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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

LeBron James Versus Kevin Durant: One More Chapter in the Eternal Debate About MVP Criteria

Most informed NBA observers agree that LeBron James is the best all-around player in the league, an unofficial title that he seized from Kobe Bryant several years ago. However, it seems unlikely that James will win the 2014 MVP award, because popular sentiment heavily favors Kevin Durant, the four-time scoring champion who has finished second in MVP voting in three of the four seasons that James won the award. Durant is posting career-high averages in scoring and assists while leading his Oklahoma City Thunder to the second best record in the NBA; the Thunder are four games ahead of James' Heat with one game remaining on both teams' schedules. Durant has indisputably authored an MVP caliber season and he has been an MVP caliber player for several years but should he win the award over James based primarily on a slight difference in their respective teams' records and some form of voter fatigue regarding James? Or, should the MVP award go to the player who is still the best all-around performer in the league?

The names are different now but the questions are the same ones that have been debated for many years. Michael Jordan was the consensus best all-around player in the league for roughly a decade--though he missed nearly two full seasons while he pursued a pro baseball career--and is widely regarded as the greatest player of all-time but he "only" won five regular season MVP awards. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Jordan annually battled another greatest player of all-time candidate--Magic Johnson--for MVP honors and then Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each received one MVP during Jordan's prime, supposedly because voters were reluctant to give the trophy to Jordan every single year, a form of "logic" that makes no sense: there is no good reason that one player should not/cannot win eight or 10 MVPs. I much prefer the Rucker League precedent; if I recall the story correctly, even though Connie Hawkins missed most of the season he still made the Rucker League All-Star team because a Rucker League All-Star team simply wasn't authentic if it didn't have Connie Hawkins on it--and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that during the Jordan era an NBA MVP award was not authentic if it went to someone other than Jordan. Obviously, in a more formal league like the NBA a player cannot miss most of the season and still deserve All-Star or MVP consideration but Jordan should have won every regular season MVP from 1988 through 1998, except for 1994 (when he missed the entire season) and 1995 (when he only played 17 games); he was the best all-around player in the league and even though Hall of Famers Johnson, Barkley and Malone had some MVP caliber seasons during that era no knowledgeable observer would have picked any of them ahead of Jordan if all four players were available to be drafted or signed.

Kobe Bryant got an even worse deal than Jordan; at least Jordan still racked up the second most MVPs in pro basketball history, falling just one short of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record. Bryant was the best all-around player in the NBA for the better part of the 2000s (circa 2003-2009), he proved equally adept at carrying decrepit teams to the playoffs and at leading a solid but not particularly deep Lakers' team to three straight Finals appearances/two straight championships but he only received one regular season MVP (2008). Bryant should have won the 2006 and 2007 MVPs and he also played at an MVP level in 2003 and 2009, though Tim Duncan and LeBron James were slightly better than Bryant in those respective seasons (injuries knocked Bryant out of serious MVP contention in 2004 and 2005, as he missed 17 and 16 games respectively).

According to the popular, media driven storyline, this is Durant's time: he is supposedly having a career year while James is allegedly just coasting and waiting for the playoffs to begin. The reality is that Durant is essentially playing at the same level he has been playing at for several years, with two notable exceptions: he is attempting about three more field goals a game and he is dishing off about one more assist a game, though assists are so subjective that this change may not even be statistically significant or have much to do with an actual increase in playmaking ability. Durant is shooting and passing more often not because his skill set has changed but rather but because the Thunder's other All-NBA First Team caliber player--Russell Westbrook--missed almost half of the season due to injury, forcing Durant to shoulder a bigger load. Durant's field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounding average, steals average and blocked shots average are all lower than they were last season.

What about the "coasting" James? James has been remarkably consistent since he joined the Heat four years ago, averaging between 26.7 and 27.1 ppg, between 6.9 and 8.0 rpg and between 6.2 and 7.3 apg. He has increased his field goal percentage for seven straight years (including 2013-14), his free throw percentage annually hovers around .750 and this season he has posted the second best three point shooting percentage of his career. There is no discernible evidence that James is taking it easy or that he is declining. The "stat gurus" claim that James' defense has fallen off but while it is true that James' shotblocking--always an overrated part of his game (his best seasonal total is 93, five fewer than the best seasonal total posted by that noted high flyer Larry Bird)--has decreased to a ridiculously low level for a player with his athletic gifts (.3 bpg) James is still the multi-positional anchor for a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been the two best players in the NBA for several years and figure to remain the two best players for a few more years. In any given year, either player could deservedly win the MVP award--but James is the more physically imposing player at both ends of the court, a better inside scorer, a better passer and a better/more versatile defender. James used to be the better rebounder but Durant has closed the gap in that department. I doubt that any GM or coach would prefer to have Durant over James but because of the storyline that the media has relentlessly crafted throughout this season Durant will win the 2014 MVP. Honoring Durant will not likely turn out as badly as presenting Dirk Nowitzki the 2007 MVP hardware in a broom closet at an undisclosed location and perhaps Durant will soon have his day in the Finals' sun much like Nowitzki eventually did but I will always say that the MVP award should go to the league's best all-around player (unless there is a big man like Shaquille O'Neal whose physical dominance trumps the best all-around player's versatility) regardless of storylines, "advanced basketball statistics" and any form of voter fatigue directed against multiple MVP winners.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 PM

9 comments

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9 Comments:

At Tuesday, April 15, 2014 7:51:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Noted, but the best argument I've heard in Kevin Durant: he has been better than LBJ this year. He uses more possessions than ever and yet he maintains the same efficient numbers. Has become Better on pick & rolls, better on passing , and became the eight player to crack the 30 PER ceiling.

Also, KD has improved on defense while LBJ has slipped on that end (players blow by him more and he is less of a deterrent at the rim). LBJ though has shot 57% and produces near 30 PER results.

Will you do the playoff picks again this year?

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2014 10:14:00 PM, Blogger HP said...

Interesting. I don't think it should be a black/white thing regarding the "the best player should win MVP" statement. There are other factors to take into account.

LeBron, when he is putting in the effort, is just the greatest player in the world, but(and i am a LeBron fan and have seen the majority of games this season), LeBron has -even if it can't be called full on coasting- not played at a level higher than Durant this year for most of the games.

By the way,i was wondering:

Who do you consider the better player and/or more likely to lead a team to a championship with a good supporting cast: 2014 Kevin Durant or 2010 LeBron.

And, if LeBron were to 3-peat this year, would he be ranked above Kobe Bryant in your personal NBA Pantheon?

Have a good day.

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2014 10:17:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David, this is Vednam.

You make some good points. I generally agree that the MVP should go to the "best player in the league". But I do think there are situations where two players might be close enough in terms of overall talent that other factors could be taken into consideration.

It also depends on how you define "best player". Is the best player the same thing as the guy who would be chosen first if all players were available to be drafted or signed? I think the "who would you draft/sign" viewpoint discounts the unique role certain players fill on certain teams, and it also is likely biased by age.

If the "best player" is the same as who would be picked first in a hypothetical draft, Wilt Chamberlain would have been considered the best player throughout the 1960s. (Despite what Bill Russell's admirers say, would they really take Russell over Chamberlain in a hypothetical draft with no knowledge of how the rest of the team would be filled out?) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would have been considered the best through his first 11 seasons and possibly a few more after that. I think Tim Duncan would have been taken over Kobe Bryant in a hypothetical draft up until the 2007-08 season.

I agree Michael Jordan should have won MVP in 1993 and 1997. I am less convinced about 1990 and especially 1989. Jordan would have been taken over Johnson at the time because of his superior skill set and younger age. But I think there was not nearly as big a gap between what they brought to the table as there was between MJ and Malone or Barkley. And considering the role Magic played for the Lakers and other circumstances, I don't think Jordan was necessarily robbed of the 1989 and 1990 MVPs. (And if Jordan would have won them, I wouldn't necessarily say Magic was robbed.)

I am undecided about who should get this year's MVP. I'd say LeBron is still the best player. But I think Durant is pretty close, and considering his exceptional stats and slight increase in scoring, it wouldn't be a travesty if he was chosen.

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2014 11:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

I am not convinced that Durant has been better than James this year. That is the storyline we keep being told, but--as I mentioned in the article--Durant's numbers are actually down in every category except for ppg and apg and his increased production in those areas is largely because of Westbrook being hurt. Durant is perennially a legit MVP candidate but it is not so obvious that he is a fundamentally different player this year than he has been in the past several years--nor is it obvious that James has dramatically regressed.

I will do some postseason picks but probably not in the same format that I have previously used.

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2014 11:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

HP:

I have to see 2014 Durant in the playoffs before I can answer your question. From 2007-2010, I thought that James had the necessary skill set and mentality to lead a team to a championship but after he quit during the 2010 playoffs I realized that he was missing something--and he realized it, too, as he has admitted in recent interviews.

Durant led the Thunder to the 2012 Finals and I have every reason to believe that he can lead a team to a championship but, as things stand now, neither 2010 James nor 2014 Durant have won a championship.

 
At Wednesday, April 16, 2014 12:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Welcome back!

You are right that the "best player" determination can be impacted by age, role and other factors but when I use the term "best player" I mean it in an ideal sense: which player would be chosen number one right now without giving consideration to age, salary cap number or any factor other than his all-around skill set. I think that under those conditions LeBron James would still be selected first by a majority of GMs.

I agree with your rankings of Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar. The Duncan-Bryant comparison is very interesting. Bryant is a more explosive scorer, an underrated passer and an excellent defender but Duncan is a big man who can dominate the paint at both ends of the court. I would say that Bryant roughly matched Duncan circa 2003 and probably surpassed him after that, though injuries limited Bryant's availability and productivity in 2004 and 2005.

I also agree with your comments about MJ and Magic compared to MJ and Barkley and MJ and Malone--but I still would take MJ over Magic after 1988. MJ was not necessarily "robbed" in 1989 and 1990 but I think that at that stage of their careers MJ was the better player in a matchup of two of the 10 greatest players of all-time.

It would not be a "travesty" if Durant wins but I think that many of the commentators and prospective voters are not using the best criteria, at least based on the public discussions pertaining to the MVP race.

 
At Wednesday, April 16, 2014 12:18:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Vednam,
Were you aware of this interesting trivia?

In three of the five MVP awards Bill Russell won, he was voted to the second All-Pro team.

 
At Wednesday, April 16, 2014 12:22:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

David,
I agree that the narrative by itself isn't determinative. But by the eyeball test, wouldn't you agree that LBJ has, if not exactly coasted, let a bit off the gas pedal this year compared to last year? And that KD is even more dominant now compared to previous seasons?

I look forward to your annual picks, which are more on the money than most of the so-called experts elsewhere.

 
At Wednesday, April 16, 2014 10:21:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet:

Collectively, the Heat were more dominant last season, primarily because Wade was healthier, but I think that James has been pretty consistent since arriving in Miami.

In the wake of Westbrook's absence, Durant assembled an incredible streak of 25-plus point games and he took over a larger share of the playmaking duties but essentially he is the same player that he has been for the past several seasons--and that is not a bad thing, because he has been an MVP caliber performer throughout that time. I just think that a lot of people are searching for some "passing of the torch" moment instead of waiting for that to happen naturally.

I am glad that you enjoy my playoff predictions. As usual, I will write something after the regular season is officially over.

 

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