The 2012 MVP Race
With the second half of the season now in full swing, it’s a pretty good time to start discussing which players have the best odds of capturing the prestigious Maurice Podoloff trophy. Indeed, other than the NBA championship trophy as well as the Finals MVP; there may not be a more coveted award in the National Basketball Association.
Mind you, the MVP award poses a small problem: how do we define an MVP? It is the player most valuable to his team? The player most valuable to the league? The best player in the league? The guy that does the most with the least?
All are fair questions and until we can get a definitive answer on what it is that each and every voter is looking for, the answer will always be about how who we feel should be the recipient of the prize as opposed to knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt.
From where I stand, the trophy should be awarded to the player that makes his team a championship contender from the moment he steps onto the court. So naturally, the team’s record has to be taken into account but it’s not the sole criteria that will unilaterally settle the debate. Great production on the court is obviously a must, but it’s also important to see whether the team stays afloat when their candidate heads to the bench or rather simply falls off a cliff. And lastly, although we cannot necessarily project how awarding the trophy to player will look like from a historical perspective in the now, it’s still important to look at the season as a whole and ask ourselves: did he dominate from start to finish? A positive answer to this last question does not make it an open and shut case, but it certainly helps the prosecution sway the jury.
And so without further ado, our MVP power rankings.
10. Blake Griffin
Team Record: 22-15 (4th best in the Western Conference).
21.4 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 53.0% FG, 23.5 PER.
Griffin has been a productive power forward so far this season and a matchup nightmare on the pick-and-roll. Blake is a terrific finisher and continues to impress fans with amazing forays to the hoop but this season he has added a few post moves to his offensive repertoire to occasionally throw off opposing big men.
State product still needs a go to hook shot on the block, but as it stands right now he is a strong rebounder and manages to convert more than half of his shots despite some of the limitations in his game. His presence on the court instantly makes them a better offensive unit and he also can be a safety valve on offense much like Joakim Noah is for the Bulls because of his ballhandling and passing. Thus, if Paul gets trapped, Griffin can often help relieve the pressure put on by opposing defenses, and that makes him a huge part of the Clippers’ success this season.
9. Kevin Love
Team Record: 21-19 (8th best in the Western Conference).
25.5 PPG, 13.7 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.9 SPG, 44.8% FG, 24.9 PER.
Off all the candidates on this list, Love’s team has the worst record as the Wolves are currently in the eighth spot of the Western Conference standings. Nonetheless, Love has been nothing short of amazing this season thanks in large part to his scoring and rebounding. The UCLA product has been seemingly unstoppable and has eaten opposing big men for lunch.
His shooting is a thing of beauty, but Love is also perfectly fine with mixing things up down low on the block where he gets to battle with the big boys.
With that said, there are two issues right now working against the former Bruin: the Wolves record and Love’s defense. In order for the big man to truly make into the MVP conversation, Minnesota will have to win a larger share of their games and Love will have to become a better individual and team defender in order to truly be a dominant big man.
8. Russell Westbrook
Team Record: 31-8 (best in the Western Conference)
23.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 46.6% FG, 23.6 PER.
For all of the criticism of Westbrook’s game this season – most of which stemmed from the fallout of the 2011 Western Conference Finals – an argument could potentially be made that he is the most important member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Indeed, the two-time All-Star is often responsible for delivering the ball to Durant in places where he can best inflict damage to opponents but he is also called upon to be an offensive threat to keep defenses off balance.
In addition, Westbrook’s athleticism makes him one of the most unstoppable forces in the game as he is able to routinely take advantage of smaller guards with his size and leaping skills, and blow by bigger guards and get into the lane for tough finishes at the rim.
The two biggest knocks on Russ are his turnovers and his willingness to be the man. Although the ball security issues have to be addressed, Westbrook has proven at times to be a better option late in ball games because of his ability to get to any spot on the court that he so wishes and he typically finds ways to win ball games by simply making plays such as a key assist, steal, offensive rebound or scoring from the top of the key with the game hanging in the balance.
7. Derrick Rose
Team Record: 33-8 (best in the Eastern Conference).
22.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 7.8 APG, 0.9 SPG, 45.6% FG, 25.2 PER.
Many probably expected to see Derrick Rose show up a little lower than this spot and it’s understandable why: the Chicago Bulls have the best record in the league and the reigning league MVP has actually played better this season than last. So what gives?
The games he missed hurt his candidacy not because the team stayed afloat without him, but rather because he missed a relatively big chunk of games and a player that’s truly valuable has to suit up for the majority of his team’s games and in Rose’s case; he’s missed more games combined than all of the players that appear next on the list.
6. Tony Parker
Team Record: 26-12 (2nd best in Western Conference).
19.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 7.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 46.5% FG, 22.1 PER.
Tony Parker over Derrick Rose? WHAT?
That must have been the reactions in Chicago after seeing that Parker made the cut over the reigning league MVP. And to be fair, a strong argument can be made that Rose is the better player and that his production has a greater correlation to the Bulls’ success.
Tony Parker may not be as flashy and as athletic as Rose, but his play this season has mirrored that of the Bulls point guard. With Ginobili missing considerable time in the 2011-12 campaign, the Spurs have leaned on Parker more than in previous seasons to essentially carry the offense. He has been more of a playmaker this season but he has also assumed the role of go-to scorer for San Antonio and has done it quite well, which has resulted in the Spurs occupying one of the spots in the Western Conference despite the fact that their best player has only suited up for 11 games so far this season.
Also, Parker’s durability – he’s only missed one game this season – gave him the slight edge over Rose.
Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell had this to share about Parker’s ranking:
“A few years ago, coming off his lone All-NBA season, Tony Parker was handed over the keys to the franchise by San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. Unfortunately for Parker, a bad wheel kept him from fully running with it-putting Manu Ginobili firmly in the driver seat. With Ginobili out for long stretches, this season represents a continuation of that promising All-NBA season.
At six, Tony Parker is fairly appropriately ranked in the MVP race. Though likely one might want to put Derrick Rose ahead of Parker, seeing as how Rose is essentially a bigger, stronger, more explosive version of Tony Parker. Parker is rarely thought of as the type of point guard that makes people around him better, but realize the Spurs have an elite offense despite consisting of a collection of late first-second round picks, undrafted free agents, and an aged Tim Duncan.”
5. Dwight Howard
Team Record: 25-15 (3rd best in Eastern Conference).
20.7 PPG, 15.0 RPG, 1.9 APG, 2.2 BPG, 56.7% FG, 24.3 PER.
Many may struggle to give him any semblance of support and it’s understandable given that the narrative at the moment is that Howard has completely torpedoed the Orlando Magic’s season with his trade demand. Except, that’s not entirely true now is it?
The Magic are currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference standings thanks in large part to Howard’s brilliant play this season. Many will argue that he has been detached from his teammates and that he is not bringing in maximum effort because he has one foot out the door and that is entirely plausible; but it should not overshadow the fact that D12 has been a monster for his team this season and has continued to play like the best big man in the NBA.
Whenever Dwight Howard goes to the bench, Orlando’s offensive and defensive ratings suffer because they no longer have the presence on the block to draw extra attention that allows the Magic shooters to get clean looks from 3-point range.
On defense, Howard protects the paint with his exceptional pick-and-roll defense. He is able to help out on ballhandlers and then quickly retreat back into the lane to deter opponents from driving and also disrupt passes on the interior with his quickness and the amount of ground he covers. Although the Magic employ a sound defensive philosophy, it is still predicated around the talents of Howard who helps Orlando yield only the least amount of points in the paint per game in the league.
In addition, his durability is so impressive that fans and media members alike seem to take it for granted, expecting him to suit up for each and every game with his indestructible body. Without Howard, Orlando is probably a mediocre team at best – they are minus-9.3 points with Howard off the floor – but with him they have a shot at contending for the Eastern Conference crown.
4. Kobe Bryant
Team Record: 23-16 (5th best in Western Conference).
28.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 43.5% FG, 23.7 PER.
Earlier in the season, I made the claim that the Los Angeles Lakers could potentially win the Western Conference despite the loss of Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom as well as an overall lack of athleticism on the roster. Many argued the exact opposite and actually wondered if the Purple and Gold had enough to even qualify for the postseason. The logic wasn’t necessarily unfounded, but was somewhat harsh. Indeed, the idea was that the Lakers had a good roster but that they were not equipped to deal with injuries at shooting guard, power forward and center. And really, such is still the case.
But the Lakers have been able to avoid injuries to their best three players and thus have had them available for most of their games this season – Bynum was forced to sit out the first four games of the season due to a suspension – and they have delivered.
The Lakers currently boast the fifth best record in the conference and may in fact challenge for one of the top three spots with the Pacific division crown well within their grasp. All of this has been possible in large part due to the spectacular play of Kobe Bryant this season.
The Black Mamba is currently leading the league in scoring but that may be a misleading statistic for many. Indeed, many are convinced that Bryant has been gunning more than ever this season but nothing could further from the truth; although he does not shy away from occasionally getting quite trigger-happy.
In fact, the biggest problem the Lakers have faced during the 2011-12 regular season is poor point guard play, which has translated in very little playmaking from any perimeter player on the roster not named Kobe. The end result is that Bryant has been relied upon heavily to get the team into its offense and also to draw some extra attention from opposing defenses for his pair of starting big men to get single-coverage on the block.
Kobe is consequently playing 38.2 minutes per game (!) at the age of 33 and is on pace to have the third highest usage rate in league history – behind himself and some fellow named Michael Jordan – and yet he is still a model of consistency and terrific play. The Lakers offense scores 104.9 points per 100 possessions with Kobe on the court as opposed to 97.21 points per 100 possessions with him off it because of the lack of players able to give the team any semblance of dribble penetration.
For comparison’s sake, the Denver Nuggets sport an offensive efficiency of 105.0 (fourth in the league) while the Sacramento Kings clock in at 98 (25th in the association).
Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold had this to share on Kobe’s ranking:
“Kobe Bryant coming in at #4 seems completely fair to me. Yes, he’s leading the league in scoring and without his contributions the Lakers would certainly be worse off as a team. And when you add in his playing through injuries (wrist, broken nose, etc) there’s an intangible value he brings to the team through leadership by example that I think should be recognized beyond his tangible contributions. However, when looking at the players ranked above him, it’s not that clear cut that he’s more valuable to the Lakers than they are to their teams, nor that his numbers – in a vacuum – are better. Truth be told, though, when talking about the cream of the crop (which these players are) what makes one player the MVP or not matters much less to me than the fact that they’re all so good and so important to their respective teams. Choosing one over the other is splitting hairs. I prefer to appreciate the fact that all are elite contributors and all of them bring unique qualities via their personalities and skill sets to their teams that provide a foundation for success.”
Needless to say, without Kobe on the court, the Lakers offense would crumble and we would probably be looking at a team hovering around .500.
3. Chris Paul
Team Record: 22-15 (4th best in Western Conference).
19.8 PPG, 8.4 APG, 2.3 SPG, 49.0% FG, 26.1 PER.
Although plus-minus stats do not always paint an accurate picture of reality, it can certainly help understand the value of certain players when used over a fairly big sample size. In the case of Chris Paul, the numbers paint an interesting picture because they actually reflect what seems to be rather evident when watching the Clippers: they are lost without him.
The Los Angeles Clippers are not what one could consider a traditional offensive juggernaut given their lack of offensive sophistication. Indeed, for the most part, it comes down to running multiple pick-and-rolls as well as a few isolation plays to help create some good looks at the rim. Obviously, this is a bastardized summary of their playbook, but it is nonetheless fairly close to reality. As a result, the Lob City offense can only truly be successful with a terrific point guard that has the complete command of his team’s offense.
Enter Chris Paul.
The former Demon Deacon has turned around the Clippers into a winning team this season with his spectacular play at the point guard position. The Clips have been a traditionally bad club and as a recently as last season they were a sub .500 team because they just could not close out games. Fast forward to this season and the Clippers lead the Pacific division and have the fourth best record in the Western Conference.
The additions of Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups prior to his injury were obviously a big part of the turnaround, but Paul has been the steady and yet dominant influence that has turned them into winners. The perennial All-Star directs the squad into its offense and gets the ball to players in positions where they can do damage with it because he understands their strengths and weaknesses. And thus, despite the lack of impressive offensive sets, when Chris Paul is on the court, the Clippers have the best offensive efficiency figures of all the MVP candidates on this list. All of them.
And if we go back to the plus-minus numbers as previously discussed, you may or may not be surprised to find out that Lob City outscores its opponents almost by double digits when CP3 is on the court, but also they are nearly outscored by just as much when Paul is on the bench, signaling just how important he is to the team’s success.
His value seems to double in late game situations where he essentially looks for teammates when they are in perfect scoring position, but otherwise takes over the reins and leads his team to victory by assuming all the late game scoring responsibilities. According to StatsCube, if we project Paul’s scoring numbers in the clutch (clutch situations are viewed as the last five minutes of the game when the scoring margin is within five points or less) over the course of a full game, he would sport an impressive 31.1 points per game average.
In any other season, Paul would probably be the prohibitive favorite to win the award, but there are two guys who have just been played out of this world so far…
2. Kevin Durant
Team Record: 31-8 (best in the Western Conference).
28.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 49.9% FG, 27.0 PER.
Move over Carmelo Anthony, and Kobe Bryant may not be able to stand side-by-side for much too long. Both players are some of the most feared scorers of their generation and yet Kevin Durant has slowly taken over the title of best scorer in the game with his silky jump shot and smooth midrange game.
KD makes it extremely difficult for defenders to guard him because he is essentially a threat from every spot on the court. He is a dangerous 3-point shooter, an assassin coming off of curl screens around the pinch post area and he has even incorporated a post game to his repertoire this season. If the threat of the jump shot wasn’t already giving opponents headaches, his much improved handle on the ball is not only impressive but seemingly makes him impossible to defend.
Durant is perhaps the most natural scorer in the league – Kobe is right there with him – and thus makes it look effortless. He knows how to get himself to the foul line and is now tougher to push out of his sweet spots. Indeed, last season players such Metta World Peace could have clutched, grabbed and pushed KD away from the areas where he was most effective; but this season he has made the adjustment and can take the punishment all the while getting closer to the rim. There are still instances where defenders will force him further away from the basket, but his ballhandling now makes up for that deficiency.
Kevin Durant’s value relies heavily on his ability to score as well as his efficiency, but he is doing it on a team with the second best record in the league and is proving himself to be the best player on the team.
Naturally many would assume that KD is the rightful winner of the award at this point in time in the season but there is a little bit of room for improvement. On the season, the Thunder are one of the best offensive teams in the league with Durant on the court, but when he heads to the bench, the offense is still amongst the best in the league, albeit it is nonetheless worse.
With that said, there are two major reasons why Durant looms as the runner up today:
I. OKC’s defense is actually worse with the former Longhorn on the court as opposed to when he is off. Indeed, when Durant heads to the bench, the Thunder’s defense surrenders 100.81 points per 100 possessions whereas when he is on the court, they yield 102.55 points per 100 possessions. Put it all together, and Oklahoma City manages to more than stay afloat without the scoring machine, but he is obviously still a huge part of their success.
II. The next guy…
1. LeBron James
Team Record: 30-9 (2nd best in Eastern Conference).
27.7 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 6.7 APG, 1.8 SPG, 55.5% FG, 33.1 PER.
Ever since LeBron joined the Miami Heat, there has been a backlash that has followed him around as a result of The Decision and the “not one, not two…” speech. Many have been quick to single out his shortcomings and rightfully so given the huge target he placed on his back and his teammates. Things reached a climax in the 2011 NBA Finals where the world essentially saw The Chosen One disappear right before their eyes as the pressure mounted and seemingly got to him. How did the Heat superstar respond?
By giving us the greatest statistical season the modern league has ever seen…
It’s quite possible James’ productivity will level off as we approach the end of the season, but so far he is eclipsing the magical 1987-88 season in which Michael Jordan submitted the greatest PER figure in modern league history.
The Akron native is still scoring, rebounding and making plays much like he has done throughout his brilliant career; but this season he has finally decided to go down on the low block and punish defenders foolish enough to try and battle him. The end result is that LeBron has spent more time around the rim and less time spotting up from 3-point range. Hence, he is shooting a career high 55.5 percent from the field and is making basketball look very easy for him on most nights.
Other than Derrick Rose, there may not be a more spectacular and dangerous player out in transition with the ball in his hands as James is able to weave through traffic and take hits all the while finishing at the rim with exceptional quickness.
His scoring is obviously a very important component to the Heat’s success, but his ability to set up his teammates helps turn the Miami offense f rom very good to great. On the season, the Heat boast an offensive efficiency of 111.78 with LeBron on the court, but it drops to 103.17 when he is off the floor. The offense can survive without him, but it offers the potential for a blowout when he is on the floor.
Also, one of the most impressive aspects of James’ game has been getting some publicity as of late and rightfully so; his ability to defend this season is drawing comparisons to the greatest perimeter defender the league has ever seen: Scottie Pippen.
In the past few weeks, LeBron has defended the likes of Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Ray Felton, LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Paul Millsap, Pau Gasol and Troy Murphy to name a few. The versatile forward has been able to clamp down and not only defend multiple positions, but shut them down thanks in large part to his size, strength, quickness and basketball IQ.
The Miami Heat currently have the sixth best defense in the NBA with their defensive efficiency of 97.1. And it really stands out when watching them play just how dominant of a team they are on that end when James is on the court. He will bump cutters in the lane, switch on certain screens to avoid giving the offense an advantage, roam around the lane in the pick-and-roll defense and then recover to the shooter, get into passing lanes, contest shots at the rim, get chase down blocks, avoid defensive three seconds violations, defend without fouling, compete for loose balls, fight forwards and centers for rebounds and then fly down the court in transition.
His defensive value is reflected in the stats as well. When the two-time league MVP heads to the bench, Miami’s defensive efficiency takes a hit and climbs to 103.72; if we put that into context, that figure would reflect the Utah Jazz’s mark, which sits at 24th in the league.
The Miami Heat are a contender for the NBA crown this season and also happen to have a superstar that is not only in the midst of submitting the greatest statistical season ever, but that is also dominant on both ends of the court. He is having the best season out of any player on one of the best teams in the NBA at the moment and it doesn’t seem as though anyone will slow him down.
As it stands right now, the award is his to lose given his out of this world performance.
Questions or comments? Feel free to leave them in the comments section or you can contact me by email at [email protected].