In This Article…
As the NBA resumes after the All-Star break, and what promises to be the most eventful “stretch run” in years gets under way, there is one topic that will be more and more on NBA fans’ minds.
Who is this year’s MVP?
While there are currently four names in the MVP discussion, I would argue that only three of these four — Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, and Kobe Bryant — are legitimate MVP candidates.
From these three, it is clear now, and should become even more so over the next eight weeks, which is the MVP.
Ladies and gentlemen, the universally recognized best player in the world and the 2008 NBA MVP: Kobe Bryant.
At this point in the season, the general consensus has settled on four candidates for this year’s MVP Award. In no particular order, they are as follows:
A decent, if not always legitimate, case can be made for each of these four players.
LeBron James’ Cavaliers are not on track for anything more than a halfway decent season (currently on a 46-win pace), but the argument for James is that his supporting cast are a random collection of “scrubs,” and that his ability to win even as much as he has with so little help from his supporting cast is remarkable in and of itself.
Kevin Garnett’s Celtics are the owners of the NBA’s best record, and started the season 32-3, on pace for an unprecedented 75 wins. While they have since cooled off somewhat, going only 9-8 since their spectacular start, they are nonetheless on track to win anywhere from 58 to 65 games. Recognized as the best player on the best team, Garnett’s candidacy is in keeping with the precedent established by MVP voters over the past 25 years.
Chris Paul is the leader and the key to a Hornets team that has surprised everyone this year, boasting the best record in the ultra-competitive West. With his Hornets on pace for a 58-win season after having won only 39 games last season with essentially the same team (though admittedly less healthy), Chris Paul is a very strong MVP candidate in only his third year in the NBA.
Kobe Bryant’s Lakers are the other surprise team out West. Having done what LeBron is now doing over the last two years, Kobe now has the Lakers on pace for anywhere from 56 to 62 wins in what was predicted to be a poor season for this Lakers team. As the universally acclaimed best player in the world, he is now leading his team to a regular season record that may finally result in his first MVP Award.
I have already discussed the criteria for legitimate MVP candidacy in a previous article, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that MVP voters have come to require all legitimate MVP candidates to come from a team that wins 50 or more games in the regular season, with the MVP usually being described as “the best player on (one of) the best team(s).” (While the minimum requirement is 50 wins, the voters tend to favor a player from a team with 55 or more wins.)
Therefore, while fans and the occasional media rebel may argue the true value of one player to his team, as compared to another, a strictly literal definition of the term “most valuable” does not apply to the NBA’s MVP Award.
Click here for a more in-depth discussion of this aspect of MVP candidacy.
This is where the MVP race between the three remaining legitimate contenders becomes interesting. Having met the minimum requirements — being considered one of the most valuable players to his team among those candidates whose teams are on pace for 50 or more wins — there are several additional factors that may separate one MVP candidate from another.
The first of these, again, is his team’s record. While this has already been mentioned as a minimum requirement for legitimate MVP candidacy, it can also serve to separate one legitimate candidate from another in a close race. Should all other factors be equal, the player whose team wins 67 games should receive the award over the player whose team wins 55 games.
Another factor that can separate one MVP candidate from another is the teammates he plays with. Should all other factors be equal, the player who plays with the weakest supporting cast should receive the award. Therefore, while playing with two other All-Stars (such as in the case of Kevin Garnett) can be helpful in leading a team to one of the best records in the league, it may reduce a player’s candidacy if another player is able to do the same while playing without the help of any other All-Stars.
The conference in which an MVP candidate’s team plays should also be a significant factor in determining the recipient of the award. As I have previously discussed, the Western Conference is far, far superior to the Eastern Conference. Therefore, a player’s accomplishments in the West should be weighted more heavily than similar accomplishments in the East.
Yet another factor that can come into play when judging between MVP candidates is expectation — or, more specifically, lack of expectation. Should all other factors be equal, the candidate whose team’s success comes as a surprise should receive the nod over the candidate whose team has performed as expected, because unexpected success often indicates a greater achievement.
Finally, injury can also be a factor in judging between MVP candidates. For example, if a player’s team plays as well without him as it does with him, his MVP chances may decrease. But if his team plays poorly without him, and yet he returns to lead them to one of the better records in the league, his perceived value should increase.
On the other hand, if a player’s team does poorly without him and he is not able to return soon enough to lead them to one of the best records in the league, he may fall out of contention for the award because of his team’s lesser record.
Of course, if a player plays through significant injury and manages to lead his team to a successful record, his accomplishments will be seen as even more significant, and are that much more likely to be rewarded.
I’m not going to spend much time on LeBron, as his team’s record does not satisfy the minimum requirement for MVP candidacy. As I have previously discussed, the Cavs’ current pace of fewer than 46 wins is not sufficient for MVP candidacy, therefore LeBron is not a legitimate contender for the Award.
In addition, LeBron’s candidacy is further damaged by the fact that he plays in the Eastern Conference — where a 46-win season would be the equivalent of only a 42-win season, at best, were the Cavs in the Western Conference. Given this, it should be clear that James cannot be considered a valid MVP candidate this year. (Note: Should the Cavs finish the season on a Bostonian 26-3 run or better, I will revise my position on LeBron’s MVP candidacy.)
It should be noted that the NBA and the collective sports media would love nothing more than to be able to give James the Award — a fact which, no doubt, is largely responsible for his inclusion in this conversation despite his very obvious ineligibility. Should you doubt the favoritism LeBron receives, be sure to read the sidebar, entitled LeBron’s Get Out of Jail Free Card.
Kevin Garnett’s Celtics certainly project to have the record necessary for MVP consideration… and then some. The Celtics are likely to finish with the NBA’s best record by a very comfortable margin, since Detroit, which boasts zero MVP candidates, is the only other team currently on pace for 60 or more wins.
The case for Garnett as MVP has both pros and cons. First, the pros:
These two facts, when taken in the context of the Celtics’ league-leading record, are the primary basis for Kevin Garnett’s MVP candidacy.
And now, the cons:
In light of all of this, it would seem that there are as many factors working against Garnett’s candidacy as there are working for it. Even in his strengths — the best record in the NBA and the league’s best defense — he must share much of the credit with others, and recent events, such as the team’s success without him, would seem to undermine his MVP candidacy.
There are very few negatives and a long list of positives in Chris Paul’s MVP candidacy. First, the pros:
While there is very little to detract from Chris Paul’s claim to MVP candidacy when compared to LeBron James or Kevin Garnett, there are a few minor cons to mention, which will make more sense when all is said and done.
In fact, virtually the only possible holes in the argument for Chris Paul’s MVP candidacy revolve around his strong supporting cast. So the fact that he doesn’t receive the nod here has almost nothing to do with what Paul has or has not done, for he has had a truly formidable year. Instead, it has everything to do with what yet another player has done, for there is one who has done even more.
Over the past two years, Kobe Bryant has done everything humanly possible to help the Lakers win — leading a team even worse than this year’s Cavs to a better record in a better conference. He has performed minor miracles on a daily basis. But despite his heroics, he was unable to lead what amounted to a D-League team (in 2005-06) to 50 or more wins.
Now, that is changing. As Bryant continues to do everything anyone has ever asked of him, and more, his Lakers are on pace for anywhere from 56 to 62 wins.
Bryant has led the Lakers past the Suns for the Pacific Division lead, currently one game behind New Orleans for the best record in the West, with the hardest part of their schedule behind them. He has the Lakers on an overall pace for 56 wins. However, since the Pau Gasol trade, the Lakers have won 7 of 8 (and 9 of their last 10) — a pace that, if maintained, could result in an astounding 62-win season. If they continue to play as they have since Gasol’s arrival — especially after the return of Bynum — the Lakers could very possibly finish the season with the best record in the West.
This removes the only remaining excuse MVP voters have had for not giving Bryant the Award: the Lakers sub-standard record of the past couple of years. He has sacrificed his personal stats for the benefit of the team — taking 7 fewer shots and scoring 7 fewer points than he did two years ago — while trusting his teammates in ways that his critics claimed he never would. Now, if the universally acclaimed best player in the world leads his team to 55 or more wins in what experts are calling the most competitive conference ever, the voters will have no remaining excuses for not giving him the MVP Award he rightly deserves.
But there’s more.Not only does Kobe have the Lakers on track for a very impressive win/loss record, but he has kept the Lakers playing .500 basketball after Andrew Bynum’s injury and before Pau Gasol’s arrival — during a time when many thought the Lakers might even fall out of the playoff race. Overall, the Lakers are 12-6 since Bynum’s injury.
Of the 5 losses suffered during the post-Bynum/pre-Gasol period, all were to teams with winning records, and four were against 4 of the top 5 teams in the NBA: Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, and Detroit.
These accomplishments — the Lakers overall record, and their recent record without Bynum — are even more impressive in light of the multitude of injuries the Lakers have suffered. In addition to Andrew Bynum’s 8-week absence, defensive swingman Trevor Ariza is also out for 8 weeks (now looking more like 12 or more weeks), Chris Mihm continues to struggle with injury, and Vladimir Radmonovic and Luke Walton have each missed a number of games with ankle injuries that are still not fully healed. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol did not arrive on the scene until very recently. Thus, Kobe’s ability to keep the Lakers on pace for 55+ wins despite the constant flux in the roster around him cannot be overlooked.
In addition to constant injuries to those around him, Kobe has himself been hit with food poisoning, flu, wrist injury, shoulder injury, ankle injury, upper respiratory infection, and dislocation of the pinky finger on his shooting hand — and has played through all of it, not missing a single game. Aside from the first two games following his initial pinky injury (in which he made up for poor shooting with very high assist totals), he has played excellent basketball in all of these games.
Now, having aggravated his pinky injury, he is currently playing through an injury on his shooting hand that will require surgery, with his pinky finger taped to his ring finger. He intends to do this through the rest of the season, the Playoffs, and the Summer Olympics.
The significance of this cannot be emphasized enough. This is what MVPs do. Compare this to LeBron’s lesser injury to his non-shooting hand earlier in the season: LeBron sat out six games, all of which the Cavs lost.
Were this the East, Kobe could probably afford to have the surgery, miss six weeks, and return for the Playoffs. But with 4.5 games separating the 8 playoff teams in the West, the Lakers cannot afford to play without Kobe Bryant. It could mean falling out of the Playoffs entirely.
Thus, if Kobe is able to successfully play through an injury that would result in a minimum 6-week absence for any other player, and in so doing leads the Lakers to one of the best records in the NBA, there will simply be no way for the voters to deny him any longer.
In addition, Kobe’s Lakers have the surprise factor going for them, much like Chris Paul’s Hornets. Before the season started, many thought the Lakers would be hard pressed to make the Playoffs. Many others assumed Kobe’s days as a Laker were numbered. All expected this season to be grim, tense, and full of frustration. As it turns out, none of the above has been true.
Kobe has formed closer bonds than ever with his teammates, has become a stronger leader, and the Lakers were considered one of the best teams in the West even before the Gasol trade! As such, the Lakers may be an even bigger surprise than the Hornets.
Also like Chris Paul, Kobe and the Lakers have achieved all of this in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Again, I couldn’t possibly overstate the significance of this. Were this Lakers team in the Eastern Conference, they would likely be on pace for 65 wins — or more! The West has long been drastically better than the East, but this year it is also drastically better than previous Western Conferences. To be achieving such success at such a time as this in the Western Conference is truly impressive.
Unlike Paul, however — not to mention Garnett — Kobe has accomplished all of this without any All-Star help. Pau Gasol only recently arrived, and Andrew Bynum, while significantly improved and a dramatic upgrade over Kwame Brown, was nonetheless averaging numbers similar to Cleveland’s Zydunas Ilgauskas — 13 points and 10 rebounds — before his injury. While his potential is seemingly limitless, he is not an All-Star yet. And while these numbers are similar to Tyson Chandler’s 12 points and 12 rebounds, Bynum is not yet the defensive presence that Chandler is in the paint.
And while the Hornets’ fourth-best player is Peja Stojakovic — averaging 16.3 points per game and leading the league in 3-point shooting — the Lakers top scorer from behind the 3-point line is, in fact, Kobe Bryant himself.
As for negatives, I can think of nothing to detract from Kobe’s MVP candidacy. He does not play in the weaker East, like LeBron and Garnett. He does not have the luxury of playing along side other All-Stars, like Paul and Garnett. He has played through every type of injury and ailment imaginable, unlike any other candidate — and plans to play for the next several months with a shooting hand that needs surgery. And he is leading the Lakers to one of the best records — perhaps the best record — in the West. (Note to the reader: If you can think of any factor that could detract from Kobe’s MVP candidacy, by all means, clue me in.)
All this with a team that was expected to struggle this year.
The 2007-08 MVP
In conclusion, I would argue that there are only two true MVP candidates, as LeBron James doesn’t qualify and Kevin Garnett is not a standout candidate while playing with Pierce and Allen.
Of these two true MVP candidates, Kobe Bryant should be the clear winner of this award — not that Chris Paul has been anything less than wonderfully exceptional.
Kobe Bryant has just been that much more so.
And should this inevitable conclusion not yet be clear, rest assured that after eight more weeks of playing through significant injury to lead the Lakers to one of the best records in the league, it will be.