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Near the end of any given season in major American sports, debate begins to rage about which player will be named the MVP of the league. Some years, there really isn’t much question who will win (See: Tom Brady, 2010). In others, there are several viable candidates, such as the 2005 NBA race (the year Steve Nash eventually won the second of his back-to-back awards) or basically any of the last few NHL seasons. Each year and each league’s race is unique but for the fact that no matter what, only one player can win. (Well, except for 1997 when Brett Favre and Barry Sanders split the NFL’s award. Oh, and 2003 when Peyton Manning and the late Steve McNair split the award)
On occasion (or nearly every year, depending on who you ask), outside factors such as media persuasion and hype can drive a player’s MVP campaign to victory. There can be no clearer example of this than last season’s NBA MVP race, which culminated in Derrick Rose (who had an exemplary year himself) beating out Dwight Howard and LeBron James, two players who were undeniably more efficient and contributed more to their respective teams. Rose rode a combination of media hype, the league’s best record and the fact that other previous All-Stars on his team underperformed that season to the MVP award, but less than a year removed many are left wondering whether he really deserved it.
As I touched on earlier this week in our introductory article, this type of thing is exactly what prompted a few of us over at NYFWC to start Moneyball Diaries. It irks us that trending opinion from the masses could allow a player to win the league’s top individual honor over two guys who clearly did more on a nightly basis for the teams they played for. (Especially Dwight. My personal LeBron bias aside, someone please try to explain to me how the Magic could have even sniffed the playoffs last year without Howard)
Approaching the home stretch of the 2012 season, we could be headed for exactly the same type of disaster. Ask a casual fan or your average media member who this season’s MVP is and you could easily get up to four or five different answers. This is not right. Barring a major injury, this race has been over for a month or more. Hate him all you want, but LeBron James is far and away the most valuable player in the NBA this season.
Don’t start yelling at me yet, LeBron haters. I’ll explain. But first, as a backdrop for not only this subject but also much of what we will be discussing going forward in Moneyball Diaries, allow me to give a quick explanation of what someone like me (a stats geek) means when they say the word “efficiency,” because it’s a term you’ll see quite often. It’s also something that, due to its relatively recent development, is largely misunderstood by the public and the media alike.
Just as baseball did in the early 2000’s, basketball is becoming more and more of a numbers game. A few percentage points for a 3-point specialist might mean the difference between being on an NBA roster and being in the D-League. An extra half-block per game could mean the same for a big man. Players who are even the slightest step behind from an efficiency standpoint find themselves making millions less per year.
What is most vital, however, are not the raw numbers themselves. It is the ability of those reading these numbers to put them in the correct context and interpret them in a realistic sense, something much of the sports community still lacks the ability to do. Luckily, within the past decade pioneers such as Bill James and John Hollinger have devised metrics which do much of this work for us. In the interest of keeping my readers awake, I will offer only a brief explanation of two of these metrics which have made analyzing a player’s full game far more practical and simple.
The first of these is Estimated Wins Added (EWA), a statistic also used under a similar name in baseball. Using a formula available here, Hollinger calculates the number of wins a given player adds to his team over the course of a season above what a “replacement player” (defined as the 12th man on an average roster) would produce. For example, were Kevin Durant to be injured for the season and replaced by the Thunder’s last bench player, Hollinger estimates OKC would win approximately 14 fewer games than they are currently on pace to win. A remarkable statistic no doubt, especially when you consider that KD isn’t even number one on the EWA list.
The second and most comprehensive metric is Player Efficiency Rating (PER). Simply put by Hollinger himself, PER is “a rating of a player’s per-minute productivity.” Note specifically the term “per-minute.” Unlike stats such as points or assists per game, PER is calculated per minute that a given player is on the floor, and adjusted to reflect different amounts of playing time for different players.
Every raw stat available in the game is given a positive or negative value (rebounds positive, turnovers negative, etc.) and the metric is also pace-adjusted to reflect the fact that certain teams play at a much faster rate than others. Let me be clear: the player with the highest PER is not automatically the best player. It can’t necessarily account for things like team chemistry or lockdown perimeter defense. But there’s a reason why the biggest names in the game top the PER list every season and why the highest PER ever recorded in the modern era (and the highest career PER) was by some dude named Michael Jordan way back in the ’87-’88 season. Alright, now let’s get back to…
The Issue at Hand
No, LeBron doesn’t lead the league in points-per-game. He doesn’t play on the team with the best record, although it’s close. He certainly isn’t one of the most popular or well-liked players, and it’s unfortunate that this alone seems to be diluting the fact that James is having one of the all-time great NBA regular seasons, and doing so during a condensed schedule which makes it much harder to stay healthy and consistent every game.
Quick side note: Before we break it down, remember one thing. The MVP is a regular season award given based on performance through all four quarters of the game. What LeBron did during the Finals last spring means absolutely nothing. The fact that he’s not the number one closer in the game means just as little. This award isn’t for the player who can make the most last-second shots, and it’s definitely not based on last year’s playoffs. Use those excuses for why he can never be as great as Jordan all you please, they are totally legitimate in that context, but not in this one. End of tangent, moving on.
Let’s look at some of the raw numbers first before going into the advanced metrics, because within the simple stats we will find what is likely the most complete season ever put forth by a single NBA player. LeBron ranks in the top-25 in FIVE different major categories and in the top-10 in three, and that’s not even counting less prominent stats such as free-throw attempts, in which he ranks fourth. His overall stat line — 27.2 PPG (3rd), 6.6 APG (13th), 8.5 RPG (23rd), and 1.9 SPG (Steals Per Game, 4th), all while shooting 54% from the field (8th) — has only been equaled in the last 30 years one time, by Jordan during his sublime 1987-88 season, when he set the aforementioned PER record.
The only areas in which he doesn’t lead all small forwards are blocks (he’s 4th) and points. In the latter case, he trails Kevin Durant by just .4 PPG, and if you calculate for points-per-48 minutes, the two are exactly even at 34.7. Before we move on, stop to appreciate this for a moment. Kevin Durant, undeniably one of the best three players in the game, plays the same position as LeBron. He plays for an equally talented team (we’ll dive into this momentarily, just take my word for a couple paragraphs). Yet he is not able to beat James in more than a single statistical category, namely blocks (Durant averaging about .4 more blocks each game.) Even their points are almost exactly even despite James playing alongside not one but two players who have finished in the top-10 in scoring sometime in the last three years. And all of this is without mentioning that LeBron will certainly make his fourth consecutive All-Defensive 1st Team this offseason and will be neck-and-neck with Dwight Howard for the Defensive Player of the Year Award (an award I believe he deserves to win due to his knack for keeping the ball in play when he takes it from the other team, something Dwight hasn’t quite mastered yet, as well as LeBron’s unmatched ability to defend any position on the floor 1-5 and completely lock it down).
I’ve heard all the excuses why Durant or Kobe deserves the award. Get real. While Kobe is having a remarkable renaissance season and truly proving himself inhuman and impervious to pain, he’s no MVP. Despite having by far the highest Usage Rate (another Hollinger stat which tracks the percentage of a team’s possessions an individual player takes up) in the league, Kobe is only 12th in efficiency (PER), not even the highest on his own team with Andrew Bynum at 11th. Sure, nearly 29 points a game is great. But is it really so great when Durant and LeBron are scoring at nearly the same rate while taking four and five fewer shots per game respectively (and also putting up much better numbers in every other category)? I mean, the guy takes a ridiculous 24 shots per game, twice as many as Bynum, despite the big man shooting 58-percent compared to Kobe’s 43-percent. Sure doesn’t seem like MVP material to me.
As for Durant, the arguments for him are more convincing, but only slightly so. Many KD supporters would point to the quality of LeBron’s supporting cast as being better than Durant’s, but this is just blatantly false. Both teams have two top-10 talents in the league, but the tandem of Westbrook and Durant (point guard and knock-down shooter) is so much more traditionally effective than the pairing of James and Wade (both perimeter slashers who essentially do the same thing offensively). Each team has an All-Star third wheel, but Harden has been more effective than Bosh this season with a 20.89 PER compared to Bosh’s 18.91, and that’s without accounting for the added energy and pace Harden brings coming off the bench for OKC, something Bosh is not capable of in South Beach. Beyond each team’s top three, there is no question whatsoever Oklahoma City has the better roster. Miami would kill for a rebounder and shot-blocker like Serge Ibaka, settling instead for the undersized Joel Anthony. Both teams have role-players and leaders, but throw in the fact that both Wade and Bosh have missed significant time this year while Westbrook and Harden have not, and not only does the “his team isn’t as good as LeBron’s team” argument not hold up, the opposite could easily be argued.
From the advanced metrics standpoint, LeBron’s season is legendary. His current 31.69 PER is mere decimal points behind Jordan’s 31.89 record, and he was well over 32.00 until about a week ago (meaning he still has a great chance at breaking Jordan’s mark). The gap between James and second-place is over four full points, the highest gap between first and second since Hollinger started running the stat for all NBA players in 2003. LeBron’s Estimated Wins Added is a staggering 17.5, over three full games ahead of second-place Durant and over eight full games ahead of fellow All-Star Blake Griffin, who is 10th in that category. Once again, this is an area where one simply must stop to marvel. This stat essentially means that if LeBron and Griffin were to change places (King James alongside Chris Paul just sounds scary, by the way), the Clippers would be eight wins better than they are now, while the Heat would be eight worse. For LA, this would have them competing for the number two seed in the West rather than locked in a tight battle just to make the playoffs. For the Heat, it would mean Chicago would have the East locked up already, while Miami would be in a dogfight with Orlando just for home advantage in the second round of the playoffs. This type of impact cannot possibly be overstated.
But what is most remarkable about all the feats LeBron has achieved this season is the unimaginable amount of pressure he has been under right from the start. I don’t think it’s any stretch at all to say that LeBron is more scrutinized than any athlete in sports history, mainly due (once again) to media and public opinion. Never before has an athlete been so widely vilified and hated over a simple PR decision, and the hypocrisy this shows is amazing, as each year the league has seen multiple players commit far worse offenses and come out smelling like roses. Quick: name the face of the NBA for the first decade of the 2000’s. Kobe, right? The same guy who was accused of RAPE and subsequently admitted to cheating on his wife? But a couple titles later and he’s a legend. Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul (all of whom have exactly as many rings as LeBron) all put their teams through much worse ordeals by demanding trades and throwing their organizations into chaos. Criticize LeBron for the way he handled his departure from Cleveland all you like, because just like the Jordan comparisons, it’s totally justified. But the Cavs knew what could happen. They knew LeBron could leave at year’s end, and he was clear with them from the start that he would test the free-agency market once his contract was up. Cleveland had seven years to build around the best young player in the league, and failed to even put another All-Star (talent, that is – sorry Mo Williams, riding LeBron to replacement All-Star status once doesn’t quite count) on the court with him. The fact that he is so widely hated for his decision while players like Paul and Howard are still universally loved shows a remarkable bias on the part of a vast majority of sports fans.
It is my hope (and the hope of all of us at NYFWC) that this unjustified hate will not rob a deserving player of an MVP award. Being liked and being the best are mutually exclusive categories, something Jordan proved to us without a doubt in the years before he won his titles and became a darling of the league. The entire league outside of Chicago hated him and his personality, but it didn’t keep him from being recognized as the best in the game. The same should be true for LeBron, even if he likely won’t ever attain Jordan’s legendary status. So to the sportswriters who get a vote this year, I ask you to do the right thing. I ask you to vote for the Most Valuable Player, not the Most Hyped Player or the Most Liked Player. There really is only one clear choice.
By: Ben Dowsett