Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Stop Trying to Make The NBA MVP Race Dramatic, Sportswriters

This is a public service announcement (sans guitar) to all writers covering the NBA: stop trying to make this year's MVP race dramatic.

In truth, there's only one candidate for the award, and he's won three of the last four and resides in Miami. Kevin Durant is having an absurdly efficient offensive season - shooting 51.6/42.7/90.4 with a high usage rate - and his team has a better record in a better conference than LeBron's Heat, but this award should belong to James. LeBron's recent 49/65 shooting has only served to highlight that he's become (at worst) the second most efficient shooter in the game. LeBron's shooting 56.2/42.1/73.8 with a similar usage rate to Durant, and LeBron averages more rebounds and assists, along with elite defense. Their effective shooting percentages tell the story pretty clearly; Durant is 2nd in the league at 65.4%, LeBron is 5th at 63.2% and no other main scoring option is in the top 10.

The Durant-LeBron argument actually boils down pretty similarly to the Trout/Cabrera MVP debate of 2012. Durant is going to join the 50/40/90 club, an impressive milestone that only Larry Bird has achieved as the main scoring option on an elite team and the Thunder will likely win more games than the Heat because of the talent level around Durant, like Cabrera's Triple Crown and Tigers playoff entry. LeBron, on the other hand, won't have that one go-to statistic, but the all-around numbers clearly point to him, in the same vein as Trout. I'm stretching this analogy slightly, as one NBA player has a lot more effect on wins and losses than one MLB player, but the point stands. 

No one was calling for anyone other than Trout or Cabrera to win the MVP this year, and that should hold true for the NBA. LeBron may well lose out on the award because voters are dumb and don't like voting for the same player over and over, but the only logical choice to usurp him is Durant. Sportswriters, even criminally stupid sportswriters (AKA most sportswriters) know this, but they still have to gin up momentum for other candidates and pretend this is anything more than a two-man race. 

Which leads to articles like yesterday's Chris Paul Makes Clippers Closers even more annoying. It opens with the line "Chris Paul won't win the MVP this year" and then proceeds to make the case that maybe he deserves it. I've selected a few choice nuggets, and will present them with commentary.

Judging the value of a player to his team and then deciding which player is the most valuable is a thankless task most seasons. It usually turns into a popularity contest based largely on individual statistics and team records. 
The old "what is value" argument. Well, I'll tell you a pretty good way to judge value: a combination of individual statistics and team record, which doesn't seem to me like "popularity contest." Seriously, that's a pretty mind-numbingly stupid thing to write.
Perhaps the one positive that came from Paul missing 12 games and nine straight because of a bruised right kneecap is that it made clear how truly valuable Paul is to the Clippers.

Followed by my next favorite value argument, that Paul missing nearly 15% of the season added to his case because it better proved his value (as opposed to say LeBron and Durant hardly ever missing a game and adding vastly more, what's the word... VALUE). I did select Paul as my preseason MVP, and he's been great when he's played, but missing a bunch of games should never bolster an argument for MVP.
The Clippers were 6-6 without Paul and lost seven of nine games as he dealt with the injury. Meanwhile, when Paul is on the court, the Clippers are 30-11 this season. So, basically the Clippers are a .500 basketball team without Paul and are one of the top three teams in the league when he's healthy.

As good as James and Durant are, chances are the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder would be better than .500 teams if both players were out of the picture. They wouldn't be championship contenders, but they'd at least make the playoffs.
The author neglects to mention that James and Durant helm top-2 teams this season, which I'm fairly certain is better than top-3. The other problem is that this argument treats all wins as if they are equal, when they're not. It's a lot easier to get from 30 wins to 40 than from 40 to 50, just as it's a lot easier to get a team from average to fringe contention than from fringe contention to true title contenders. James and Durant each have done the latter, while Paul, for all his virtues, has done the former.

Paul should be in the thick of the conversation and would be just as deserving of the award as James, Kevin Durant or anyone else.
No. No he shouldn't.

The article closes by talking about Paul's ability to close games (although he did miss a fairly important free throw in the game this author referenced) and leadership of the younger players on the team. These are fairly standard-issue MVP arguments, and could be equally applied to many other guys in the league. I should point out that the writer, Arash Markazi, is writing for ESPN Los Angeles, and I understand that part of this is an exercise in getting Los Angeles clicks. I also understand that this is a harmless article that doesn't take a particularly strong pro-Paul stance and that we're months away from the award, but this is how narratives gain momentum, and this is how truly terrible decisions happen. I don't think it will play out like that, but I don't think there's any value in a column like this either.

I love watching Chris Paul play, and his particular skill set has made the Clippers one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA, but he is not even close to the level of LeBron or Durant. The same goes for Carmelo Anthony, Tony Parker/Tim Duncan, James Harden and any other candidate. They're all playing for spots 3 through 5 on this season's MVP ballot.

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