Tower of Power: Breaking Down the NBA MVP Race

Mike PiellucciCorrespondent IApril 17, 2009

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 6: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the fourth quarter during a game against the Boston Celtics at the TD Banknorth Garden on March 6, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics won 105-94. 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 Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

One of the best things about the NBA is its MVP award and its permanence. Most people couldn’t tell you who the NFL MVP is more than two years after it’s been issued, and MLB’s significance is mitigated by there being an award for each league.

But the NBA’s is always hotly contested and possess additional merit; since the award was first handed out, every single NBA MVP is in the basketball Hall of Fame, the only sport with such a distinction.

The other thing that makes the award so fascinating is that there is no clear cut criteria for who ought to win, and different players have won for vastly different reasons. Thus, in order to break down who I believe should win the award, I’ve devised my own four rule criterion:

If you take the player off the team and replace them with an average player, how would the team perform?  The award is Most Valuable, not Most Outstanding and this is the best test possible.

The closer to playoff time, the more important the stats. It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Unless the player’s team is the dominant team of the season, March and April games matter the most because of playoff races and positioning

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Do they make the players around them better?

The player must be the best player on their own team. Often forgotten. If you aren’t the best player on your own team, there’s no way you are the most valuable player in the league.

One more thing, I don’t believe in creating arbitrary lists of contenders. So as an alternative, I’ve devised the “Tower of Power,” in which the contenders are ranked in different stratums. Not all MVP candidates are equal, and there is always a hierarchy.

2009 was one of the best races in recent memory, one in which a few performances could have won the award and several others would have been play in a different season. As such, I found 13 players that I felt bore mentioning in the discussion.

So without further ado…

Tier V: The Red Herrings (Otherwise known as “honorable mention”)

13. Chauncey Billups

Trendy consideration pick because of age old classic “the team played a lot better because he got there” defense. Which, and as Allen Iverson’s biggest fan outside of his immediate family it pains me to say this, is true. But Denver only got five more wins than last year and while that’s all well and good, they wound up as the No. 2 seed because the conference as a whole (apart from the Lakers obviously) took a dramatic step down.

He also gets a lot of consideration for Denver’s transformation from a soft, run and gun team into a gritty, defensive squad and this too is overblown.

No question that his steady presence is a big upgrade over Iverson’s free lancing into the passing lanes, but the Nuggets also made an under-the-radar acquisition getting hustle guy Renaldo Balkman, enjoyed the return of Chris Andersen (6.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.4 bpg in 20.5 mpg) and finally got a full season of health from Nene; that’s a third of a rotation right there.

So was Billups good? Absolutely. But there were much bigger factors at work, and that’s not even getting into the fact that he’s the second best player on his own team (Carmelo being the obvious first) and his numbers (17.7ppg/6.4apg) are nowhere near MVP worthy. Still, Denver’s very good and ironically enough, one Marcus Camby away from being a serious threat to the Lakers.

12. Tim Duncan

The era of him being among the elite players in the league has officially ended.

Want proof? In March, he averaged 16.5/7.5/1.4 on 45 percent shooting in 30.6 mpg. In April, it became 15.3/11.3/0.9 on 48 percent in 28.6 mpg. His career averages are 21.4/11.7/2.4 on 50 percent in 36.9 mpg.

And this isn’t a case of San Antonio resting him for a playoff stretch. Last week against Portland, in a game they HAD to win at home, he could only go for 24 minutes and put up four points and five boards on 2-for-8 shooting.

Sure, that’s one game but for arguably the most consistent player in league history, that just didn’t used to happen, especially in a game of that magnitude.

What is a more realistic gauge of what to expect of this Duncan came Wednesday against the Hornets. He put up 20/19 and carried San Antonio defensively down the stretch. But he took 11 shots to Tony Parker’s 21 (and 29 points) and in an overtime game, played 34 minutes to Parker’s 43.

In other words, he’s still capable of big performances from time to time, he’s still the face of the franchise, he’s still one of the best players in the league defensively… but it’s not his team anymore. With Duncan turning 33 in under two weeks and Ginobili falling apart, it’s very clear that San Antonio is now Parker’s team and will go as far as he’ll take them.

11. Deron Williams

He averaged 19.4 and 10.7 assists on 47 percent shooting. Not too shabby given that he was playing on a busted ankle all season, and he deserves a lot of credit for being Utah’s ballast in a year where Carlos Boozer slogged through a mere 37 games and Andrei Kirilenko had an emotional meltdown.

Regardless, Utah is a very soft No. 8 seed that can’t win on the road and despite the level of talent on the team, can be termed nothing short of a major disappointment.

Ultimately, Williams didn’t help his team overachieve but rather helped mitigate the degree of their underachievement. There’s a huge distinction between the two, and it’s the reason why he can’t be taken seriously in the MVP discussion.

Tier IV: Very, Very Good

10. Paul Pierce

Carried Boston on his back after Garnett went down for the season, to the tune of 23-6rpg-3apg for last three months of the season.

Boston’s bench, which was shaky during their title run last year, took a step back this season with virtually no reliable depth on the wing so he stepped up and played the more minutes than he had in three years while guarding the opposing team’s top perimeter scorer night after night.

The numbers aren’t as gaudy as they used to be, but he’s learned how to win and is a better player overall.

9.  Yao Ming

All season long, I expected Houston melt down like they always do. First it was concerns about Ron Artest blending in as a third option...then it was Rafer Alston tearing up the locker room by calling out his own teammates...after that it was TMac settling into his all-to-predictable period of missing half the season due to injury...and finally it was who would run the point after the mercurial Alston, still the team’s starting point guard for over three years, was dealt at the trade deadline.

At one point, I was even entertaining the notion that they, not Phoenix, would be the odd team out in the West.

Except they just...kept...winning, in large part due to Yao playing in a whopping 77 games, his highest total since 2004-2005. Sad as it is to say, Houston became a much better team when McGrady went down for the year because it forced them to back to basics on offense.

Instead of trying to divide up shots between TMac, Yao, and the ball hungry Artest, the Rockets structured the offense through Yao and attacked defenses based off how they played him.

As a result, this is Houston’s best chance to get out of the first round. They’ve found an identity on offense; play tough D with three great man-up defenders in Artest, Shane Battier, and Chuck Hayes; and get solid production through the use of platoons at point guard (Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks) and power forward (Luis Scola and Carl Landry). But make no mistake; this team is built around Yao and is much better for it.

8. Brandon Roy

One of the useful new stats in the NBA’s information revolution is “effective age,” which averages the ages of a team’s players and weighs it against minutes played. I bring this up because Portland, at 24.7 years, is the youngest team to win 50 games since 1980, and they have Roy to thank for it.

Even crazier, Roy himself is only 24 yet here he is, leading a cadre of lottery talent whose bluest chip, Greg Oden, has barely made a blip since being hailed as the league’s next great center.

More significantly, Roy keeps improving his game; he’s raised his scoring average by three points in each of his three seasons in the league (16.8 to 19.1 to 22.6) while bumping his shooting percentage from a solid 45 percent in his first two years to an impressive 48 percent this season.

He’s one of the best passing off guards in the game and has shot himself into another stratosphere of crunch time scorers, the rarest of players who can drag his team to victory by sheer force of will. How he handles his first playoffs against the aforementioned Rockets will be among the most intriguing Round One plotlines.

7. Tony Parker

It’s scary to think of where the Spurs would be if Parker hadn’t made the leap to alpha dog status this season. He averaged 22ppg/6.9apg on an absurd 50 percent shooting for the season, which would be been impressive enough had he not gone absolutely incendiary at the down the stretch.

In March and April, when Duncan’s decline became most evident, Parker picked up the slack by averaging 24.7/7.3 on a mind-blowing 54.9 percent (!!!!!) shooting.

If that wasn’t enough, he also finished third in clutch shooting percentage.

It is no exaggeration to say that Parker might be the most deadly scoring point guard since Isiah Thomas. He doesn’t shoot the three but he’s almost automatic inside twenty feet between his ever improving jumper, sneaky effective floater, and famous, lighting quick drives towards the rim.

It’s worth repeating here that he’s shooting at a clip that rivals the league’s best interior players, only he’s taking some of the toughest shots in the league.

As I wrote earlier, this is his team now and at 26, he’s just entering his prime. He’s not the all around threat that his position-mates Chris Paul or Deron Williams are, but nobody puts it in the hoop like Parker.

Tier III: In A Different Year…

6. Dirk Nowitzki

Absolutely the most underrated great season in the league from the guy who may now be its most underrated great player. Consider the following:

*He closed out the season by scoring at least 20 points in 25 straight games. That’s the longest such streak in the NBA this season.

*In those 25 games, the Mavs went 16-9 with wins over Phoenix (twice), at Portland, New Orleans, Utah, San Antonio, and Houston. In those particular games, Dirk averaged 28.7/9.6 on 56.1 percent shooting.

*In the process, they went from treading water as the eighth seed all the way up to sixth including an April of winning six out of their last eight in a gauntlet where the margin for error was razor thin. During that stretch, he averaged 30.3/8.8 on 55.1 percent shooting.

That, folks, is called stepping up down the stretch. His effort throughout the season is no less impressive. He finished fourth in the league in scoring with 25.9 ppg on 47.9 percent shooting, and did so while expanding his offensive repertoire to include what he describes as “the goofy one footed Euro fadeway,” a shot that looks horrendous but is impossible to stop.

All of this occurred with Josh Howard missing 30 games and Jason Terry missing most of February. In a season where the Mavs suffered through their worst bench play in years, Dirk went through half the season without one of the only other two competent scorers on the team and with the pressure of having to score at least 25 just to keep the team in contention to win; like usual, he came through.

Overall, a rebound to his MVP form and one of the best seasons in his stellar career. Even with Terry putting up his best season ever, Dallas would be helpless without Dirk and in a different season, this effort might have been enough to give him serious consideration for his second MVP award.

5. Dwight Howard

There are five players operating on a different level than everyone else in the league right now. Not-so-coincidentally, they comprise the top five on this list and also not-so-coincidentally, Howard ranks fifth among them.

He hasn’t quite captured the consistency of the other four and his relative mediocrity in April both on an individual level (16.4/12.5/2.6 bpg and 50.5 percent shooting compared to his season line of 20.6/13.8/2.9 and 57.2 percent) and in his team’s play as they battled for home court advantage (4-5 with losses to the Knicks, Raptors, and Nets) cost him points

Still, the backbone of Orlando’s rise as an elite team (defense and perimeter shooting) is predicated on Howard’s strengths. His 2.9 blocks per game were a league best and that doesn’t take into account the endless number of shots he altered or deterred entirely; simply put, he’s the most feared defensive force in the game right now.

He’s equally pivotal to Orlando’s offensive efforts. He dunks on anyone he wants to in a manner reminiscent of Shaq in his prime and also like Shaq, creates innumerable shot opportunities for other players to knock down.

It’s very telling that they can keep chugging along after replacing Jameer Nelson - the front runner for the league’s most improved player award, an All Star, and on his way to having one of the best true shooting percentages in the league - with Houston outcast Alston and not skip a beat.

If he develops any semblance of an offensive game more than five feet away from the rim and starts hitting his free throw, the rest of the league might as well give up trying to stop him

Tier II: The Kobe Zone

4. Kobe Bryant

The reigning MVP put together an extremely impressive title defense with his usual stellar numbers but Kobe’s case is built off team success.

That this Lakers squad won 65 games with dramatically worse bench play (Trevor Ariza excepted), a glaring lack of consistent play at point guard, and missing Andrew Bynum for an extended period is a testament to how good Bryant and Pau Gasol were.

Most importantly, the Lakers became the team that nobody wanted to play and for good reason; they were so good that they lost only two series all season.

Kobe gets his own stratum because as good as Dirk and Howard were, he was better. But this year, we have been treated to three transcendent seasons, three great efforts that have forced their way into the annals of the all-time great performances. Kobe’s numbers aren’t quite at that level, and he had a much better supporting cast than the top three.

Tier I: Transcendent Seasons

3. Dwyane Wade

Good God was his team terrible. The gap between Wade and the Heat’s second leading scorer Michael Beasley was 16.3 ppg – which is three points more than Beasley’s season average of 13.9 ppg, and easily one of the biggest margins in history.

They’ve coaxed 30 mpg out of Jermaine O’Neal’s corpse, 16.1 mpg out of somebody named Joel Anthony, 15.8 mpg out of the one-dimensional James Jones, and their point guard tandem is two players who each ought to be part timers (Mario Chalmers and Chris Quinn).

Somehow that made the playoffs. Nobody has done more for a putrid team since Iverson in the latter stages of his Philly career; without Wade, this mess would be lucky to win 10 games.

And the numbers...wow. A league leading 30.2ppg to go with 7.5apg, 2.19 steals per game (good for second in the league), and the shortest player ever to swat 100 shots in a season.

He shot 49 percent on the season, which is fantastic enough in a vacuum but given that he was double- and sometime triple-teamed with nothing close to a second option, it’s surreal.

He had a two month stretch where he averaged roughly 34/8/5 on 51 percent shooting, including nine games at the beginning of March in which the Heat went 7-2 and Wade threw down 40+ in five of them.

The fact that he’s third on this list shows how special of a year this truly has been. Nobody would be disappointed if he won the MVP; he’s certainly put in a Herculean effort and going off my first criterion alone, he’s the runaway winner. But somehow, two guys were even better…

2. Chris Paul

At the rate he’s going, he may threaten Magic Johnson’s status as the greatest point guard ever. Yes, really. He’s only player in league history to finish top 10 in points, steals, and assists, and did it while shooting 50 percent  and with an 11 to 3 turnover ratio.

On a New Orleans team that can only manage 95.81 ppg (26th in league), Paul accounts for roughly half of that between his 22.8 ppg and 11 apg; in other words, they are helpless without him.

Even though his team slipped to the seventh seed with a 3-6 April, you can’t blame Paul for his teammates’ failures. His April numbers were better than his season averages virtually across the board as he exploded for 28.3/11.7/2.4 on 53 percent shooting, while playing 41 minutes a night.

What separates Paul from Wade is that he makes his teammates better while Wade showcased his brilliance almost in spite of his.

Paul’s supporting cast is a bit better but it’s no coincidence that David West’s scoring average has risen every season since Paul has been in the league; it’s because every game, Paul draws defenders away leaving West open for at least a few uncontested jumpers.

Similarly, it’s not happenstance that Rasual Butler went from the Miami scrap heap to starter/crunch time shooter, or that Tyson Chandler and Julian Wright get a few easy buckets per game by throwing down CP3’s lobs.

The truly great players elevate everyone else’s game even as they elevate their own, and Paul exemplifies that better than anyone. Oh, and he’s only 23.

1. LeBron James

The MVP by virtually every possible measure.

Numbers wise, he became the first top three scorer in history to finish top in the top 25 in all five major average categories (scoring, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) highlighted by season averages of 28.2/7.6rpg/7.2apg.

He would go off on super-nova level explosions, such as a four game swing in mid-March during which he followed up three consecutive triple doubles with a 51 point night…and yes, the Cavs won all of those.

Speaking of winning, he led a relatively average Cavs squad to 66 wins and probably would have tied the home wins record if Mike Brown didn’t opt to sit his players on the last night of the season.

He did it while making his teammates better in the process; Mo Williams went from a good point guard who shot too much to an All-Star, Delonte West from a 10th man carving out a career as a trade throw-in to a starter who keeps the backcourt together, and Wally Szczerbiak played his best ball in years.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about his transformation on the defensive end. Simply by virtue of deciding to put in a consistent effort, LeBron went from a below-average defender into one of the best in the league, able to guard four positions man-up and play tremendous help defense as well.

He always seems to make one hellacious, game altering block per night out of nowhere, and his steals average is impressive as well. He’ll probably get some Defensive POY awards and he deserves them; he’s the rare combination of a lockdown on-ball defender who both denies possessions as well as forces turnovers.

Overall, it’s the most convincing MVP performance since Iverson in 2001 and the most dominant one since Shaq in 2000, if not the Jordan era. Simply incredible, and he’s only beginning to truly scratch the surface of how good he can be.

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