Give And Go: MVP race, NBA's third-best player, fake titles and more awards debates
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Considering five awards-related questions as the NBA's 2013-14 season hits the third-quarter mark. (All stats and records are through March 12.)
1. The race for Most Valuable Player race is shaping up to be one of the closest in league history. As of today, who would you cast your vote for: LeBron James or Kevin Durant?
Golliver: Kevin Durant. To recap, I had James as my first quarter MVP and Durant as my midseason MVP. The back-and-forth nature of the race has only intensified, as both Durant and James have found ways to transcend the headlines and news cycles by putting together performances in the season's third quarter that will be remembered by history. James's 61-point outburst against the Bobcats was a genuine "I'll never forget where I was when..." moment, while Durant has been on a completely merciless scoring streak that seems like it just might go on forever.
Let's use Jan. 22 -- the day after the Thunder's 41st game of the season -- as our cut-off point. Since that day, Durant has topped 40 six times and he's been under 30 points only seven times. On the year, Durant has hit for 40+ points in 11 games, including a career-high 54 points against the Warriors in mid-January. As noted earlier this week, he's poised to become just the fifth player ever -- joining Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady and Dwyane Wade -- to put up a Player Efficiency Rating of 30+ while also averaging at least 30 points per game.
Want another tidbit? Durant is on pace to become just the fifth player in the last 20 years -- joining David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, and James -- to shoot at least 50 percent from the field while taking 20 or more shots per game. It gets better: Jordan is the only other player besides Durant during the last 25 years to average at least 30 points, shoot at least 50 percent from the field and take at least 20 shots per game. In other words, there might be a point of meaningfully diminishing returns when it comes to Durant using possessions, but we're certainly not there yet. Keep feeding this monster!
Anyway, here's a comparison of third-quarter stats for Durant and James.
Durant: 33.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 52 percent shooting, 37.8 percent three-point shooting, +7.9 net rating, 14-7 record
James: 28.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.3 steals, 55.7 percent shooting, 38.6 percent three-point shooting, +8.6 net rating, 13-6 record
That's insanely tight, but I'll give the nod to Durant, whose Thunder have faced more adversity by virtue of reincorporating Russell Westbrook and dealing with injuries to both Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins.
Largely because Miami hasn't been able to -- or hasn't wanted to -- duplicate its soul-crushing regular season dominance from last year, there's also a sense that we still haven't seen James at his A+ level. I realize that might sound a little too touchy feely, but it doesn't quite seem right to bestow a third consecutive MVP award to a player whose numbers have dipped slightly and who hasn't quite pushed himself to the absolute limit of his powers. The last player to win three consecutive MVP awards was Larry Bird from 1983-86, and Durant's presence as a very worthy alternative makes it that much harder to put James alongside Bird in the record books. There's still plenty of time for James to force me to change my mind yet again, but for now I'll cast my vote for Durant.
Mahoney: Kevin Durant. The give and take of this MVP race makes pinning down a winner a matter of timing more than anything else, and at this particular moment I think the race leans ever so slightly toward Durant.
Let's be clear: The race is so tight at this point that most any dividing line is silly. No wealth of evidence can be mustered in support of one candidate over the other because the balance between them is so very real. Both play huge roles for some of the best teams in the league, with or without their star supporting guards; most every advanced statistical resource available has James and Durant in the top two spots, or near enough for the discrepancy to matter little; both are outstanding engines for offensive efficiency, so good that entire defenses can be schemed to stop them to no avail.
At his best, James is far and away the better defender of the two, though this season his effort on that end -- for whatever reason -- has slipped enough to narrow the gap. Almost in response, Durant's own defensive focus has waned over the last few months to the point that he's been a problem (though notably not the problem) during a particularly rough defensive stretch for Oklahoma City. Even their shortcomings are synchronized.
All of which leaves us with precious little to establish the case for one over the other -- a flimsiness that should only fuel debate further. We have little choice but to prefer James one week and Durant another, as every minor factor turns the binary in a MVP race without buffer. It matters that James has reeled off a series of five sub-standard scoring performances since his career night against the Bobcats, as does the fact that Durant has scorched through that same stretch by averaging 34.7 points per game. It matters that KD's scoring efficiency has lasted through Westbrook's return and absence and return, and all the tests of volume and prominence therein. It matters that Durant's rounded-out game has made it harder for James to claim a significant edge in overall offensive impact.
The combination of which -- alongside a host of other factors -- helps make Durant the MVP to date, though even that pick could expire by next week.
2. We know the MVP award is a two-man competition, but who deserves to be No. 3 in the voting?
Mahoney: Chris Paul. Honestly, this frequency with which I've seen this topic discussed confuses me. The third-best player in the NBA has apparently slipped out of focus, due in part to injury and the development of Clipper teammate Blake Griffin. Through it all, Paul remains both the best point guard in the game and a deserving bronze. So few players can shape a game like he can, and fewer still can exert such a profound influence on both ends of the floor.
I can understand the temptation to reward one of the game's many other outstanding superstars, but let's not use Paul's injury as a vehicle for the unheralded. At this point Paul has played in over 70 percent of the Clippers' games this season and counting. Los Angeles fared well enough in his absence, but when Paul plays the Clips outscore their opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions -- a mark that would lead the league by a mile. He is the ingredient that elevates L.A. from very good to very dangerous, and for that he rarely receives enough credit.
We can piece together why that's been the case. Griffin has had a great year, and true to narrative has taken on greater creative responsibility over the course of this season. DeAndre Jordan is more productive than ever, and has been under the microscope in his first season under Doc Rivers. J.J. Redick, Darren Collison, Glen Davis and Danny Granger have all made ripples as new acquisitions this season, stealing a headline or two from Paul along the way. Even beyond that, Paul George, Stephen Curry, Kevin Love, and Joakim Noah have all had their moment in the sun, while the biggest story line of Paul's season came from injury.
I just don't see any reason to demerit the work of a great player who, in my mind, well surpasses the conditions of overall impact necessary to qualify for MVP consideration. Paul is the best player in the league not named LeBron or Durant in the midst of a season that befits that standing. Let's not make the No. 3 slot on the MVP ballot any more difficult than that.
Golliver: Paul George. Any and all available brain power, number-crunching and narrative-processing should be reserved for the "James vs. Durant" debate. But if we must consider the ballot after those two, I think the pool of available candidates includes the likes of George, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, James Harden, Joakim Noah, Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge and Stephen Curry.
I would give George the nod over Paul and Parker on the strength of Indiana's record, his role in their fantastic defense, and his advantage when it comes to availability (he's played 600+ minutes more than either Paul or Parker). For now, I'd rather have a player that has slumped, as George has recently, than one who has missed a big chunk of the season. He definitely isn't earning any "What have you done for me lately?" points, but the Pacers still hold the East's best record and stand as the league's best defense. We shouldn't rush to toss out those credentials in favor of a flavor of the month.
While I think Griffin's season (24.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists) is worthy of serious praise, I still see Paul as the more indispensable piece for the Clippers. Indeed, if Paul maintains good health for the rest of the season and the Clippers continue their winning ways, he would leapfrog over George for the No. 3 spot on my ballot. At the third-quarter mark, Parker rounds out the top five as an acknowledgement of yet another remarkable season for the Spurs. The Frenchman is never going to win the arguments based on stats, given his limited minutes, but he's been typically superb.
My reluctance to get behind Noah, who seems to be a popular pick of late, is straightforward: the Bulls would have the 10th best record if they played in the Western Conference, If he didn't play in the East, Noah would be treated (read: ignored) a la the likes of Nowitzki, Aldridge, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, and even Anthony Davis. I love everything about Noah and his contributions this season, but it's hard to justify including any Eastern Conference players, aside from the Heat and Pacers, when it comes to the MVP discussion.
3. Does Michael Carter-Williams deserve to win Rookie of the Year even if the Philadelphia 76ers end the season on a 36-game losing streak?
Golliver: Absolutely. Mind you, I'm not necessarily saying that Carter-Williams absolutely deserves the 2014 Rookie of the Year, but I am saying that he absolutely deserves to be considered regardless of what happens around him during Philadelphia's tank-fest. If we restricted the Rookie of the Year candidate pool to only players on good teams, we'd potentially be looking at a Rookie of the Year debate between Nets big man Mason Plumlee (averages 6.3 points in 16 minutes a night) and Thunder center Steven Adams (averages 3.2 points in 14.7 minutes per night). Come on.
The top criteria for Rookie of the Year is "Does the guy play?" rather than "Does the guy play for a team that isn't a joke?" None of the last 10 Rookie of the Year award winners played for a winning team, and only Bulls guard Derrick Rose played for a team that reached .500 during his first season. The only three rookies averaging at least 30 minutes a night (in a qualified number of games) are Carter-Williams, Orlando's Victor Oladipo and Utah's Trey Burke. Not coincidentally, those are the my top three choices, in some order. Also not coincidentally, all three teams currently reside in the basement of their respective divisions. The superstars of tomorrow have to learn on the job today, and I wouldn't hold any team struggles against them. Perhaps record, or impact on winning, could serve as a tiebreaker between two equally deserving candidates, but it's certainly not a prerequisite for this award.
Postscript: in some ways, Carter-Williams' rookie season only looks more valiant after GM Sam Hinkie shipped out all the worthwhile roster pieces that once surrounded him (except for Thaddeus Young). Carter-Williams been tested in ways he surely couldn't have imagined at this time last year, given how extreme Philadelphia's rebuilding approach has been, and I would tend to view that as a positive rather than a negative when considering him for this award. We just can't expect Carter-Williams to "save" a team that is actively working to make itself an unsalvageable wreck.
Mahoney: Certainly. It would be ridiculous to hold a rookie accountable for his team's failings under any normal context, but especially so in this particular case. Philadelphia has been about as above-board as a team can be when it comes to tossing away a season. The Sixers' roster has been scraped of any talent that didn't suit the team's long-term goals, and from that Carter-Williams was left to MacGyver game-to-game competence from a rotating cast of Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner, and a host of fringe NBA players. In what world would it make sense to hold Carter-Williams accountable for that mess of a rookie inheritance?
Ben nailed the larger point, though, in the historical record of the award. Good teams rarely have both the draft picks to select solid Rookie of the Year candidates and hefty minutes to allot to a first-year player, making it rare for a ROY season to coincide with a winning one. Using team success as a restrictive criterion for this award just doesn't jibe with its history or spirit.
Of course, all of this is talking around the fact that Carter-Williams wouldn't be my pick for Rookie of the Year for entirely different reasons (Hello, rookie wall!), though those are best saved for another day.
4. The Most Improved Player award is arguably the most subjective of all of the NBA's honors. Who deserves to take home the hardware in your opinion?
Mahoney: Goran Dragic. This is always a complicated award to parse, though for now I'm coming down in favor of one of the season's most pleasant surprises. A year ago Dragic was already a quality starter; he did well in his first season back with the Suns, even though Phoenix as a team was a touch dreadful. Not much in Dragic's role has changed. He handles the ball as frequently as before, and if anything has surrendered some of his creative responsibility, when possible, to Eric Bledsoe.
Yet Dragic has swelled to become one of the most lethal off-the-dribble threats in the league over the course of this year, all without fundamentally changing his approach. Phoenix's pace and pick-and-roll-heavy style under Jeff Hornacek offers some benefit, but it's not as if Dragic was deprived of high screens last season. Between this year and last, the percentage of Dragic's scoring attempts drawn from the pick-and-roll has increased by just one percent -- hardly the basis for such dramatic improvement.
That jump came from Dragic himself, who has been as sharp and clever as ever in duping opponents with a live bounce. He's always been a slippery cover, but to hold up this level of production over three quarters of a season sets a remarkable new standard. Dragic is scoring in volume like Damian Lillard, getting to the free throw line as often as Russell Westbrook, matching Kevin Durant in effective field goal percentage, and assisting like Tony Parker. He's been unbelievably good in ways his previous performance hadn't at all suggested, and done so by his own devices.
Golliver: Anthony Davis. I selected Pacers guard Lance Stephenson at the halfway point, and I definitely see him as one of many deserving options. That said, Davis's growth from Year 1 to Year 2 has been so amazing that it's almost made up for an otherwise disastrous Pelicans season that imploded before the team had a real shot at making a postseason run.
Generally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of selecting established star players like Kevin Durant or Paul George for this award, even if their year-over-year improvement is dramatic and produces huge ripple effects when it comes to the league's power balance. But I see a difference between the strides made by those guys, who had already achieved All-Star recognition, and a player like Davis, who was this year's youngest All-Star at age 20 (he just turned 21 this week).
The biggest questions raised by Davis's 2012-13 rookie season, a campaign that saw him deal with a number of injuries, were: 1) Can he hold up to big minutes and handle the wear and tear of a full season? 2) Can he scale his production in a larger role? and 3) Can he flash the superstar potential promised by his status as the No. 1 high school recruit and No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft?
I think Davis has aced those questions by averaging 20.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.9 blocks, 1.4 steals and shooting 52.1 percent while playing nearly 36 minutes per night. He's leading his team in scoring and rebounding, he's leading the league in blocks, and his PER currently ranks fourth, behind only Durant, James and Kevin Love. Throw in the dozens of "Wow, this guy is going to be unstoppable in three years" moments he has produced along the way, and I don't think we could reasonably ask any more from such a young player. In one season, he's made the leap from "potential franchise player" to "certified franchise player" and I think that deserves the Most Improved Player recognition, even if that progress has been eagerly anticipated since he was a high school stud.
5. If you could create an NBA award of your own, what would it be and who would you give it to?
Golliver: I would add a second MVP award: Most Viral Player. This would have nothing to do with who misses the most games due to "flu-like symptoms," but would instead go to the player who produced the biggest digital moment of the season. The current awards voting process is just caked with gray areas, and this award, by contrast, would be as black and white as possible. The winner would be the player whose action during a game, whether it be a highlight or a lowlight, generated the most YouTube views (or NBA.com pageviews) within a week of it taking place on the court.
Ideally, the league could keep an updated leaderboard so that everyone -- including the players themselves -- would know that a DeAndre Jordan poster dunk from November had just been surpassed by J.R. Smith pantsing an opponent in January. Any in-season Twitter trashtalking among the players about who surpassed who would make the concept that much more intriguing.
The main goal would be to have an award that is as analytically-based as possible, in hopes of appealing to a younger audience that's engaged on social media and actively sharing the plays with their friends while also throwing a bone to fans and viewers who prefer recognition based on raw data as opposed to narratives. Superstar players would clearly have an advantage when it comes to this award, given their established popularity, but the web is pretty meritocratic and can be unpredictable. Quirky, random and totally new just might top LeBron James' latest, greatest slam. You could even convince me to open up eligibility to non-players, such as coaches or mascots, as long as their actions took place during a game. Could a Gregg Popovich rant or a Benny the Bull stunt prevail over a Kyrie Irving crossover? There's only one way to find out.
Mahoney: I'll split the Sixth Man of the Year award into an Offensive Reserve of the Year award and a Defensive Reserve of the Year award. This is a targeted effort. Chicago's Taj Gibson absolutely deserves recognition as one of the NBA's best subs, but will inevitably be overlooked in the Sixth Man running by high-scoring Jamal Crawford-types. So why not reward both? By splitting the award, the Offensive honor will go to those who traditionally win anyway, while the Defensive hardware will help balance acclaim on the other side of the ball.
This year's winner would definitely be Gibson, but other candidates might include Draymond Green, Omer Asik, and Jermaine O'Neal -- all worth of recognition for their unheralded work. Historically, award voters have had a very hard time accounting for defense, whether in strength or weakness. Separating out defensive impact, then, is the best means of seeing it consistently recognized.
Ideally, this change might also shift emphasis away from the reserve gunner as the only prominent bench archetype. Second-line players can influence the game in all kinds of ways, and by specifically awarding those who aren't just putting up points, the NBA could broaden perception of what makes a quality bench player. This post has been updated to correct an MVP statistic. Larry Bird, not Wilt Chamberlain, was the last player to win three consecutive MVP awards.