Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why LeBron James should already have 6 NBA MVPs


LeBron James is at the top of the basketball world with back-to-back NBA MVPs and Finals MVPs under his belt. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s off to a white-hot start already only ten games into the 2013-14 NBA season (62 percent shooting from the field and 52 percent from three). Even with an already astounding resume, the reality is that LeBron should have not four, but six MVPs, at age 28.

The 2006 NBA MVP race has gone down infamously in history as the MVP that Steve Nash should not have won. Popular opinion has given the nod to Kobe Bryant in that race. Then again in 2011, LeBron was robbed at the hands of a young superstar point guard, Derrick Rose. MVP voting in the history of the NBA is certainly filled with suspicious results, but these are two glaring mistakes.

To the voters’ credit, they don’t have an easy task. NBA voting must take into account more than who is the best player at a position in the league (most NFL MVPs are quarterbacks unless a running back has a historic season) or who is the best offensive player in the league (defense does factor into an NBA players success while in the NFL a player is only on one side of the ball and for baseball, defensive skill is given little consideration for the most part).

But the 2006 race really gets me because not only did the voters get it wrong, but most NBA fans (who believe Kobe Bryant should have won the award) got it wrong, as well.
                                         
Kobe Bryant did join an exclusive club in 2006 by averaging an incredible 35.4 points per game, becoming only the fifth player in NBA history to do so (Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, and Elgin Baylor). He was certainly more deserving that Nash. But LeBron James managed a nearly equally impressive 31.4 points per game while racking up two assists per game more than Bryant. So if you were to look at scoring output for the team (points + assists x 2), Bryant and LeBron had equal scoring outputs—and both greater than Steve Nash.

Statistic (2006)
LeBron James
Steve Nash
Kobe Bryant
PER
28.1
23.3
28.0
Win shares per 48
.232
.212
.224
Points
31.4
18.8
35.4
Rebounds
7.0
4.2
5.3
Assists
6.6
10.5
4.5
Steals
1.6
0.8
1.8
FG percentage
.480
.512
.450
FT percentage
.738
.921
.850
Team record
50 – 32
54 – 28
45 – 37

The individual statistics for 2006 give the clear advantage to LeBron, with the highest numbers posted in two of the more telling metrics for an individual player: PER and WS/48. PER measures efficiency and WS/48 measures a player’s contribution to the team and a combination of the two really do allude to a team’s “most valuable player.”

Both Bryant and James had terrible supporting casts in 2006, so that point is moot. This was the first playoff appearance of LeBron’s career and he sustained a more elite level of play throughout the season that peaked with a nine-game stretch in which he averaged 39 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds per game. That hadn’t been done since Oscar Robertson in 1965. Without a doubt, this stretch is more impressive for an MVP-caliber season than Kobe Bryant’s 81-point show vs. Toronto. (And of course, James was the better defender—a claim that defensive win shares and the individual defensive rating metrics support.)


The voters were scared to give the MVP award to a 21-year-old kid who had broken onto the NBA scene and nearly immediately taken over the game. At that time, the youngest MVP winner was 23-year-old Wes Unseld from way back in 1969 (we’ll get to who the youngest MVP is currently soon enough). And when competitors like Bryant and Nash had both posted impressive numbers they made the excuse to vote against the player who had truly earned the right to the award. If you give a barely legal adult the MVP already, will the motivation for the rest of his career dwindle? That very well could have played into the logic of the voters because clearly the Akron native should have taken home the 2006 MVP honors.

In 2011, somehow Derrick Rose ran away with the MVP. While this came as little surprise to most people, most everything about that season shows that not only was LeBron James more deserving…but so was Dwight Howard!

The leftover hatred of LeBron’s ESPN “special” where he articulated his desire to take his talents to South Beach had to have something to do with it because, again, the numbers clearly show LeBron was more deserving than Derrick Rose (and Dwight Howard).

Statistic (2011)
LeBron James
Derrick Rose
Dwight Howard
PER
27.3
23.5
26.1
Win shares per 48
.244
.208
.235
Points
26.7
25.0
22.9
Rebounds
7.5
4.1
14.1
Assists
7.0
7.7
1.4
Steals
1.6
1.0
1.4
FG percentage
.510
.445
.593
FT percentage
.759
.858
.596
Team record
58 – 24
62 – 20
52 – 30

The only individual statistics above that Derrick Rose beat LeBron in were assists, by a marginal amount, and free throw percentage. It wasn’t like a battle of deciding which position meant more to their team. At least Nash (in 2006) had the 50-40-90 numbers and 10+ assists going for him. In 2011, Rose was a scorer…who was not a better scorer than LeBron.

The Big Three gained infamy that year for losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, but the fact that it was a “Big Three” doesn’t lessen LeBron’s impact on the team. One could make a very strong argument that the Bulls without Derrick Rose would have done just fine. The Heat without LeBron would not have been pretty. Just look at the Bulls performance in 2013 without their star point guard…a laudable semifinal appearance. Statistically, LeBron and D-Rose’s relative contribution to their respective teams in 2011 show LeBron was the more valuable player (higher efficiency, PER, and overall contribution to the team, WS/48, among other parameters).

Ironically, in 2011 the voters had no problem breaking Cousy’s record for youngest MVP award. At 22 years old, the Chicago native became the youngest MVP in NBA history. Maybe LeBron’s brilliance at such a young age helped pave the way for voters to feel more comfortable giving the award to someone so young?

I won’t claim to get into the voters heads, but I will say this: LeBron James should be a six-time MVP right now. And that would put him in the debate for top-five greatest players of all time…at age 28.

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