Don't be Fooled Into Believing that the MVP Race is OverAccording 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM