A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

My choice for MVP: Howard over Rose just barely

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Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic, 2008–09

Image via Wikipedia

After having Derrick Rose at #1 on my MVP list for the last month heading into the last stretch of the regular season, I have to give Dwight Howard the final nod. I don’t make this switch lightly – I’ve actually been changing my mind regularly for the past two weeks – but in the end Howard’s got the argument I cannot refute.

On Rose

Let’s start in defense of Rose, whose candidacy has been repeatedly assaulted by the stat-oriented minds of the internet. The root of the argument against Rose is that his stats are weak compared to other stars in the league. Of course, Rose averaged 25 points per game and nearly 8 assists per game – a quite rare combination, that’s exactly doesn’t scream “unworthy”. So what’s the issue? Well the advanced all-in-one stats like PER and Win Shares simply prefer other players. If you put enough stock in these stats and their precision, then this is a strong argument for others above Rose. Do we truly have a sense the advantages in play here are significant relative to the precision of these stats though?

Well, let me point you in the direction of Hoopdata’s APER stat. Note that APER basically takes the market leader rate-stat PER, and make improvements to it by using actual game tracking data instead of league-wide estimates. In practice, the most obvious shift this causes is an improvement in the performance of point guards, because by using league-wide numbers PER assumes all players are equally likely to be assisted on their scores, which of course underrates the independence of point guards.

Here are this 2010-11’s top 5 APER performances, along with number of minutes played:

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So Rose is 5th here, which is about the same as where he ranks in PER & Win Shares, but take a look at the gap. LeBron James is really the only guy in the league who even arguably rates cleanly ahead of Rose once you factor in the minutes. Take a look at the leaders from ’07-08 when Kobe Bryant won his lone MVP below:

The gap between LeBron & Kobe back then was about double that of the current gap between LeBron & Rose. Of course, many of the supporters of advanced stats would have picked someone else to win the MVP instead of Bryant, so I’m not alleging hypocrisy on their part. What I’m trying to get through is that there’s really no reason based on these statistics to consider Rose a major step down from Kobe Bryant – who has plenty of cred in MVP debates.

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A second argument that keeps getting made is that the Chicago Bulls are winning because of their defense, and thus we are wrong to bestow an MVP level of credit to their offensive star. I’ve addressed this before, and made this analogy:

Consider a company with a  team of 50 technicians assembling product, and 2 salesmen who augment sales by 25%. Clearly, the company’s technician team is more valuable than the sales team, but that doesn’t mean that each technician is more valuable than each salesman – in fact, likely the opposite conclusion is the correct one.

A cousin to this argument is the one talking about the Bulls’ “poor” efficiency on offense. The Bulls however, while they started the year struggling offensively, finished the year ranking above average. Also some perspective: According to basketball-reference.com, the gap between the top offensive team (Denver Nuggets) and the Bulls this year is 4 points per 100 possessions. That’s smaller than the gap last year between the top offensive team (Phoenix Suns) and LeBron James‘ Cavs. That’s a bit misleading because the Suns offense last year was so extraordinary, but still – if that offensive gap didn’t even enter into the equation last year, how can it be so damning this year?

On Howard

Now getting into the weakness of Howard’s case: There’s been a recent push to think of Dwight Howard as an absolute rock on both sides of the floor. That he’s been doing everything for a team that has nothing. Let’s go back in time to a year ago:

Does no one remember that in the first round of last year’s playoffs? On Howard’s CV for that series:

9.8 points on 46% TS, plus 9.3 boards…and his team won in a sweep.

Don’t tell me that the pressure on Howard is what led the rest of his team to thrive, or that his defensive presence was so dominant nothing else mattered. Because of foul trouble, he was never even able to play 30 minutes in a game. Charlotte was able to completely take Howard out of the game…and were still overwhelmed by the talent that Orlando had.

Yes, that was last year, and this is this year, but there has been a pro-Howard argument for quite a while that says we should essentially take whatever are objective evidence about players’ impact says and give Howard the nod anyway. So when people use that line of reasoning now, it goes nowhere with me.

And when people say that not being sold on Howard over Rose this year is simply punishing Howard for a weak supporting cast, again I think to last year. When his team truly looked like a contender last, we saw what that supporting cast could do without him, and they were by no means weak.

Compare that to the Bulls of this year. If Rose played as bad in the first round this year as Howard did last year, do we think it’s anything like a given they could play as well as the Magic did last year? We move forward to this year, and now the Magic are weaker than last year with a weaker supporting cast, but do we really have good reason to assert that that cast is drastically inept when similar arguments were made before and proven so comically false?

In the end though, or through the regular season at least, I’ll side with Howard over Rose for MVP. Regulars know I’ve been fixated on Howard particularly since February. I’ve maintained that Howard needed keep up his domination to take over the top spot, and didn’t quite happen. Still, it’s hard to find any kind of metric other than team record than favors Rose over Howard. It’s one thing to point out that the edge Howard and a few others have isn’t as big as some claim, but still, Howard has the edge in PER, WS, and every variant of +/- I’m aware of.

What of the Bulls superior record? Well, do I have reason to believe that Howard’s +/- edge is a sham? Not really. I do think the Magic drop off worse without Howard than the Bulls do without Rose. Do I have reason to believe that Howard would have difficulty achieving the kind of team success that Rose did this year?

Not at all. He’s basically already done that in the past. Beyond that, in general, it’s easier to meld a team around a 20/10 great on defense big man than a score-first point guard. On my list of easiest to hardest to build around types of stars, such big man would always rank at the top, and such a guard would always rank near the bottom.

Tangent – Here’s a good place to give one more shout out to Tom Thibodeau and the remarkable job he’s done in Chicago. As it stands now, he would be my Man of the Year in the NBA – I don’t think anyone has helped a team as much as he has. This doesn’t stop me from siding with Rose as MVP, but it just makes me tread all the more cautiously when surrounded by people looking at the Bulls’ amazing performance and directly marching to the Rose campaign.

What of the turmoil on the Magic? How should we look at it if the Magic blew up the team from last year simply out of desperation to keep an as yet uncommitted Howard? Well, that’s tough. If we knew with certainty that Howard went in and said “Trade Lewis and Carter, or else trade me.”, then that would be damning and a legit thing to hold against Howard in an MVP race. I don’t feel comfortable saying I know anything along those lines.

In the end, treating the end of the regular season as a time for a gun-to-the-head decision, I still think Howard’s the better player, and I don’t have compelling enough reasons to pick Rose over him.

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Written by Matt Johnson

April 19, 2011 at 1:00 am

6 Responses

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  1. So, this isn’t a very emphatic argument. Although, perhaps that’s what you were going for, since it seems that you are unsure of this selection…

    Now, the question is, did I trick you into voting for Howard last week?

    ElGee

    April 19, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    • Going for? Well, given the nature of my opinion (a switch) and the emphasis I’ve put on the topic (weekly posts), I had to write on it. But I really don’t feel strongly about which of these two should win.

      Unsure? In one sense yes. My opinion will continue to be refined as I see these guys with the newly built teams. On the other hand, given what we know, gun to my head, gotta pick Howard.

      Did you trick me? If you did, would I know? 😉

      Matt Johnson

      April 22, 2011 at 10:43 am

  2. Yeah, it’s a bit of a year for a lack of enthusiasm. No one has really excited our imaginations, either teams or players.

    BTW, going to do your own playoffs MVP?

    Ravenred

    April 19, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    • aaaand, I’m answered.

      Ravenred

      April 20, 2011 at 8:09 am

      • Lack of enthusiasm about the quality of the #1 player’s season yes since it is a step down from LeBron’s previous.

        The debate though has been lively and fascinating.

        Yeah, absolutely planning to continue the POY posts through the post-season, and planning to do a thread/project over at RealGM.

        Although, the whole “Playoff MVP” thing that I’m seeing on TrueHoop I’m not as excited about. Theoretically that should be an improvement on the Finals MVP, but what are the odds that Dwight Howard takes that award if the Magic lose in the 2nd round?

        Matt Johnson

        April 22, 2011 at 10:47 am

  3. […] This choice was gone over in detail in my post My choice for MVP: Howard over Rose just barely. […]


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