Keeping Score

Is Not Voting For LeBron James As NBA MVP Defensible?

Maybe - if you voted for Kevin Durant. But voting for Carmelo Anthony, like one writer did ... rejects the available data.

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(Hector Gabino/El Nuevo HeraldMCT via Getty Images)

Miami Heat guard LeBron James sits by the Maurice Podoloff Trophy during a ceremony at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida, Sunday, May 5, 2013. James was selected as the NBA's Most Valuable Player.

As expected, LeBron James won his fourth MVP award on Sunday afternoon. The only surprise: he didn’t receive every first place vote.

James had a stunning statistical season. He became the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 26 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists in a season (Oscar Robertson did it 5 times, John Havlicek did it twice, and both Larry Bird and Michael Jordan did it once). But only James has registered these numbers while shooting better than 55 percent from the field.

These stats, however, didn’t stop one writer from casting a first-place MVP vote for Carmelo Anthony, denying James the opportunity to become the first unanimous league MVP in NBA history. On Monday morning, Boston Globe writer Gary Washburn came clean, explaining in a column why he voted for Anthony.

If you were to take Anthony off the Knicks, they are a lottery team. James plays with two other All-Stars, the league’s all-time 3-point leader, a defensive stalwart, and a fearless point guard. The Heat are loaded.

If LeBron was taken away from the Heat, they still would be a fifth or sixth seed. He is the best player of this generation, a multifaceted superstar with the physical prowess of Adonis, but I chose to reward a player who has lifted his team to new heights.

Washburn makes clear that he didn’t vote for Anthony because he was seeking publicity:

The perception that I knew the other 120 voters cast their first-place votes for LeBron and that I went against the grain as some kind of statement is inaccurate…

For the most part, MVP controversies are tired philosophical debates. How do you define “valuable?” Do you vote for the best player — even Washburn calls “James unquestionably is the best player in the game”– or do you vote for the player who means the most to his given team? In Washburn’s mind, a Knicks team without Anthony would be bottom-feeders, while a Miami Heat team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would still be a tough out.

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Today, basketball fans and MVP voters have new tools that can help settle these debates: advanced analytics. And even if you’re still skeptical of metrics that purport to boil down a player’s value into a single number, via some hopelessly complicated formula, it’s easy to see that Washburn is likely very wrong about Anthony.

Moneyball godfather Bill James first developed the “Win Shares” statistic for baseball, and basketball analysts have adapted the formula for their sport. Win Shares, according to the excellent stats site, is the “estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player.” The formula is complex. A primer on how it’s calculated is here. In short, the stat considers efficiency to be the key to winning games, and rewards players whose efficiency rankings outperform the league average by wide margins. Win Shares also has a defensive component.

James led the NBA in Win Shares, at 19.3. So contrary to Washburn’s thinking, if you took James off the Heat, Miami would suffer more losses than any other team would, if that team also lost a star player. Where does Anthony rank? Anthony produced 9.5 wins for the Knicks. That was 14th best in the NBA (Kevin Durant was second, at 18.9 Win Shares). And lest you think Anthony’s numbers suffer because he missed 15 games this season, when you look at the stat on a per 48 minutes-played basis, the results are identical: James is first, at .322 win shares per 48 minutes. Anthony is 14th, at .184.

Even if you don’t completely trust these advanced metrics, the James-Anthony gap has to sound an alarm. How can you justify giving the Most Valuable Player award to someone who finished 14th in a stat that measures total wins, on the basis that player is responsible for more team wins than anyone else?

And you know who is buying into these stats? The teams themselves. Most NBA teams have analytics gurus. In December, the Memphis Grizzlies hired columnist John Hollinger as VP of Basketball Operations. Hollinger is the creator of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER) statistic, another advanced metric that assigns value to a player (James finished first in PER, Anthony 4th).

So if stats like Win Shares and PER are inaccurate, a lot of teams are making bad investments. I’d like to give NBA franchises more credit. LeBron James is this year’s NBA MVP, without question. Carmelo Anthony, as lethal of a scorer as he is, should barely be in the conversation.

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