Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade: Analyzing the MVP, Pt. 1

Nate SmithCorrespondent IMarch 25, 2009

PHOENIX - FEBRUARY 15:  (L-R) Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, members of the women's and men's gold medal winning USA Olympic basketball teams, wave to the crowd during half time of the 58th NBA All-Star Game, part of 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend at US Airways Center on February 15, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

As the 2009 NBA regular season cools down, the debate about who the MVP should be has heated up.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have dominated the discussion about league MVP—and with good reason.

These three players have been absolutely sensational on both ends of the court.

Wade, Bryant and James will each likely be selected to the All NBA first team and All NBA Defensive first team.

Fans and analysts from all over the globe have made arguments about which of these three is the most valuable. Unfortunately, many of the arguments proffered for these candidates don't make any sense.

Let's look at the case for each guy and in the process try to determine what a MVP is and what it really means.


Dwyane Wade

The flashy guard from the Miami Heat has hurled himself into the MVP race by producing what might be the best numbers of the trio. He has led his team to a 38-32 record so far this season which is more than double the win total the heat produced last year.

In the process, Wade has thrown up monster numbers doing just about everything for the Miami Heat in the process. His 29.9 points leads the NBA and he throws in 7.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds, two steals, and a block per game, just for good measure.

Proponents for Wade insist that given his strong play this season and the progress of the Heat from last year to this year, he should be awarded MVP.

The argument is silly. The Heat won 15 games last season and Wade was injured for most of it. This year, he is healthy. Of course the Heat are going to win more than 15 games. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and say that if you added a healthy Kobe Bryant or a healthy LeBron James to just about any team in the league, they would win significantly more than 15 games.

Coming back healthy and leading a team to a respectable record is not a MVP achievement—it is expected if you are at worst the third best player in the game today.

Consider this: if the Miami Heat won every single game from now until the end of the season, they still wouldn't win as many games as the Los Angles Lakers or the Cleveland Cavaliers have won today.

Wade fans protest that such an emphasis on winning is unfair. After all, it is beyond argument that Wade is playing with the worst supporting cast of the three. Both Cleveland and the Lakers have surrounded their stars with better players. They then argue neither that Kobe nor LeBron would be able to lead the Miami Heat to 55 wins (the usual minimum historically for a MVP). Even if we accept that to be true, it is a moot point.

Both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have played on teams where they threw up monstrous and historical numbers, but failed to win over 50 games. You know what? They didn't win MVP.

And it isn't just Kobe and Lebron either. In 1988-89, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to 47 wins and averaged 32.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals a game while shooting 54 percent. Magic Johnson won the MVP that year putting up less-impressive statistics, but leading his Lakers to 57 wins.

Michael had less help that season while Magic was playing with Kareem Abdul Jabber, Michael Cooper, James Worthy, and Byron Scott. In the final analysis, the MVP went to the guy who was winning.

Beyond precedent, there's a good reason why winning ought to be a prerequisite to winning a MVP: because you can't win a championship without winning. In my opinion, the most valuable player in the league is the one who most puts his team in a position to win a championship.

A championship has value to the fans, it has value to the player, it has value to the front office, it has value to coaches and it has value to society. Some people care about points and some people don't. Some people care about rebounds and some don't. Everyone cares about the championship.

If sportswriters rewarded players who didn't exhibit the ability to put their teams in a reasonable position to win a championship to garner MVPs, then you start a very dangerous precedent of undermining winning for personal glory and statistical dominance. And let's be honest, the Heat have virtually no shot to win a championship this season while the Lakers and Cavaliers are almost certain to be in the finals according to many predictive models.

Additionally, rewarding players on bad teams ignores the fact that great players often have to do more intangibles and fewer things that show up on the box score if a championship is to be won.  Who here really thinks Kobe can't drop 50 anytime he wants to?

The question isn't why should we punish Wade for being on a poor team, the question is why punish LeBron or Kobe, who have been in Wade's position before and now are in a position to lead their teams to a championship.

In my profession, it doesn't matter how hard I work or how talented I am. My superiors care about that, but at the end of the day, my value is directly correlated to my results. The NBA is the same way and the only results that matter are Ws.


LeBron James

LeBron James, according to some analysts, is having arguably the best season ever and who am I to argue? LeBron has put up numbers similar to past seasons, but has improved his defense. Some have even suggested that James should be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

LeBron has improved his clutch play and his outside shooting has become more reliable even if it still needs work. This season, LeBron has shown us shades of Oscar Robinson, producing a triple double seemingly almost every other game.

LeBron James is a unique physical specimen with a combination of size, speed and skill never seen in basketball before and unlikely to ever be replicated. More than that, he has led his Cleveland Cavaliers to the best record in the league so far and his team is virtually unbeatable at home (32-1).

LeBron seems to have everything going for him in the MVP race, which is why it is so puzzling for me to hear such bad arguments for Lebron's MVP case. The least persuasive are ones that compare LeBron to Kobe.

Often, proponents of James will argue that if you took LeBron off the Cavs they would be much worse than if you took Kobe off the Lakers. Why resort to such a speculative argument? Neither team would make the playoffs—and if you're not going to make the playoffs, who cares?

The most recent analogue of the argument is that if you took Kobe off the Lakers, they'd still make the playoffs. Really? A team starting Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza, Lamar Odom, and Pau Gasol, with Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga coming off the bench would make the playoffs in the West?

Seriously? If you honestly believe that, then I agree with the Obama administration that we should do every thing we can to curb illegal drugs from coming into the country.

Even if young stud Andrew Bynum was healthy, they still wouldn't make it. The teams in the West are just too good.

Remember, when you lose Bryant, you lose the best closer in the game and if you don't think Kobe's ability to take over in the closing minutes is important to the Lakers success, I suggest you look at the Bobcats game earlier this season where Kobe fouled out in over time and the Lakers folded immediately and went home with a L.

In any event, what the record of the Cavs or Lakers would be without LeBron or Kobe is speculative and irrelevant. The fact is, LeBron does play for the Cavs and Kobe does play for the Lakers. The argument makes just about as much sense as saying that LeBron would lead the Thunder to more wins than Kobe would on the Kings.

It is also perplexing that analysts continuously reference that the "Cavs would be worse off without LeBron than the Lakers would be without Kobe," without noting the fact that last season the Cavs failed to win 50 games, but with the mere addition of Mo Williams thety have the best record in the league.

The reality of the situation is that teams need more than one star to be dominant. It is not a knock on LeBron James to say that Mo Williams is a very good player. It is okay. Just say it. You know it is true. And it is okay to recognize the ability of Z to step out of the paint and hit jumpers, but to still be able to be a seven-foot presence on defense.

It is okay to say that LeBron James has very good players surrounding him. It doesn't diminish his brilliance at all. The point is, if you took Mo Williams off of the Cavs for the entire season, they wouldn't be nearly as good as they are.

Why not just focus on, what is in my opinion, the best argument for James: He's led his team to the best record in the league while simultaneously putting up the best statistics in the league. That's something no critic can argue with.


Kobe Bryant

The reigning MVP is Mr. Consistent. He is, in my mind, the most complete player in the game today. Every time I hear about LeBron James or Dwyane Wade being compared to Kobe as the best overall player in the game, I think back to earlier in the decade.

First, it was Kobe v. Vince Carter. Then it was Kobe v. Allen Iverson. Next is was Kobe v. Paul Pierce. Then it was Kobe v. Tracy McGrady. Next it was Kobe v. Ray Allen. In 2005-06, it was Kobe v. Wade and Kobe v. Gilbert.

It is truly remarkable how long Kobe has remained the standard among perimeter players.

Most analysts remark that this is perhaps Kobe's best season ever. Insiders credit Kobe with letting the offense come to him and reading the flow of the game more accurately. Bryant still puts up the numbers, but he is a more cerebral player now.

Instead of dominance, Kobe opts for precision.

What I most like about Kobe's game, as it has developed, is that he's less concerned about getting to his spots on the floor and more concerned with his teammates getting to their spots. It allows his teammates to invest in the game more while simultaneously creating easier opportunities for himself once the opposing team realizes they have to pick their poison.

As a result, the Lakers have positioned themselves to run away with the best record in the Western Conference—no small feat, given the quality of the teams in the West and the close seeding from two through eights.

Despite Kobe's longevity, three rings and five Finals appearences, he only has one regular season MVP to his credit. Why? Statistics.

Proponents of Kobe argue that there are three types of lies—there are lies, there are damned lies and then there are statistics. Maybe that is true, but at least statistics are objective. Isn't relying on stats more fair than relying on subjective proclaimations of a player's worth?

The reality of the situation is that Kobe's statistics are just not as impressive as Lebron's or Wade's.  Still, there is something persuasive about the argument that the box score doesn't tell the entire story. You have to watch the games. That is why most analysts still call Kobe Bryant the best player in the game.

Basketball is defined by moments. Great players can dominate entire games, but legends dominate moments. That is what Kobe Bryant is. He is a guy that dominates moments.

He'll have a quiet game and then explode for 18 in the fourth quarter just to prove to Ron Artest and the Rockets that they have no shot come playoff time. He'll drop 61 in the Mecca of basketball just as to put on a show for the fans. He'll hit a timely three over the Spurs just to let them know a comeback won't be in the cards tonight.

And Kobe doesn't step into these moments once in a while. He steps into these moments and delivers almost every single game. As an observer, it is impressive because it rubs off on his teammates.  They start to believe they cannot lose—not with this guy on the team. His killer instinct inspires them while demoralizing the opposition.

Still, is Bryant doing anything really more impressive than LeBron? Some have argued that Kobe has been better against top competition. After all, they are 2-0 against the Celtics and 2-0 against the Cavs, and gave Cleveland their only home loss of the season to date. LeBron hasn't been nearly as good against the best competition in NBA—and honestly, has played poorly against the best competition.

Indeed, it is often said that LeBron is doing more with less, but do people really take the time to realize how hard it is to win games in the West where the competition is stronger night after night?

Ask yourself this question: If the Lakers switched conferences and the Cavs switched conferences, what would the likely result be? Would we even be having a discussion on who the MVP is?


The Verdict

As I said before, my definition of a MVP is which player puts his team in the position to best win a championship. As of today, my 2009 NBA MVP is LeBron James. LeBron has just been too good to deny. His statistical production is off the charts and he has the best record in the league, which determines home court advantage in the finals.

If the Lakers end with the best record, it'll be Kobe. With the Lakers one game back and having to play most of their remaining games on the road, the Lakers will need luck, consistency, and smart play for Bryant to repeat.


Part II next week will look at the regular season MVP and how much it should matter in defining a player's legacy.


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