Scoring totals and team wins. Or team wins and scoring totals. As observed a few days ago, it’s these two factors that primarily determine the media’s choice for Rookie of the Year. And two years ago I noted it is team wins and scoring totals that primarily determine the media’s choice for Most Valuable Player.
Given this research, it was pretty easy to predict who the media would consider for MVP. At the top of the scoring list is Dwyane Wade. But his team only won 43 games, and that’s usually not enough to top the MVP list. Next on the scoring list are LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. People expected the contest between these two players to be close. But LeBron did finish with a higher scoring average and his team had a slightly better record. So we should not be surprised that LeBron James was named the 2009 MVP.
But what would happen if we looked past a player’s scoring and team wins? After all, scoring totals are not a perfect measure of a player’s impact on team success. And when voters consider team wins they are not completely separating a player from his teammates. In sum, the approach taken by the media is less than perfect.
The Amazing Chris Paul
One problem with discussing the MVP award is that the term “Most Valuable” is undefined. Certainly it is possible that one could define “Most Valuable” as the primary offensive option on a winning team. Of course, one suspect that such an explicit definition would not be accepted by everyone.
A better approach (well, at least a different approach) is to focus on identifying the “Most Productive” player. In other words, let’s look at Wins Produced. Such an approach will consider much more than just offensive contribution, and furthermore, do more to separate a player from his teammates.
For example, consider Chris Paul. Chris Paul’s 29.4 Wins Produced clearly led the New Orleans Hornets (and the NBA). The Hornets, though, only won 49 games this year. And when we look at efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) and Wins Produced we see a team performance consistent with only 45 wins. In sum, the Hornets were not much beyond average in 2008-09.
This outcome, though, should not diminish the season of Chris Paul. In the 21st century only one player – Kevin Garnett – has managed to produce more than 29 wins in a single season (KG did it three times with Minnesota from 2002-03 to 2004-05). And one has to go back to the days of Magic Johnson to find a point guard that was this productive.
Unfortunately, Paul’s teammates didn’t help much. After Paul the only above average players on the roster were Tyson Chandler [Wins Produced per 48 minutes (WP48) of 0.117] and James Posey [0.110 WP48]. Average is 0.100, so it appears there was little else on this team besides Paul. We can see this clearly when we consider the combined productivity of everyone else on the roster. Once we move past Paul’s 29.4 Wins Produced, we see a roster that combined to produce only 15.5 wins. This means that if Paul was replaced by an average point guard – think of someone like Rafer Alston [0.106 WP48], Derrick Rose [0.104 WP48], or D.J. Augustin [0.094] – the Hornets’ Wins Produced would have only been 21.8 this past season. In sum, moving from Paul [0.470 WP48] to an average point guard [0.100 WP48] would have cost this team about 23 victories
LeBron and Kobe
What happens if we analyze LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the same fashion?
Cleveland’s Wins Produced was 64.6, with 27.1 of these attributed to LeBron. Replacing King James with an average small forward – think Danny Granger [0.105 WP48] or John Salmons [0.093] – would cause the Wins Produced of this team to fall to 43.9. This would still be good enough to make the playoffs in the East, but obviously removes Cleveland from title contention.
Although Cleveland would clearly not be as good without LeBron, the Cavaliers do have other above average players. For example, Ben Wallace [0.198 WP48], Anderson Varejao [0.155 WP48], Delonte West [0.144 WP48], Maurice Williams [0.138 WP48], Zydrunas Ilgauskas [0.133 WP48], and Wally Szcerbiak [0.120] all helped LeBron win this award. In other words, if LeBron was blessed with Paul’s teammates, it is unlikely King James would have been name MVP.
What about Kobe? The Lakers finished with 61.2 Wins Produced. Of these, 13.9 could be connected to Kobe. Such a mark ranks in the top 15 in the league, but clearly falls far short of the marks posted by Paul and James. And if you replaced Kobe with an average shooting guard – think Kevin Martin [0.096 WP48] or Jason Terry [0.092 WP48] – the Lakers would have still posted 53.4 Wins Produced. Again, such a mark would probably not be good enough to contend for a title this season. But it would be good enough to make the playoffs (and maybe advance to the second round).
It certainly appears the Lakers are about more than Kobe. Pau Gasol [0.269 WP48], Andrew Bynum [0.198 WP48], Trevor Ariza [0.192 WP48], and Lamar Odom [0.181 WP48] combined to produced 39.5 wins in 2008-09. And before anyone thinks that Kobe was the reason these players were so productive, let me note that Gasol, Ariza, and Odom have all posted above average numbers on teams that did not include Kobe.
So here is the story. The Hornets without Paul are essentially not much better than the LA Clippers [17.7 Wins Produced], Sacramento Kings [17.9 Wins Produced], or Washington Wizards [20.9 Win Produced]. Cleveland and the Lakers, though, might still be playoff teams without LeBron and Kobe. And I think this suggests that Paul – a player that nearly 30% of MVP voters did not rank in the top five in the league — should have received at least a bit more consideration for MVP.
Let me close by noting that this is not going to be my last post on the topic of MVP. My next column is going to focus on the MVP on each team in the NBA. And I hope to follow that column with an examination of Kobe and Dwyane Wade (quick preview… Flash tops Kobe in overall productivity and the difference is rather large).
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Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.
Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:
Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.