Tuesday, March 27, 2012

NBA MVP 2011-12 Season

We’re entering the final stretch of a condensed, but amazing NBA season.  The MVP race is one of the hotly debated topics within basketball circles, so I thought it would be a good time to unveil my top 5 for this race.  We’re counting them down and I’m sure I’ll hear a few opinions on these.  Before we commence with the countdown, there are a few things to keep in mind in judging an MVP candidate: stats, defense, “clutch” ability, leadership and removal.  What I mean by “removal” is that if you took the player off the team, what would this team be?

Without further ado, here is the countdown:

5. Kobe Bryant; Los Angeles Lakers

Before you attack me as a “Laker hater”, there is legitimate reason behind this.  The Lakers are a winning and better team when the offense is going through their two big men, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.  The Lakers have lost leads and lost momentum when Kobe has re-entered games after being on the bench for rest.  He has had some absolutely horrible performances (8 for 26 vs Detroit, 9 for 31 at Washington, 3 for 20 vs Utah, 5 for 17 vs Portland) in March.  He’s forcing shots and not utilizing his options.  Yes, he leads the league in scoring, but his shooting percentage is the worst of the 5 MVP candidates I will list and is 79th in the entire league.  Add in that his “clutch” (Stat defined as: 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points) shooting percentage this season is 27.9% and you have an extremely strong case against him as the MVP.

Hypothetically, let’s take Kobe off of the Lakers.  What are you left with?  You have a point guard in Sessions with the ability and knowledge to utilize the height advantage.  Andrew Bynum would be a consistent 20-15 player.  Gasol would be a consistent 20-10 guy.  The Lakers might dip slightly in scoring, but they are a strong defensive team that could make up for it.  Add in that their style would be a slower, low post game and they would likely make up for Bryant’s absence by shooting more free throws and controlling the number of possessions.  Would they be better off overall?  Definitely not, but it would be an intriguing style change that would work well against the under-sized Western conference.  I believe they would be a 7-8 seed in the playoffs, but a likely first round out without Bryant.

Despite everything above, Bryant will always be in the discussion simply because of his reputation.  The team has struggled, but no one will ever count them out because they still have Bryant.  That has to count for something.  He is leading the league in scoring, regardless of percentages and shot selection, and his defense is always elite.  He has helped the Lakers to the 3 seed (so far) in the extremely tough Western Conference.  It’s just not enough to be higher on my list.  His talent will always be appreciated, but it is becoming clearer that without the guiding and trusted hand of Phil Jackson, he is not playing up to his potential as an MVP candidate.

4. Dwight Howard; Orlando Magic

                Now that we’re finally out of the “Where will Dwight go circus”, it’s time to focus on his game.  The main knock that I will always have on Dwight is that he does not have that leadership that an MVP and superstar need to have.  He led the Magic to the NBA Finals a few years ago, but it was simply due to raw talent.  The kid is a genetic freak.  I would like to see him get serious when he needs to.  The problem is, you can’t teach leadership.  You either have the intangibles or you don’t.  If Chris Paul walks in the door, Dwight would gladly take a backseat.  That is likely why he will never be the alpha dog on a championship team.  He needs someone to lead him.

                Hypothetically, let’s take Dwight off of the Magic.  This would be a team in disarray.  They are predicated on working the ball inside to collapse the defense and free up their shooters.  The players they have do not have the ability to create their own shots.  This team would easily drop out of the playoffs without Howard.

                On the positive side, he is the sole reason that the Orlando Magic is in the 3rd seed in a brutally tough and top heavy Eastern Conference.  He is surrounded by mediocrity everywhere he turns.  He made Ryan Anderson into a weapon.  He’s been saddled with a mid-level point guard in Jameer Nelson.  He’s running the court with two below average starters with Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu.  There is no way this team should be a 3 seed.  Once you see Dwight leading his team in scoring, rebounds, blocks and steals, you realize the dominance of this player.  The most important stats are his performances against the 1 and 2 seeds, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.  Against Miami he is averaging 19.8 points and 18.8 rebounds and against Chicago he is averaging 25 points and 15 rebounds.  When your stats against the best in the league are that impressive, you’re a definite MVP candidate.  However, the lack of leadership and reliance on another player to take over in crunch time prevents you from being an MVP for me.

3. Kevin Love; Minnesota Timberwolves

                I don’t think the casual NBA fan understands how simply amazing Kevin Love is as a basketball player.  He is the best power forward in the league.  He’s tougher and a better rebounder than Gasol.  He has a better overall game than hype machine Blake Griffin.  He is a leader and has taken the Timberwolves from a laughingstock to a fringe playoff team with minimal talent around him.  They were making a serious playoff push before rookie point guard Ricky Rubio went down for the year, but Love has prevented this team from fading into obscurity.  While they are not currently in the playoffs, this Love led team is making strides and could slide into the 8 or 7 seed this season.  The problem with him as an MVP is that they currently are not a playoff team.  MVP’s do not usually come from fringe or mid-level teams.  However, if you remove Love, this is a bottom of the barrel team.

                If you removed Love from the lineup, this team is nothing more than a lottery team.  Rubio healthy would improve that status, but not by much.  They would be working towards a top 5 pick.

                For those unfamiliar with Love here are a few stats that should back up my case.  He’s 4th in the league in scoring.  He’s 2nd in the league in rebounding.  He’s played in 46 games this season…and has 42 double doubles.  In other words, he is giving you double digit points and rebounds in 91% of the games he has played in.  That is a mind boggling stat!  This is more than anyone else in the league and a double double percentage that no one is even close to.  These are hard facts that should make you seriously look at and consider Kevin Love as the league MVP.  Unfortunately being on a mid-level team (at this moment but watch them in the future) will prevent him from winning MVP.

2. Kevin Durant; Oklahoma City Thunder

                There is a groundswell out there claiming that Sunday’s game against the Heat pushed him into the lead for MVP.  One game does not make an MVP candidate.  It was a strong game, but let’s get serious, he’s still got some work to do.  He’s an amazing offensive talent, but will lapse from time to time on defense.  The biggest negative for me is the same thing that we see with Dwight Howard, he has yet to show leadership.  It is arguable that this is his team or Russell Westbrook’s.  If Durant took charge of this team, they would be the odds on favorite to win the title.  They have a stacked team with Westbrook and James Harden off the bench.  They have players who absolutely know their roles with Perkins, Ibaka, Collison and Cook.  The addition of Derek Fisher could go a long way in regards to leadership.

                If you remove Durant from this team, they would still be very interesting as Westbrook would gladly shoulder the responsibility and embrace the “alpha dog” status.  Would that equal wins?  I don’t think it would.  I think that without Durant they would look like the Timberwolves with Love, a fringe playoff team that couldn’t quite get over the hump.  Westbrook is good, but wildly inconsistent and the team record would reflect that.

                The positives for Durant are immense.  He’s the premier clutch performer and can seemingly get his shot at will.  He’s a tremendous scorer and has improved his passing to open teammates.  He’s starting to develop that aspect of his game and once that comes around, he could take the title of best player in the league.  The lack of leadership and questionable defense at times does prevent me from giving him the MVP this season.  That could change as this decision is getting closer than in previous weeks, but right now, Durant is just short of the MVP.

Without further ado, the 2011-12 NBA MVP (so far) goes to:

1. LeBron James; Miami Heat

                Right after LeBron James made the now infamous “Decision”, I wrote the following: “He (LeBron) may have removed his name from any future season MVP ballots.”  I love to admit being wrong in this case as LeBron James is the unquestioned MVP of the NBA this season.  In my opinion, he should have been last year also but the world was so angry about “The Decision” that they decided to give it to Derrick Rose.  While Rose had a great season, it wasn’t on par with James.  The funny thing is, so many analysts are gushing about LeBron’s stats this season which essentially match the stats he put up last year.  Interesting, isn’t it that those numbers that are so impressive this year weren’t viewed as such last year?

                I’ve discussed quite a few things above that prevented others from being MVP’s this season.  Let’s see how LeBron measures up to those categories:

-          Statistical: James’ season is the epitome of efficiency.  He leads Miami in points (26.7), rebounds (8.3), assists (6.6) and steals (2.0).  There isn’t a player in the entire league that is the leader of their team in these four crucial categories.

-          Defense: James is an elite defender and has been for most of his career, garnering 3 (and soon to be 4) consecutive All NBA 1st Team Defense honors.

-          “Clutch”: There seems to be a mentality that the premier closer in the NBA is Kobe Bryant, but that is not statistically the case.  Statistically we have seen it is Kevin Durant, but never in that conversation is LeBron James.  Due to a poor performance in the NBA Finals last season, the world seems to think he is not a clutch player.  Let’s evaluate this again.  He is top 3 in rebounds and assists in the clutch.  He shoots a better percentage (40% to 28%) than Bryant.  He averages more points per 48 minutes in the clutch than Bryant.  Why is it that this is not acknowledged?  The kid has come up in the clutch on a number of occasions in his career.  The Heat do not make the Finals without James carrying them there (How quickly you forget how poor Wade played in the Eastern playoffs).  In case you forgot…he’s shown clutch for a long time.

-          Leadership: There seems to be a disagreement amongst some as to “Who is the real leader of the Heat?”  I find this laughable.  We can pretend there is a discussion but from the moment he uttered the words “I’m taking my talents to South Beach”, this became LeBron James’ team.  The ball goes through his hands.  He distributes and controls the game more than their point guard or Dwyane Wade.  He is vocal on defense and the huddles.  This is LeBron’s team.  Like it or not.  LeBron takes the “heat” for going to Miami, but it really was Wade begging for help that made this happen.  Wade knew he was doing nothing but leading a .500 team before LeBron, all while James was leading the Cavs to the best record in the league each season.  Those who are against LeBron will never admit it, but the numbers and body language don’t lie.  It starts at LeBron and everyone else falls in line.

We’ve seen the Heat without James and they were a .500, easy first round elimination.  Granted, that was without Bosh, but would that really matter?  Bosh helped lead the Raptors to the playoffs twice, and were quickly eliminated in the first round.  After those two seasons, they quickly became a perennial lottery team so I’m not sure the Bosh-Wade connection gets you much more than a .500 record as neither player led a team in the way LeBron did.  Before the Wade defenders jump up, please do not forget that he had a motivated Shaquille O’Neal leading that franchise to a title.  Wade had a great Finals, but without Shaq, hasn’t done much but get eliminated in the first round or not made the playoffs at all.

What are the negatives to bring up here for LeBron James?  He’s carried the team to victory without Wade and Bosh for stretches due to injuries or personal matters.  He consistently contributes to the game, whether with points, rebounds, assists or defensive prowess.  There truly are no holes to his game.  That is why LeBron James is the clear MVP for the 2011-12 NBA season.

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