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April 23, 2012
James Stands Alone
2011-12 MVP Ballot

by Kevin Pelton

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It feels like the media has spent the better part of the two months since the All-Star Game trying to find a reason not to give LeBron James MVP. In this case, I'm not sure it has as much to do with lingering distaste from The Decision so much as the difficulty making good copy out of a runaway MVP race. I'm going to do my best to do just that.

Ultimately, it appears that James finishing the season strong while Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder faded a bit in April will be enough for James to win his third MVP trophy. Still, I think it's worth exploring the two most prominent arguments that favor Durant over James.

James Isn't Clutch
I'm always hesitant to wade into the discussion of end-game statistics, largely because small sample sizes become a major issue and it's easy to build narrative about what is actually nothing more than noise. However, the clutch numbers provided by NBA.com/Stats provide some interesting perspective.

It's important to keep in mind the two aspects of scoring--efficiency and shot creation--when looking at these numbers. Considering only one or the other provides an incomplete, inaccurate picture. To put them together into a simple number, I've calculated what I call Simple Offensive Rating--points scored per possessions used--and then turned it into an Adjusted Offensive Rating using the rule of thumb that each extra percentage point of usage is worth about one point per 100 possessions in Offensive Rating.

Among the league's top 30 clutch scorers as measured by total points scored in the last five minutes or overtime with a score difference of five points or fewer, here is the top 10 in Adjusted Offensive Rating plus three other players of note:

Player               TS%     Usg    sORtg    AORtg
--------------------------------------------------
Andrew Bynum        .787    .189    149.4    148.3
Kyrie Irving        .659    .472    119.9    147.1
Jason Terry         .646    .290    118.9    127.9
Paul Pierce         .645    .299    116.3    126.2
Danny Granger       .633    .241    121.5    125.6
Kevin Durant        .528    .417    101.1    122.8
Joe Johnson         .601    .309    111.7    122.6
LeBron James        .557    .371    102.6    119.7
Kevin Love          .601    .290    109.6    118.6
Chris Paul          .571    .363    102.2    118.5
Carmelo Anthony     .458    .478     88.1    115.9 (12)
Russell Westbrook   .584    .369     99.0    115.9 (13)
Kobe Bryant         .489    .415     89.3    110.8 (17)

These numbers confirm what Tom Haberstroh found for ESPN Insider: Cleveland Cavaliers rookie Kyrie Irving is a stunningly good clutch scorer. Andrew Bynum stands in a league of his own, as far and away the most efficient option down the stretch--in part because unlike other elite big men (including Dwight Howard, who did not even qualify for the list, and Blake Griffin, who ranks last of the group) he's made opponents pay at the line, knocking down 17 of 21 free throws in clutch situations. Also take note of Jason Terry, who might be the league's most clutch player in the sense of improving his performance late in games.

Durant leads the MVP candidates. In clutch situations, he's using a robust 41.7 percent of the Thunder's plays while maintaining a True Shooting Percentage near league average. That puts him slightly ahead of James, who has been more efficient as a shooter but has turned the ball over more frequently and has not been quite as heavily involved in the Miami offense.

However, the way I've set up this metric tends to favor Durant because it does not give James enough credit for his playmaking. In clutch situations, Durant has not been able to set up his teammates. He's handed out just two assists in 147 clutch minutes. James has 17 in 107 minutes, and Chris Paul has 29 in 162. Add in their contributions as passers and the three MVP candidates have essentially been equal on offense down the stretch.

To the extent that clutch situations deserve extra weight in the MVP process, they don't actually appear to favor Durant over James.

Durant Was Superior in the Month of March
It's easy to pinpoint the peak of Durant MVP mania: April Fool's Day. On ABC that Sunday, Oklahoma City dominated Chicago to improve to 40-12. Immediately thereafter, Miami lost by 19 at Boston, dropping to 37-14. At the All-Star break, James was the clear favorite for MVP, but after a slow month of March for him and the Heat Durant briefly moved ahead of him in the public eye.

Here's the thing: Even in the month Durant supposedly owned, James had the better numbers. James had 4.5 WARP in March, which ranked third in the league behind Paul (5.2) and Kevin Love (4.6). Durant had 3.5 WARP, which ranked seventh, and actually rated worse on a per-minute basis than over the course of the season.

If you prefer traditional stats, Durant averaged 27.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in March. James averaged 24.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 51.1 percent from the field. Keep in mind that was arguably his worst month of the season.

Ultimately, I have a tough time finding a compelling line of argument against James. Though he's slowed from his record-setting pace during January, James is still likely to finish with the 17th season with a .800 win percentage or better by my metrics since 1979-80, and his third in the last four years. That would put him one behind Michael Jordan's career total and tied with David Robinson for second most in that span.

James is a legit contender for Defensive Player of the Year, having guarded every position on the court, and has reinforced his versatility recently by serving as Miami's backup point guard. As a result, James is certainly the most irreplaceable player in the league. He's also the most valuable.

Before filling out the rest of the ballot, I wanted to take a look at a new mashup metric I used to help with the process. As described in my column on player evaluation early in the season, I've always combined individual statistics and plus-minus data in a haphazard fashion when I look at player performance. To come up with something more orderly, I utilized the single-season regularized adjusted plus-minus available on Stats for the NBA. Using the same logic that underlies WARP, I crated a form of RAPM WARP, then took the geometric mean of the two numbers.

What makes regularized adjusted plus-minus more accurate than the more familiar form of adjusted plus-minus is that it is regressed more heavily to the mean. (It also does a better job of dealing with the problems created when two players share almost all minutes at one position for their team and rarely play together.) In practice, this means that individual statistics play a larger role in determining the combined rating, as they should because of their increased reliability. Still, including RAPM should give credit for contributions that aren't captured in the box score and provides an interesting perspective.

Player               Tm   Win%   WARP  RAPM RWARP   TOT
-------------------------------------------------------
LeBron James        MIA   .807   18.6   3.2   8.0  12.2
Chris Paul          LAC   .727   13.5   3.2   7.2   9.9
Kevin Durant        OKC   .713   14.9   1.5   6.0   9.4
Blake Griffin       LAC   .619    9.5   3.8   8.6   9.1
Kevin Love          MIN   .720   13.5   1.6   5.4   8.6
Ryan Anderson       ORL   .692   10.5   3.5   6.6   8.3
Russell Westbrook   OKC   .629    9.8   2.4   6.8   8.1
Josh Smith          ATL   .637   10.1   2.0   6.0   7.8
James Harden        OKC   .641    9.0   3.1   6.8   7.8
Dwight Howard       ORL   .692   11.8   1.3   4.6   7.4

Player               Tm   Win%   WARP  RAPM RWARP   TOT
-------------------------------------------------------
Dirk Nowitzki       DAL   .582    6.7   3.9   7.9   7.3
Marc Gasol          MEM   .567    7.0   2.9   7.5   7.3
Pau Gasol           LAL   .587    8.4   1.6   5.8   7.0
Dwyane Wade         MIA   .719   10.2   2.3   4.7   6.9
Danny Granger       IND   .585    7.0   2.9   6.7   6.9
Paul Millsap        UTA   .626    8.7   1.7   5.2   6.7
Tony Parker         SAS   .578    6.3   3.3   6.8   6.5
Kevin Garnett       BOS   .598    7.0   2.9   6.0   6.5
Andre Iguodala      PHI   .607    8.3   1.4   4.9   6.4
Mike Conley         MEM   .561    6.2   2.6   6.5   6.3

Player               Tm   Win%   WARP  RAPM RWARP   TOT
-------------------------------------------------------
LaMarcus Aldridge   POR   .578    6.6   1.8   5.2   5.9
Andrew Bynum        LAL   .642    9.7   0.4   3.5   5.9
Tim Duncan          SAS   .630    7.1   2.3   4.8   5.8
Paul Pierce         BOS   .631    9.1   0.5   3.6   5.7
Kobe Bryant         LAL   .580    7.3   0.9   4.4   5.7

As volatile as single-season adjusted plus-minus tends to be, even the regularized version, this list offers few shocking results when viewed as the most valuable players this season rather than the best players--that is, injuries count. The only name that particularly surprised me was Mike Conley. Ryan Anderson is simply having a remarkable season no matter which statistic you look at, but the rest of the top 25 either made the All-Star Game this season or was part of the discussion.

This metric offers further confirmation that James is the runaway choice for MVP. He was second in the RAPM WARP (8.0), trailing Blake Griffin (8.6). It also helped sway me to give Paul my (imaginary) second-place vote. There's a lot to like about Paul's 2011-12 season. On a per-minute basis, he rates better than Durant in terms of win percentage. Durant's superior WARP rating has been compiled entirely on the strength of playing more minutes per game. Paul is still third, and he's fourth in RAPM WARP. Only James can match that combination.

The more I considered the matter, the more I think Paul gets extra credit for how central he has been to the Clippers' success this season. Many teams would have struggled (many did) after importing three new starters just before a shortened training camp. Following a couple of early losses, the Clippers were off and running, which I think is a testament to Paul's ability to pull the team together. Since Chauncey Billups' injury, Paul and Griffin have carried a flawed, thin team to the equivalent of a 50-win season and possibly home-court advantage in the Western Conference. Paul has served as a coach on the floor, and at times in the huddle.

Durant has had a terrific season in his own right as the most efficient high scorer in the league. He's improved his rebounding, allowing Oklahoma City to use him at power forward in effective small lineups. I just think Paul has had slightly more value to a Clippers team that demanded more of him.

The fourth spot on my ballot goes to Kevin Love, who might have been part of the discussion about second place if not for missing the season's last eight games following a concussion. I think he was far enough ahead of the rest of the pack to still finish fourth even with the playing time he's missed. Love finishes with one of the most unique statistical campaigns in NBA history, and his value to the Timberwolves was reconfirmed when they fall apart entirely after his injury.

Completing the ballot was more challenging. From the list above, I'm skeptical of Griffin's impressive regularized adjusted plus-minus. Griffin's value seems adequately captured by his individual statistics, since he's not exactly a "little things" guy, or much of a defender. If anything, I think Griffin's WARP might slightly overstate his value because of the problems his free throw shooting presents in close games. As fine a season as Anderson has had, Orlando's difficulty winning without Dwight Howard (whose poor RAPM score knocked him down this list, along with his injury) makes the notion of him getting anywhere near an MVP ballot laughable.

Tony Parker and Steve Nash are popular end-of-ballot candidates right now. In Parker's case, I think he's getting a bit too much credit for the Spurs' success. I question whether Parker is necessarily even the team's most effective player, or whether Tim Duncan still deserves that title because of his ability to impact a game at both ends. (RAPM does favor Parker.) More than anything, though, I think San Antonio's record is a tribute to the team's depth and Gregg Popovich's coaching. In Nash's case, durability is the issue. I can't imagine who the last player was to get serious MVP consideration while playing just 32 minutes a night. This being a value-based award, that counts. (That goes for Dwyane Wade, too.)

That leads me to Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has been effective, he's been durable and the Thunder has been much better this season with him on the floor (accounting for his weak backups since Eric Maynor's injury). No other player in the league can top him in all three categories. That merits a spot on the All-NBA First Team and on my MVP ballot.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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