Friday, April 18, 2008

'07-08 Reg. Season Awards: KG for MVP

The 2005-06 season was by far and away the most difficult time I've ever had in choosing an MVP. Four players - Dirk, Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade - were almost inseparable in my eyes. I ended up going with Kobe based on the sheer brilliance of his 35.4 ppg season, even though his Lakers won just 45 games that season. (Of course, an entirely different guy - Steve Nash - ended up somehow winning the award.)

This season is not quite that close, but it's up there, as there are once again four candidates - Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Chris Paul - who are all worthy of holding up the Mo Podoloff.

Here is how I rate the top 15, with commentary to follow:
1. Kevin Garnett, Boston
2. Chris Paul, New Orleans
3. Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers
4. LeBron James, Cleveland
5. Dwight Howard, Orlando
6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio
7. Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix
8. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
9. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
10. Steve Nash, Phoenix
11. Paul Pierce, Boston
12. Chauncey Billups, Detroit
13. Carlos Boozer, Utah
14. Deron Williams, Utah
15. Tracy McGrady, Houston

**************************************************************

1. KEVIN GARNETT, BOSTON
66-16, 71/32.8, 18.8/9.2/3.4, .539/.000/.801, 25.30 PER

Quite simply, I believe that the single most dominant element in NBA basketball this season - without question - has been the defense of the Boston Celtics, and that Kevin Garnett has been its driving force. He has unquestionably been the best defensive player in basketball this season, and I also believe that KG's D has been a more important factor in winning games than any player's offensive play has been.

As the Western Conference race got crazier and crazier, I feel like some of the MVP arguments did as well, with so many observers seeming to focus on winning the top seed in the West as the decisive piece of criteria.

As a result, I feel like people are totally underestimating how the Celtics dominated this regular season - DOMINATED it - finishing a full nine games better than the best team in the West. And they did it not just by walloping the patsies in the East, but also by dominating the West with a 25-5 record and the first Texas Triangle sweep in seven years.

I feel like people may be numb to gaudy regular seasons after Detroit (64-18) and Dallas (67-15) crapped out in the playoffs the last two seasons.

But Boston's 66-16 has been significantly more impressive than the last two league leaders, mainly because their point differential of +10.2 is fairly historic, one of just four +10 marks in the last 35 years ('91-92, '95-96 and '96-97 Bulls are the others). Compare that to '06 DET at +6.6 and '07 DAL at +7.2.

One reason for that differential has been the quality of their losses. The C's are one of only four teams ever to lose just three or fewer games by 10+ points.

Boston's defensive numbers were at least as impressive. Their 96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions led the league by a full 2.6 points over the no. 2 Rockets, and John Hollinger has noted that, in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions relative to the league, the Celtics rated along with the 1992-93 and 1993-94 Knicks, and 2003-04 Spurs, as the greatest defenses ever.

And, of course, the Celtics also set a record with a massive 42-game turnaround in KG's first year. Yes, KG has Pierce and Allen by his side, but I believe it was the will and drive of KG which was the primary force in transforming the culture, the mentality, and ultimately the on-court performance, especially defensively, for the 66-16 Boston Celtics.

In some ways, the best parallel I can come up with is to Kirk Gibson winning the NL MVP in baseball in 1988, deservedly, despite having somewhat pedestrian stats (.290-25-76), just because his arrival and presence so singlehandedly transformed the mentality of the L.A. Dodgers.

That said, for being a candidate based on winning, defense, and intangibles, KG's stats are actually better than they look. What makes the raw numbers deceptive is that he played just 32.8 minutes/game. I do think that MPG matters, and normally I might deduct some points, but considering that KG's reduced minutes were due to the fact that Boston was clobbering people, it's hard for me to penalize him.

I don't believe that PER is an end-all and be-all measure of player performance, in large part because it doesn't measure defense accurately. I *do* believe that PER is an excellent metric for what it actually is: a measure of a player's complete box score stats in a single number.

And it's worth noting that KG's 25.30 PER placed him fourth, behind LeBron and CP3, but ahead of Kobe.

There are a couple fair arguments against KG which I acknowledge:

1. Clutch offense: Really interesting numbers on clutch and super-clutch offense from 82games.com that Bill Simmons unearthed show that LeBron, Kobe and CP3 were all staggering good offensive players in clutch situations, while KG was way down the list.

While I do believe there is such a thing as clutch defense, I do concede that the other contenders are at an advantage here.

2. Games played: KG played just 71 games, due mainly to his torn abdominal muscle in the middle of the season, while CP3 played 80 and Kobe went the full 82, despite the bad finger.

Also, the Celtics did have a 9-2 record when KG was out, but I don't put much stock in that, as I think his imprint affected the team even in his absence, and many of the nine wins came against bottom-feeder teams.

I also don't think that the brilliant defensive work done by Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau should shift credit away from KG any more than I think CP3's case should be discounted for working with the Coach of the Year or that Kobe's should for having the greatest coach in pro basketball history on his sideline.

As much as I believe there are four worthy contenders, I have no doubts that Kevin Garnett deserves to be the 2007-08 NBA MVP.

2. CHRIS PAUL, NEW ORLEANS
56-26, 80/37.6, 21.1/4.0/11.6, .488/.369/.851, 28.39 PER

At just 22 years of age, CP3 has delivered a season that is nothing short of one of the greatest ever by a point guard, wresting the assist crown away after a three-year run by Steve Nash. His 28.39 PER ranks second only to LeBron, though it is possibly a little inflated by his staggering 2.71 steals per game, which also led the league and may overrate his defensive prowess as a whole.

Still, the dude is an intense competitor who fueled a 17-game turnaround to an improbable no. 2 seed in the West, and as the link above showed, he was a devastating force in clutch situations. And oh yeah, he just may have saved basketball in New Orleans.

Beyond that, CP3 has possibly become my favorite player to watch. I love how he commands the game up and down the middle of the floor, is virtually impossible to keep out of the lane, finds the most gorgeously disciplined and pinpointed alley-oops from all angles, and then also pulls up and knocks down a big 3 at the most improbable times.

One main argument against a Paul candidacy is the thought that, hey if this guy is such an all-time great and a potential MVP, how come he seems to always get outplayed head-to-head by his draft class rival, Deron Williams. It is an odd thing.

3. KOBE BRYANT, LA LAKERS
57-25, 82/38.9, 28.3/6.3/5.4, .459/.361/.840, 24.31 PER

There are so many strange factors in what appears will be the first MVP campaign of one of the game's great superstars.

No matter how much voters want to deny it, there is undeniably a "lifetime achievement" award element to MVP votes for Kobe. We here at TPA never vote that way, b/c we think it's tended to lead to some of the dumbest MVP votes ever (see: Malone, Karl, 1997), and besides, as we said at the top, we voted for Kobe in 2005-06; our conscience is clear.

This whole concept of analysts conveying their shock as they ask "How is it possible that Kobe has never won the MVP?!" is just kind of ridiculous. He's never won because, other than 2005-06, he's never deserved it, period. Look back season-by-season. He's either been on contending teams where Shaq was the dominant player, or teams that couldn't get out of the first round.

Another crock to me is that Kobe is all of a sudden "making his teammates better" like he's never done before. This is one of those times where that phrase is really being thrown around in a meaningless fashion.

The championship-era Lakers played great team basketball, Kobe included. Role players like Horry and Shaw and Fisher knocked down big shots b/c Kobe and Shaq gave them the opportunity to hit big shots, drawing the defense to set up open looks and then being unselfish and trusting enough to make the big pass. Kobe averaged 6.1 assists, for example, in his tour de force 2001 playoffs run (29.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg too).

The reason that the Lakers have improved so much this season is not that Kobe Bryant is all of a sudden making his teammates better, it's that he got much better teammates!

The most notable statistic in the improvement of the 2007-08 Lakers is that they are 22-4 in games that Pau Gasol has finished.

It's not that Kobe has taken his game to another level - he's always been this great. It's that the Lakers exchanged Kwame Brown and Smush Parker for Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher, and lots of their young players have gotten a whole lot better.

But geez, in some ways Pau has made Kobe look better as much as Kobe's made Pau look better, just because they've brought more W's into each other's lives b/c they're damn good players.

As far as other factors, I take points off for the soap opera of the early-season turmoil, back when Kobe's relationship with the Lakers seemed to be irrevocably broken.

I give Kobe credit for picking up his defense this season. Indeed, one of the underrated factors in L.A.'s improvements has been that they are 6th in defensive efficiency after finishing 24th last season.

And he's been huge in the clutch, as always, although his overall box score stats were less impressive than the other top contenders', as Kobe ranked just 8th in PER.

We had LeBron above Kobe for much of the season, but Kobe gets the narrow edge in part b/c L.A.'s record broke away at the end, and also in part due to the fact that Kobe played through his injury while LeBron sat, and the results of both of those decisions were reflected in the standings. But I could have gone either way on this one.

Don't get me wrong: although I tried to disprove a lot of arguments for Kobe as MVP above, I still believe that Kobe has had an MVP-caliber season, even though he wouldn't get my vote. Fortunately for him, I don't get a vote, so expect a pregame Staples Center ceremony sometime in the next few weeks.

4. LEBRON JAMES, CLEVELAND
45-37, 75/40.4, 30.0/7.9/7.2, .484/.315/.712, 29.23 PER

Pretty much the whole story here is in those numbers above. 30-8-7, the PER leader, awesome in the clutch - I can't believe I have him in 4th. A staggeringly outstanding season for anyone, much less a 23-year-old.

The crazy thing to me is that LeBron averages 30 points a game with tons of room for growth. I'll never understand why Cleveland doesn't play an all-out fast-breaking style with him b/c I think LeBron is as physically unstoppable in the open floor as Shaq was in the low post in his prime, and that is pretty close to the highest offensive praise I can give to a basketball player. Speaking of which, I think LeBron would be devastating if he ever developed a consistent low-post game, and cut his 3 attempts in half to spend more time on the block.

I can't believe I have this guy 4th.

Certainly, he is penalized by the injuries and subpar play of his teammates, and also his injury relative to Kobe's, as described above.

Still, I can't believe I have this guy 4th.

5. DWIGHT HOWARD, ORLANDO
52-30, 82/37.7, 20.7/14.2/1.3, .599/.000/.590, 22.98 PER

6. TIM DUNCAN, SAN ANTONIO
56-26, 78/34.0, 19.3/11.3/2.8, .497/.000/.730, 24.41 PER

7. AMARE STOUDEMIRE, PHOENIX
55-27, 79/33.9, 25.2/9.1/1.5, .590/.161/.805, 27.61 PER

It was really a flip of the coin among these three dominant big men. Stoudemire was spectacular down the stretch, averaging 28.5 ppg after the All-Star break, and was clearly the best offensive player of this trio, but he was also easily the worst defender of the three, which moved him down for me.

I guess I gave it to D12 narrowly because it wasn't clear that Timmy was the MVP of his own team over Manu. Though I never, ever, ever underestimate the Big Fundamental this time of year.

8. DIRK NOWITZKI, DALLAS
51-31, 77/36.0, 23.6/8.6/3.5, .479/.359/.879, 24.66 PER

Also came on like gangbusters down the stretch, averaging 25.5 ppg after the break, as his shooting numbers jumped from .469 FG and .291 3PT pre-break to .501 FG and .481 3PT post-break. We were opposed to the Kidd trade, but we can't deny that it's been a boon for Dirk.

Also gets credit for missing just 5 games with that nasty-looking injury - Dallas might not be alive today if he hadn't come back so soon.

9. MANU GINOBILI, SAN ANTONIO
56-26, 74/31.1, 19.5/4.8/4.5, .460/.401/.860, 24.34 PER

Simmons pointed this out in his column today, but it's worth repeating - let's re-link the clutch and super-clutch stats from above.

Manu was not only either the 3rd or 4th best clutch scorer (along with Dirk, behind LeBron/Kobe), but he was also one of the top assist men and top steal men in the clutch. And he not only shot 57% FG and 93% FT in the clutch, but he was 62% FG/90% FT in super-clutch situations.

I don't think the guy gets nearly enough credit for the fact that he accepts a role of a sixth man who plays ~30 mpg, which cuts down his numbers and ridiculously keeps him off of All-Star teams, even though he is one of the best players in the league.

10. STEVE NASH, PHOENIX
55-27, 81/34.3, 16.9/3.5/11.1, .504/.470/.906, 21.16 PER

We close with the beauty of those shooting stats: an exceedingly rare 50-40-90 man.

2 Comments:

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous JG said...

... it was the will and drive of KG which was the primary force in transforming the culture, the mentality, and ultimately the on-court performance, especially defensively, for the 66-16 Boston Celtics.

Agreed, but if you switch ends of the court, that sounds like the justification for Nash in 05-06. And I think you have to discount that 42-win difference on account of all the tanking.

If LeBron played in Boston, New Orleans, or LA instead of Azkaban, there would be no debate, right?

 
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