Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Amar'e, LeBron, KD and the Wacky Storylines of the 2010-11 NBA MVP Race

Coverage of the NBA has gotten much smarter as media options have expanded exponentially and as we've gained better knowledge about things like how to analyze statistics, but apparently the MVP is still secondarily about the Most Valuable Player, and primarily about the Most Favored Storyline.

The Ridiculous Storyline: Amar'e

The 2010-11 NBA season has passed the halfway point, and as we've reached that marker, lots of folks have been offering their choices for midseason awards. Over and over and over and over again, I've been seeing a selection which is making me lose my mind: Amar'e Stoudemire for MVP.

Now, Amar'e is indeed having yet another outstanding season (one which actually looks quite similar to his Phoenix production). But give me a break. He's not the MVP, or even close, really.

Here's how the scout who Marc Stein quoted in his Weekend Dime described it:
    "[T]he most valuable player as we get to the midpoint is Amare Stoudemire. He's rejuvenated the whole city of New York. They've stumbled a little bit here lately, but he's putting up huge numbers and he's got all the cab drivers talking about the Knicks and he's proven he doesn't need Steve Nash to be a great player."
Awesome. Getting the New York cabbies talking is a new MVP criterion to me, but apparently doing that and taking a team from 29 wins to 44 wins and a 6 seed makes you the MVP.

One of the Sports Illustrated writers who chose Amar'e said that "Stoudemire has turned the Knicks from afterthoughts to contenders and rejuvenated a historical power."

First of all, though the Knicks are based in the largest market and have been around since the NBA's inception, I really question how much of a "historical power" they are. There have been many more dismal years than memorable ones in the team's 65-year history.

And they are absolutely not contenders in 2010-11! They weren't even when they were 22-15 before their easy early schedule finally toughened up, and they aren't now that they're 23-21. The Knicks smelled like a 6 seed then, and smell like one now.

That's what most bizarre about the current Amar'e MVP fetish: normally the MVP discussion focuses obsessively on W-L record, yet this year many are rushing to bestow the honor on a guy leading his team to the 14th-best record in the league, because the storyline of leading the Knicks from a decade of complete irrelevancy to being halfway decent is the warmest and fuzziest.


The Forbidden Storyline: LeBron and D-Wade

Admittedly, it's a bit of strange year for the MVP so far, and there's certainly no clear-cut selection, to date. It starts with the fact that the league's top two teams - San Antonio and Boston - are both doing it by committee, and the Lakers have also done so to a certain extent as well, with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and even Lamar Odom taking turns at preeminence for the champs.

But still, going to a base level of "Who are the guys doing it via box-score stats and W-L record?", there are several players who compare favorably to Stoudemire:
                     PER    W-L
    L James 26.1 31-13
    D Wade 25.5 31-13
    C Paul 25.8 30-16
    D Howard 25.1 29-16
    K Bryant 24.7 32-13
    R Westbrook 24.3 28-16
    D Nowitzki 24.0 28-15
    P Gasol 23.7 32-13
    K Durant 23.2 28-16
    D Rose 23.0 31-14
    D Williams 23.0 27-17
    A Stoudemire 23.4 23-21
I will say that one impressive thing in Stoudemire's favor is that he's not blessed with another star. Ray Felton is the next Knick player after Amar'e in the PER rankings at 65th (17.4). But that's why the Knicks are ultimately a mediocre team. They have upgraded not only with Amar'e but also by adding several good players around him, but New York is still needs more talent and seasoning compared to contending teams.

For me, the MVP race is still wide open, and for a midseason choice, I have trouble separating LeBron James and Dwyane Wade - they are my 1 and 1a to date. They have both been extraordinary in carrying (along with Chris Bosh) an otherwise crappy roster to one of the league's best records. I've been especially impressed by how disruptive they've been defensively, making Miami a top-five defense even without an imposing interior presence.

I'm quite surprised that I haven't really seen Wade on anyone's top five list as an MVP contender - I think he's been truly outstanding since shaking off an early-season slump after having to adjust to an overhauled roster without the benefit of training camp, due to injury.

Statistically, both of these guys should separate from the pack as the season goes on, as they've been fantastic since the rough 9-8 start:
               JAMES               |        WADE
1st 17g 23.4 - 5.6 - 7.9 - 44% FG | 21.2 - 5.9 - 4.1 - 44% FG
Last 27g 27.6 - 8.2 - 6.7 - 50% FG | 27.6 - 6.8 - 4.3 - 52% FG

If I had to choose one, I'd probably lean toward James because his passing (7.2 apg overall) has been superior to Wade's (4.2 apg), even though I think Dwyane has been a slightly better defender.

And therein, of course, lies the problem. No one wants to reward LeBron James for The Decision, and no one wants to reward Dwyane Wade either, after the offseason stacking of the superstar decks. The Heat are the league's most hateable team.

I enjoyed today's new entrant in the NBA MVP storyline sweepstakes, this argument for Derrick Rose, which couldn't be more in contrast to the mainstream narratives surrounding LeBron:
    He's my MVP so far, not just for the way he's carried the limping Chicago Bulls the way Penn's carried Teller.... He's my MVP for moments like this:

    Three young fans are walking alone after leaving the United Center. They're the last to go, so they're all alone. A white SUV pulls up next to them. This part of Chicago could use a shave and a clean shirt, so somebody rolling up on you isn't usually happy news. The young men try not to look. The window comes down and who is behind it but Derrick Rose himself, The Heir to Air.

    Their mouths fall unhinged.

    "Hey, man, just want to thank you guys for taking time to come out," Rose says. "Really appreciate it."

    Their voice boxes go mute.

    "And thanks for wearin' my jersey, too!" Rose says to one of them.

    Their eyes fail to blink.

    Finally, one of them, Martin Campoverde, 23, gulps, "What's it feel like playing in your hometown?"

    Rose pauses and smiles. "Greatest thing ever happened to me," he says. "This is the greatest city in the world."

    Window goes up. SUV drives off. Year is made.
I mean, if you want to choose the MVP based on doing good things for the kids, that's cool. I choose to focus more on, you know, who the most valuable basketball player is.

It doesn't fit the storyline anyone wants, you may not like it, and they certainly have more to prove in the playoffs, but it's the reality: LeBron James has been the best player in the 2010-11 regular season so far.


The Boring Storylines: Dwight and CP3

I certainly think this is still a wide-open MVP race. But my other top contenders are two boring old standbys, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, which stands in opposition to the conventional wisdom, described today by John Hollinger thusly: "Howard, incidentally, is also a very strong MVP candidate whom everyone seems hell-bent on ignoring while they fixate on shiny new objects like Amare Stoudemire and Derrick Rose."

I rank Howard far, far ahead of Stoudemire, as his presence as the game's most dominant defensive player has been the most important factor in keeping the Magic strong no matter who his teammates are. And, of course, Howard is displaying an expanded offensive game, to boot. I thought Dwight was the MVP through November, and he's still a very strong contender to ultimately get my mythical vote.

Meanwhile, Paul is still my choice as the game's top point guard, and he is one of my top MVP contenders for his supreme efficiency in leading a fairly thin Hornets roster to one of the best records in the West. He was brilliant again tonight in outdueling Russell Westbrook down the stretch. In my opinion, Paul is severely hampered by the fact that New Orleans has just one game on ESPN or TNT this season - I think people have forgotten how good he is.

I know that New Orleans residents and cabbies may not be buzzing the same way their Big Apple counterparts are. Maybe CP3 needs a second line or the Mardi Gras Indians in support of his MVP candidacy to get things moving.

Honestly, I don't think there is too much separating the top four point guards right now - Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams (and geez, Rondo, Parker and Nash aren't too far behind them) - so I think reasonable people can disagree on this one, though I'd rate the guys other than Paul just behind as the best second-tier MVP candidates right now.

From there, it's really up for grabs. I would have had Dirk Nowitzki in the top five before he missed so much time with a knee injury (and hasn't looked great upon return, either). I suppose one could make an argument for Stoudemire in the top five based on the relatively little help he's getting from teammates, compared to other contenders, even though I'd probably rank him closer to 10 than 5.


The Underrated Storyline: KD?

One of the most underrated storylines of the season for me has been the dissipation of what was the summer's warmest and fuzziest MVP storyline of all: the expectation of Kevin Durant's continued ascent to league dominance after his tweeted contract extension was the favored moral contrast to the vulgarities of The Decision.

After finishing second in the 2009-10 MVP voting, Durant was expected by many to rise to MVP status this season - really, no one's storyline was more perfectly teed up to do so. Yet one of the more stunning developments of the season is that it's Russell Westbrook who's been the Thunder's most valuable player, and Durant is barely a top-ten MVP candidate.

While I cited PER above, I certainly don't believe it's a be-all, end-all stat. Yet, in this case, I think it tells the story quite well.

Last season, Durant ranked 3rd in the league in PER at 26.2, while Westbrook ranked 57th at 17.9.

This season, Durant ranks 13th at 23.2, while Westbrook ranks 7th at 24.3. In both seasons, for both players, the numbers jibe with what my eyes are seeing.

For Durant, I've noticed something odd in a few games, such as tonight's 91-89 loss to New Orleans: when his outside shot isn't falling, it strangely seems like he's not contributing much to his team. He doesn't really often get to the rim or break down the defense off the dribble or create opportunities for others, and he's not really a plus defender overall.

Even though he's still the league's leading scorer, Durant's numbers are down all over the place compared to last year. Even though he's playing the same minutes, he's taking fewer shots at the rim (3.7 vs. 5.3), fewer free throws (8.8 vs. 10.2), making fewer threes (32.8% vs. 36.5%) and grabbing fewer rebounds (6.3 vs. 7.6), while not really seeing any significant upticks anywhere.

Let me make this perfectly clear: I think Kevin Durant is an awesome player who is nearly certain to end up in the Hall of Fame, and I think the Oklahoma City Thunder are poised to dominate the Western Conference this decade. Further, Durant has certainly been a major factor in OKC's 28-16 start, and has delivered key clutch shots repeatedly. And of course, there are plenty of nights when his outside shot *is* on, and he's devastating force to deal with. KD is clearly an All-Star, clearly one of the top dozen players in basketball, he's just not challenging to become the *best* player in basketball, as many thought he would.

I just can't quite explain his slight regression this season, and I think he's still relatively far from capturing the torch as the league's best player (most importantly, I think he needs to become a much better passer). And frankly, I think it should be a little bit bigger story that Kevin Durant is *not* an MVP candidate halfway through the 2010-11 season, after his on-court and off-court actions of the summer seemed to place him in the catbird's seat.