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
LeBron James has been, hands down, the best player this season. (Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
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.
DURANT SAYS LEBRON DESERVES MVP AWARD
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. Read More…