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One Way to Pick an MVP

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This season’s MVP debate has resulted in a holy war of sorts for the basketball community. Clear demarcation lines have been drawn: you either like a statistical analysis of the game or you do not. Both sides have been aggressive and biting in their comments, and very few have been willing to rationally debate the merits of each view.

From my brief time here at Hot Hot Hoops, I think you can tell I am more interested in statistical analysis myself. I have very little interest in discussing body language, heart, fire in players’ eyes or how much someone wants to win. This is not to say that they have no merit, I have just yet to see a well-stated argument as to why they matter.

 

I was not always this way.  Two or three years ago I would be the person screaming that stats are overrated and give me “a winner.”  I knocked LeBron for not having won a championship as I pointed to the Bill Russell trophy sitting on Dwyane Wade’s mantle.  Then something happened.  I read.  And then I read some more.

 

My affinity for advanced metrics started with baseball, primarily from reading Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski.  The way they discussed the game was absolutely foreign to me, but everything they wrote made sense.  Getting on base IS more important than a batting average.  Pitchers’ wins ARE irrelevant.  As I continued my education I learned about approaching the game from a statistical angle while using all of the information available.  Now with Pitch F/X and Hit F/X data, baseball, an individual sport masked as a team sports, has changed forever.  We’re getting there with basketball.

 

My first encounter with anything considered “advanced” in basketball was clicking a link to basketballvalue.com.  Once there I stared at the home page thoroughly confused and intimidated.  I had no idea what was going on, no idea how to interpret the information and no idea how I ever would.  Then I did what I had done with baseball, I read.

 

Today’s online basketball community is absolutely littered with talented writers who take a statistical approach to the game.  By clicking links and reading explanations, I was able to overcome my initial hesitance and I dove headfirst into advanced metrics in basketball.  The last two years I’ve done nothing other than try to understand what everything means.  It will never happen, but I still continue to seek out new ideas and approaches.

 

This has been the most baffling part of the stats/gut debate.  In just about every industry, managers and analysts want every drop of information available.  It is hard to make decisions on appearances alone.  We all know the line, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” yet that’s what many mainstream media members and fans choose to do.

 

Another criticism made against using advanced metrics in sports is that they “make the games less fun.”  How?  I love having a deeper understanding of the game, yet I still know that sometimes Paul Millsap is going to hit three threes in less than 30 seconds.  Statistics do not eliminate randomness/fun from the game of basketball, and people who use statistics aren’t trying to either.  They are simply trying to be educated and informed.

 

I think one of the misconceptions now is that “statheads” believe there is one number that will tell us who the best player is, one number that will solve the puzzle that is basketball, one number that will end all debates.  This cannot be further from the truth. In a game with so many moving parts, it would be impossible to do such.

 

It’s why when analyzing a player and his performance, it’s best to look at various numbers that dissect different aspects of their game.  I have written a few articles that reference stats such as PER, Rebounding Rate, True Shooting Percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage, Usage Rate, Win Shares, Adjusted +/-, and finally both Offensive and Defensive Ratings.  Alone, these numbers give you a peek into a player’s value.  Combined, I believe you can truly evaluate what a player brings on the court.

 

This season’s MVP race has pitted the “stat nerds” against the “old-timers.”  The insults lobbed back and forth have ranged from mildly annoying to offensive.  You are either a dork that thinks the MVP belongs to either LeBron James or Dwight Howard, or you are an idiot that wants to award the trophy to Derrick Rose.

 

Dan LeBatard said that trying to differentiate the three is like splitting hairs.  As you would imagine, I strongly disagree.  I value empirical evidence because it can be proven.  I don’t think players in the upper tier “want to win” more than the others.  Players like Howard, James, Rose and Kobe Bryant have all worked harder than most of us could comprehend to reach their level of success.  The notion that LeBron James or Dwight Howard roll out of bed every morning and just are the players that they are makes me shake my head.  Being in the top one percent of any profession requires unique talent, but also unique dedication.  To be in the top one percent of that one percent takes even more.  Is it possible that some NBA players are lazy?  Of course, but it’s not the guys in the MVP discussion every year.

 

The concept that Derrick Rose has more “fire in his eyes” is ludicrous.  That Ric Bucher referred to him as the “Most Valuable Leader” is just plain laughable.  These are traits we cannot measure, cannot assign value to.  To arbitrarily throw different amounts around to different players is pointless and reckless.

 

Time and time again I’ve heard that Derrick Rose “rises to the occasion in the fourth quarter.”  This is recorded as a truth, despite the fact that he shoots only 42% from the floor in that period, his lowest for any quarter.  I’ve also seen referenced Rose’s ability to shine in the clutch.  According to 82games.com, Rose shoots 39.5% in “clutch situations” (defined as 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points), while James, who is widely criticized for his lack of “clutchness”, shoots 44.6% from the field.  I don’t necessarily assign a ton of value to either of these numbers, but they surely do not show one player has what some call the “clutch gene,” while the other doesn’t.

 

Different people have different definitions for the MVP.  They can be best player, most irreplaceable, best player on the best team, best leader, etc.  The NBA doesn’t give an exact definition because it loves the yearly debate.  I choose to define the MVP as the best player in the game.  I believe that if someone is the best, then they will also be the most valuable.

 

I value efficiency above all else.  I do not find volume scorers to be particularly effective.  This season, LeBron James and Dwight Howard have both been remarkably efficient.  They both shoot at an above average clip, and neither requires an exorbitant amount of shots to score their points.  Both players are above average rebounders and defenders.  Derrick Rose is a below league average shooter (but average for a point guard), an average defender, and slightly above average rebounder.  Here’s an easier look:



Player

eFG%

TS%

TRB%

WS

WS/48

PER

Dwight Howard

59.4%

61.7%

21.8%

14.2

0.235

26.0

LeBron James

54.2%

59.4%

11.4%

15.5

0.243

27.2

Derrick Rose

48.6%

55.1%

6.4%

13.0

0.209

23.6



I also place significance on the on court/off court plus-minuses.  I believe that a lot of a player’s value can be found by looking at these numbers.  This season, the Heat have an efficiency differential (points per 100 possessions-opponents points per possession) of 10.33 with James on the floor and -.01 with him off of the floor.  The former would top the NBA, the latter would place the Heat in the company of Hawks, Suns, Knicks and Bucks (somewhere between 15th and 18th in the NBA.  The Magic have an efficiency differential of 7.94 with Howard on the floor and -.68 with him off the floor.  With Howard the Magic are similar to the top teams in the NBA, without him, they are most definitely not.  Derrick Rose is a different story.  While on the court, Rose’s Bulls have an efficiency differential of 8.73, but while off of it the Bulls have a differential of 6.18.  That figure, 6.18, would be good for sixth best in the league.

 

While the on court/off court data is not perfect, it does seem to indicate that James and Howard are more valuable to their respective teams than Rose is.  This is because the Chicago Bulls’ success is predicated on their team defense, a facet that improves once Rose leaves the floor.

 

My MVP for the 2010-2011 NBA season is LeBron James.  Quite frankly, he has done more on the basketball court than any other player in the league.  He leads the league in PER, Win Shares and Win Shares per 48 minutes.  Defensively, he has been the best player on the league’s fifth best team, while having guarded all five positions on the floor.

 

While I would not totally agree with it, I absolutely see merit in a vote for Dwight Howard.  Without his presence, Orlando would be a glorified layup line for opposing teams.  He is having one of his best offensive seasons as well, armed with a reworked post game.

 

The MVP award this year will go to Derrick Rose, and it will because my “stats cannot show what voters’ eyes tell them.”  I’ve watched Rose play many times this year, and he is a phenomenal point guard.  Were I a Chicago Bulls fan, I would be overjoyed that he was my star player.  But, he has not been the best or most valuable player this season.  He has been the anti-LeBron, cut straight from the same cookie dough as Kevin Durant.

 

We have an award for a player that makes huge strides in his game, it’s called the Most Improved Player Award.  That is what Derrick Rose should be taking home, not the Most Valuable Player Award.  But what do I know; apparently I’m not watching the right way.

As always, I'd appreciate any comments or feedback either below or on twitter where I can be found @DannyMartinez4