An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP RaceThere are three main MVP candidates this season: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Dwight Howard and Chris Paul have performed at a very high level and will likely round out the top five in the MVP voting but neither player deserves to be ranked ahead of Bryant, James and Wade. Before I say who I think should win this year's award, I will make the case for and against each of the top three candidates.
No one even talks about this now but Bryant is playing with an avulsion fracture in the pinkie finger on his right (shooting) hand that he suffered in February 2008 plus a dislocated ring finger on his right hand; if Brett Favre were playing with those injuries then ESPN would probably build a statue of him and have their anchors bow down to it three times a day but in Bryant's case it apparently is simply expected that he will not miss a game for anything short of a completely debilitating injury (James missed five games in the 2007-08 season with a much less serious finger injury). By playing hurt and making no excuses, Bryant sets the tone for how he expects his team to take care of business on the court in games and off the court in practices.
Another thing that is not mentioned nearly enough is that the Lakers hardly missed a beat after starting center Andrew Bynum went down with a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee; the Lakers started the season 37-9 (.804 winning percentage) with Bynum and went 25-7 (.781) during the games that he missed. In the first game that Bynum sat out, Bryant set a Madison Square Garden record by scoring 61 points in a 126-117 Lakers win, emphatically sending a message to his teammates that their championship quest would not be derailed by Bynum's absence.
James and Wade are praised for "making their teammates better." I prefer to say that great players "put their teammates in the best possible position to succeed." As I explained during last year's NBA Finals, "Magic Johnson did not make James Worthy able to run fast and jump high but Magic fed Worthy with passes that enabled Worthy to utilize those skills to score. It used to be said that Jordan did not make his teammates better, a criticism that Jordan scoffed at by retorting, 'You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep).'" There is good reason to believe that assist statistics are bogus, so I don't base my evaluation of a player's passing ability primarily on those numbers. An excellent example of how Bryant places his teammates in the best possible position to succeed is Pau Gasol, whose field goal percentage has soared since joining the Lakers; the primary reason for that is that opposing teams are reluctant to double team Gasol when Bryant is on the court, so Gasol now has the opportunity to use his skills to go one on one instead of having to constantly battle against a second defender. Gasol is a very skilled player but he is a finesse player and he works a lot better in space than he does when defenders make body contact with him (as became painfully evident during last year's Finals).
During the April 9 telecast of the Lakers 116-102 win over the Nuggets, TNT's Mike Fratello said, "Every player that we've talked to that played (for Team USA) has credited Kobe with being the guy that they followed the lead that he set, the example that he set with his work ethic." Can anyone else win the MVP if Bryant is essentially the mentor who is teaching the younger players about how to consistently prepare and perform like champions AND he is still playing at such a high level?
Some people make a big fuss about boxscore numbers while others look at "advanced statistics" but in order to accurately evaluate players there is no substitute for watching games with understanding. The problem is that some of the "stat gurus" seemingly do not watch games at all and few if any of them actually understand what they are seeing when they do watch games. Regardless of what some people may think that the numbers show this year, Bryant performed at least as well overall this season as he did when he won the 2008 MVP. In fact, Bryant's field goal percentage, free throw percentage and turnover rate are actually even better than they were last season.
In the immediate aftermath of Bynum's injury, Bryant increased his scoring to over 30 ppg for a period of time while also raising his field goal percentage and he was clearly the leader in the MVP race (despite what anyone else may have said); however, after carrying that heavy load for more than a month, Bryant's production fell off in March, the Lakers dropped some winnable games and James' Cavaliers took over the best record in the NBA. This is the first season since 2001-02 in which Bryant clearly performed worse after the All-Star break than he did prior to the All-Star break.
A March 17 home loss to the Sixers in which Bryant only scored 11 points on 5-15 shooting was particularly costly; right after that game, I wrote, "I don't believe in putting too much stock in one game but it has to be said that this game could be a turning point in NBA history. If the MVP race between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is close--and it certainly should be--then which team ends up with the best record could be the deciding factor. The Lakers' loss coupled with the Cavs' impressive home win versus Orlando vaulted the Cavs into the number one spot." The Cavs never relinquished their grip on the number one overall record.
James has led the Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA. James has relentlessly attacked his few skill set weaknesses (free throw shooting, three point shooting, defense) so thoroughly that only one flaw remains: midrange shooting.
Although some people place too much emphasis on this, James has the best all-around boxscore numbers among the three top MVP contenders. Perhaps more significant than the raw numbers is the fact that James led the Cavaliers in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots, thus becoming just the sixth five-tool player in NBA/ABA history; this distinction has only been possible since 1972-73 in the ABA and 1973-74 in the NBA, the years when those leagues began officially tracking steals and blocked shots (technically, both Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace averaged more blocked shots per game than James but neither of those players blocked 100 shots or appeared in 70 games, the minimum NBA requirements to be ranked among the league leaders; in terms of raw totals, James led the Cavs in all five categories).
James' erratic midrange jump shot still leaves him--and the Cavaliers--vulnerable against elite defensive teams that will sag off of James and force him to make that shot, something that James was not able to do versus the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals or the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals, the last two playoff series that the Cavs have lost.
The NBA's scoring champion has done an excellent job of leading the Heat to a playoff berth. In addition to his scoring prowess, Wade also ranked eighth in the league in assists and second in steals while becoming the first NBA player 6-4 or under to block more than 100 shots (106); David "Skywalker" Thompson (listed at 6-4) blocked 102 shots as a rookie in 1975-76 for the ABA's Denver Nuggets and Thompson blocked 99 shots for the Nuggets in 1977-78 (two seasons after the NBA-ABA merger). Dennis "Airplane" Johnson (also listed at 6-4) had 97 rejections in 1978-79 for the Seattle SuperSonics.
Wade led the NBA this season with 12 games of at least 40 points (James had nine such games and Bryant had four, though Bryant's 61 point outburst was the top single game output this season) and he lifted his numbers across the board after the All-Star break, averaging 33.9 ppg, 8.3 apg and 5.2 rpg.
Wade is essentially "mini-LeBron": they play a similar style and have similar skill set strengths and weaknesses but LeBron James is (at least) five inches taller and 45 pounds heavier. All other things being equal, size--specifically, height--matters and we saw an excellent example of this when James nullified Wade in the fourth quarter of a Cleveland victory over Miami by acting as the double-teaming defender versus Miami's star; Wade could not see over James to pass or score. As ESPN's Tim Legler and Jalen Rose pointed out after that game, if the situation had been reversed, James would have easily been able to see right over the much shorter Wade.
Although I have consistently said that the MVP should be chosen based on skill set evaluations--with the only exception being a truly dominant performance by a low post player, a la Shaquille O'Neal in his prime--the reality is that the MVP voters factor team success into the equation, which is why there has not been an MVP from a team with fewer than 50 wins since Moses Malone in 1981-82; Malone's Houston Rockets went 46-36 but they also were coming off of an NBA Finals appearance in 1980-81. While Wade's overall performance was great and his post All-Star break numbers were outstanding, neither his total body of work nor his post All-Star break production matches what Kobe Bryant did in 2005-06: Bryant led the NBA in scoring with a 35.4 ppg average--the ninth best single season scoring average in NBA-ABA history--and he was even more productive after the All-Star break (36.0 ppg on .461 field goal shooting, .364 three point shooting and .873 free throw shooting). Bryant had 26 40 point games that season--more than Wade and James combined to produce in 2008-09--including an 81 point game and 62 points in three quarters versus a Dallas team that made it to the Finals; Bryant's Lakers--an otherwise thoroughly mediocre outfit at best (see below)--won 17 of those 26 games.
Wade is receiving a lot of praise for allegedly carrying a subpar supporting cast so far but that kind of "analysis" is just another example of media members incorrectly evaluating a situation and coming to an erroneous conclusion: while many "experts" expected that the Heat would be terrible this season, in my Eastern Conference preview I predicted that the Heat would earn the seventh seed and I declared: "Even with the injuries to Wade and others and with Shaquille O'Neal mailing in the first half of the season before being traded, there still is no reason that the Heat should have become the worst team in the East--eight games behind the Knicks! On paper, they will probably be the 'most improved' team this season because they figure to win at least 40 games." The Heat shut Wade down for the final 21 games of the 2007-08 season, used a glorified D-League lineup, went 4-17 in that stretch and positioned themselves to get a Lottery Pick who has been very productive this season (Michael Beasley). In Wade's final appearance of the 2008 season before the Heat pulled the plug, he had 24 points on 11-20 field goal shooting, eight assists and four rebounds as the Heat narrowly lost (97-94) in Atlanta to a Hawks team that later pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games. In other words, last year's Heat were not a "normal" 15 win team; it is pretty obvious that the Heat did their best in the final fourth of the season to secure a top draft pick. "Tanking" does not necessarily involve "throwing" a game in terms of deliberately playing poorly; all a team has to do to achieve the desired result is put a group of players on the court who cannot possibly win even if they try their best.
The most common starting lineup for the Heat this season featured Wade, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony; that group went 14-10, the best winning percentage by any Miami starting lineup that played together for more than five games. Marion is a four-time All-Star, Haslem started for Miami's 2006 championship team and Chalmers is a very solid rookie. Anthony is obviously a journeyman but even when he started he often played less than 20 mpg, so he essentially was a token starter. Since the Heat traded Marion and Marcus Banks to Toronto for Jermaine O'Neal and Jamario Moon, their regular starting lineup has been Wade, O'Neal, Haslem, Chalmers and Moon, a quintet that has posted a 9-8 record. O'Neal is a six-time All-Star who finished third in MVP voting in 2004, while Moon is an athletic and energetic player whose skill set blends in nicely with Wade's (they have hooked up for many alley-oop plays). Granted, neither O'Neal nor Marion are as good as they were when they made multiple All-Star teams but they are veteran players.
In contrast, consider the two most common starting lineups for Bryant's L.A. Lakers in 2005-06: Bryant, Brian Cook, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom and Smush Parker (14-11) and Bryant, Kwame Brown, Mihm, Odom and Parker (13-9). Parker started all 82 games that season but even though he is 27 now and should be in his prime he is not even in the league; Brown, Cook and Mihm are career journeymen, while Odom is a talented enigma who has not made the All-Star team even once. Bryant carried that ragtag group to a 45-37 record and the seventh seed in the West; they pushed the Phoenix Suns to seven games in the first round.
If we are choosing up sides to go four on four, are you taking O'Neal, Haslem, Moon and Chalmers or Odom, Mihm, Brown and Parker? The reality is that the Heat are actually doing marginally better than they should have objectively been expected to do--they have earned the fifth seed in the East instead of landing in the seventh spot where I expected them to finish--but it does not surprise me at all that misinformed people look at this situation superficially and spout all kinds of nonsense.
Bryant was nearly as spectacular in the 2007 season as he had been in 2006, leading the league in scoring again (31.6 ppg) while increasing his field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding and assists. Bryant had 18 40 point games, leading the Lakers to victory in 13 of them, and the Lakers finished seventh in the West before bowing to a tough Phoenix team in the first round. Parker again played in all 82 games (starting 80 of them) and the Lakers had a starting center by committee consisting of Kwame Brown and second year player Andrew Bynum, who was so out of shape that he often would get out of breath after going up and down the court just a couple times. It should also not be forgotten that in addition to his scoring exploits, Bryant was a member of the All-Defensive First Team in 2006 and 2007.
Bryant was clearly the best player in the NBA at that time but he finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2006 and third in the MVP voting in 2007.
Based on the precedent set in 2006 and 2007, it really is not justifiable to give this year's MVP to Wade unless there is a way to retroactively give Bryant the 2006 and 2007 MVPs. That may sound flippant but I am serious: MVP awards are one measuring stick that is used to evaluate a player's career/legacy and it truly is not fair to change the standards now in order to honor a season by Wade that is simply not better than seasons posted by Bryant in 2006 and 2007--and, on top of that, in 2006 and 2007 Bryant was not competing against the kinds of MVP campaigns that Bryant and James have had this year (by any objective consideration, the seasons that 2006 MVP Steve Nash and 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki had would barely put them in this season's MVP discussion). People who say that Wade deserves to be "mentioned" in this season's MVP race are absolutely correct--he deserves to be "mentioned" and then to finish third in the voting.
I devoted the most attention in this post to Wade because I think that the comparison of his performance this season to Bryant's efforts in 2006 and 2007 is historically significant and that few people have really taken the time to objectively analyze those seasons. I get the sense that Wade's "third party candidacy" has garnered so much support now that he may in fact move ahead of Bryant to finish second in the official MVP voting. Wade deserves to finish in the "honorable mention" third spot but Bryant and James should split all of the first place votes.
Until March, I continued to maintain the opinion that I have had since last season, namely that Bryant's complete skill set slightly trumps James' powerful athleticism and improving--but still incomplete--skill set. However, in March, James led the Cavs to a 16-1 record while averaging 28.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 8.4 apg; he shot .472 from the field, .386 from three point range and .759 from the free throw line. Bryant's Lakers went 10-5 in March as he averaged 25.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 4.6 apg while shooting .432 from the field, .338 from three point range and .840 from the free throw line. Bryant's skill set is still more complete than James' is and James' inability to consistently make midrange jumpers could be a factor in the postseason but in a close MVP race James has to get the nod on the basis of outperforming Bryant down the stretch as the Cavs wrested the best record in the league from the Lakers.
During the 2009 All-Star Weekend, four-time MVP (1974-76 ABA, 1981 NBA) Julius Erving said of Bryant and James, "Kobe's got the torch now and LeBron is next in line." This year's playoffs may reveal whether Bryant truly passed that torch to James for good in March or if Bryant merely needed to get his second wind in order to recapture the torch during the crucible of postseason competition.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 PM