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April 8, 2011
Picking an MVP
My Mythical Ballot

by Kevin Pelton

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2010-11 has featured one of the most bitterly contested MVP debates in NBA history. Naturally, the players themselves aren't involved, but their supporters have taken to the Internet en masse to argue for their side. None of that will matter, of course, when writers around the league cast their votes by next week, but there is one place your voice can truly be heard: The Internet Basketball Awards, whose second edition we hope to launch next week. What follows is the ballot I plan to cast.

First, a quick glance at the leaderboard in Basketball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player statistic, since we've been unable to update player stat pages this season due to technical issues.

Player               Tm     ORtg     DRtg    Win%    WARP
---------------------------------------------------------
LeBron James        MIA    111.8    103.6    .744    20.2
Dwight Howard       ORL    108.6    100.3    .751    20.1
Dwyane Wade         MIA    110.4    103.7    .706    16.4
Kevin Love          MIN    111.0    103.9    .716    16.4
Chris Paul          NOH    110.4    103.9    .699    16.3
Derrick Rose        CHI    110.6    104.8    .680    15.7
Pau Gasol           LAL    108.7    103.6    .662    14.9
Kevin Durant        OKC    108.8    104.5    .637    13.4
Manu Ginobili       SAS    110.2    104.5    .677    13.1
Russell Westbrook   OKC    109.6    105.1    .641    12.9

1. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

Howard's really is a classic story. He took criticism of his offensive game to heart and worked with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer to develop his post moves. He also improved his range, more than doubling last year's number of shots made outside 10 feet, per Hoopdata.com. The result has been Howard using a career-high 27.2 percent of the Magic's plays without any noticeable loss in his efficiency. So much for any notion that Howard can't serve as a go-to guy on offense. Just four big men in the league have used more of their team's plays, and none of them work as exclusively in the post as Howard.

Meanwhile, Howard remained as dominant as ever at the other end of the floor. The Magic weakened its perimeter defense substantially by reacquiring Hedo Turkoglu and shedding the team's two best wing stoppers, Matt Barnes and Mickael Pietrus. Yet Orlando remains the league's third-best defense, largely on the strength of limiting opponents' two-point percentage and dominating the defensive glass more than any other team--both attributes, as M. Haubs notes at The Painted Area, that point directly to Howard's influence. The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year is a lock to win that honor once again.

The most obvious argument against Howard is that his team has slipped badly in the ranks of Eastern Conference contenders and is now an afterthought. I think that line of reasoning underestimates the Magic's regular-season performance. I'm no more convinced than anyone else that Orlando will threaten the Chicago Bulls should they advance out of the first round, but the Magic sits just four games behind the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat in the East standings. Orlando's point differential (+5.4 points per game) is good for sixth in the league, and is only a hair behind Boston's (+5.6).

Beyond that, the Magic's issues can hardly be blamed on Howard. The question of whether he can lead a successful team should have been answered to our satisfaction with Orlando's run to the 2009 NBA Finals and last year's second-best record in the league during the regular season. Howard is a better player now than he was then, but with a weaker supporting cast around him. While Otis Smith's midseason deals for Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Gilbert Arenas haven't failed per se, nor have they managed to revitalize a team that no longer has a second All-Star capable of helping Howard shoulder the load. The fleet of shooters that once feasted on the open looks created by Howard double-teams now shoots barely better than league average from beyond the arc. None of this points to Howard shortcomings.

What we have here is a player who is dominant at one end of the floor and has become very good at the other. In a year lacking in dominant statistical performances--perhaps we were spoiled by LeBron James surpassing 25 WARP each of the last two years--that seems to add up to MVP-caliber performance.

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat

Dean Oliver once observed that, when Michael Jordan was passed over as MVP during his prime, it was largely because he was being compared to his own standard rather than his peers. The same thing seems to be at play with James this season. In combination with the lingering stench of The Decision, that's all but ruled James out of the MVP discussion despite the fact that on purely a statistical basis, he stands with anyone in the league.

James has in truth been nowhere near as dominant as in Cleveland, and may never reach that level playing alongside Dwyane Wade. I no longer think that the ability of James and Wade to coexist is a major worry for the Heat--Miami's future hinges on its ability to upgrade the supporting cast, clearly--but there's anergy (reverse synergy) at play here. James and Wade limit each other's value, possibly even more than the numbers can pick up. When he's off the ball, James is essentially a nonentity, and that is not compatible with MVP performance.

3. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

My greatest sadness about the MVP debate this year is that it has been reduced to stat geeks against Derrick Rose, which hasn't helped either side. Look, Rose has had a fabulous year. I enjoy watching him attack a defense as much as anyone. And it is absolutely unfair that he's taken a barrage of criticism from statistical analysts because of an MVP campaign that he's had no role in orchestrating outside of his play.

I want this column to be about the reasons Howard is MVP, not the reasons Rose is not, but I suspect that his supporters also want an explanation for why he doesn't rank higher. I think the point that has not been made effectively enough by statistical analysts is that it is basically impossible to craft an argument using the numbers that Rose has been the most valuable player in the league. That's true with any of the all-in-one metrics: PER or WARP or Win Shares or take your pick. It is equally true with the numbers we use to fill in the gaps when those individual stats fail to paint the entire picture, notably plus-minus and adjusted plus-minus.

By themselves, none of these numbers is sufficiently damning to put Rose out of the top two of my MVP ballot. Rose's plus-minus statistics, for example, draw heavily on the limited amount of time he's spent on the bench--887 minutes in total. Tom Thibodeau's first and second units have been so distinct that it's difficult to read much of anything into Rose's middling net plus-minus (+1.9 points per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue.com). I wanted to compare lineups with four common players and Rose and his backup C.J. Watson as the only difference, but found just three common lineups that had played even 50 possessions all year. Adjusted plus-minus is an improvement in this regard, and offers a more legitimate value for Rose (+7.4 points per 100 possessions, 26th in the league), but it remains notoriously volatile within a single season.

Still, if Rose has been the best player in the league this season, there should be something objective that backs that up. In the absence of any such evidence, I can't put him higher than third.

4. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets

To me, the difference between the second and fourth spots on my imaginary MVP ballot is relatively small. For much of the year, I thought Paul was as valuable as anyone in the league, and if we define the term narrowly as meaning most important to their team, the argument can easily be made for Paul. Carrying a team that had only one other starter capable of creating his own offense (David West, before his untimely torn ACL), Paul was the entire New Orleans attack at times, yet the Hornets are still headed to the playoffs and could finish as high as sixth in the Western Conference.

When Paul left the floor, New Orleans' Offensive Rating dropped by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. Just two other players (Paul Pierce and Steve Nash) had a larger impact. The difference is that while those teams were unable to upgrade the backups to their stars until the deadline, the Hornets traded for a top-tier reserve point guard in Jarrett Jack before Thanksgiving. Didn't matter. New Orleans was still dependent on Paul, who sports the league's best single-season adjusted plus-minus by a sizeable margin (Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge is second, followed by Howard).

What's keeping Paul in fourth is that he suffered through a rough stretch during the month of February unlike any experienced by the three players above him. During the month, Paul made just 44.3 percent of his twos and 30.0 percent of his threes. He looked worn down physically and generally wasn't a factor as the Hornets went 4-8 in the month.

5. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

It's a testament to how great James and Wade are that they could limit each other's value by playing together and yet still both end up in the top five of my MVP ballot. Wade has probably suffered slightly less from the partnership, recording his best True Shooting Percentage since 2006-07 while using a smaller share of the offense. He's also focused his energy on the glass, recording far and away the best rebounding season of his career.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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