A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Hollering @Hollinger about LeBron James and MVP Philosophy

with 7 comments

LeBron James

Image via Wikipedia from LAST YEAR, when he was MVPing in Cleveland, which is not his current team

This season in the NBA, we’re really seeing a watershed year in the MVP race.  People who are paying attention are reflecting on their personal philosophy on the subject. John Hollinger recently wrote a piece that gives us a great place to leap off from by giving a compelling argument from a very simple, straight forward perspective. Essentially: “You know LeBron James is the best player, why isn’t he your MVP?”.

I’m going to respond point by point to him here, before waxing philosophical for a bit. Let me preface all this by saying that while I may have a bit of fun with John, by no means would I say his opinion is an invalid one. It’s just that his opinion is not the only one that is valid. Here we go:

A Conversation with Mr. Hollinger

And that’s because the 2010-11 MVP race has a really, really, abundantly obvious solution … but very few actually want to hear it.

Let’s be honest for a minute. The best player in the league is LeBron James. It’s not even close.

Agreed, honestly.

Moreover, his case for the MVP award is only gaining steam. James in October and November muddled through 18 games in which he was dramatically less effective than usual, a major reason for the Heat‘s uninspired crawl out of the gate. Since then, however, he’s been monstrously good, climbing to his usual perch atop the PER charts and widening his lead considerably with a spectacular 51-point outing against Orlando on Thursday.


With James cruising, the Heat are arguably the league’s best team — despite injuries to James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they’re 28-6 since their scuffling start. Yes, James has star support with Wade and Bosh in tow, but he’s also saddled with inferior help. At roster spots 4 through 12, there isn’t a weaker cast in basketball outside Ohio.

Er, agreed, I suppose…but not really.

The Heat are arguably the best team…if you ignore part of the season. John, if you want to do that I’m fine with it, I really am. However, you certainly can’t say that people are being unreasonable by factoring the entire regular season.

“inferior help”, I agree with the basic statement but not the implications which are quite clear. LeBron does have Wade & Bosh on his team, and he does benefit from their presence, and it doesn’t make any sense to judge a man’s supporting cast by first removing the guys giving him the most support.

Everyone should be asking themselves: How would this team do without LeBron? If you think they’d look at all like the Cavs, then you should of course hand LeBron the MVP.

You should also be committed.

Wade’s Heat won 47 games last year, with no one else on the team scoring 15 PPG. He got to keep his favorite teammate (Udonis Haslem), he still has two point guards from last year, the team acquired quite a few other players that work really well as role players (James Jones, Big Z, Mike Miller, Eddie House). And of course without LeBron, they’d still have Chris Bosh, who has proven to be an incredibly valuable fit even in the reduced role he’s been forced to take because of playing with both Wade & LeBron.

If that team had existed sans LeBron, pre-season predictions would have been talking about that that as a possible title contender. 50 wins would have been the conservative estimate, 55 wins might have been the norm. So no, LeBron does not get to use “weak supporting cast” in his MVP candidacy. Far from it.

If LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were on separate teams, we’d be having a two-way LeBron-Wade MVP debate, and nobody else would be in the discussion. Heck, nobody else would even be near the discussion. Anyone caught trying to slip in a Dirk Nowitzki or a Derrick Rose would be laughed out of the room.

But they’re not.

“But they’re not,” you say, and actually that’s part of my point.

Whoa. My head just exploded a little bit.

Unfortunately, the MVP voting public has developed an awful sickness. Ever since the indefensible 2001 selection of Allen Iverson, the bizarre idea has taken hold that, somehow, the best way to measure a player’s MVP worthiness is by estimating how awful the team would be without him.

Okay, 2 corrections: 1) Word the last part “by estimating how much better a team is because of the player’s presence”, and 2) This is not a new phenomenon. Why do you think Bill Walton won the award 30+ years ago?

Because the Heat have both LeBron and Wade, this argument goes, we can’t wail and moan about how horrible the team might be in the absence of either one, and thus, by the same convoluted logic, we can’t consider either the MVP. But we can freely consider Nowitzki, because his backup is Brian Cardinal.

No one is saying LeBron couldn’t possibly be MVP with Wade on his team. They’re saying they have high expectations for what that team should achieve if LeBron’s truly having an MVP-type lift on the team. Taking a team that could possibly win 55 games without you and winning 60 games with them is just not that remarkable of an achievement.

Also, I’m not going to let you get away with the Cardinal comment John. People need to stop pretending that basketball is a game where you get replaced by a “backup”. Miami would do well without LeBron, not because James Jones would go on a tear in LeBron’s place, but because Wade & Bosh would pick up the slack. The backup star on a team is the 2nd best player, not some guy riding the bench, and while LeBron has arguably the 2nd most capable player in the entire league by his side, Dirk has Jason Terry.

You’re damn right we should expect more out of someone who has Wade than someone who has Terry. I don’t why we’re even debating this.

Here’s the thing everyone misses: If you want to play that “they’re dead without him” game with anyone other than LeBron, you lose. James’ former team has gone from the league’s best record with him — two years running — to among the worst teams in history without him. Nobody’s topping that. If we’re intent on playing the Iverson game and are being intellectually honest, we can give James the trophy right now.

John! HEY JOHN! Welcome to 2011, where Egypt is at war with itself and LeBron is in Miami. We can’t give LeBron the MVP for the rest of his career because of what he did in Cleveland. Similarly, just to clear things up, Wilt’s ’67, Kareem’s ’71, and Jordan’s ’91 do not make them candidates this year.

Your point helps argue “Who is the best player?”, which is a fine stance to take if that’s your MVP philosophy, but don’t move the goal post. Those believing in something like what you call “the Iverson game” would be intellectually DIShonest if they were using your reasoning.

Production-Oriented vs Lift-Oriented

Hollinger has always been at the forefront of what I’ll call “production-oriented” player evaluation, and of course always based on his pet stat, the PER (which is a good production stat, don’t get me wrong, I use it). If a player leads the league in PER, and plays the whole season, he’s going to get John’s MVP vote. That’s a valid perspective, but here is my opposing perspective, which in my head I think of as “value-oriented”, but I’ll use the term “lift-oriented” because I think Hollinger’s camp would object to me attempting to monopolize “value” in a conversation about valuable-ness.

Basketball is a sport where box score statistics simply can’t come close to measuring total impact. Part of that is because score keeping doesn’t even try to measure everything it good – which is why PER and pretty much any stat based entirely on box score numbers doesn’t come close to measuring defensive impact.

The most daunting part of it all though is simply the issue that there is one ball, and five teammates, and by Player A having the ball in his hands, he’s having an impact on what Player B can do. With LeBron & Wade on the same team, this means that there’s going to be some diminishing returns. (Also, when considering this, consider how beautifully the current Celtics have fit together and shed a tear in their honor.) So obviously you can’t simply add up the PERs of various players in some form and assume that’s going to tell you with any accuracy how well the team is going to do.

Are we truly supposed to judge how good, or how valuable, a player is without considering how replaceable the man is? I think it’s silly to think like that.

I believe the most straight forward way to evaluate the MVP is by how much lift he’s giving his team. This somewhat corresponds to what Hollinger calls “the Iverson game”, but I’d never call it that – partly because I was one of the ones arguing against Iverson supporters for years before he left Philly.

You are your ability to make teams better, nothing more

Lift, at the most superficial level, is essentially just, how much worse the team would be without you. Hollinger rails against this, but take a step back. There are subtle problems with that simple definition, but there’s nothing glaringly bad. Remember folks, what makes someone a good NBA player is his ability to help his team get wins. Things that would make him impressive 1-on-1, don’t necessarily apply. Size of a guy’s toolset, his theoretical versatility, doesn’t apply unless he makes good decisions with it.

Now, certainly I do go beyond that. In the case of LeBron vs Wade vs Bosh, one can argue that if only one of those players missed time, it would be Bosh whose absence would hurt the team the most. Should we then have a LeBron vs Bosh debate for MVP? Well, but if you lost any two players, and had to predict which two the team would do best without, I think everyone would say either Wade & Bosh, or LeBron & Bosh. There is some redundancy between LeBron & Wade, but it would be a mistake to judge the MVP of a team simply by who was least redundant.

Where Derrick Rose fits in to all of this

What about the idea of swapping players on teams (with rough adjustments to supporting cast to approximate fit). Derrick Rose vs LeBron James let’s say. Probably most would say LeBron adds more value than Rose in Chicago or in Miami. I’d say that’s a good reason to put LeBron ahead of Rose. I certainly won’t say anyone’s wrong for thinking like that.

Ah but regulars know I’ve had Rose ahead of LeBron. Why? Because I tread very carefully with such hypotheticals. Consider Kobe Bryant in ’04-05. Terrible season. Not given any real consideration for MVP, and frankly if you watched him that year, you would certainly not say “He’s playing like the best basketball player in the world.”

But why did he play like that? Because his team was a complete mess. The Shaq trade had given the Lakers decent talent but not in any balance. The Lakers had a new coach at the beginning of the season, and then he just up and quit midway through. Then his #2 guy Odom gets injured for the end of the season. Put anyone else in that place, they don’t look like the best player in the world either. So if you swap Kobe here, in the LeBron-Rose fashion I just talked about, and decide MVP based on that, you may end up concluding Kobe was the MVP of ’04-05. And that makes NO sense, to me at least. You have to look at this stuff to some degree based on what actually went down in the season you’re evaluating, even if that includes the bad luck a player experiences. (And adjust for that bad luck when you holistically judge the player’s abilities and career.)

Remember what LeBron chose with his Decision, and what he knew he was giving up

Now consider LeBron’s current position. Not nearly so extreme as Kobe ’04-05. However, still if you look at the lift, he’s (arguably) weaker than some inferior players. Should we ignore that? I say no. LeBron chose to go to Miami specifically because he wanted a supporting cast that he would not have to carry such a heavy load. So mentally swapping him onto teams with weaker supporting casts is disingenuous. He hasn’t been pushed into contributing less value against his will. He ran to that position with a big smile on his face, and said specifically that he didn’t expect to get the MVP this year because of this. LeBron knows the score folks. He decided he’d rather win championships with a team, than achieve maximum value contribution – and that’s why he got so much criticism.

Personally, I think the criticism is silly. I’m fine with what he decided (if not how he Decision-ed it). But no, I’m not going to let him have his cake and eat it too. He decided to have a career with less personal glory and more team glory, and what that means is that he’s sacrificing his own valuable-ness in order to get some rings. To ignore his pre-meditated reduction in valueable-ness while also giving him credit for the team success we expect to come is to double count.

Last, with all that said, and as I alluded to before, I’m not vowing to NOT vote for LeBron. I just have high expectations.Realistically, it’s tougher to lift a good team than a bad one. Just because LeBron can add 30+ wins to  the Cavaliers’ record, does not mean that I require that he add 30 wins to the Heat’s record.

However, the Heatles came together and said quite boldly “championship or bust”. In conversations about what it would take for LeBron to surpass Michael Jordan & co to be the Greatest of All Time, it’s been debated whether winning 8-10 rings will even be enough to do the trick now that he has so much help. So if the Heat don’t win the championship this year, no one (except for Hollinger and a few others) is going to look at this season with the perspective that LeBron did something extraordinary that marched him significantly closer to GOAT status.

And right now, the Heat are on pace to win less games than the Cavaliers’ last 2 years, and have only the 3rd best record in the league. Giving LeBron the MVP to some extent then, is saying that that not even making the finals with this loaded team is a major success. I think everyone should pause before going there.

Now, as I’ve noted elsewhere, this happens to be a very weak year for MVP candidates. I’m not going to refuse to give LeBron the award on principle if the other candidates are weak enough. What I am going to do, and what I’d advocate for others to do, is view LeBron’s candidacy with eyes open to the issues I’ve laid out, and recognize that his candidacy is without any doubt, significantly weaker than it has been the past two years.

7 Responses

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  1. excellent write-up.


    February 9, 2011 at 12:44 pm

  2. Holy hell this was a serious post, Matt. Nice job, my man.

    A lot of good points brought across the board here. This belongs on ESPN or NBA.com. This is some serious writing.


    February 9, 2011 at 10:02 pm

  3. […] Hollering @Hollinger about LeBron James and MVP Philosophy (asubstituteforwar.wordpress.com) […]

  4. This is the best write-up of LeBron’s candidacy I’ve read.


    April 1, 2011 at 7:30 am

  5. Matt, this truly was a terrible article in regards to what John was saying. One of numerous examples being:

    “John! HEY JOHN! Welcome to 2011, where Egypt is at war with itself and LeBron is in Miami. We can’t give LeBron the MVP for the rest of his career because of what he did in Cleveland. Similarly, just to clear things up, Wilt’s ’67, Kareem’s ’71, and Jordan’s ’91 do not make them candidates this year.”

    Obviously, or perhaps not so obvious is the fact that you’ve missed the point entirely. Please, out of respect for intelligent discourse, just stick to talking sports with friends at the local bar and leave the writing to the professionals. Hollinger’s piece is effective, to the point, and based on facts – characteristics lacking in your diatribe.

    Best of luck in your future endeavors, and here’s to hoping they have little to do with writing.


    July 9, 2011 at 10:10 pm

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