A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Empire State Wears No Clothes: Amare is NOT the MVP

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Amar'e addresses the masses

Image by Chamber of Fear via Flickr

Wow.  Alright, we’re have halfway through the NBA season, and the MVP race is the strangest I’ve ever followed.  Every candidate has a mark against them, and no one really would have a chance against the competition from last season, despite the fact that it’s all the same players and then some in the pool of candidates.  It’s tough, I know, but that’s no excuse for this fellas.

Sports Illustrated check came out with their mid-year awards, and if you take their writers’ votes and tally them up, Amare Stoudemire is their choice for MVP.  They aren’t alone.  nba.com’s Race to the MVP has Amare at #1, ESPN’s Awards Watch has Amare at #3.  That’s as good of a collection of the established media as we’re going to get right now in an award the media votes for – and they’re telling us Amare is the favorite for the MVP right now.  I keep my own weekly MVP list because I really enjoy thinking about this stuff, and because I respect the NBA’s MVP.  It’s fashionable to knock it, but I always defend the voters.  But this, folks, is just crazy.  Excuse me while I get on this here soap box so I can talk y’all down.

What makes an MVP season?  Not this.

The MVP almost always plays for an extremely successful team.  Every MVP in the last 20 years has played for a Top 4 team.   The last not to do so was Michael Jordan in ’87-88.  In that year Jordan played for the team with the 7th best record and the 5th best SRS, and had arguably the single most impressive statistical in NBA history:  35 PPG on 60% TS, more than 5 RPG, 5 APG, and 3 SPG, and the best PER (31.7) and Win Shares (21.2) of the last 40 years.  The take away: If you’re not on an elite team, you better be an all-timer AND your team still better be quite good.

Amare’s Knicks have the 14th best record in the league, and the 16th best SRS.  Utter mediocrity.  So going by the rules from before, he must be putting up individual numbers that make everyone’s head spin, right?  Well, they’re not that amazing really.  Stoudemire is 10th in the league in PER, and not in the top 20 in Win Shares.  Okay, I know not everyone cares about advanced stats, and Amare’s 2nd in the league in scoring.  But Monta Ellis is 3rd in scoring, and his team’s record is only a few games worse, and he isn’t on anyone’s radar for MVP – probably won’t even be an all-star.  Also it’s not like Stoudemire is a guy who stats like PER hate.  Amare’s PER this season is 23.6, but his best PER season was in ’07-08 where he averaged 27.6, which would be good enough to lead the league this year.  Bottom line this isn’t a guy even having a career year by any kind of normal box score metric except his scoring, which is only up 0.4 PPG over his previous peak, and he’s managing this with a shooting efficiency well below what he’s done his throughout the his entire prime.

Now, just to cover the last base because it’s going to be relevant later on in explaining this false narrative, let’s talk about team improvement.  Amare’s Knicks may be mediocre, but they’re better than last year.  They’re on pace to go 44-40, instead of 29-53.  A 15 game improvement, that’s nice.  Does a 15 game improvement to mediocrity typically warrant MVP attention?  Not at all.  I’ve previously gone the greatest positive turnarounds in NBA history.  The 3 big turnarounds we’ve seen in the past decade involved record improvements of 42, 33, and 27 respectively, and while all 3 teams were far superior to the current Knicks after their improvement, the only MVP to come out of that group (Nash on the 33) was on a team (which incidentally also had Stoudemire) that earned the best record in the league.  The Knicks turnaround simply isn’t at all on the radar of great turnarounds even in recent years.

Is the Knicks modest improvement shockingly unexpected?  Well, no actually.  In ESPN’s preview for the Knicks, 8 of their 10 experts expected the Knicks to make the playoffs, with the average vote seeing them as a 7th seed.   The Knicks are currently the East’s 6th seed, however even that slight surpassing of expectations is marred by the fact that competition for those last playoff spots this year is weaker than last year.  Last year it took 41 wins to make the playoffs, this year the 8th seed is on pace to win 34 games.  The Knicks record this year is only as good as the 7th seed in last year’s East, and that team had a better SRS than the current Knicks do.  So the Knicks are doing about what we thought they’d do, and with that expectation none of ESPN’s 25 experts predicted Amare would win the MVP.

One last point, as you know I’m a believer in the +/- statistic.  How does Amare do there?  He’s got an adjusted +/ of  +1.94 according to basketballvalue.com.  To be in the top 50, he’d need to be at +5.52.  So again, Amare’s not bad, but there’s nothing to indicate that this is a guy who should be on the MVP radar.

So, how did all these people get this wacky idea in their heads?

I’m shocked people have this idea.  I didn’t see it coming, and I’m still trying to piece it all together, but here are some observations:

1) From mid-November through early December, the Knicks went 13-2. In the last 9 games of  that run, Stoudemire averaged over 34 points per game.  This was clearly the start of the MVP talk for Amare.  I objected at the time not about his eventual candidacy, but about the prematurity of anointing him.  At that time, the Knicks were still only on pace to win 50 games despite having played a soft schedule, and Amare’s total stats for the season were considerably more modest than in that last stretch.  However, though I complained a bit, it didn’t really bother me that much.  People are bound to get a bit over excited about a great early season run.  I figure that either  Amare and the Knicks would keep it up and I’d join with the believers, or they’d fall off, and everyone else would join me.

Of course, then the Knicks went 6-9 in their next 15 games, with Amare scoring only 25.7 PPG and doing it on an inefficient 52% TS.  That’s bad, everyone else should have been joining me not having Amare any where near the MVP short list, and they didn’t.

2) The success of the Knicks in that time period wasn’t simply noted for its success, but for it being a turnaround.  Years of struggle in the Big Apple, and now, with Amare, it’s all better.

3) Amare’s old team, is perceived to have fallen into the toilet without him, which further hammers in the idea of Amare as rainmaker.  Tangent:  Incidentally while the Knicks have the 14th best record in the league, the Suns have the 15th after a slow start.  Additionally, while Amare is an almost entirely offense-oriented player, the problems the Suns have had are not their offense (which is still elite), but their defense (which is worst in the league), indicate that the problem is not that Amare is irreplaceable.

4) The MVP race is weak.

5) The New York Knicks play in New York and are covered by the New York media.  New York, incidentally, has a lot of people in it.

So my proposed narrative:  Amare and the Knicks hot run got a lot of people in and around New York riled up (not talking about homer bias here btw).  Circumstances allowed them to latch on to a few powerful narratives that all hammered home the idea of Amare = valuable which then percolated around the basketball-o-sphere.  The weak MVP field meant that there weren’t other headliners grabbing the spotlight which let the New York focus shine even brighter than it otherwise would have.  And NBA writers aren’t paying close enough attention for it to really sink in that the meme in their head of Amare and the Knicks is based of one stretch of the season, and so while each loss the Knicks earn makes Amare dip a bit in their eyes, they haven’t done a thorough re-evaluation which would make clear that there’s just no coherent way to put Amare high up on an MVP list.

Okay, I feel better now.  Y’know what’s funny about all of this is that great November-December run Amare and the Knicks had wasn’t based on smoke and mirrors.  I certainly wouldn’t proclaim that they couldn’t rebound and do something more along those lines this season, and then maybe Amare becomes a legit MVP candidate.  So I stand here not as a naysayer trying to dash the hopes of the Knickerbocker faithful, but simply as a sanity check, trying to make sure people actually stop and really look at exactly what’s happened thus far.   Help me out won’t you?

Written by Matt Johnson

January 21, 2011 at 2:02 am

3 Responses

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  1. Well put. Looks like I just found another blog to troll! Keep up the good work

    Mathew Sharp

    February 1, 2011 at 11:05 am

  2. […] with Melo, I’m not a tremendous Stoudemire fan (as you might have guessed from this article railing against his MVP campaign). I don’t think the Knicks have anywhere near the superstar talent on the […]

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