Metrics 101: How LeBron, Durant, Other MVP Candidates Would Look in Past Eras

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 29, 2018

Metrics 101: How LeBron, Durant, Other MVP Candidates Would Look in Past Eras

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    Pace has taken center stage during the NBA's 2018-19 season, with teams capitalizing upon widespread acceptance of three-point proliferations and the new freedom-of-movement rules by pushing the tempo toward metronome-breaking levels. 

    But while this is an abrupt and drastic shift compared to the recent portion of basketball history, the macro view indicates that it's just another blip on the ever-changing pace roller-coaster. To demonstrate that, we're looking at how the league's five leading MVP candidates—determined in wholly objective fashion by Basketball Reference's MVP Award Tracker—would have fared during three other eras. 

    First came the run-and-gun '60s, which saw teams operate at far quicker speeds than we're seeing today. We're using the 126.2 pace from 1961-62 as the basis of our statistical translation, allowing current standouts to stack up against Wilt Chamberlain's heroics (50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds per game) and Oscar Robertson's triple-double campaign.

    Player comparisons will stem from the entirety of the decade—first the '60s and then the others—to allow for more data points. They were calculated by adding up the percent errors between the current stars and compared-to predecessors in each of the five major box-score categories.

    The second era under the microscope is the Showtime '80s, complete with the high-flying Los Angeles Lakers offense and the ever-competitive Boston Celtics. This time, the 103.1 pace from 1982-83 figures into the math, while we're comparing to players from 1979-80 through 1985-86. 

    Finally, we're slowing down with the grind-it-out '00s (and a bit of the late '90s). Hero ball took center stage as squads bled out the shot clock and played physical defense, as evidenced by the championship-winning heroics of the defense-first San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons. We'll be using 2005-06's 90.5 pace for the numbers, while all seasons from 1997-98 through 2005-06 are fair game for the comparisons. 

    Do keep in mind that this is purely a pace-driven exercise. We're not concerned with three-point trends, increases in player skill and conditioning, the tendency of earlier standouts to log more minutes, the hand-check rules or anything else that would typically factor into era translations. Pace is all that matters as we look at where this season stands in the grand scheme of NBA trends. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is a stat-stuffing machine, capable of filling myriad roles for the Milwaukee Bucks. Though he's not a threat to rise and fire from beyond the rainbow, he renders those limitations irrelevant with his Pterodactyl wingspan (7'3") and elongated gate, both of which combine to give him unfettered access to the basket even when greeted with sagging defensive coverage. 

    One night, Antetokounmpo can call his own number with shocking frequency. The next, he can function as a primary playmaker. All the while, he's making a tremendous impact on the boards while using his length to play smothering defense. 

    Maybe he's not the best player in the world, but he's closer than ever to assuming that mantle. 

                             

    Antetokounmpo in the Run-and-Gun '60s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 33.8 points, 16.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.6 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 34.0 points, 14.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists (1962-63 Elgin Baylor)

    Comparisons in the '60s are tough, particularly because the NBA didn't yet track steal and block data, leaving us with only three valid data points from the per-game lines. Fortunately, Antetokounmpo still stacks up nicely against Hall of Fame forward Elgin Baylor, who functioned as one of the Association's original all-around threats. 

    Again, we're not worrying about stylistic differences. Nor are we concerned with the fact that the league hadn't yet witnessed a player with Antetokounmpo's length and ball-handling ability. If anything, his numbers might rise even higher than the ones listed above, though it's worth noting official scorekeepers were a bit more hesitant to hand out assists for passes that didn't directly lead to buckets. 

    But this should still place Antetokounmpo in some rather favorable light, as '63 Baylor, who trails the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak in two of the three relevant categories, finished behind only the indomitable Bill Russell in that year's MVP voting.

                     

    Antetokounmpo in the Showtime '80s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 27.6 points, 13.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.3 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks (1984-85 Larry Bird)

    From one legend to another. And this time, the comparison provides an even more sparkling fit. 

    Larry Bird played a different game than Antetokounmpo, relying far more on his mind-numbing skill and precision shooting than high-flying exploits and interminable limbs. But the two produced similar stats, ranging from their competition in the scoring race—Antetokounmpo is seventh this year, while Bird trailed only Bernard King in 1984-85—to their defensive acumen. 

    Our data doesn't factor in the actual quality of defense; steals and blocks are nice to have, but they can be awfully misleading. Nor does it account for efficiency levels. But in sheer happenstance, we're still comparing two strong stoppers who could guard multiple positions, and their true shooting percentages stand at a staggering 61.5 for the current standout and 58.5 for his predecessor. 

                              

    Antetokounmpo in the Grind-it-Out '00s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 24.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 23.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.3 blocks (2002-03 Chris Webber)

    Usually, the list of top comparisons in any single era draws from many different All-Stars. But that's not the case when we adjust Antetokounmpo's numbers for the slow-paced, defense-first era that spanned the change of millenniums.

    Take a gander at the top 10: 

    1. 2002-03 Chris Webber
    2. 2001-02 Kevin Garnett
    3. 1999-00 Kevin Garnett
    4. 2004-05 Kevin Garnett
    5. 2005-06 Kevin Garnett
    6. 2001-02 Chris Webber
    7. 2002-03 Kevin Garnett
    8. 2000-01 Kevin Garnett
    9. 2001-02 Tracy McGrady
    10. 2005-06 Tracy McGrady

    The universe might be trying to tell us something. 

Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 29.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Breaking news: Kevin Durant is a fearsome scorer. 

    After exploding for 44 points against the Sacramento Kings and 49 against the Orlando Magic two nights later, the forward is averaging 29.2 points while shooting 50.8 percent from the field and 93.1 percent at the stripe. Even though he's having trouble with his long-range marksmanship (32.3 percent), he's throwing up numbers that would make even the most potent scorers from NBA history a bit envious. 

    Except Durant isn't just a scorer, as evidenced by his glass-eating prowess and ability to get the other members of the Golden State Warriors involved with his distributing flair. 

                                          

    Durant in the Run-and-Gun '60s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 36.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.4 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists (1960-61 Oscar Robertson)

    If Durant were just a scorer, he wouldn't be drawing the Oscar Robertson comparison. 

    Granted, this is by no means a perfect fit. Durant scores at a more impressive rate than the legendary point guard did during this early portion of his career, and he can't quite keep pace on the glass or in the assist column. But no one is a better match, which is telling in and of itself. 

    This is also a good indication of just how audacious numbers became during the uptempo '60s. That's not meant to discredit the triple-double stylings of Robertson, but let's also run the reverse calculation. A pace translation to today's numbers (still elevated, though not nearly to the same extent) would leave him averaging "only" 24.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.7 assists. 

                                              

    Durant in the Showtime '80s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 30.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 26.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.2 blocks (1983-84 Alex English)

    By the time his career comes to a close, Durant will unquestionably enjoy a better legacy than Alex English. Even back in 2015, before the current MVP candidate joined the Warriors and added two titles to his resume, I had him ranked No. 42 among every player in league history. English, meanwhile, checked in at No. 69.

    But on a one-season basis, this comparison flies. 

    English was one of the scorers who helped define the '80s, torching one foe after another with a high-release jumper that was as tough to block as Durant's is today. But he could also hold his own as a rebounder and distributor while making the occasional impact play on defense—not exactly his strength, of course. 

    Though Durant's numbers topple his (almost in across-the-board fashion) while pushing past the 30-point threshold, piecing together the similarity isn't difficult. 

                                                        

    Durant in the Grind-it-Out '00s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 26.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 24.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks (2005-06 Tracy McGrady)

    After their come-from-behind victory over the Magic on Monday, the Warriors are using 99.8 possessions per 48 minutes, which leaves them behind 15 other organizations. Thirteen years ago, Tracy McGrady's Houston Rockets sat at No. 25 in pace by using 88 possessions over the same average span. 

    The league has changed a bit, with three-point proclivities and freedom of movement encouraging offenses to use even more shooting attempts on a nightly basis. But under either set of styles, Durant would thrive as a scorer. 

    His adjusted 26.4 points per game would still leave him behind just Kobe Bryant (35.4), Allen Iverson (33.0), LeBron James (31.4), Gilbert Arenas (29.3), Dwyane Wade (27.2), Paul Pierce (26.8), Dirk Nowitzki (26.6) and Carmelo Anthony (26.5) on the 2005-06 scoring leaderboard, pushing him slightly past McGrady while also claiming the superior rebounding, assist and block figures.

    Maybe he'd stay healthier too, since the high-scoring small forward who came before him could only suit up 47 times during the relevant campaign. 

    Plus, this might be a low estimate—the product of modern-day ball-sharing systems that run counter to the hero ball that so often defined the '00s. 

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

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    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 28.3 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks

    This is uncharted territory for LeBron James. 

    Not because he's posting well-rounded numbers not yet produced during his illustrious career. He's done that many times in the past, and he'll likely have at least a few more seasons throwing up astronomical figures.

    No, we're focused entirely on pace here. Still.

    During James' first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which spanned from his rookie season (2003-04) until the infamous decision to take his talents to South Beach in 2010, his team never used more than 91.4 possessions per 48 minutes. That swelled to 98.0 by 2017-18 (his final go-round back in Cleveland), which also topped his high-water mark with the Miami Heat (91.2). 

    This year with the Los Angeles Lakers? Well, the Purple and Gold are using 103.2 possessions per 48 minutes—No. 5 in the league and easily the highest mark of James' career. 

                                 

    James in the Run-and-Gun '60s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 35.7 points, 10.0 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists (1960-61 Oscar Robertson)

    This is the same comparison drawn by Kevin Durant. But this time, it's an even better fit. 

    Prorate James' stats for the breathtaking pace employed in the early '60s, and he'd push tantalizingly close to averaging a triple-double for the first time. Except that's not all he'd do while leaving Robertson in the proverbial dust with his scoring ability. Only two players in NBA history have ever bested 35.7 points per game for a season: Wilt Chamberlain (five times) and Michael Jordan. 

    Yes, Durant would average even more. But would he be doing so with double-digit rebounds and more assists per game than all but Robertson (9.7) and Guy Rodgers (8.7) averaged during the 1960-61 campaign? 

                          

    James in the Showtime '80s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 28.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks (1986-87 Larry Bird)

    Stylistically, James is far more similar to Magic Johnson than Larry Bird. He often plays with a pass-first mentality and has a knack for compiling highlight-reel assists that result from no-look endeavors or tricky feeds on the break. The transition into a Johnson clone hasn't happened yet because of James' enduring scoring tools, but it's seemed imminent for quite some time

    But from a purely numerical standpoint, James stacks up best alongside 1986-87 Bird, who failed to win a fourth consecutive MVP trophy but still finished behind only Johnson and Jordan in the voting. The two best small forwards of all time, they can and could contribute in every way imaginable, whether wreaking havoc with possession-ending defensive plays or pushing toward triple-doubles while carrying heavy scoring loads. 

    Also, please keep in mind that Bird was four years younger than present-day James during this particular season. 

                                                    

    James in the Grind-it-Out '00s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 25.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 27.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks (2004-05 Kobe Bryant)

    Comparing James to prime Kobe Bryant is plenty fun. So too is the similarity between the current Lakers leader and 2005-06 Tracy McGrady, who earned the No. 2 similarity score here. But the third finisher is perhaps most telling: 2005-06 LeBron James. 

    Yes, you're reading that correctly. 

    This version of James, who's playing out his age-34 season, stacks up favorably against the exploits of a 21-year-old James who averaged 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.8 blocks while finishing behind only Steve Nash in the MVP voting. His adjusted numbers don't rise quite as high in most categories, but that's still some solid evidence that he's staving off the unavoidable advances of Father Time. 

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 24.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Kawhi Leonard's numbers aren't quite as glamorous as those of the first three forwards featured in this article. His MVP candidacy is based more on the team-wide success enjoyed by the 17-4 Toronto Raptors, as well as his all-around contributions that don't always show up in the stat sheet. 

    When Leonard generates a steal or blocks a shot, that gets recorded. When he switches onto a tough assignment and uses his quick-twitch instincts and long arms to stifle his opponent into a pass rather than a shooting attempt, that doesn't. But it still matters, impacting the winning cause of the team that's inserting itself as the one to beat in the Eastern Conference. 

    Just keep that in mind when you cycle through these relatively lackluster lines. 

                                                             

    Leonard in the Run-and-Gun '60s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 31.1 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 31.2 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists (1959-60 Jack Twyman)

    This may qualify as "relatively lackluster" when stacked up against Antetokounmpo, Durant and James, but it's still a phenomenal collection of statistics. 

    Though Jack Twyman's name might not resonate with younger crowds, let's not forget that he became a Hall of Famer with six All-Star appearances and two All-NBA selections. The 1959-60 season resulted in both accolades, as well as enough credit to fall behind only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Bob Cousy and Elgin Baylor in the MVP voting

    Oh, and Leonard was better. He might be scoring 0.1 fewer points per game, but he's more impactful on the glass and as a distributor while playing with significantly more efficiency. 

                                        

    Leonard in the Showtime '80s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 25.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 20.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks (1982-83 Clark Kellogg)

    Rather than focus on the shaky comparison to Clark Kellogg, who didn't play above-average defense and, much like Twyman, doesn't resonate with today's fanbases as a legend, let's instead shine a spotlight on how impressive Leonard's numbers would've been during the Showtime era.

    Freed up to play even more uptempo basketball in a system that encouraged transition attacks and displays of athleticism, he'd submit a well-rounded line few have been able to match. 

    Throughout the sport's history, 324 players have scored at least 25.3 points per game during a qualified season. Include 8.8 rebounds per contest, and the list dwindles to 120. That shrinks further to 77 when the 3.1 assists per game enter the picture and then to just five with the 1.8 steals. Finally, the 0.5 blocks per game bring us to only four relevant seasons: two from Hakeem Olajuwon and two from Larry Bird. 

    Leonard remains unique, even if the Kellogg comparison might not initially indicate as much.

                                     

    Leonard in the Grind-it-Out '00s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 17.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks (1998-99 Tom Gugliotta)

    Were we including actual defensive ability and offensive efficiency, Leonard would blow Tom Gugliotta out of the water. His numbers are already more impressive on a per-game basis, assuming you'd rather have an additional 5.3 points and 0.1 steals than an extra 1.2 rebounds and 0.1 assists. But that comparison only works on the most basic level. 

    During the 1998-99 season, Gugliotta posted a 0.7 defensive box plus/minus (still based largely on box-score figures, since we don't have many high-quality defensive metrics for the present day, much less for seasons two decades prior) and a 54.5 true shooting percentage. He earned 0.165 win shares per 48 minutes. 

    Leonard is posting a 1.0 defensive box plus/minus (which always sells him short because of his willingness to take on tough burdens), registering a 57.5 true shooting percentage and accumulating 0.2 win shares per 48 minutes. 

    Enough said. 

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    2018-19 Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Kyle Lowry isn't your typical MVP candidate. 

    Though his passing has verged on flawless, he's played lockdown defense against plenty of different assignments, and he's slashing a respectable 45.6/34.6/83.1 with minimal turnovers. He's also scoring just 15.2 points per game. In the history of the MVP award, only two players have held up the coveted trophy while averaging fewer points: Bill Russell (14.1 in 1964-65) and Wes Unseld (13.8 in 1968-69). 

    Lowry isn't Russell or Unseld reincarnate. Shocking, I know. 

    Just don't mistake the lack of points-per-game production for a lack of value. The Raptors see their net rating skyrocket from minus-5.1 to 13.7 when this point guard is on the floor, and he sits at No. 2 in ESPN.com's Real Plus-Minus wins added. 

                                            

    Lowry in the Run-and-Gun '60s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 13.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 18.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 10.7 assists (1965-66 Guy Rodgers)

    If you think Kyle Lowry's league-leading assist tally is impressive now, just imagine what he might have done with the uptempo '60s working to his advantage. Guy Rodgers, a four-time All-Star for the San Francisco Warriors and Chicago Bulls, is a reasonable comparison because of his scoring, rebounding and double-digit dime habits, but even he falls well shy of Lowry's 13.1 projected assists per game. 

    To be fair, everyone does. After all, these are the single-season assist leaders from the time frame in question:

    1. 1964-65 Oscar Robertson: 11.5
    2. 1961-62 Oscar Robertson: 11.4
    3. 1966-67 Guy Rodgers: 11.2
    4. 1965-66 Oscar Robertson: 11.1
    5. 1963-64 Oscar Robertson: 11.0
    6. 1966-67 Oscar Robertson: 10.7
    7. 1965-66 Guy Rodgers: 10.7
    8. 1962-63 Guy Rodgers: 10.4

    No one else hit double digits.

                                               

    Lowry in the Showtime '80s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 15.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 18.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 9.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.2 blocks (1985-86 Reggie Theus)

    With just the tiniest bit of pace inflation between today's NBA and the '80s, Lowry moves even more firmly into double-double territory.

    Considering only 10 men (Sleepy Floyd, Mark Jackson, Kevin Johnson, Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon, Terry Porter, Micheal Ray Richardson, Doc Rivers, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas) averaged point-assist double-doubles during that decade, the Raptors point guard has reason to feel rather proud. Plus, the list shrinks to feature just six floor generals when we include four dimes per game among the criteria.

    We're still not dealing with earth-shattering numbers, but Lowry isn't ever going to produce those types of figures. He's a steady presence who makes his teammates better, whether operating at a slow, fast or lightning-quick pace. 

                                                                

    Lowry in the Grind-it-Out '00s

    Pace-Adjusted Stats: 13.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 9.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Closest Comparison: 12.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.3 blocks (1999-00 Rod Strickland)

    Finding a viable comparison for Lowry in the early 2000s is a tough task, as Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd, Andre Miller, Steve Nash, Rod Strickland and John Stockton were the only six players from the era in question to average more assists than his projected 9.4 per game.

    Kidd and Miller were far better rebounders. Nash didn't play defense. And that leaves only three players we can realistically choose, which means the numbers are working correctly by spitting out '00 Strickland.

    We can also safely assume that Lowry's game would translate to more wins than the 29-53 Washington Wizards earned under Strickland's supervision. Go ahead and Sharpie that one in. 

                         

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into games on Nov. 27 and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com

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