North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Handicapping the NBA’s MVP at Midseason

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With a little less then half of the NBA season left, it’s about time for lazy NBA writers – such as myself – bang out a column predicting awards.  Because after half a season, we all know who is likely win awards.

That’s the key word here: likely. It’s far too early to say for sure who is going to be the most valuable player in the league at the end of the season, but it’s not too early to make some educated guesses and handicap which player would be likely to win.

But of all the awards to handicap, the hardest is MVP. What exactly it is supposed to reward is a little vague: what does it mean by valuable? Does it reward the best player on the best team? Or the player who means most to his team? Or does it mean something else?

Statistically speaking, there are three ways to look at MVP’s: their PER, their Win Shares and if they were the best player on the best team.

In the past five seasons, each of the MVP’s has been either on top or close to the top in one of those three categories. Let’s break them down stat by stat:

The first statistic I’ll look at is Player Efficiency Rating, or PER. This is a per-minute rating developed by ESPN’s John Hollinger that attempts to isolate the positive accomplishments. The higher the PER, the more valuable the player on the court.

The math behind PER is a little complex, but Basketball-Reference does a good job of breaking it down. Basically, it takes a bunch of stats, mashes them together, and then adjusts for the team’s pace. It’s not a perfect method, but it’s something.

And it’s not too bad when one looks back at previous MVPs. Here’s the five previous MVP winners’ PER and where it ranked in the NBA that season:

  • LeBron James (08-09): 31.7 (first overall)
  • Kobe Bryant (07-08): 24.2 (eighth)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (06-07): 27.6 (first)
  • Steve Nash (05-06): 23.2 (12)
  • Steve Nash (04-05): 22.0 (15)

So while sometimes the MVP is the most efficient player, it’s not always: in the 05-06 season, for instance, Dirk Nowitzki had the league’s highest PER (and his Mavs beat the Suns in the Western Finals too).

Another way to calculate a player’s value is to look at Win Shares. Basketball-Reference has created a basketball version of Bill James’ baseball Win Shares, creating a stat that attempts to show how much a player caused his team’s success. There are both offensive win shares (that take into account points produced, possessions and others) and defensive win shares (which take defensive ratings and others) into account. These are added together to produce total win shares.

Again, these aren’t a bad way to look for an MVP. But looking back at previous winners, there is only some connection:

  • James (08-09): 20.3 (1)
  • Bryant (07-08): 13.8 (4)
  • Nowitzki (06-07): 16.3 (1)
  • Nash (05-06): 12.4 (10)
  • Nash (04-05): 10.9 (15)

Again, Steve Nash’s two MVP seasons stand out for how far down the list he was. In fact, in both of those seasons, Shaun Marion had a higher number of Win Shares.

As one can see, there’s a little more then just numbers that go into choosing a MVP. Winning obviously helps a lot. Here’s a how their many games the team of the MVP had won that regular season and how that compared to the rest of the league:

  • Cleveland (08-09): 66 wins, first in both NBA and Eastern Conference
  • Los Angeles (07-08): 57 wins, third in NBA, first in Western Conference
  • Dallas (06-07): 67 wins, first in both NBA and Western Conference
  • Phoenix (05-06): 54 wins, third in NBA, second in Western Conference
  • Phoenix (04-05): 62 wins, first in both NBA and Western Conference

So there’s also a bit of correlation between how successful a player’s team is and MVP voting, too.

Basically, to summarize all of the above, it looks like MVP voting generally rewards players who are on one of the best teams in the NBA and in the upper echelon of PER and Win Shares – although they’re not always the highest in those categories. With that in mind, let’s look and handicap the odds for some of the best players this season.


Chris Bosh (F, Toronto)

Why he might be MVP: Bosh has had a monster season in 09-10. He has become unquestionably the best player on the team and is making a persuasive argument that he’s the best Raptor ever. He’s leading his team in minutes played, points, rebounds, PER and Win Shares. He’s arguably the most important player for any team in the Eastern Conference right now – if Bosh were replaced by an average forward, it’s hard to imagine Toronto threatening to make the playoffs.

Why he might not: Because he’s a voice crying in the wilderness. He’s playing on a team that’s just average now (only recently able to stay around .500) and was abysmal earlier in the season (ie: 146 allowed to Atlanta). He may be important to his team, but his team doesn’t dominate the way previous MVP’s teams have. Add to this that he plays in a smaller market that doesn’t get national attention (no games on ESPN this season)… and it doesn’t look good.

Odds: 14/1. He’s the longshot of longshots to win MVP… but stranger things have happened.

Dwayne Wade (G, Miami)

Why he might be MVP: On a team of youngsters, Wade has blossomed into a leader. He’s easily the most important player on the team and leads the Heat in minutes played, points and assists. On a league-wide level, Wade has shown that he can get calls (sixth in the league in free throws), has a second-overall PER of 27.7 and is sixth in Win Shares with 6.8 – putting him ahead of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Tim Duncan.

Why he might not: Because the Heat are a decidedly average team at 23-21. As good as Wade has been this season, the MVP award would be likely to go to somebody on a team with more wins – regardless of how well Wade has played.

Odds: 10/1. If he’s going to win, the Heat need to go on a huge second-half roll.

Chris Paul (G, New Orleans)

Why he might be MVP: This season, there hasn’t been a more important player at the 1. His 403 assists place him third in the NBA and he’s in the top five in PER and Win Shares too (with 26.2 and 7.0, respectively). He’s playing this well on a team without a lot of depth, too – there are only two other players on the Hornets with a Win Share above two. And he’s been playing at a high clip for a little while, too: last year he was third in PER at 30 (behind Wade and James) and second in Win Shares with 18.3. That may help to win a few votes to his side.

Why he might not: He’s a lone bright spot on a bad team. New Orleans is currently last in their division, thanks to a 24-20 overall record. And if the season ended today, the Hornets wouldn’t even be a playoff team  – they’re tenth overall in the Western Conference. Voters aren’t likely to vote somebody playing on a non-playoff team the league’s MVP.

Odds: 10/1. As good as he’s been – and he’s been good – he’s not likely to win unless the Hornets can turn it around.

Kobe Bryant (G, LA Lakers)

Why he might be MVP: He’s arguably the best player in the league right now and is the best player on his own team. He leads his team in both PER (23.2) and Win Shares (6.5). His Lakers trail the Cavs by a half-game for the NBA lead yet play in a much tougher division.

Why he might not: Pau Gasol. His teammate is also having a great season, with both of his PER and Win Shares right behind Bryant’s (22.9 and 5.1, respectively). While both players are combining to make the Lakers a great team, his accomplishments could diminish Bryant’s in the eyes of voters, especially in light of how other stars don’t have somebody of his caliber to boost their play.

Odds: 4/1. It’s not a longshot, but it’s not a lock, either.

LeBron James (F, Cleveland)

Why he might be MVP: He’s having an incredible season, leading his team in minutes played, points, steals and assists. And he’s doing it without a lot of help: his PER of 31.2 is nearly double that of the next-highest on the team (Shaq’s 16.9). His 11.2 Win Shares is nothing to scoff at either. Not to mention that his team is leading the NBA in wins, too.

Why he might not: The Cavs are great… in a weak conference and division. The Cavs have a 5-1 division record in a division where no other team is above .500. They have a 19-6 conference record in a conference where only six other teams are above .500. This could paint a picture of the Cavs inflating their record and stats on a series of bad teams in some voters minds.

Odds: 3/1. A little better then Bryant… but not by much.


Written by M.

January 27, 2010 at 5:03 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Notice how the only name on that list of MVPs has not 1, not 2, not 3 but 4 Championships…Lebron may be the best player in game in regards to stats (check his stats t-shirt reference) but he will never be in the discussion with Bryant until he gets some hardware…

    Patrick Gacoscos

    January 27, 2010 at 7:21 pm

  2. Here’s the thing with Lebron. The Cavs aren’t just beating up weak teams. I’ll use ESPN’s top 10 for lack of a better ranking system: Cavs record vs that top 10.
    Lakers: 2-0
    Nuggets: 0-1
    Hawks: 2-0
    Magic: 1-0
    Celtics: 0-1
    Mavericks: 1-1
    Jazz: 1-1
    Spurs: 0-0
    Blazers: 2-0
    So against the other 9 top teams, the Cavs are 9-4 so far including 2-0 against the top team in the West.

    Using your influential stats of PER and win shares, Lebron is far and away the top of the candidates listed. He’s easily the top of the league in PER and easily the top in win shares.

    Statistically, I’m not sure how anyone can make the argument that Lebron isn’t easily in the lead. He’s the only all-star on the team with the best record, he’s far and away the leader in PER and win shares as well as more well-known stats like scoring, and, unlike last year, the Cavs are beating the other top teams in the league.


    January 27, 2010 at 8:44 pm

  3. Kobe is perhaps one of the greatest players ever to play the game yet he does not get the calls of a Jordan or Lebron James. Lebron James was getting calls that only Kobe could dream about very early in his career.

    I don’t think championships define the player.


    January 27, 2010 at 10:56 pm

  4. Nice breakdown. What about breaking down chances of: Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Kevin Durant?


    January 28, 2010 at 5:02 am

  5. if you’re giving me 3-1 on LBJ, I’ll bet the house. hes far and away the best player in the league and having the best season. he has almost double Kobe’s win shares, out rebounds him, out assists him, out steals him, out blocks him, out scores him. its not close.


    January 28, 2010 at 11:44 am

  6. […] A little while ago, I projected that five players had a good chance of being named MVP.  I chose them based on two advanced statistics, PER and Win Shares, and by looking at how well their team was doing. […]

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