Most Valuable Column: Narrowing The Field

Mark Milner is a contributing writer for The Good Point. His Most Valuable Column chronicles the MVP race of the season from different views. Enjoy. -MM

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.

All three of those seem to come into play for the MVP. While the winner may not lead the league in PER or in Win Shares (frequently, they don’t), they are often near the top. But more importantly, their team also plays well. The MVP often looks not so much like the best player in the league, but the most important player on one of the best teams.

Since I last wrote on the MVP race, one of the five likely dropped out of contention – Hornets Guard Chris Paul, who will likely miss at least a month with a knee injury. Since the NBA/ABA merger, only one player has won an MVP while missing more then 10 games – Bill Walton, in 1978.

There are several players who could likely take his spot (Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan), but I chose Kevin Durant, who is putting up some amazing numbers for the Thunder almost by himself.

He is the first of the five players I’ll look at.

Kevin Durant (F, Oklahoma City): 25.1 PER (sixth in the NBA), 10.3 Win Shares (second in the NBA)

By virtue of his scoring alone, Durant has rocketed himself into MVP discussion. It doesn’t hurt that he’s gotten a couple breaks along the way, too. He’s putting up big numbers on a regular basis; until his 21-point game against San Antonio on the 24th, he hasn’t had scored less then 25 points in a game since mid-December.

He’s leading his team in minutes played, points per game, rebounds, PER and in Win Shares. On a league-wide level, he’s not far behind in PER or in Win Shares, but he’s ahead of some big names (*cough* Kobe Bryant *cough*). The Thunder may not be a contender for the title, but they’re a fun team to watch and one that may steal a playoff series.

And that’s all because of Durant’s play – he’s basically carrying this team. If he keeps playing at this clip, he’s work a serious look as MVP.

But he’s on a small-market team in a tough division, which can hurt his MVP chances. The Thunder are good, but they’re behind both Utah and Denver, two of the three best teams in the Western Conference. Even though he may be taking a pedestrian team into the playoffs almost single-handedly, it’s possible that MVP voters would take higher profile player on a more elite team.

Chris Bosh (F, Toronto): 26.3 PER (fourth), 8.4 Win Shares (sixth)

Playing in a contract year, Bosh has seemingly found a new gear and is playing at a level he had never quite previously approached. He’s putting up career highs in points and rebounds per game. He’s leading the Raptors in scoring, rebounds, PER and Win Shares. He’s easily the best player on a team that’s been red-hot in the second half of the season (7-3 in their last ten).

It doesn’t hurt his case that since he hurt his ankle against Memphis on the Feb. 17, the team looks different. In their last two games, they struggled in a win over the Wizards then lost to a reeling Trailblazer team, snapping a 20-game streak of scoring 100 points or more in the process. His absence is showing how vital he is to the Raptors.

But Bosh is the most valuable player not on television. The Raptors are, for better or worse, hidden in plain sight. They are not scheduled to play a nationally televised game this season, not on ABC, ESPN or TNT. It’s entirely plausible that a national TV audience will not see Bosh until the playoffs.

If so, it means that few have likely had a chance to really see Bosh play this season. And if people can’t see him, it’s going to be hard to get them to vote for him, deserving or not.

Dwayne Wade (G, Miami): 27.6 PER (second), 8.6 Win Shares (fifth)

It’s almost exclusively Wade’s fault that the Heat are still in contention this year. He’s leading the team in almost every stat: points, minutes played, assists, steals, blocks. Not bad for a guard. In fact, he’s scored close to double the points of the second-highest scoring player on the Heat, Michael Beasley.

His PER of 27.6 is also one of the highest in the league; indeed, it’s higher then five MVP winners of the past decade. His 8.6 Win Shares (fourth in the Association) is nothing to scoff at, either. He has staying power, too. Since I last wrote, Wade’s PER has remained almost static and he’s moved up a spot in Win Shares. He’s still ahead of Kobe, Bosh and Tim Duncan.

What’s working against him is how the Heat aren’t intimidating to face. When guards won the MVP in the past decade, they were almost always the playmaker on a great team – Kobe on the 2008 Lakers with Bynum and Gasol; Nash on the 2005-06 Suns with Marion, Amare and Joe Johnson. Those teams never won less then 54 games.

If he’s going to win, he’s going to need an Iversionian performance: when AI was named MVP in 2001, he led the Sixers in scoring (by more then double), minutes played, free throw attempts (by a wade margin, AI was the only Sixer who could get to the line with regularity) and steals. He basically willed his team to the best record in the Eastern Conference and to the NBA Finals. Wade will likely have done the same with the Heat if he wins.

Kobe Bryant (G, LA Lakers): 23.1 PER (ninth), 7.7 Win Shares (ninth)

Since the MVP is a bit of a popularity contest, it’s ignore Kobe’s season. He leads the Lakers in scoring, steals, assists and minutes played. He’s in the top ten for points per game, PER and Win Shares. His Lakers are an elite team, too: they have 40 wins in a tough Western Conference.

Like Wade, he’s been pretty static too – only in a bad way. His PER is basically unchanged and he hasn’t moved up significantly in Win Shares. He’s behind Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Gerald Wallace in Win Shares and Duncan, Dwight Howards and Carmelo Anthony in PER.

And yes, the Lakers are still the best team in the West right now, but how much of that falls on Kobe? His PER of 23.1 leads the team, but is a shade above teammate Pau Gasol’s PER of 22.1. He has 7.8 Win Shares, ninth in the NBA, but has two teammates with Shares of 6.8 or more; the four other players I like for MVP have more then double the Win Shares of their closest teammate.

With two great teammates so close to him, I’m not sure Kobe is unquestionably more important to the Lakers then, for example, Bosh or LeBron are to Toronto and Cleveland. If the season ended today, there are far better selections for MVP.

LeBron James (F, Cleveland): 31.7 PER (first), 14.9 Win Shares (first)

Thus far, James has unquestionably been the best player in the NBA and a big reason of why Cleveland has the best record in the league. He’s leading the NBA in points per game and minutes played, PER and Win Shares. And it wasn’t too long ago the Cavs won 13 straight games.

Last season, James had one of his best seasons ever. He averaged 27.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per 36 minutes – all career highs. His PER of 31.67 was the highest since Michael Jordan’s 31.71 in 1987-88.  His 20.25 Win Shares marked the first a player had more then 20 since Jordan’s 20.43 in 1995-96.

This season, he is playing at the same clip. He’s averaging more points and assists per 36 minutes (on less shots, too). His PER is almost unchanged from last season and currently sits at 31.7. It doesn’t hurt that his team also has the best record in the NBA – 45 wins, 14 losses. And he’s carrying the team, too: nobody on the team is close to him in PER or Win Shares.

For all of those reasons, the MVP title is basically LeBron’s to lose. Basically, it’s hard to imagine anybody else that’s more valuable.

Seth Carstens