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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Don't be Fooled Into Believing that the MVP Race is Over

According to some observers, the race for the 2009 NBA MVP is over--and LeBron James is the landslide winner, outdistancing a field that includes 2008 MVP Kobe Bryant and several other players who are having excellent seasons. James is certainly an MVP level player--and he has been an MVP level player since 2004-05, his second season in the league. At any given time in NBA history, there have rarely been more than four or five players truly playing at an MVP level simultaneously, so just the fact that James reached that point so early in his career and has improved each season since then is remarkable.

James had four main weaknesses as a young player: defense, free throw shooting, midrange shooting and three point shooting. This season, James is playing tremendous defense; he has improved at that end of the court each year and now he is legitimately an All-Defensive Team caliber performer. James is shooting a career-high .788 from the free throw line; although that number would be a career-low for Bryant, at least James has improved his free throw shooting to the extent that it is no longer a weakness.

So, James has clearly eliminated two of his four weaknesses. However, he has not made real progress in the other areas, contrary to popular belief. James is shooting just .299 from three point range, so this is the fourth straight season that his percentage has declined. Despite that, James has averaged at least four three point attempts per game in each of those seasons, including 4.3 three point attempts per game this season. As for James' midrange shot, NBA.com has a page called "Hot Spots" which provides shooting percentages and color coded hot/cold zone indicators for every NBA player from various areas on the court. James is red hot in the paint, shooting .724 (218-301) and he is also hot from just outside the top of the key on the left side of the court (.541, 20-37)--but everywhere else he is either lukewarm (four zones) or ice cold (seven zones); overall, he is shooting .343 (132-385) outside of the paint. In contrast, Bryant has five red hot zones (the paint, the midpost area around the free throw line, two midrange areas on the right wing and left wing three pointers) and only three ice cold zones. Bryant is not quite the finisher in the paint that James is but Bryant is not only hot in that area (.595, 138-232) but he is shooting 210-491 (.428) outside of the paint, which means that defenders have to account for him all over the court, which creates opportunities for the Lakers' bigs to score in the paint and for their perimeter players to get wide open three point shots.

This significant difference between Bryant and James is the reason that Bryant's shooting percentages and turnover rates in playoff matchups last year versus San Antonio and Boston were markedly better than James' numbers in those categories in his playoff matchups versus those teams in the 2007 Finals and 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals respectively. As I mentioned in my Slam Online scouting report of Bryant versus James, "James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs swept his Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals; he averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics. In contrast, Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as the Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in the 2008 Western Conference Finals; he averaged 25.7 ppg, shot .405 from the field (including .321 from three point range) and committed 3.8 turnovers per game versus the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals."

I have tremendous respect for James as a player; when Skip Bayless was calling him "LeBrick" and others were stupidly questioning why James passed to a wide open Donyell Marshall at the end of a playoff game, I was writing a piece for NBCSports.com titled The Accelerated Growth Curve of LeBron James, declaring, "There have been younger players who led teams to the Finals and there have been players who led their teams to the Finals prior to their fourth season--but no one who is this young and who has only played four seasons has taken a team to the Finals without playing alongside at least one future Hall of Famer. James is used to doing things better--and at a younger age--than anyone else."

I have as much appreciation for what James has already accomplished and how great he is as anyone else does--but it would not be correct to say that he has made up any ground in a crucial area in which Bryant enjoys superiority over him, an area that enables Bryant to be more consistently effective against elite defensive teams (the difference in turnover rates in those San Antonio and Boston games is largely because defenders sag off of James and play the passing lanes, daring him to shoot from midrange/long distance).

Yes, James played at a remarkably high level in Cleveland's recent win versus Boston and in Cleveland's game seven loss to the Celtics last year--but in that series he also set numerous records for low field goal percentages and the Cavs could very well have been swept if not for the tremendous team defense they played in games three and four to extend the series. There seems to be a revisionist tendency now to act as if James played much better versus Boston than Bryant did, when the reality is that James played a brilliant seventh game--which his team still lost--but even including the numbers from his seventh game he still shot worse overall versus Boston and turned the ball over more frequently than Bryant did in the Finals. The ultimate length of each of those playoff series was determined more by the difference between Cleveland and L.A. as rebounding/defensive units than what Bryant or James did in those series.

While James is being rightly lauded for his improved defense and free throw shooting--but wrongly praised for a midrange and three point game that has not improved--Bryant has been portrayed as an older player who has lost some athleticism and is not quite as good as he used to be. Athleticism can be tricky to define--in December 2007 I made the case that Steve Nash may be the best athlete in the NBA--but James is clearly bigger and stronger than Bryant and likely runs faster and jumps higher as well. However, Bryant is still very close to the top of the charts in terms of speed and jumping ability, as he has shown several times this season with various dunks, blocked shots and other plays requiring those traits. Whatever Bryant may have lost in those departments in recent years has not as of yet had an obvious impact on how he plays.

I think that some people were fooled by how Bryant played in the early part of the season, when he was scoring around 25 ppg in fewer than 34 mpg, deliberately taking fewer shots to give other players the opportunity to step up. Bryant was also struggling a bit from three point range at that time--but after the Lakers blew some leads down the stretch with Bryant resting on the bench, Coach Phil Jackson has increased Bryant's minutes (he averaged 37.2 mpg in December and 39.0 mpg in the first seven games in January) and Bryant has put up some eyepopping numbers.

In the previous post, I mentioned that in the first seven games in January, Bryant averaged 30.6 ppg, 6.1 apg and 4.9 rpg while shooting .500 from the field, .483 from three point range and .847 from the free throw line. Going back a bit further, since December 1, Bryant has averaged 29.0 ppg, 4.8 apg and 5.5 rpg while shooting .484 from the field, .402 from three point range and .871 from the free throw line. Now that Bryant has regained his three point shooting touch while continuing to remain deadly in the paint and from midrange, he is essentially unguardable--he will make some shots and miss some shots but the defense cannot really dictate to him because there are no weak areas of the court to steer him toward. Bryant scored 13 fourth quarter points for the Lakers in their 105-100 win at Houston on Tuesday, including 11 of their 15 points in a 5:50 run when they went from down 89-87 to up 102-100 after a Bryant three pointer that proved to be the game-winning shot. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum finished the game with 11 points each and combined to grab eight rebounds, one more than Bryant's team-high tying total (Bryant led the Lakers with 33 points and also had a team-high tying four assists). Although the Lakers have a lot of depth, some of that depth has been eliminated due to injuries and even before those injuries struck it has often been up to Bryant to close out games, including games in which the Lakers once enjoyed comfortable leads before he went to the bench for a brief rest; Jackson eventually had to switch his rotation up and leave Bryant in games at the start of the fourth quarter to stabilize things, a marked contrast to the situation with Cleveland, where James has frequently sat out substantial portions of fourth quarters as the Cavs rode their suffocating defense and rebounding dominance to victories.

I think that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are head and shoulders above everyone else in the NBA right now (I need to see Dwyane Wade healthy and playing at this level for a full season before I'll put his name back in the discussion). James is obviously an MVP level player and has been one for quite some time--but there is an old boxing saying that to beat the champ you have to knock him out. Last year, Bryant finally earned overdue recognition as the MVP and the league's best all-around player and he is playing as well or better this season for the team that has the best record in the NBA. James is right behind Bryant, just like his Cavs are right behind the Lakers, but it is premature to say that James has surpassed Bryant and it is certainly premature to say--as some have suggested--that the MVP discussion is closed. More than half the season remains to be played, so both players will have plenty of opportunities to make their case for winning the 2009 MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM

17 comments

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17 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 9:33:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

obviously its too early for any award race to be over. james has improved but the best is still bryant. even though this has nothing to do with who is better i enjoy watching bryant more. he has more grace in his game. as walt frazier would call it james has bulldozer finesse. hes powerful in going to the basket and finishing. you mentioned how his game has improved. but his game is not smooth. thats irrelevant in determining who is better but for my enjoyment or who i would pay for first to watch its bryant.

watching the lakers vs rockets last night is a good example to why bryant is better. the rockets stayed in the game for most of the game. so the 4th is about to start and i tell my brother ok i want to see bryant get a quick 20 and finish this. now bryant had a terrible shooting night but you knew he would finish the game strong against a rockets team without artest and the only woman in the nba, tracy mcgrady. bryant had 13 and when he shot that three you knew it was net. with james you dont know if he is going to take over the 4th.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 12:21:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

I just don't understand why Lebron doesn't post up more, with his large frame and bulk. He really should develop a post-up game, but then that is part of a mid-range game, isn't it?

Adding to your thoughts, people seem to take for granted just how accurate Kobe is within 10 feet of the basket. Fans have seen it so long that a lot of the amazement has dissipated, so much that we're more surprised when he misses a close range shot than when he makes it!

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 3:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

You snuck in a cheap shot against T-Mac but otherwise I agree with most of what you said.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 4:23:00 PM, Blogger West Coast Slant said...

It seems that Kobe has a harder time getting freethrow opportunities than does Lebron. Lebron can take it to the hole at any time and get fouled and still finish. I am a hardcore Lakers fan and have spent much of my adult life fighting for people to stop hating on #8 turned #24, but this talent (ability to dunk on everyone) that James has over Bryant is the most telling reason how he has surpassed Kobe as the most dominant player in the game. He's like the guard version of Shaq.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 5:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

james is great to watch he is the player i watch to see the highlights the most kobe has grace and style there two diffrent players lebron is special and so is kobe lebron is powerful and brute stregth kobe is skill footwork and grace he is not overly powerful and not as athletic as he used to be lebron does something special every night he makes increbile dunks blocks and passes i watch this kid thinking i cant believe what im watching and he just turn 24 he got 10 years left of dominance look at kg he still great at 32 he came out of highschool kobe still great at 30 and came out of high school. kobe makes the most toughest shots i ever seen in my life it is unreal some of the shots he makes he is not athletic like young kobe 1996-2005 but he is actually a better player remind me of jordan not as good but he is the closest thing to mike since mike lebron is a diffrent player wade is diffrent too then mike both is great to watch i rather watch lebron as you would expect because he is in athletic prime and he is just unbeleivable right now kobe isnt jumping around the court like he used to and like lebron does everynight lebron does something special incredible what he does my only question will he be like jordan and kobe when his athleticism erodes like 32 and have the midrange and shooting skills that kobe and jordan had david.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 8:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

im sick & tired of ur Kb hating

how you coudl even mention Lebron or Jordan inthe same sentence as Kb is sickening

greatest person ever, (aside from relgion)

when will you give this guy just an iota of credit? MVP -- how about greatest non-religious person ever... hello? im tired of you and your media pals hating on this guy

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 8:53:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

u interviewed battier & couldnt help urself from turning the interview into a luv-fest 4 kobe! lol

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Joel said...

FreeCashFlow,

I think LeBron needs to improve his footwork before he can develop into an effective post scorer.

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 9:55:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

west coast slant....what you say makes no sense. the ability for james to dunk on everyone is the most telling reason he is better is silly. what does dunking have to do with anything. if thats the case than darryl dawkins would be one of the best ever. people need to realize that bryant is 6 years older than james. obviously bryant doesnt jump as high or is not as athletic as he used to be. bryant, who is 30 and has been a high flyer for years, has knees of a 36 year old player. plus he still dunks on people...ask dwight howard.

and how does james get to the line easier than bryant? does anyone on here besides david watch the games?

david, you know tmac doesnt deliver and is unreliable.

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 12:46:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

David,

I know you'll make sure to comment on Kobe's masterful offensive performance against the Spurs last night.

It's just too bad that for the masses, it will be forgotten because the Lakers lost.

With less than 8 minutes to play and down 11 points, Kobe entered the game and orchestrated a comeback and was in full control, reading the defense like a children's book. It was beautiful to watch.

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 2:21:00 PM, Anonymous st said...

any post on the lakers vs spurs game?

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 2:26:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

West Coast Slant:

LeBron is averaging 8.7 FTA/g for his career, including 8.9 FTA/g so far this season; Kobe is averaging 7.7 FTA/g for his career, including 7.3 FTA/g this season. Kobe had three straight seasons in which he averaged at least 10 FTA/g, then he averaged 9.0 FTA/g last season. His average this season is his lowest since 1999-00. So it is true that Kobe is getting to the FT line fewer times this season than usual but, watching him play, he is not having a problem getting by people or getting into the lane; he simply is choosing to shoot more from the midrange areas--perhaps to give Gasol and Bynum room to operate in the paint--and he is shooting very well from those areas.

I agree with Madnice that simply having the ability to dunk on people does not signify who is the best player--and that Kobe can certainly still dunk on people, too.

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 2:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

When athletic players are young, they expend a lot of energy doing spectacular things that are fun to watch, that pump up the fans and their teammates and that can deflate the other team--but when those players get a bit older, they learn how to conserve energy and be just as productive without using up so much energy. LeBron is at the first stage and Kobe is at the second stage.

LeBron is fun to watch because of his raw talent and explosiveness, while Kobe is fun to watch because of the technical perfection of his skill set, his shooting range and his uncanny ability to produce in the clutch.

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 2:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

Good point. LeBron has decent post moves, but he is not as smooth down there as MJ was or as Kobe is now.

LeBron rarely ventures into the post. He obviously prefers to play the game from a faceup position so that he can survey the entire court. It is natural to assume that as he gets older his game will continue to evolve.

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 2:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

As I just said, you are right that the ability to dunk over people does not make someone the best player.

Regarding T-Mac, he has consistently been a productive player for many seasons. When healthy, his skill set is on par with Kobe and LeBron. It is not fair to question his toughness; he often tries to play through his injuries. Some guys are just not as durable as others.

 
At Thursday, January 15, 2009 5:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow/ST:

I'm working on several other projects at the moment, so I will not be doing an in depth post about that game. I will incorporate some of my observations about it in my post about the upcoming Kobe/LeBron showdown in a few days.

However, it should be obvious that Kobe's performance simply reinforced that everything that I said in this post is accurate: Kobe is still the best player in the game, he is elevating his level of play as the season progresses and his complete skill set makes him virtually impossible to guard. The Lakers lost the game despite his brilliance because of two foolish fouls, one at the end of each half (people often focus on the very last play but in a tightly contested game between two elite teams every possession counts).

 
At Tuesday, January 20, 2009 2:22:00 AM, Anonymous FreeCashFlow said...

Man, if I had a penny for every time one of your columns described something perfectly before it happened, I'd have like 10 dollars!

Case in point: Tonight's Cavs-Lakers game was a demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses of Lebron and Kobe, as you have highlighted here.

 

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