LeBron James, MVP, and Point Differential: The Case for King James

They see us rollin’, they hatin’, patrollin’ they sayin’ I’m not worthy…

The NBA season’s first “trimester” is now over. Many see this as the first point in the season where we can reasonably start discussing and predicting the year-end awards such as MVP, ROY, and DPOY. Hence, we get articles such as Marc Stein’s “Best Of The First Trimester” and commentary such as LeBron’s claim that his “Most Valuable Player chances kind of went out the window.” AGR will be sure to chime in on the debate all season long, but first I want to offer a quick reaction to LeBron James and the media at large.

LeBron may be onto something. Ball Don’t Lie explains that most MVPs have superstar teammates (LeBron was somewhat of an exception the last two years), however, the media’s current sentiments don’t support LeBron James as a top MVP candidate. Remember how Jordan, Barkley, and Magic questioned LeBron’s competitiveness in response to his decision to join Wade and Bosh on the Heat? The media has too, and it’s affecting his MVP chances. Here’s how we know.

In Marc Stein’s article from ESPN.com, he anointed Amar’e Stoudemire as the Eastern Conference’s MVP so far. Also at ESPN.com, Maurice Brooks ranks LeBron James as 4th in MVP watch in his weekly Awards Watch. NBA.com has him 3rd in their Race to MVP.

Being third or fourth in voting isn’t bad, of course, but considering the Heat’s recent tear (they have won 20 out of their last 21 and have won 12 straight on the road) and considering LBJ is second in the league in PER, Win Shares, and WS/48min, you might expect him to be 1st on someone’s list, right? Even in those stats, he trails only Chris Paul, whose Hornets aren’t exactly setting the league ablaze at the moment.

Statistics and team record don’t explain MVP voting entirely, or else we wouldn’t be hearing about Amar’e and Derrick Rose so much (they are worthy candidates, but both have individual stats and team records inferior to those of LeBron). In addition to those things, the media and fans like to theorize about how much a player “elevates” his team and how much the team would plummet if said player were to leave his team. This explains why Amar’e is such a popular MVP pick–he came to the Knicks and immediately “lifted” the lowly Knicks out of mediocrity (never mind the impact of Landry Fields). But if we look at LeBron James, we can play a similar game and garner much more convincing evidence for his MVP-worthiness.

To play this game, we will look at SRS and point differential. A team’s SRS is its point differential (the best predictor of wins and losses and championships) adjusted for strength of schedule. The Heat currently lead the NBA with an SRS of 8.61. This means they would beat an average team by 8.61 points on a neutral court. To put that in perspective, last year’s Magic led the NBA in SRS (7.12) and LeBron’s Cavaliers were in second (6.17). The season before that, in LeBron’s first MVP campaign, his Cavaliers had a league-leading SRS of 8.68. Obviously, LeBron wins (in the regular season, at least) wherever he goes.

But isn’t it unfair to attribute the Heat’s SRS success to LeBron when he is blessed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as teammates? Maybe. But let’s look at how his Cavaliers (who were historically good the past two years) have fared without LeBron’s contributions. The 2010-11 Cavs currently rank dead last in SRS (-9.11). The next worst team this season, the Kings, are nearly three points better (-6.52). Even more telling is how bad the Cavaliers are compared to the worst teams in the past two seasons. In 2009-10, the Timberwolves had a league-worst SRS of -9.06, and in 2008-09, the Kings had a league-worst SRS of -8.59. I’d be very surprised if the Cavs’ drop in SRS from last year to this year (-15.28) isn’t the biggest drop in the history of the NBA.

The message is clear. Not only does LeBron James put up brilliant individual numbers–this season and in the previous two–but, in addition, the numbers show that a team with him will the best in the league, or at least very close. Without him? They become the worst. How’s that for an MVP?

Is LeBron really the MVP? Are all these stats silly and pointless to the discussion? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.

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6 Responses to LeBron James, MVP, and Point Differential: The Case for King James

  1. Pingback: The Point Forward » Posts Court Vision: The latest around the league «

  2. Chris says:

    Giving credit to Lebron’s case for MVP through the CAVS unsuccessful season is really poor. When Lebron James left, the CAVS completely fell apart, they lost their Coach, starting over with a new coach, new system, and losing other parts of the team. Also the mental effect it has on the organization and players for such a heartbreak has a lot to do with it. I do not see it as a legitimate support statement. And you really undervalue when you say that Wade and Bosh’s contributions have a lot to do with their success as a “maybe”. Really? A MAYBE?? Bosh might “only” be a All Star level player, a great wing man to a main scorer on any team. But Wade is a freaking Superstar man. He’s won a championship, and he’s been incredible over the years, one of the top 3 players players for a while. And a lot of people consider him the 2nd best player in the NBA right now behind LBJ. How many teams have 2 superstars and a legit All Star player in their team? No way man, don’t take credit away from the contributions those guys have on the team’s success. Dwayne Wade has been playing as well as Lebron, just having a different role on the team.

    • thecornerthree says:

      Chris–

      With the “maybe” I wasn’t trying to undermine Bosh or Wade. I agree–both have been incredible. I guess I was just trying to say that it is easy to overlook LeBron’s value because, as you say, he has superstar teammates.

      As far as the Cavs, while the team fell apart, from the coach to the culture, their roster is largely the same (at least until Varejao went down). I was just merely pointing out that not only did they fall, but they fell hard. I agree with you, it’s not just LeBron’s departure that has caused this drop, but he has a hell of a lot to do with it.

  3. slickmilicic says:

    I’m not convinced that the Cavs’ collapse should factor into the MVP race, since I think that LeBron’s merit in that discussion should be based on what he adds to the Heat and not what he subtracts from the Cavs. It’s a one-season award, 2008 voting results notwithstanding.

    Still, what’s happening to the Cavs is startling, and there’s something to be learned from it. I mean, the Bulls lost 2 fewer games when Jordan left (the first time), the Timberwolves lost 10 fewer games without KG, and now the Cavs, with the same top 5 minus LeBron, are on pace to win 43 fewer. A lot of smart people thought the Cavs would stay competitive this year, mainly because elite defenses don’t just dissolve overnight, but that’s pretty clearly not going to be the case.

    The takeaway, at least to me, is that James in that ballhawking “free safety” role is one of the most potent defensive weapons in the league’s recent history, and that the value he adds to a roster far exceeds that of any other player. I wouldn’t advocate that these things be factors in this specific season’s MVP voting, but it’s also unrealistic to think a voter could ignore them.

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