Dwight Howard should win MVP, because we've been through this before

I was browsing some of my favorite NBA sites the other day when I was suddenly struck by sense of déjà vu. I was reading about the various playoff races, potential seedings and the regular season MVP award. It sounded so very familiar that it stopped me in my tracks. I made a quick list of my observations and it looked like this:

1.   The league's best record belongs to the Spurs.

2.   The Lakers are neck and neck with the Eastern Conference's best team for the second best overall record and potentially home court advantage in the finals should they meet.

3.   The best team in the East has a top tier defense and only a mediocre offense.

4.   The front-runners for MVP are a score-first PG and a big man called "Superman."

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Let's rewind exactly 10 years to the 2000-2001 season and look at those same four points again.

In the 2000-01 season, the Spurs finished with the best overall record with 58 wins, and the Lakers finished tied with the Sixers for the second best overall record in the league at 56 wins. Those same Sixers were a team built around defense first and offense second. They finished less than 1 point per 100 possessions behind first for the overall best defense in the league, but ranked just 13th offensively. This year, the Spurs will run away with the league’s best record somewhere in the mid sixties, and the Lakers are one game back in the loss column with a couple of Eastern Conference teams who both have spectacular defenses and mediocre offenses. But the most interesting discussion revolves around that fourth point, the MVP race.

This year's MVP race appears be down to Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard and LeBron James.  The frontrunner is Rose, the leader of the team with the best record in the East. Howard, a monster inside anchoring one of the best defenses in the league while also being the focal point on offense, is second. And then there's LeBron, who is putting up another very impressive season statistically, providing a triple double threat every night while playing great defense as well. Unfortunately for Howard and James, their teams have struggled relative to expectations. Chicago, on the other hand, is way ahead of schedule in terms of becoming an elite team, and as they appear to be pulling away with the EC crown, all signs point to Rose being awarded with the MVP. But is this the right call? Are the voters potentially making the same mistake they did 10 years ago?

Ten years ago, Allen Iverson was awarded the MVP trophy over Shaquille O’Neal. His 31.1 points per game were the best in the league, and Philadelphia’s run to the best record in the Eastern Conference was a major surprise. AI was the face of a franchise that was utterly devoid of any other faces. It only made sense that the voters embraced the small, dynamic guard who led his team to unexpected heights. But dig a little deeper into the numbers and the selection appears a little dubious to say the least.

The Sixers were a team that won games with their defense, not their offense. They featured a roster of defensively skilled players such as Dikembe Mutombo, Theo Ratliff and Eric Snow (all three won All-NBA Defensive team honors during their careers). The role players were defensively oriented as well. Outside of Iverson, there wasn’t much offensive talent to be seen. For crying out loud, Theo Ratliff was the team’s second leading scorer with a whopping 12 points per game. The result was a team that choked off the opposition, and relied on Allen Iverson to create enough offense to win games, and so he did. The Sixers' offense was merely average but in this case, average was enough.

This year, the Chicago Bulls are following the same blueprint. They are tied for first with Boston for the best defense in the league. They, like the 2001 Sixers, have one of the best defensive center rotations in the league with Joakim Noah and the underrated Omer Asik. They also have very solid defenders on the wings with Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer. The team has essentially built a great defensive squad so it can hold opponents to a very low point total and ask Derrick Rose to simply generate enough offense for himself and teammates to win the game, and like Iverson, Rose has done so quite successfully.

Statistically they both carried similar offensive loads for their teams:

Player

Points

Assists

Points Generated

Team Points

% of Team Pts Generated

Allen Iverson

31.1

4.6

42.6

94.7

45.0%

Derrick Rose

24.9

7.8

44.4

98.5

45.1%

Iverson was almost purely a scorer that year, averaging only 4.6 assists while Rose has done a better job of blending his scoring with the distributing duties of a traditional point guard. While they may have gone about it in a slightly different manner, the results are strikingly similar in that each player generated roughly 45% of their team's offense via the shot and pass.

Even the advanced statistics show many similarities as well:

Player

PER

eFG%

TS%

TOV%

USG%

Off Win Shares

Def Win Shares

Win Shares

WS/48 Min

Allen Iverson

24.0

44.7%

51.8%

10.0

35.9

7.3

4.5

11.8

0.190

Derrick Rose

23.3

48.0%

54.0%

12.9

32.4

6.8

4.3

11.1

0.201

They both have similar PERs, usage rates and Win Shares (both offensively and defensively). Rose is a slightly more efficient scorer than Iverson was, but he is also a little more turnover prone. The end result is that both players produced similarly for their teams. Given the similarities between the two situations and results, it would only seem reasonable for Rose to win the MVP award like Iverson did. But did Iverson deserve to win that MVP in the first place?

While no advanced stat is perfect, history has shown that PER and Win Shares are highly correlated with the MVP award (as they should be). After all, if a player is efficient and contributes wins, then he is doing something right. Almost every MVP over the last dozen seasons has been in the top 5 in Win Shares and PER. However, Iverson was ranked 7th and 10th respectively. Meanwhile Rose is currently ranked 12th and 6th respectively.  By these two statistics neither player appears to be MVP worthy. Both appear to be benefitting from their team's record (which voters tend to weigh heavily) and the fact that they put up great offensive numbers on teams that won with defense. Neither player was a great defender either. 

In fact, one could argue that the Rose is somewhat of a defensive liability.  Here is a chart showing the Bulls' defensive efficiency when each player is not on the court. 

 Untitled-1_medium

As you can see, Rose sticks out like a sore thumb. The team is significantly better defensively when he is not on the court. Some may say this is because he goes against the opposition's starters, who are more skilled than the bench, but so do Noah, Boozer and Deng. To Rose's credit, if I were to show the same graph focusing on offense, it would be exactly the opposite. When Rose is not on the court the offense becomes much worse and no other player on the team has a similar impact. Essentially, Rose's superior offense helps to cover up for his defensive liabilities. This helps explain why Rose is not in the top five in Win Shares, which take into account both offense and defense. But that begs the following question: Shouldn't the MVP be solid on both ends of the floor?"

That’s why my hypothetical MVP vote goes to Dwight Howard. Looking at similar plus-minus stats for Howard, both the offense and defense improve significantly when he is on the court. In fact, for all the talk about Howard's defensive impact, his offensive impact is just as impressive. He has the largest offensive plus-minus on his team, meaning that he is the most important offensive player. If he is the most important offensive player on his team, and one of the most important defensive players in the league, that has to make him more valuable than a guy who is statistically one of the worst defenders on his team, right? Win Shares certainly think so. Howard is fourth overall, but second in Win Shares generated per 48 minutes. He also ranks 2nd in PER as well. All advanced statistical signs point to Howard as being a better MVP award selection than Rose.

Unfortunately, voters will likely focus on the surprising story of the Bulls, especially if they follow through in finishing with the East's best record. Rose's offensive contributions will be put in the spotlight, ignoring his defensive deficiencies, while Howard’s resume will be dragged down by his team’s worse overall record and a failure to match lofty team expectations. The Bulls’ success is largely the result of Rose’s teammates’ superb defense. Meanwhile Orlando's struggles have been the result of Howard's teammates failing to live up to expectations as a unit, causing him to carry a larger burden on both ends of the floor. But these things are likely to get lost under a steady barrage of stories about how Rose is carrying his team to victory, because those offensive displays are so easily focused on. If all the advanced statistical measures favor Howard, all the human interest measures favor Rose, and when it comes to the MVP, human interest carries the day. The result will be that the flashy point guard from the team with a great defense will win out over a much deserving "Superman." 

Back in 2001 when Iverson won the award, there was another "Superman" out on the West coast. Shaquille O’neal finished first in PER and first in Win Shares that season, but he too was overlooked for the better story, and he responded by co-leading his team on the single most dominant post-season run in NBA history, leaving the MVP in his wake. Howard doesn’t have the support to exact his revenge on the league for their probable failure to recognize his greatness this season, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve all been here before. If we take the time to learn the lessons of the past, it seems pretty clear Dwight Howard should be this year’s MVP.

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