SI.com’s Ian Thomsen and Chris Mannix, official voters for the NBA’s year-end awards, released their ballots on Monday, so over the next few days, I’ll be rolling out my picks. We’ll start with the big one: Most Valuable Player. Here’s my five-man ballot:
(Statistical support for this post from NBA.com. All stats and records are through April 22.)
1. LeBron James, Miami Heat
When LeBron missed a crucial free throw with 11 seconds left in Chicago on April 12 and proceeded to take just two shots in overtime, Royce Young of CBSSports.com and the blog Daily Thunder mentioned James’ gun-shy approach on Twitter, asking, “Just confirming: That’s your MVP?”
The tweet crystallized the LeBron vs. Kevin Durant MVP debate, with one side suggesting that Durant’s edge in “clutch” performance could make up for James’ obvious superiority as an overall player — a superiority reflected in a mammoth 4.5-point advantage in Player Efficiency Rating, historically rare all-around numbers and defensive skills that Durant, though much-improved on that end, still can’t touch.
There have been two problems with this murky argument all along:
1. It tends to involve the cherry-picking of favorable evidence, generally taken from national TV games or highlight moments that for whatever reason become flashpoints on national talking-head shows.
The Bulls game qualified as such a flashpoint. Ditto for LeBron’s “controversial” decision to pass to a (wide-open) Udonis Haslem with the game on the line in Utah in early March — a pass that immediately erased all memory of LeBron’s hitting two jumpers in the last 1:07 of the game and going 4-of-4 in the final five minutes of regulation.
This kind of selective memory has no place in a debate over a trophy intended to award individual performance over a full season. It ignores run-of-the-mill crunch-time performances on League Pass, such as James’ demolition of the Nets last week; the big shots he hit against Indiana on March 10 to set up Dwyane Wade’s buzzer-beater; James’ 14 straight points in the fourth quarter of an early-April win over the Sixers; and others. It also ignores big-time fourth-quarter performances that don’t technically qualify as clutch because the scoring margin never got small enough; few remember LeBron’s 11 points in the last five minutes of regulation to keep the Knicks at bay in late January, or his halting a furious Philadelphia comeback on a weeknight in mid-March.
This is not to say James has been a giant in the clutch. He has been unsteady at the line, hitting just 15-of-22 free throws (68 percent) in the last three minutes of games with a scoring margin of three or fewer points, and he has looked passive in close losses to the Warriors, Magic and Bulls. In other games, including a memorable early-season loss to the Clippers, he simply missed a bunch of crunch-time shots.
But that brings us to problem No. 2 with this clutch argument:
2. We’re running out of evidence now that Durant has been better in crunch time.
The clutch-based argument for the Thunder forward now comes down to one thing: Durant shoots all the time at the end of games, while James passes a lot. In the last three minutes of close games (margin of three points or fewer), Durant has taken 66 shots, the second-highest number in the league. He is 28-of-66 (42 percent), a rate that is nice but unremarkable.
James, in 21 fewer qualifying minutes, is 12-of-26 (46 percent). James also has 12 assists to Durant’s zero, and he has attempted the same number of free throws (22) despite playing 45 qualifying minutes to Durant’s 66. James has outrebounded Durant easily, and his defensive-rebounding rate in crunch time rivals those of Dwight Howard and Kevin Love.
We could go on. The point is, if you’re basing an MVP argument for Durant on the idea of clutch, the numbers just aren’t there for you. For Durant to handle the ball late as often as he does and record zero assists is an astounding failure of creativity that touches everyone on the Thunder team and the coaching staff.
Again, James will occasionally get the yips under pressure. He and Wade go long, frustrating stretches in which they appear uncommitted to screening and cutting off the ball. James folded in the Finals last season, and if he does so again this season, the damage to his NBA legacy will be severe. But getting the yips in the Finals is an entirely different thing from passing to Haslem on a pick-and-pop in a (basically meaningless) regular-season game, and the difference between the 2011-12 clutch résumés of Durant and James is not nearly enough to overcome LeBron’s monstrous overall season.
LeBron’s 2011-12 season will mark the 16th time any player has posted a PER over 30. He’s shooting a ridiculous 53 percent from the floor and a career-best 36 percent from three-point range. He has been a more willing post player for much of the season. He has carried Miami while Wade missed 13 games, Chris Bosh struggled with inconsistency and the supporting players mostly fell apart after a hot start. His ability to defend multiple positions allows the Heat to go small without yielding much on defense or on the glass, and that versatility is crucial for a team with only two steady big-man contributors.
This is really an open-and-shut case. The difficult decisions come in spots two through five.
2. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
The second spot is a coin flip between Paul and Durant. It was puzzling a few weeks ago to see the MVP race described as a two-man battle. Paul is second in the league in PER, two spots ahead of Durant, and he has completely transformed the Clippers into an elite offensive team. The criticism of Paul is that he often loafs until the fourth quarter, but it would be more accurate to say Paul turns his game up a notch or three under pressure; you don’t finish second in the league’s PER standings by loafing through three quarters.
Examining the rest of the Clippers’ roster gives you both an appreciation for what Paul has done in taking the team from 22nd in points per possession last season to fourth this season, and an understanding of why Paul has monopolized the ball to what is probably an unhealthy degree in crunch time. Three of the four big men in the Clippers’ rotation are total nonentities on offense, and the other (Blake Griffin) is such a bad free-throw shooter that the Clips are sometimes hesitant to go to him on the block late in tight games. Randy Foye and Caron Butler are barely at the Antoine Walker line (40 percent) from the floor. Bobby Simmons gets playing time.
Griffin has taken just 18 shots all season in the last three minutes of close games. Paul has taken 59, the third-highest number in the league, and he his hit a respectable 41 percent of those attempts. He’s also earned 37 free throws in those minutes, the most of any player in the league, and he is 35-of-37 on those freebies.
Toss in top-shelf defense for his position, locker-room leadership, unselfishness and unmatched on-court intellect, and I’m comfortable sliding Paul ahead of Durant into the No. 2 spot. If you want to flip them, that’s fine; it’s very, very close.
3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
The foundation of an offense that has ranked either first or second in points per possession all season, Durant has improved just about every aspect of his all-around game — on both ends of the floor. He has long been a one-man space creator, tilting defenses his way as he moves around off the ball, but he has morphed this season into a dangerous pick-and-roll ball-handler, a clever passer, an elite wing rebounder and a disruptive defender.
Durant has attempted more shots out of the pick-and-roll this season than he did in the full 82 games last season. He has posted a career-best defensive rebounding rate, and the fancy camera/tracking system STATS LLC has installed in Oklahoma City (and nine other arenas) shows that Durant grabs an unexpectedly huge percentage of rebounds when he’s within 3.5 feet of the ball. On defense, he can still get lost now and then around screens and away from the ball. But he’s a smarter team defender now, and he uses his long arms to contest jumpers without fouling. His ability to defend bulkier players allows coach Scott Brooks much of the same flexibility that Miami’s Erik Spoelstra has in going small, though Brooks has been a bit more cautious in doing so against the best opposing front lines.
Really, there’s very little not to like here, other than the off-and-on simplicity of Oklahoma City’s Durant-centric late-game offense — a problem tied more to Brooks than Durant.
Durant isn’t the MVP, but he’s a solid second or third in a race that drops off after the top three. That is plenty good enough.
4. Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
The blemishes on Love’s MVP candidacy will be his 11 missed games and the Timberwolves’ record. Neither is a deal-breaker when it comes to (the not-so-monumental) decision to put Love fourth on a ballot. The other candidates have similar flaws, and Love deserves credit for lifting an otherwise talent-deficient and injury-riddled roster into playoff contention before injuries ended his season. I made the case for Love as a top-five MVP candidate here, and not much has changed since. His clutch résumé is fine, and the Timberwolves basically turned into the Wizards on offense whenever Love sat. Read that link for details on Love’s season, and especially his improvement on defense.
5. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Parker rounds out the ballot over a bunch of other fantastic candidates, including Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Russell Westbrook and Wade. Skeptics will read those names and think:
A. Parker doesn’t have the numbers to compete with those other guys.
B. The Spurs’ system and coaching staff are the driving forces behind the team’s unexpected repeat as the Western Conference’s likely top seed.
Neither criticism fits this season. Parker is up to 17th in PER, one spot ahead of Bryant, and he’d probably be higher if coach Gregg Popovich played him more than 32 minutes per night. Parker could play more, which makes his MVP candidacy distinct from Nash’s. If the Spurs were fighting for their playoff lives right now, we would not see Parker on the bench for the first six or seven minutes of the fourth quarter during close games.
It’s true that San Antonio’s system is beautiful and efficient. It runs on cuts, quick passing, side-to-side ball movement and unselfishness, and it has produced points at an elite rate regardless of whether Parker is on the floor or on the bench, per NBA.com. But Parker is the foundation of that system — his game is all cuts, quick passes, side-to-side ball movement and unselfishness, except that he is selfish as a scorer when the Spurs need him to be.
With Manu Ginobili out half the season, Parker has assumed a larger scoring burden without sacrificing all that much in efficiency. His shooting percentage is down to 48 percent, but that’s still quite good for a high-volume shooter, and he has made up for that drop-off in shooting by dishing more assists than ever before and cutting his turnover rate.
His mid-range jumper is as accurate as usual. That shot has been an especially important weapon because Parker plays a lot of his minutes against opposing starting lineups and with some of San Antonio’s least-dangerous scoring units. Parker starts games with DeJuan Blair, Tim Duncan, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, meaning he doesn’t get to play a ton of minutes alongside the Spurs’ most dangerous shooters — Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Ginobili. The Spurs’ offense has been off the charts with Bonner and Ginobili on the floor together, but Parker has kept it humming while logging heavy time with units that don’t space the floor quite as well.
Parker isn’t an elite defender, but he’s a steady one who understands positioning and the art of working with his big men. Parker’s highs are not as spectacular as those of some of the names left off this ballot, but none of those players have been steadier this season.