A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

We never have proof, but we do have evidence: On Howard vs James

with 8 comments

The talented Ethan Sherwood Strauss over at Hoopspeak just wrote a piece on the “dirty little secret” about Dwight Howard‘s MVP candidacy relative to LeBron James:

My suspicion is that story plays a role here, too. While many metrics-oriented writers have no issue with the Decision, they’re realists about what that does to LeBron’s MVP chances. Also, the Heat did not help his case by ducking preseason expectations. So it makes sense to back the politician, er, player who can win.

But, some stat-steeped writers just plain prefer Dwight Howard as an MVP. The oft-cited reason is “defense,” and Howard is great at it. Orlando is a top defensive unit, despite carrying some doughy sieves (I call them “funnel cakes”) on the roster.

Dwight’s defense is laudable, though I ask: Is there really a way for us to know if he’s defensively better than LeBron? While center is probably a more important position on that end, James can play multiple positions. LeBron’s defensive plus-minus exceeds Dwight’s which could mean a whole lot and could mean absolutely nothing. And, how much of Orlando’s stingy success is attributable to Stan Van Gundy’s team principles? Scott Skiles seems to always turn lackluster rosters into rabid rim shrinkers. Coaching could trump talent when it comes to cohesive basket prevention. Choosing Howard on the basis of his defensive superiority is fraught with subjective judgments, even if the goal is to better appreciate winning basketball.

I think he hit upon something key with his general thesis. There is absolutely a tendency for people to use defense as a black box trump card. Of course I can’t just leave it at that: The reality is that that we can’t really even prove Dwight over Derrick Rose or anyone else either. We have no method of measuring a player’s impact with absolute certainty. That may seem like I’m be ridiculously cautious, but the truth is that every single person involved in this analysis is supplying a layer of causal narrative on top of observations and stats, which is something I elaborated on last week here. We do however, have evidence that we can use supporting the “Dwight’s better on defense” argument:

1. Big man typically have the most impact. (Strauss brings this point up himself so I won’t elaborate – but I can if people want)

2. Big men typically have their unique impact through shot blocking and rebounding, Dwight’s obviously quite good at both and LeBron doesn’t have that type of same impact.

3. Dwight’s teams basically always do better on defense by defensive efficiency, and such is the case this year despite his teammates being pretty unheralded defensively compared to LeBron’s.

4. Dwight also has a superior defensive RAPM (+/- with all sorts of improvements to improve reliability).

5. Dwight’s got a better opposing PER (the PER of the player opposite him) and is the only center anywhere near the top of the league there. (He’s #2, LeBron’s #4 btw).

6. We have stat trackers looking at things like defensive usage giving Dwight the nod. (Although, the results there don’t exactly make Dwight look good compared to Kevin Garnett).

7. Then there’s the matter than every expert seems to say Dwight’s the better defender, and he earns far greater accolades on that front.

With all of this said though, I’d agree if LeBron’s having this season in Cleveland without Dwyane Wade & Chris Bosh on his team, I don’t think there’s much doubt that his candidacy is consideredstronger. People are certainly using the fact that they expected a more impressive season from Miami against LeBron.

Though I’ll ask: Is that wrong? I really don’t see a problem with it. Defending LeBron by saying his team doesn’t have well designated role players to go along with the stars when he chose Miami specifically because he thought he could do better with more talent than fit is rather amusing. I get that MVP is meant to judge LeBron the basketball player and not LeBron the basketball analyst, but let’s not forget that other recent star teamups have been much better able to mold their games around each other than LeBron & Wade – and that the assumption behind having stars team up is that they will do quite a bit more than just take turns.

Written by Matt Johnson

April 13, 2011 at 1:19 pm

8 Responses

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  1. I agree that we’re ultimately all writing stories about the 2011 regular season that explain how this guy or that guy is responsible for team success. A lot of people are rightfully asking for balance in the stories of the people who actually get to vote on the MVP award.

    And there are some considerations that voters appear to manage that shouldn’t be a part of it at all. I’m always reading dismissive paragraphs about Carlos Boozer, who’s been injured just enough this year to lose the star luster he had during the Jazz years. And Noah will never be considered a star no matter how much he’s really worth to the franchise. Luol Deng, one of the best two-way players at his position, is completely forgotten about in this run-down of Chicago’s supposedly bare cupboard.

    I think that’s how most MVP voters think: The Bulls have one and a half stars (Rose and Boozer) and sixty-two wins. Done.


    April 15, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    • Or, to put a even finer point on it, Derrick Rose possesses the intangibles like leadership and effort that explains otherwise inexplicable success, and thus the flat-earth theory of NBA stars is air-tight for another year…


      April 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

  2. Good (if cynical) posts Greyberger.

    My Bulls MVP is certainly Thibs, who’s managed to glue together some apparently mismatched players in a really strong way. Rose DOES have strong support, even if none of them fit the classic star definition. You’ll be hard-pressed to sell that concept to casual fans or Bulls fanatics, however.


    April 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm

  3. I find the Greyberger and Ravenred posts above both fascinating and spot-on, because in fact that is exactly the way a legend narrative comes about. I think specifically about the 2003 and 1994 championship seasons that are the crown jewels of Tim Duncan’s and Hakeem Olajuwon’s careers. First of all, I disclaim that both were outstanding individual seasons. But the prevailing narrative is that both won with no help, because their teammates either didn’t have big names (Olajuwon’s) or were perceived to be past or before their primes (Duncan’s). The strong team of well-fit (but lesser named) parts under a strong coaching philosophy is, IMO, one of the most under-appreciated ways of having a strong supporting cast that there is.

    On topic, I mentioned in ElGee’s defensive blog last week that I’m really starting to question whether Dwight is the best defender in the league. The leading argument for him as the best defender this year is very similar to the argument for Rose as the best player…the team is doing great without any obvious other player names that would account for it, so therefore it must be because of the best player. I have no doubt that Dwight is a great defender, but the evidence that the team’s defense doesn’t really suffer much when he leaves the court has started building up on me.

    That said, I still don’t doubt that Howard’s a great defender. The same evidence that strongly suggests that he’s not the best would also strongly show that he’s much better than Rose. LeBron has a stronger case, because he’s also one of the better defenders in the NBA by both anecdotal and statistical info. I don’t think Howard’s defense should be used as a be-all trump card over LeBron like it could be against Rose. But if you look at the impact stats as a whole, Howard’s is huge this year. Whether that’s all due to defense, or whether (as I suspect) he’s having a bigger impact on offense than many realize, the impact is still there to be used in an MVP argument. Ironically, this evidence doesn’t support his DPoY bid, when in reality he’s unlikely to win the MVP but he’s going to win the DPoY in a walk. Such is life.


    April 15, 2011 at 9:17 pm

  4. […] We never have proof, but we do have evidence: On Howard vs James (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

  5. […] We never have proof, but we do have evidence: On Howard vs James (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

  6. […] We never have proof, but we do have evidence: On Howard vs James (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

  7. […] We never have proof, but we do have evidence: On Howard vs James (asubstituteforwar.com) […]

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