Monday, March 28, 2011

The Real Impact Of The "Heat Effect" On The NBA's MVP Race

There is a handful of things I know. I know that the selection of the NBA’s MVP is anything but a perfect science. For starters, the pool of eligible voters consists entirely of members of the mainstream media, many of whom, while knowledgeable on the game, have been slow (if not totally unwilling) to add advanced statistics to their player evaluation processes. Additionally, most have likely spent no more than a few hours watching each of the top candidates, with a majority of that viewing coming in the players’ national television appearances- the easiest and most convenient to find.

I also know that Derrick Rose is not definitively the best candidate for the 2010-11 NBA MVP award that he’s likely to receive in the coming weeks. However, another nugget of wisdom to which I am privy- obtained through 25+ years of NBA fandom and tens of thousands of hours logged watching games- is that Rose is probably going to win the award, in no small part because he feels like this season’s MVP. And while there are compelling cases to be made for a number of other candidates, I am fine with that.

For starters, Rose is essentially unguardable. Earlier in the season, on ESPN’s NBA Today podcast, Ryen Russillo aptly compared Rose to NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders- no one looks remotely comfortable guarding him, most defenders instinctively backpedal as he approaches (problematic not only because of his blinding speed, but also the improved range on his jump shot), he finds creases where there appear to be none and humiliates multiple defenders with a single electrifying move. With the exceptions of Russell Westbrook, Monta Ellis and John Wall, no one in the NBA comes close to Rose’s combination of speed, quickness and ballhandling.

Statistically he’s been fantastic as well. Not perfect (as many in the advanced statistical community are more than willing to point out), but excellent. He’s averaging 24.9 points (7th in the NBA; .2 ppg behind Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony), 7.9 assists (10th) and 4.2 rebounds in just under 38 minutes per game.

You into them newfangled, advanced metrics? Rose stacks up well there too. According to
Hoopdata, in terms of Adjusted PER (APER), Rose’s 25.88 mark (up from 19.98 a year ago) trails only those of LeBron James (28.34), Chris Paul (26.92), Dwyane Wade (26.73), Dwight Howard (26.56) and Russell Westbrook (26.53). Among point guards that play at least 30 minutes per game, only Brandon Jennings (12.36) and D.J. Augustin (12.92) turn the ball over less frequently per 100 possessions than does Rose (12.93). That his Assist Rate (29.48) pales in comparison to his PG peers and his 32.36 Usage Rate is tops at his position speaks to the incredibly heavy reliance of the Bulls’ offense on Rose.

Throw in the fact that, while the Chicago Bulls entered the season with greater expectations than in years past, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a preseason prediction (mine included) that included the term “title contender.” And yet, here they are, with wins in 53 of their first 72 games (despite their second best player missing 23 games and their third best missing 31), including 9 of their last 10, a two-game lead over the Celtics for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and emerging as a sexy pick to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June- with the 22 year-old Rose as their undisputed leader. Toss all of that into the hopper, add in a few signature national TV performances (36 on 11-19 in a 1/8 win over Boston; 42, on 18-28, plus 8 assists against the Spurs on 2/17; and 30 with 10 assists in Tuesday night’s thumping of the Hawks) and you end up with a bandwagon that’s got more momentum than a train in some movie I never saw, of which Denzel Washington would like to disavow all knowledge.

The reality of the situation is that the MVP voting typically shakes out in favor of the best (usually offensive) player on a top-5 team, preferably one that’s exceeded expectations, and (most importantly, given the voting process) captured the mainstream media's collective heart. Given this, Derrick Rose, the feel-good breakout star of this season fits the bill. Sure, the greatest performance of this NBA season has belonged (again) to a certain transcendent talent whose relocation tactics left something to be desired, but still...

In 2010-11, LeBron James has done little to hurt his status as the world’s greatest basketball player. LeBron inhabits a statistical domain shared exclusively by the greatest players ever to grace an NBA court. According to data from, in seven seasons prior to this one, he’d produced five (of 156 in NBA history) 25+-PER seasons- matching the career totals for Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bob Pettit and Neil Johnston- and trailed only Oscar Robertson (6), Charles Barkley (7), David Robinson (7), Wilt Chamberlain (8), Karl Malone (8), Shaquille O’Neal (10), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10) and Michael Jordan (11). He is a lead pipe lock to push that total to six in 2010-11, and will lead the league for the fourth consecutive season.

(Note: I understand the flaws of using raw PER from B-R and APER from Hoopdata. I prefer APER as a comprehensive statistical measure, but enjoy using B-R’s data for such comparisons across all of the NBA history. Like the MVP selection process and advanced metrics, I too, am imperfect.)

Anyway, this season LeBron’s continued his run as the NBA’s gold standard for individual productivity. Through 71 games (Hoopdata updated through 69 games), he’s averaging 26.4 points (on 50.3% FG, 58.7% TS% and an awesome 71.1% on his 5.6 attempts “at the rim"), 7.4 rebounds (with top-5 non-PF/C Defensive and Total Rebound Rates- 18.4 and 11.3, respectively), 6.9 assists (7.9 when adjusted for 3-pointers, or “Assists+”), with Assist (26.67) and Turnover (13.64) Rates that compare favorably with those of Rose. He’s leading the league (again) with a 28.34 APER- his first sub-30 tally in four years and the sixth-best none-LeBron mark (Wade’s got three, Chris Paul the other two) of the past half-decade.

So, yeah, we all agreed last summer that we don’t like LeBron anymore, but there’s NO denying that the dude is still a force of nature.


Another thing I know is that LeBron James will not win his third consecutive MVP this season. This is something I am far less OK with. With that said, I understand the unfortunate circumstances under which this will occur. Many- at least those that choose to cast their votes elsewhere- will contend that LeBron is unworthy of the honor because of a) the “Heat Effect,” or the idea that no amount of on-court brilliance can trump dramatically upgrading his two best teammates, and/or b) the Heat’s “underachievement”- the fact that they will probably finish with 57 or 58 wins, and not the 73 that we’d been promised, and sit just two-and-a-half games behind Rose's Bulls.

And while there’s little doubt that an improved (at the top, at least) supporting cast and outsized expectations have conspired against LeBron’s candidacy, the real reason he will be passed over is that eight months ago- less because of “The Decision” and more because of the premature championship parade, at which he rang the opening bell on what he predicted will be the greatest run of NBA dominance in more than four decades- he pissed a lot of self-important people off. These wounds have been slow to heal, and unfortunately, the misguided feeling remains that LeBron James needs to be punished for the sins of last summer.

With LeBron presumably relegated to the media’s penalty box, Rose’s stiffest competition for the Maurice Podoloff trophy will likely come from Dwight Howard, who’s doing the best Moses Malone impersonation we’ve seen since, well, Moses Malone. Since he truly entered his prime in 2007-08 (his 2006-07 season at the age of 21 was pretty awesome too), Howard has averaged no worse than 18.3 points (20+ in three of the last four seasons), 13.2 rebounds, 3.4 of them offensive (4+ twice). He consistently sports a mid-20s PER, a Total Rebound Rate of ~22, a Defensive Rebound Rate of ~30 and grabs roughly one out of every eight available offensive rebounds.

Malone, another preps-to-pros monster in the middle, kicked off the seven-year prime of his legendary career at the same age, in the 1977-78 season. During the first four years of that run, Malone averaged at least 19.4- 14.5- including seasons of 27.8- 14.8 (1980-81) and 31.1- 14.7 (1981-82, when he won his second of three MVPs). He, too, posted a PER of 21+ each season, including 23.7+ three times, a Total Rebound Rate of ~22, a Defensive Rebound Rate of ~25 and established himself as perhaps the greatest offensive rebounder in NBA history, grabbing almost one out of every five available offensive boards. While Moses has Howard’s number on the offensive glass, it’s worth noting that Dwight is the superior defensive player, and a vastly superior shot blocker. In the last four seasons, he has swatted no fewer than two shots per game- roughly one out of every 17.5 shots by an opponent- including league-leading averages of 2.8 and 2.9 the last two seasons.

As great as he’s been in recent years, in 2010-11 Howard is capping the best season of his career, and looks to have entered a “the prime of his prime.” Through 70 regular season games, he is posting career-bests in: APER (26.56; fourth in the league), Adjusted Win Shares (9.96; second in the league), points (23.1 per game, on 60% FG and 62.1% TS and rebounds (14.2; ties his career-best). He's also grabbing a stellar four offensive rebounds and blocking 2.43 shots per game (second only to Andrew Bogut’s 2.63 per game). No player has more games of 25 points and 15 rebounds (16, followed by Kevin Love with 13) or 30 points and 15 rebounds (10; Love is next with 8), and of the NBA’s 10 30-point, 15-rebound, 3-block games this season, seven belong to Howard.

Beyond the numbers, what we've seen from Dwight in 2010-11 is precisely what we’ve all been clamoring for- an expanded, less dunk-centric offensive arsenal. Much was made of Howard spending a couple of days this offseason working with Hakeem Olajuwon. As encouraging a move as that was, and as much fun as we had checking out the video of their sessions, Howard entered the season facing serious questions about his offensive versatility. Hell, I did it. In my Orlando Magic preview
, I said that “as cool as that video with Hakeem was, maybe we made too much of Dwight spending all of three days working on his post game.”

However, his hard work has paid of handsomely. This season, we’ve seen a far more skilled, more confident player at the offensive, one that still attempting seven shots per game “at the rim” and making a staggering 76.6% of them, but also posting career highs in both attempts and field goal percentage from 3-9 feet (4.6 FGA; 45.5%) and 10-15 feet (1.1 FGA; 39.2%). Most notable here is the ~15-foot jump (often bank) shot from the wing that’s been added to his game, which, while not yet the caliber of that of Hakeem, Tim Duncan or Patrick Ewing, is a shot that at least needs to be accounted for.

The bottom line? In case any doubt remained- and more than most, he’s had his weaknesses questioned more than his strengths celebrated- Dwight Howard is not only a top-shelf MVP candidate, but rapidly climbing into the ranks of history's best big men.

Whew! Almost 2,000 words in, and no mention of the NBA’s most taken-for-granted superstar
, the league’s best pure point guard and owner of its second-highest APER, Derrick Rose’s statistical doppelganger, (I’ll also direct you to the work of Daily Thunder’s Royce Young and SB Nation’s Tom Ziller, both of whom nailed this topic last week), or his teammate, the most prolific and effortless scorer in the league.

That, my friends, is one badass crop of MVP candidates.

If you need further evidence of this, consider that we’ve also come this far and only tangentially touched on another of the league’s signature superstars, whose MVP case is as strong as that of any of the aforementioned group. Sadly, however, he will have a tough time cracking the top-five in the final vote. I’m speaking of one of the greatest players of this generation, who’s wrapping up on of the best individual seasons in recent memory. This is a man who:

- Is averaging 25.4 points (fourth in the NBA; better than Rose and Howard).

- Has made 49.7% of his field goals and boasts a True Shooting Percentage of 57.7%.

- Stands alone in 2010-11, as the only player to average at least 25 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and at least one steal and one blocked shot per game.

- Ranks third in the NBA with a spectacular Adjusted PER of 26.73.

- Is arguably the NBA’s best rebounding guard, ranking first among backcourt players with a 5.4% Offensive Rebound Rate, and second with a 10.2% Total Rebound Rate.

- Turns the ball over just 12.5 times per 100 possessions, second least (behind Kobe Bryant’s 11.46) among players with an Adjusted PER of at least 25.

- Is as good a player as there is on the planet at getting his own shot, as evidenced by the fact that just 35% of his made field goals are “assisted.” This is the second lowest (behind LeBron’s 32.6%) among non-PGs.

- Is the best at his position at getting to rim, with a whopping 6.9 field goal attempts per game “at the rim”- fourth in the league, trailing “Denver Carmelo,” Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin- of which he successfully connects on 65%.

- Has only been a part of four five-man units that have been outscored this season, and only one that's posted worse than a four-point deficit.

I’m speaking, of course, about another of the NBA’s taken-for-granted superstars, and the man most penalized by the “Heat Effect,” Dwyane Wade. A month from now, when Derrick Rose is named the league’s Most Valuable Player, whether or not they agree, reasonable NBA fans will be able to understand the process by which he received the honor. Similarly, the group that feels as though LeBron James is the award’s most deserving recipient- a group of which I'm a member- will also understand the process by which he was passed over.

Wade, on the other hand, stands to be the biggest loser of the 2010-11 NBA MVP vote. He’s put together a single-season resume that compares favorably to not only a majority of past MVP winners, but ranks as one of history’s 150 best individual seasons. That he’s done so for a team that will win nearly 60 games and possibly nab a top-two seed in the East, despite battling injuries to an already-subpar supporting cast, while under more scrutiny than arguably any other in history, but is unlikely to receive even a single first place vote, is a crime.


Tom said...

Really good article, thoughtful, considered multiple viewpoints. I'm still backing D-Rose but I understand where you and a lot of others are coming from. To me Lebron is hurt by the Heat's record against good teams and in close games. I have Dwight at #2, and honestly were I not a Bulls fan I can admit I prob wouldn't have Rose #1. But I am, so I do, and I'm proud ofit.

Emile Avanessian said...

Wear your fandom proudly! Rose is a hell of a player, and he's got your squad headed in a great direction.

While I totally get why people might think that he's not the MVP, I feel like the negative reaction has gone too far. He's a legit superstar that's the main offensive catalyst for a title contender- hardly a travesty.

Mauricio Rubio Jr. said...

Thanks for the article, it's really well written.

Ryan said...


But I'm just confused.

I thought I used to know what 'valuable' meant.

Welp, not anymore.

Durant for MVP. Heck, just give it to Westbrook too.

Anonymous said...

I don't see how James has any case for MVP. If you're playing with another top-5 NBA player and another borderline all-star in Bosh, and yet you still can't do better than 3rd in the conference, while at the same time Rose is dragging that Bulls team to the top with no other all-stars, it has to go to Rose. Factor in that James has regressed in the one area that his team needs most (rebounding) and has never even tried to help in the post (where they also need help) and you're left with a guy who's clearly not getting the most out of his ability. I'm not saying that Rose is the perfect MVP candidate, but he's the closest we have this year.

Benjo Buensuceso said...

No love for Kobe? Kobe's had turns of bad shooting, but he's been the most consistent player on a team with the 2nd/3rd best record in the NBA and having the 6th highest PER. He's had, statistically, as good a season as Durant and maybe even Rose; he's just played a lot less minutes.

Matt said...

Awesome article. Very enjoyable read.

HOWEVAH...I think you missed a very important reason as to why Rose will win the MVP over LeBron. You pointed out that this simply "feels" like Rose's year. I agree, Rose has jumped to superstar level, has been unguardable, is leading the Bulls to the best record in the East, and has just put his stamp all over this season.

With that said, the reason LeBron won't win the MVP is because he lacked those "signature/MVP" performances this year. He's again putting up huge numbers, but what is the first thing about his play this year that pops into your head....his terrible clutch shooting streak. He lost the MVP when he repeatedly missed those late-game shots. If he had made just 1 or 2 of them then he'd probably be in the running, but his successive failures is the stench that is caught in our nostrils. Only playoff heroics will be able to change that.

Anonymous said...

Judging basketball players, and MVP-candidates in particular, by numbers (however advanced) is like judging woman's beauty by her measurements - if you cannot get what really makes a woman beautiful you don't know what makes a great basketball player either.

Zachary said...

fantastic read, thanks for the stats and court-enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

What about Kobe Bryant? no love for the best player in the game?? he deserves way more than just 1 regular season MVP award... the fact that he only has one shows how flawed the MVP selection process is...

Emile Avanessian said...

I agree with your overarching point about Kobe deserving more than one MVP for his career, but I don't think his performance this year warrants the award.