Adjusted +/- and MVP: The Case for Chris Bosh

Okay chill guys, it’s not that funny.

On Sunday my partner in crime forwarded an argument for LeBron James’ MVP candidacy focusing on the Heat’s leap in SRS and the Cavs’ precipitous fall. I’m going to use a different set of numbers to demonstrate that while LeBron James might remain the most effective single-man winning machine in basketball, he is far from being the most “valuable”.

I’m sort of fascinated with adjusted +/-, because I think that when we refine it enough to eliminate much of the noise, it’s going to become the most important stat kept in professional basketball. What better way to rate a player than to see how much better or worse his team fares with him on the court, all other things equal? That’s the stat to end all stats, right? It’s the ideal way to determine a player’s impact on his team. The only issue is that adjusted +/- will never tell you anything absolute. It won’t tell you how good a player is, or how useful he’d be to another team. It’s all relative to how his teammates do without him. So while it’s a great way to figure out which players should get tweaks in their playing time, it’s not going to be able to predict how somebody will fare in a new system. Put it this way: if I’m a GM, I’m paying a lot of attention to my roster’s adjusted +/-, and not so much to everyone else’s.

Case in point: this year’s Miami Heat. From 2008-2010, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were the two best players in adjusted +/-. Makes sense, right? They were probably the two best players in the league for that period. Also making the top 10 are Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard. All is right in the universe. Fast forward to this year, and James and Wade don’t crack the top 50. James is +4.20, with a standard error of 8.08. So it’s unclear if the Heat are even better with him on the court. Wade’s score, while still within the margin of error of 0, is actually negative. We can’t be sure, but it looks the Heat are better with him sitting.

This seems crazy, until you consider that when Wade takes a breather, he’s being spelled by…LeBron James. Similarly, that status quo that James represents just a slight improvement on? That’s Wade, a lot of the time. They’re #2 and #3 in the league in WS/48, but when it comes to adjusted +/-, they basically cancel each other out. Remember, this isn’t the equivalent of VORP in baseball, which tells you a player’s contribution relative to a hypothetical mediocre player (a cheap, readily available replacement). If the average NBDL call-up could perform as well as Dwyane Wade, it’s true that James would be unspectacular. But adjusted +/- deals with real replacements, not hypothetical ones, and James’ replacement happens to be another of the 5 best players on the planet. Ditto Wade.

I’m looking at this statistical anomaly in light of James’ recent comments about him and Wade being effectively out of the MVP race. At first, I thought that was a silly and premature thing to say. Great players on great teams, by convention, are MVP candidates. But James is absolutely right. After a slow start, James and Wade are both playing at the same level of seasons past, but by virtue of joining forces, their values have plummeted. You could argue that Chris Bosh is the Heat’s most indispensable player, especially with Udonis Haslem out, since an injury to him would be harder to cover for. And the numbers agree–buoyed by the Heat’s thin frontcourt, Bosh is leading the entire league in adjusted +/-. Chris Bosh for MVP!

Alright, I can’t put my heart behind that. But only because I think it’s unreasonable to give the MVP to a complementary player, particularly one who’s not a standout defender. Still, even as homerism and politics prevail in MVP voting, there is a clear relationship between votes and adjusted +/-. Here are the top finishers in MVP voting each of the last 3 years, with their leaguewide ranking in adjusted +/- in parentheses.

2008:                                   2009:                                     2010:
1. Kobe Bryant (5)             1. LeBron James (2)           1. LeBron James (2)
2. Chris Paul (NR)            2. Kobe Bryant (22)            2. Kevin Durant (3)
3. Kevin Garnett (11)        3. Dwyane Wade (1)           3. Kobe Bryant (12)
4. LeBron James (10)      4. Dwight Howard (NR)    4. Dwight Howard (1)
5. Dwight Howard (2)     5. Chris Paul (5)                   5. Dwyane Wade (4)

It’s far from perfect, but the 3 MVP’s all ranked top-5 in adjusted +/-, and last year the league’s top 4 in adjusted +/- all made the top 5 in MVP voting. I don’t know if voters pay attention to the stat, but the math does largely back up their choices. Adjusted +/- has its flaws, but it still might be the best measure we have of a player’s value to his team, putting a numerical value on what he adds or detracts from the lineup. Sure, it doesn’t give a rating of his overall ability, but no player exists in a vacuum, not even Joe Johnson. And the most prestigious individual award the league grants isn’t for the best player, but for the one most valuable to his team.

It’s no coincidence that Dirk Nowitzki and Derrick Rose, probably the two hottest names in the MVP discussion at the moment, rank 3rd and 6th, respectively, in this year’s adjusted +/- rankings. Like James and Wade, the numbers don’t bode well for Amar’e Stoudemire, who doesn’t make the top 50 and whose splits indicate that he remains a force on the offensive end and a liability on D. And if we assume that the eventual winner will come from near the top of that list, as the trend suggests, then Chris Paul (4) remains in the picture, with Deron Williams (16) and Manu Ginobili (20) lingering on the fringe. A lot can change between now and May, but I’m willing to bet on recent history and peg James as a longshot in what’s essentially a 3-man race between Nowitzki, Rose, and Paul. If you’re looking for the stat that makes it so easy for LeBron to cede his title, though, look no further than this: only 1 of the last 10 MVP’s has hoisted the Larry O’Brien.

UPDATE: Got some interesting insight from Henry Abbott of TrueHoop via e-mail. He pointed out that (a) quality of replacement is something that adjusted +/- does at least attempt to control for and (b) the very small sample sizes of Player X being on the floor without Player Y can cause major volatility in the statistic. This second point, I think, hits the nail on the head with respect to Bosh. A major issue for the stat is teasing out different players’ contributions when they share the court a large percentage of the time. As the lineup data at confirms, a major focus of Erik Spoelstra’s substitution patterns is keeping either James or Wade on the court at all times. A good run for the Heat in limited minutes with Bosh out there alone (at the end of a blowout, for instance) could give the model the impression that he’s the driving force behind the Heat’s success, even in those minutes where he is paired with the Superfriends. Big thanks to Abbott and the good folks at 82games for kicking that knowledge.

Is Bosh 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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