James, CLE 6.7 rpg
50) Jason Kidd, DAL 6.4 rpg

Dwight Howard will likely own this category for years to come, barring injury. Marcus Camby had at least 13 rebounds in six straight games--culminating with a career-high 27 versus Chicago on December 17--to soar up to the second position.

There is a lot of discussion--mainly led by "stat gurus"--about how Allen Iverson is destroying the Pistons. Last year, the Pistons ranked seventh in rebounding differential (+2.3 rpg). This year they rank 22nd in that category (-2.2 rpg). Their leading rebounder last year, Antonio McDyess (8.5 rpg), has only played six games this year and is working his way into condition. The Pistons depend on Rasheed Wallace to play power forward/center but he has never really rebounded like one; this season he is averaging 7.6 rpg and has had six or fewer rebounds in each of Detroit's past five games.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.9 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 10.1 apg
3) Jose Calderon, TOR 9.0 apg
4) Chris Duhon, NYK 8.6 apg
5) Steve Nash, PHX 8.3 apg
6-7) Baron Davis, LAC 8.2 apg
6-7) Jason Kidd, DAL 8.5 apg
8) Rajon Rondo, BOS 7.3 apg
9) Dwyane Wade, MIA 7.2 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DEN/DET 7.0 apg

The playmaking leaderboard is always the most stable one but there was a big addition this time: Deron Williams has returned to action and played enough games to qualify to be listed, so he zoomed up to second place.

There is a .6 apg drop off to 11th place, where rookie Derrick Rose resides, just .1 apg ahead of Devin Harris and LeBron James.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:17 AM

8 comments

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8 Comments:

At Friday, December 19, 2008 11:07:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

It looks like those stats were calculated before Brandon Roy annihilated the Suns last night. Right now he is a tick above Durant at 23.4ppg.

I wouldn't read too much into the 'Wade for MVP' campaign at this point. For the first 2 months of the season everyone who has 10 good games becomes an MVP candidate. If Wade is still in the conversation (with a mediocre record) in February or March it will just be another example of how nebulous the basis for the award really is. Of course this will all be moot if LeBron wins it, which I fully expect to happen.

 
At Friday, December 19, 2008 4:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

As I indicated, I took all of the stats from ESPN.com, so apparently the late game had not yet been counted.

I don't think that I am reading too much into the Wade for MVP talk but I thought that it was completely silly to tout Arenas for MVP a few years back and I said so at the time. Wade at least is a legit MVP level player but he is not better than Kobe or LeBron; furthermore, anyone who did not support Kobe for MVP in 2006 or 2007 can hardly turn around and tout Wade now.

I would not have any problem with LeBron winning the award this year and I agree with you that he seems to be the odds on favorite at the moment.

 
At Saturday, December 20, 2008 4:11:00 AM, Anonymous jay said...

You are drastically overrating Wade's supporting cast. It's true Marion was an all-star... when he played for Mike D'Antoni and with Steve Nash. Now that he's on a team that runs that often, his offensive production suffers because he can't create his own shot. Don't think I'm right? Ask anybody who drafed Marion in a fantasy league whether they're happy with what they're getting from him.

Haslem is the Heat's second most valuable player, but he's 6'8" and he began the season as the starting CENTER. He's since moved back to PF and has been replaced in the middle by undrafted Joel Anthony who is 6'9"....

Miami prominently features two rookies. Of the two, Chalmers has been the most consistent, but he's a poor man's Derek Fisher. Beasley has great long-term upside, but is atrocious defensively and has been, to say the least, erratic in his production.

The Heat also have virtually no bench. Chris Quinn is usually solid, and Daequan Cook hits some big shots, but shoots a poor percentage. But, beyond that there are essentially no other significant contributors off the bench.

 
At Saturday, December 20, 2008 8:45:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Jay,

Compare that to Kobe's cast in 2005/6:

Smush Parker - no longer in the league, and for good reason

Lamar Odom - talented but inconsistent and unreliable, never an Allstar (FYI, Marion was also an Allstar when Stephon Marbury was his PG and Frank Johnson was his coach. Explain that.)

Kwame Brown - 'nuff said

Luke Walton - average at best

Don't get me started on the bench either. I can assure you that Beasley/D Cook/Quinn/Magloire is no worse than Vujacic/George/B Cook/rookie Bynum as a second unit (and in fact is probably better).

Kobe took that team to the playoffs in a tougher conference than the one Wade is playing in now. If he wasn't an MVP candidate then, Wade certainly isn't now.

 
At Saturday, December 20, 2008 9:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

You took the words right out of my mouth regarding the team comparisons.

From my perspective as someone who evaluates players based on their skill sets (as opposed to relying exclusively on stats and/or imposing arbitrary minimum team win requirements), I have no problem saying that Wade is playing MVP level basketball this year but I still would not rank him ahead of Kobe or LeBron. My larger point is that anyone who did not support Kobe for MVP in 2006 and 2007 is being hypocritical if he touts Wade for MVP now.

 
At Saturday, December 20, 2008 2:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

some consistentsy finally wade doesnt have much around him right now beasley okay so far marion not playing at all star level right now chalmers average and so is haslem. but i agree with you kobe had kwame and smush college players and took them to the playoffs with no help on bench if you voted wade on numbers you should of voted kobe in 06 and 07 kobe avreaged 43ppg in second half of 07 and 35ppg and 27 40 point games i 2005-2006 so this is no contest kobe was alot more dominant as well.

lebron is the guy now he has been best player so far this year he is mvp in a runaway right now he as improved d outside shot and freethrow percentage he is the MAN right now

 
At Saturday, December 20, 2008 3:27:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

David,

I agree with the criteria you are using, so I'm glad players like Kobe, LeBron, and Paul are having team success to go with their individual brilliance. When that is not the case you have voters concocting all manner of reasons to crown second-tier superstars like Dirk and Nash as the most valuable player in the league.

I wonder what the results would look like if the players themselves voted for the MVP award. I'm not saying this method would be foolproof (players will have their biases like everyone else) but I find the media's reasoning so baffling at times. The idea that someone can be the best or second-best player in the league and yet be less 'valuable' than three other players (Kobe in 2006, LeBron in 2008) is hard for me to grasp.

When the same player gets better players around him, he is suddenly more valuable, even though simple mathematics and common sense will tell you that adding more talent will reduce the relative value of each individual player. Of course the party line will be that Player X is 'making his teammates better', when in fact the GM is the one who made the team better.

 
At Saturday, December 20, 2008 8:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I actually thought that Dirk did have an MVP caliber season the year that he won but I would have voted for Kobe. Nash was the best pg in the league when he won his two MVPs but he was not the best player. It is fascinating how Nash became such a darling of the voters when in previous eras players like John Stockton, Mark Price and Isiah Thomas put up similar numbers but did not receive much MVP consideration.

The players voted for the MVP until 1979-80 but it was decided that the media would be more objective. The players did not always get it right, either. In 1974-75, Rick Barry had one of the great all-around seasons of all-time but finished a distant fourth in the voting; that year's winner, Bob McAdoo, also had a great season but it is fair to say that Barry's unpopularity among his peers cost him some votes.

Interestingly, in the 1960s sometimes the media voted Wilt Chamberlain to the All-NBA First Team but the players chose Bill Russell as the MVP (the four times that Wilt won MVPs he also made the All-NBA First Team).

I'm not really sure what the best and most fair solution is in terms of who should do the voting for MVP. As I've made clear, my primary criterion for an MVP is that he be the best all-around player in the game. If there is not a clear cut best all-around player or if there is a really dominant big guy who excels in the paint but is not truly an all-around player (think of a younger Shaq) then in those cases that dominant player deserves the MVP even if he is not the best all-around player. Dwight Howard is that kind of dominant big man but I would not vote for him over Kobe or LeBron; I think that a team with Kobe or LeBron plus a lesser big man than Howard has a better chance to win than a team with Howard and a lesser perimeter player than Kobe or LeBron and the standings pretty much bear that out.

 

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