There are some years in which the matter of the NBA's Most Valuable Player award is anticlimactic, where the vote is all but wrapped up by the All-Star break. We haven't seen that kind of MVP race much lately. Since 2003-04, when Kevin Garnett earned 120 of 123 first-place votes, the award has always been in at least some doubt until its announcement.
This year figures to be no different. When ESPN.com posted its writers' MVP ballots Monday, four players--winner Kobe Bryant, runner-up Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James--earned first-place votes. Add in Orlando's Dwight Howard, and a credible argument could be made for any of five players as MVP.
Let's start by looking at the numbers in five key categories. Minutes played is simple, but important, because we're talking about value here, not just ability. That's why I consider WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) more important than the per-minute Win% component of my rating system, though both are listed. +/- is net plus-minus, as tracked by 82games.com. Lastly, we have adjusted plus-minus, which is newly being tracked over the course of the season by BasketballValue.com. (All numbers through April 12.)
Player Min Win% WARP +/- A+/-
Bryant 3132 .673 16.7 + 7.8 +11.0
Garnett 2315 .748 16.0 +12.4 + 8.9
Howard 3017 .717 18.9 +10.7 +16.7
James 2951 .784 22.6 +13.3 +11.3
Paul 2935 .805 23.8 + 9.0 + 0.8
Let's start eliminating. The first out is Garnett. While he has been terrific this season for the league's best team, Garnett has played at least 600 fewer minutes than any of the top contenders. That's a fifth of the season, and it limits Garnett's value.
Next out is Howard. A strong case could be made that Howard ought to rank higher; he's third in the league in WARP and tops amongst regular starters in adjusted plus-minus. The Magic's division-winning season has gotten lost in the success enjoyed by Boston and Detroit in the East, and I think Orlando is something of a sleeper entering the playoffs. Howard has nearly single-handedly held down the paint for a Magic team that favors smallball. On the other end, however, his game remains unpolished, and that gives an edge to the perimeter players--all of them more valuable in late-game situations as go-to guys.
Now, let us consider the two swingmen, Bryant and James. Bryant is the presumptive favorite; if the Lakers beat Sacramento Tuesday and earn the West's top seed, he'll be tough to beat in the voting. Yet my rating system ranks him back in the pack, behind not only Paul, James and Howard but also Amaré Stoudemire, who isn't particularly close to my MVP ballot because of his defensive shortcomings and poor adjusted plus-minus numbers.
Why the discrepancy between Bryant and James, judged to be a difference of nearly six games as compared to a replacement player? Part of it is because James is rated the superior defensive player, something which does not make sense subjectively. The difference is larger on offense, however.
Ultimately, it comes down to two advantages for James. First, he's the superior distributor, averaging 7.2 assists per game to Bryant's 5.0. Second, he's played a larger role in the Cleveland offense, using a league-high 33.6% of his team's possessions (Bryant is at 31.4%) without sacrificing much in the way of efficiency (James' True Shooting Percentage is 56.8%, Bryant's 57.7%, and their turnover rates are identical).
To a Bryant supporter, that might seem like punishing him for the quality of his teammates. Bryant's usage rate has dropped considerably the last two seasons. Even then, however, James rated as the more valuable player on offense, and Bryant has not seen his efficiency improve as much as might be expected given his smaller role in the offense.
Is there reason to believe the ratings underrate Bryant? My answer is yes...but. Bryant is arguably the league's premier clutch performer...but James can lay claim to the same title. According to 82games.com, it is James, not Bryant, who has led the NBA in scoring in clutch situations this season. Additionally, Bryant's adjusted plus-minus rating is very strong...but James' is better.
The statistic that will likely ultimately carry the day in the voting is 56 wins for the Lakers versus 45 for Cleveland. That seems to me to have more to do with Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Phil Jackson than the difference in the two superstars. Bryant has had an outstanding season, but it falls short of what James has accomplished.
That leaves us with James and Paul, and for the most part this doesn't seem that difficult. Paul rates as the most valuable player on a per-minute basis and overall, plays for a team that will likely finish second in the Western Conference. There is no obvious reason to believe his stats overstate his contribution.
The one factor that gives me pause is Paul's poor adjusted plus-minus rating, but I think it is possible this result is a fluke. Within the span of a single season, adjusted plus-minus is notoriously noisy. Paul's unadjusted net plus-minus (+9.0) is best amongst the Hornets' starters, and it seems hard to believe that his backups (first Bobby Jackson, now Mike James) have been so bad as to explain that entire figure.
Here's how that would leave my vote.
- Chris Paul, New Orleans
- LeBron James, Cleveland
- Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
- Dwight Howard, Orlando
- Kevin Garnett, Boston
Now, let's fill out the rest of the mythical awards ballot. I'll recuse myself on Rookie of the Year because one of the top candidates, Kevin Durant, plays for my Sonics.
Defensive Player of the Year
- Kevin Garnett, Boston
- Tim Duncan, San Antonio
- Shane Battier, Houston
Also see my All-Defensive Teams as selected last week.
Coach of the Year
- Nate McMillan, Portland
- Byron Scott, New Orleans
- Rick Adelman, Houston
If this vote had been conducted at the All-Star break, when the Blazers were still in contention for a playoff spot in the West, McMillan might have had a chance to win the real award. Portland slipped back from the pack over the final two months of the season, but I don't think that should take away from what McMillan has done this season. Working with one of the youngest teams in NBA history--but a group of strong character guys led by Brandon Roy--McMillan correctly sensed it was time to back off from the hard-line style that earned him the nickname "Sarge" in Portland. The players responded brilliantly.
From an Xs and Os standpoint, McMillan and his coaching staff deserve credit for mixing in zone defenses to help mask the Blazers' defensive shortcomings. Portland is 14-5 this season in games decided by five points or fewer, and while it's extremely dangerous to read too much into the outcome of close games, McMillan has done a fine job in late-game situations of getting the ball to Roy or going to a second option (usually Travis Outlaw) when necessary.
As is the case almost every season, it's easy to make a case for several coaches as the league's best. In addition to Adelman, Orlando's Stan Van Gundy and Sacramento's Reggie Theus qualify as first-year coaches who have come through in very different situations. Meanwhile, the legends like Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan may not always get enough credit for their work. If this award was for coaching staffs, not head coaches, the Boston Celtics (and Tom Thibodeau) would shoot up my list.
Sixth Man Award
- Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
- David Lee, New York
- Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix
Ginobili is such a no-brainer for this award that it's not worth wasting any time discussing his candidacy. More noteworthy is Lee emerging from a group of energy big men, one that also includes Paul Millsap and Jason Maxiell, to earn my runner-up vote, largely on the strength of playing more minutes that the others. Lee has dropped off slightly from a year ago, but not as much as you'd think given how much less attention he has gotten.
Most Improved Player
- Chris Kaman, L.A. Clippers
- Hidayet Turkoglu, Orlando
- Rudy Gay, Memphis
The Most Improved Player award continues to be a frustrating mess, but at least this year it seems unlikely to go to a player who's simply gotten more minutes. I tend to give more credit to veterans who have improved their game. Kaman gets the nod over Turkoglu because I think his fine season can be traced to the effort he has put in working on his game. When Kaman played summer-league ball for the Clippers last July, I thought it was a punishment of sorts for his poor 2006-07 season. It turned out to be his way of getting ready for this year. Kaman has benefited from Elton Brand's absence on the block, but he also put himself in position to take advantage of that opportunity.
In addition to Turkoglu, Mike Dunleavy deserves credit as a veteran who has enjoyed a career season. Gay leads the large pack of sophomores who have picked up their play this season, a trend I wrote about last month.
All-NBA First Team
G Chris Paul, New Orleans
G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
C Dwight Howard, Orlando
F LeBron James, Cleveland
F Kevin Garnett, Boston
My MVP ballot, arranged by position.
All-NBA Second Team
G Steve Nash, Phoenix
G Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
C Amaré Stoudemire, Phoenix
F Tim Duncan, San Antonio
F Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
I don't think any of these picks should come as much of a surprise.
All-NBA Third Team
G Deron Williams, Utah
G Baron Davis, Golden State
C Marcus Camby, Denver
F Paul Pierce, Boston
F Chris Bosh, Toronto
The difficult debate was about the last guard--Davis, Denver's Allen Iverson or Detroit's Chauncey Billups? Davis had the best combination of individual stats and plus-minus numbers, but you wouldn't go wrong with any of the three. I also considered Antawn Jamison, who has put up great adjusted plus-minus number, instead of Bosh as the last forward.
Yes, it is strange that all six guards came from the Western Conference but only three of them were on the All-Star team. I was thrilled to be able to watch Brandon Roy in the All-Star Game and he's had a terrific season, but that selection looked questionable then and hasn't held up very well.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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