Selecting the NBA MVP: Slow-Roasted with Rosemary & Lemon

This is a guest post by Lance Rodeo.

The MVP race in the NBA this season has certainly been an interesting one. Now that James Harden has defeated Russell Westbrook in the playoffs, it’s no question that he’s the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, right? But Westbrook had a historic year built around triple doubles; he’s gotta be the MVP. Let’s not forget how Kawhi Leonard has led the Spurs to another great season without all the fanfare. That’s the true measure of value. But, let’s all be honest, LeBron James is really the best player on the planet and should be winning the MVP every season.

See where this is going? For an award that’s supposed to be granted to the player with the most value, we sure do have a hard time defining what exactly “valuable” means. Every year there’s a debate, and justifiably so, about who should receive this prestigious regular-season accolade. So how is it decided currently? Well, the NBA assembles a super-secret squad of select sports media savants to select the superior superstar of the season. Seriously. This election committee apparently hosts upwards of 100 members who vote for their top five, with their number one getting the most vote-points, and their number five getting the least. As you can expect, this leads to all sorts of balloting madness such as Marc Gasol getting votes ahead of Steph Curry in 2015 and Chris Paul ahead of LeBron James in 2013.

So how does one avoid the wacky madness that is subjective sports-media opinion? A few years back, I came up with an idea. I’ve written about it before and I feel that it’s a decent-enough method to selecting the likely most-high-caliber hoops star of the regular season.

Fantasy sports is big business these days. It has turned the once-mindless sports-loving jocks into the now-astute number-crunching analytical nerds they previously loathed. Stats have always been a part of the game, but thanks to fantasy, they now rule supreme. While fantasy football is king, fantasy basketball has found its place in our hearts, as well. Typical fantasy sports are played head to head (I’ll try not to dive too hard into the specifics of the different fantasy games because then we’d be here all day and I know you’ve got things that you need to do.), but there is another lesser-known type of fantasy basketball game out there known as rotisserie. In the rotisserie game, you draft your usual cast of hard court characters, but instead of facing against a buddy’s team for the week, you’re now against every team, every week, in a race to the top. Points are determined as follows:

Let’s say that there are 3 teams in the league.
Team 1 has accumulated 550 rebounds, 780 points scored, and 470 assists total for their team.
Team 2 has 600 rebounds, 600 points scored, and 200 assists.
Team 3 has 300, 400, and 150, respectively (clearly not a good draft there, Team 3).

Team 1 will get 2 points for rebounds, 3 points for points scored, and 3 points for assists, totaling 8 points for their team.
Team 2 gets 3 for rebounds, 2 for points, and 2 for assists, totaling 7 points.
Team 3 gets 1, 1, and 1, respectively (get it together, Team 3!).

Based on the rotisserie model, Team 1 is in the lead for the league. If it ended at this point, Team 1 would be champion based on the total accumulated stats. Makes sense, right? If not, too bad, we’ve got to move on because you’ve got things to do.

So using the rotisserie model, we could take the agglomerated stats of the NBA stars to treat them like the individual teams above to get an idea of who has contributed the most statistically during the regular season. This method takes the statistical production of a player and compares them against his peers in order to determine a leader. I mean, what’s more concrete than numbers, right?

Well, let’s test it first. Let’s see how it works with the Rookie of the Year award. For those who don’t know (and how could you not?), this is essentially the MVP award that only includes first-year players in the running. This year’s rookie class was quite unspectacular, with no clear winner so let’s see what the numbers tell us.

The recipe that we will use for the rotisserie method will consist of the eight standard fantasy basketball statistical categories. This includes points scored, total rebounds, steals, assists, blocks, turnovers, three-pointers made, field goal percentage, and free-throw percentage. With 88 first-year players logging minutes in 2016-17, that means that the guy who logged the most assists will get a score of 88 for assists. The second highest in assists will receive a score of 87, and so on, all the way down to the player with lowest assist total getting a score of 1 (remember this? I swear we just went over this).

Joel Embiid came out on fire in his first NBA season and was the sure pick for the Rookie of the Year award. However, half-way through the season, his meniscus exploded and riddled him out for the remainder of the season. With the obvious candidate down and out, we can really only turn our attention to household names such as Malcolm Brogdon (who?) and Dario Saric (gesundheit!) as the potential winners of the award. I could mention other names, but we’re already deep enough into the weeds (and NBA benches) that we may soon need to leave bread crumbs if we want to find our way back.

So, taking the aforementioned nine categories into account and assigning scores as promised, here are the top five finalists:

5. Buddy Hield – G – Sacramento Kings Score: 582
Buddy’s already played for two different franchises and his career’s just started. The good news: he’s top 5 in his class. The bad news: he plays for the Kings.

4. Jamal Murray – G – Denver Nuggets Score: 585
“The Blue Arrow” – not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need. As a Nuggets fan, I can’t hate on this. Such a sweet nickname, too.

3. Chriss Marquese – F – Phoenix Suns Score: 586
Who?!? Seriously, raise your hand if you’ve heard of this guy. Yup, that’s what I thought.

2. Dario Saric – F – Philadelphia 76ers Score: 588
Picking up where Embiid left off is Saric, AKA: “The Homie” (another sweet nickname). He’s been the second-half savior of the Sixers. Of course, it’s not hard to get minutes when your entire roster rookies and second-year players.

1. Malcolm Brogdon – G – Milwaukee Bucks Score: 617
This wasn’t even close, folks. Our only finisher to log playoff minutes in his rookie season has been a boon for the Bucks. And even if “The President” (I’m loving these nicknames) never accomplishes anything else in his lifetime, he can always look back on the game where he posterized both LeBron James AND Kyrie Irving.

I’m certainly satisfied with these results. Because this test went so well, let’s keep the ball rolling and take a gander at how this new numbers-driven method handles the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award. This award is given to the best NBA player to come off the bench in more games than he started in during the regular season. It’s the ultimate consolation for all the guys who aren’t impactful enough to break into the initial rotation; a shining light to all us “not-quite-good-enoughs” out here. The most logical way to identify these players was to only include hoopsters who started in 40 or fewer games (41 being half of all playable games) during the regular season. I took the top 200, and after a quick eyeball examination, it turned out that none of them started in majority of the games in which they played (assuming their total was fewer than the 82 possible). So I’m content that my player pool providers an accurate representation of eligible Sixth Man candidates.

When you think Sixth Man, Jamal Crawford should immediately come to mind. Not only is he the reigning title-holder, but he’s also the all-time Sixth Man King, winning the award three times (remember that next time your coach starts his own son ahead of you, kids). Maybe you’ve been watching the Houston Rockets’ three-point barrage and believe that Lou WIlliams, the 2015 winner, will take the crown again this season. Perhaps The Golden State Warriors’ “LeBron Stopper” and 2015 NBA Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala, is on your radar. You know how this works; let’s see what the numbers say.

5. Dario Saric – F – Philadelphia 76ers – Games Started/Games: 36/81 Score: 1217
Remember this guy? This Homie’s on FIYYAAAAHHHH!! I’m going to guess that most of those starts came after Embiid went down (most starts by anyone in the top 30 not-named Pau Gasol). But hey, them’s the rules and I’m not gonna be a hater.

4. Marcus Smart – G – Boston Celtics – GS/G: 24/79 Score: 1218
The secret glue that holds the Celtics together. This guy doesn everything and is their unsung hero. Wicket Smaht!

3. Lou Williams – G – Houston Rockets – GS/G: 1/81 Score: 1241
If you’ve payed any attention to the way this guy has played all season, please also note that he played the fewest minutes of the top five and only started in one game. ONE GAME. Microwave: 2017.

2. Tyler Johnson – G – Miami Heat – GS/G: 0/73 Score: 1256
The forgotten man in Miami who was almost stolen by the Nets as an unrestricted free agent during the off-season. The Heat were able to retain him, but only with a poison-pill contract that balloons at the end. Maybe if he keeps up this production, he’ll be worth that big money when it hits in two years.

1. James Johnson – F – Miami Heat – GS/G: 5/76 Score: 1299
Plain name, big game. The Heat starters should be ashamed of themselves. Clearly the bench guys are carrying the load. I guess it pays to be a Miami Johnson.

Before we dive into the main event, let’s survey our results. Does the system work? Do you think fans really want to see James Johnson hoist the trophy (which should really be called the Detlef Schrempf Trophy)? Couldn’t some people make the argument that despite the injury, Joel Embiid was the top freshman? These types of squabbles bring us back to the original intent of this exercise. The goal is to find a more objective method of determining player value using their actual statistics in comparison to their peers. Because I’m basing the scores on an actual player’s production relative to everyone else, there are no guarantees that the sexy pick will come out on top.

The biggest takeaway from these results is that by judging players based on multiple statistical categories, the ballers who rise to the top are those who contribute highly in multiple areas. Shouldn’t that be a better indication of “value” for team? Is the team’s most valuable player the guy who scores in buckets, but is a black hole when he receives the ball and a swinging gate on defense? Is the team’s most valuable player the guy who grabs 20 rebounds a game and blocks 3 shots, but can’t make a free throw and should never have the ball in his hands on offense? It seems more logical that the best player is a guy who can, and does, do it all for his team. I believe that this is what lies at the heart of the “LeBron James vs Michael Jordan” debate. We see LeBron; the guy is an athletic freak of nature. He can score at will, he can pass, he can rebound, and he’s a pretty good defender when he puts his mind to it. Revisionist history tells us that Michael Jordan was a scorer and winner, but LeBron is the better overall player, right? Well, those of us who either donned ourselves in red and rooted for His Airness, or had our hearts ripped out as he dominated the floor effortlessly in playoff games know the truth. Michael Jordan was not only one the greatest scorers in history, but he was also one of the greatest defenders. A Defensive Player of the Year award winner and perennial 1st Team All Defense (9x) player, Jordan was certainly a force to be reckoned with on the other end of the floor. He had 9 straight season where he averaged nearly six assists per game, and led the team in rebounds in the 1997 playoff despite having Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen on the team. Michael Jordan is arguably (and a damn strong argument, at that) the greatest NBA player, ever. And it’s not solely because of his winning and scoring, but also because of the way that he would dominate the entire floor on any given night.

Give me a second to get down from this soapbox.

We’ve got our Rookie of the Year. We’ve got our Sixth Man of the Year. Both judged over a series of eight categories and their impact in each. We’ve identified that the player who is most successful across these categories is likely to be our MVP. Out of 486 NBA players to log minutes this season, here are the final results:

T5. Paul George – F – Indiana Pacers Score: 3362
This is the era of do-it-all wing players and PG13 is no exception. He’s going to make some non-Indiana team very happy next season.

T5. C.J. McCollum – G – Portland Trailblazers Score: 3362
Scores are tallied across multiple categories, remember? Just because his games are on after you go to bed doesn’t mean that you can sleep on C.J. He scored more points than John Wall (#18), Giannis Antetokounmpo (#9), and Kyrie Irving (#17) and had the highest FT% of the top 6. He’s a legit threat from behind the arc and plays mean defense. The 2016 Most Improved Player of the Year keeps getting better.

4. James Harden – G – Houston Rockets Score: 3394
The Bearded One was expected to be one of the top 3 finishers. So what happened? He’s got the lowest FG% of any of the top 6 and isn’t really known for rejecting shot attempts (at either end of the floor, for that matter). It just shows how hard you have to bring it to be the top stat-dog.

3. Karl-Anthony Towns – F – Minnesota Timberwolves Score: 3406
This should come as no surprise. This kid is a freak that can do it all. He’s turning into everything we hoped Anthony Davis (#16) would become.

2. Kawhi Leonard – F – San Antonio Spurs Score: 3479
Remember this guy? Yeah, he’s secretly devouring opponents and being productive.

1. Kevin Durant – F – Golden State Warriors Score: 3490
How is Durant our league MVP despite playing in only 62 regular season games? By ballin’ outta control, that’s how! Despite the missed games, The Slim Reaper still managed 1500 points. Of the top 6, he was 2nd in assists, blocks, and field goal percentage. Anyone who’s watched them play this season will tell you that he’s been the Warriors’ best player.

There you have it. Probably not what you were expecting, but that’s why we play the game. Of course, you might be asking how LeBron James (#13) didn’t make the list. Well, let’s just say that he needs to work on those free throws (118/486 – yikes! – lowest score of the top 58). Russell Westbrook (#8)? Shooting 43% (193/486) from the field won’t get it done, buddy.

Does the rotisserie method actually work? What would you change in the stat categories? Hit me up on Twitter https://twitter.com/lancerodeo and let me know!

Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

DISCLAIMER: Lance Rodeo really has no credible basketball credentials and just likes to voice his opinion. He doesn’t really care what you think. However, if you are reading this, you’ve already read his post, anyway.