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2011 NBA Analysis: Breaking Down the MVP Race

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Heading into last season, Kevin Durant was generating a lot of hype as an MVP candidate. He was coming off a season in which he led the league with 30 points per game on a Thunder team that had jumped from 23 to 50 wins. Many viewed it as natural that Durant would take the logical next step, from outstanding young talent to league MVP. In ESPN’s season preview, 15 of their 25 experts predicted Durant as MVP. Yet there was something strange about all these predictions: six months earlier, LeBron James had proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was the league’s best player.

James’s 2009-10 season was one for the ages. He averaged 30 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds per game and shot 50% from the field (with even more impressive 60% TrueShooting and 55% eFG percentages). He was named Eastern Conference Player of the Month in each of the first four months of the season, and his Cavs won 61 games, the most in basketball. James had also won the MVP award in 2008-09, and entering 2010-11, he was still only 26 years old, in the prime of his career. What could have happened to drop James from a slam-dunk MVP (he received 116 of 123 first-place votes in 2010) to a guy whom only 8 of ESPN’s 25 experts thought would win the award in 2011?

Simple: The NBA MVP award is about more than just who’s the best or most valuable player. It’s about storylines and media hype, and ensuring that the league and its stars remain fresh for its viewers. If it wasn’t, someone like Michael Jordan would have won more than five MVP awards instead of getting beaten out by guys like Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, both of whom were beaten in the that year’s NBA Finals by Jordan, leaving no doubt as to who was the superior players. So on the eve of the 2010-11 season, James was fighting an uphill battle if he wanted to retain his title as MVP. Only three times has a player won three consecutive MVP awards, and it hasn’t happened since Larry Bird did it from 1984-86. Even though James remained a dominant force last season, it would have required a Herculean effort from him to join that club. Having won twice already, the media was ready to vote for someone else. Add to that the fact that James was joining a new team that already had an established superstar in Dwyane Wade, and the MVP award was up for grabs.

So why Durant? As I said earlier, he was the best player on a team on the rise. Dwight Howard had been the league’s most dominant defensive force for the past two years, so he’d seem like a good candidate, right? Unfortunately for Howard, he’d already been good for some time, and his Magic had won 59 games in each of the past two seasons, with one trip to the NBA Finals and another to the Eastern Conference Finals. The media wasn’t as interested in someone who was already playing at an MVP-level. They wanted a new guy who they could push as having “made the leap,” propelling his team toward greatness at the same time. Durant already fit the bill, and his outstanding performance at the 2010 World Championships, leading Team USA to the gold medal while garnering tournament MVP honors only added to his hype. Predicting the MVP award isn’t like predicting the NBA champion. The league’s best players are pretty consistent from year to year, and you don’t have to account for free agency or playoff upsets when handicapping your predictions. The only logical reason for someone like James, coming off back-to-back MVP seasons, not to be the favorite for the award in 2010-11 is that the MVP is about more than just on-court performance.

So what did end up happening in 2010-11? Here’s a link to the full voting results for the MVP award.

As we all know, Derrick Rose won the award, garnering 113 of 121 first-place votes. James finished 3rd in the voting, even though the Heat improved from 47 to 58 wins after his arrival (along with Chris Bosh). James’ overall numbers were also very similar to the ones he posted during his MVP campaign of 2009-10, despite the fact that he was now competing for stats with Wade and Bosh (the lines: 30 ppg, 9 apg, 7 rpg, 50% FG, 60% TS, 55% eFG in 2009-10 vs. 27 ppg, 7 apg, 8 rpg, 51% FG, 59% TS, 54% eFG% in 2010-11). Durant was 5th, despite repeating as scoring champ and improving OKC’s win total from 50 to 55. So why were these two (as well as Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and everyone else) so far behind Rose? The same reason that Durant was the favorite heading into the season—the power of Rose’s narrative was too overwhelming for the media to ignore.

Rose, like Durant, a former Rookie of the Year, was the best player on a team that performed above expectations. Yet his defense was subpar (especially compared to Howard, James, or Wade) on a team whose calling card was defense. Rose certainly deserves credit as the Bulls’ crunch-time scorer, but Chicago won a league-high 62 games because of its 100.3 Defensive Rating (1st in the league) and its 91 ppg allowed (2nd). The man responsible for the turnaround in that department was not Rose, but new head coach/defensive whiz Tom Thibodeau. Ignoring storylines, the two best/most valuable players in 2010-11 were Howard and James in some order, though you could probably make a case for Wade to be involved in the conversation.

Here’s how those three players, along with Rose, stacked up statistically (team wins, PPG, RPG, APG, FG%, FT%, TrueShooting%, eFG%, Steals per game, Blocks per game, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating):

Player    Wins   Pt/Reb/Ast       FG/FT/TS/eFG%         Stl/Blk               Off/Def Rtg

Rose        62       25-4-8              45-86-55-49                1.0-0.6               113-103
James      58       27-8-7              51-76-59-54                1.6-0.6               116-102
Howard    52       23-14-1            59-60-62-59                1.4-2.4               113-94
Wade       58       26-6-5              50-76-58-52                1.5-1.1               114-102

Nothing there suggests to me that Rose was an overwhelmingly obvious choice for MVP, yet he still received over 93% of the first-place MVP votes, mainly because most members of the media decided about 2/3 of the way through the season that he was the best choice for MVP because he was: a)likeable, b) was the best player on one of the league’s top teams (didn’t hurt that they’re in a big market, either) and c) hadn’t won the award before.

Amar’e Stoudemire was an MVP candidate early last season for many of the same reasons. After the Knicks won 16 of their first 25 games, Stoudemire’s name was getting tossed around in MVP discussions because he was the top player on a storied franchise in the midst of a resurgence. That’s the exact kind of storylines MVP voters look for, not the fact that neither Stoudemire, nor his teammates, play any defense or that, of those 16 wins, precisely three were against teams that would finish above .500.

So, knowing what the MVP voters and national media look for in a candidate, who are the players that will garner MVP hype this season? And how much of it will be deserved? Let’s take a look:

Derrick Rose

Hype he’ll receive: As the reigning MVP, Rose won’t be ignored, but there’s no way he is as popular as last season. People know that Rose and the Bulls are good. He’ll be expected to repeat his performance from last year to even be in the running for the award.

Hype he deserves: Rose should be mentioned among the league’s elite players, but it’s tough to be a legitimate MVP candidate when you’re not even the best player at your own position (that would be Chris Paul [Editor's Note: by a comfortable margin, at that]). Rose will probably receive around the right amount of hype, possibly a little less due to the fact that he has already won the award.

Dwight Howard

Hype he’ll receive: This may be Howard’s best chance yet to win the MVP award. His Orlando team got worse last year, dropping seven wins from 2009-10 and exiting in the first round of the playoffs. If Orlando’s among the league’s top teams, Howard will probably be the favorite for the award. Even if they aren’t, Howard still might receive some hype due to his status as one of the top players in the league who has never won before.

Hype he deserves: A lot. Howard has the single biggest impact of any player in the league on defense, and his offense really came along last year. He’s at the point where if you surround him with four breathing humans, you’ll probably get to the playoffs. Let’s just hope that his contract situation doesn’t deter people from recognizing him as a legitimate candidate.

LeBron James

Hype he’ll receive: It’s hard to tell how the media will respond to James’ playoff meltdown. For the first three rounds, he again proved that he’s capable of amazing things, but his credibility took a hit after his Finals no-show. Still, there’s a lot of MVP voters that believe LeBron is the best player in the game, and after a few weeks of sterling regular-season performances, James should be mentioned in the MVP discussion. I have the feeling, though, that James will never win an MVP award in Miami unless he averages a triple-double or Dwyane Wade gets injured for a sustained period.

Hype he deserves: By most measures, LeBron is the game’s greatest player. For that, he has to be an MVP candidate (if not the favorite) as long as he continues to play at a high level. Don’t expect a drop-off in performance this season.

Dwyane Wade

Hype he’ll receive: Wade’s performance in the first four games of the Finals was nothing short of phenomenal and reminded everyone that he’s among the game’s very best players. Unfortunately for his MVP candidacy, he plays along another guy just like that. Like LeBron, he’d need a crazy circumstance to be considered for the award, like the Heat going 60-6 or an injury to James. Wade’s never won the MVP, but with James on his team, that factor isn’t as important.

Hype he deserves: Probably a little less than James. Still, you have to remember that the Heat won 58 games with Wade, James, Bosh and very few other usable pieces. Wade deserves a lot of credit for that.

Kevin Durant

Hype he’ll receive: Not as much as before last season, but as a top player on one of the league’s young teams on the rise, Durant will have a strong candidacy if the Thunder have a great year. The emergence of Russell Westbrook (and, to a lesser extent, James Harden) could hurt him though, especially if he and Westbrook have power issues.

Hype he deserves: As one of the game’s top shooters/scorers, Durant is a legitimate candidate. He’s not at the level where I would take him above James or Howard (and Wade and Chris Paul are probably better than him too), but he is still very young with more room to improve. If we’re talking best player, Durant might be a year away. But that doesn’t mean he can’t win the MVP this year.

Dirk Nowitzki

Hype he’ll receive: Minimal. Last year was Dirk’s year, more so than his MVP season of 2006-07, because he finally accomplished the goal of winning a title. Dirk as hero is not a storyline that the media will look to keep going (they need to find a new conqueror of the Heat) and with the Mavs’ roster likely to take some hits (Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea’s contracts are up, and it’s doubtful that they’ll be re-signed), Dallas won’t be as good as a year ago. That’s not something the voters look for in a candidate.

Hype he deserves: Dirk submitted a fantastic all-around season last year. You were just probably too busy following the Heat or Derrick Rose to realize it (that, and we’ve come to expect greatness from Dirk). After his playoff performance, it’s clear that he’s one of the very elite players in the league, and that merits serious consideration for MVP.

Chris Paul

Hype he’ll receive: I doubt that Paul will receive much more hype this season than he has in any of his past six in the league. He’s the league’s best point guard, but his Hornets teams don’t win enough games for Paul to be considered (an MVP’s team is usually in the hunt for a #1 seed). The only thing that could boost his candidacy: a mid-season trade. If he takes over the Knicks and they go on a big winning streak to end the season, Paul’s stock could soar.

Hype he deserves: Paul is an elite player, but it can be hard to gauge impact at the point guard position because supporting casts vary so much. I would still rank James, Wade and Howard ahead of him [Editor's Note: I have Paul as the league's 3rd-best player behind Howard and James.], but as the top player at an important position, Paul should be in the conversation.


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