Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Basketball I.Q. 2010-11 NBA Most Valuable Player Award

In this week’s post, I will determine the players most deserving of the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player award for the 2010-11 season.  To make such an analysis more accessible, I will start with a glossary of statistical terms, which can be referred to by the reader:
SPR = [2PFGM + 1.5(3PFGM) + (FTM/2) + AST]/[FGA + (FTA/2) + AST + TOV]
TOT = TOV/[TOV + FGA + (FTA/2) + TRB + STL + AST]
SAR = [FGA + (FTA/2)]/AST
E = SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)
wCE = (MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
P/E = Salary/[SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
wP/E = Salary/(MPG/48) x [SPR + TAPPS + (1 – TOT)]
EG = (Present Year’s E – Previous Year’s E)/(Previous Year’s E)
wEG = (Present Year’s wCE – Previous Year’s wCE)/(Previous Year’s wCE)

In writing this post, I set out to utilize the Basketball I.Q. advanced metrics to determine this season’s NBA Most Valuable Player.  This stands as Basketball I.Q.’s inaugural effort to determine the league MVP and, as I think the readers will see, the advanced metrics lend a fair and objective assessment to the evaluation of the NBA’s elite players.

However, it became clear to me as I calculated the stats that there are really three different ways in which one might determine an MVP:  In one instance, for example, you might try to determine the player who was truly most valuable – in other words, the player who gave you the most performance for the dollar, and thus the player whose contract represented the greatest value.

In another view, however, one could throw the acquisition cost of a player out the window and just look at what he does as a basketball player, independent of how much money that performance might cost his team in dollars.  But even this, I realized, could be viewed in two different manners:  Since players, even the league’s elite, play very different average minutes per game, this view of MVP – i.e., the best player, no matter the cost – could also be parsed by two different prisms.

In one, for example, the minutes played per game are totally ignored, and thus what you are truly measuring is how good a player is when he is on the court – in other words, who is the best player when his laces are tied, his sweats are off, and he’s in the game.  But in an alternative view, recognizing that different players might play very different amounts of minutes, you might recognize the weight of total minutes played, and correct for that – and in this instance, what you are measuring is the player who is the best over the course of 48 minutes, recognizing not just what he does when he is on the court, but for how long he does it.

Not surprisingly, my analysis yielded three different MVP’s:  One who, dollar for dollar, is the best player in the league; one who, when he is on the court, is unsurpassed in his execution; and one who, when his extensive minutes logged are considered, gives his team more minutes of excellent performance than anybody else.

I chose nine finalists for the Basketball I.Q. MVP award, all of whom are on playoff teams.  In alphabetical order, they are: Lamarcus Aldridge, Portland; Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers; Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City; Dwight Howard, Orlando; Lebron James, Miami; Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas; Chris Paul, New Orleans; Derrick Rose, Chicago; and Dwyane Wade, Miami.

The traditional basketball statistics are published in numerous venues, and so will not be reviewed here.  We will begin with one qualitative statistic (the Shot-to-Assist Ratio, or SAR) and three quantitative statistics (Successful Possession Rate, SPR; Turnover-Adjusted Points per Shot, TAPPS; and Turnovers per Touch, TOT).

                        SAR     SPR      TAPPS   TOT

Aldridge          9.64     .537     .985       .056
Bryant             4.96     .556     .954       .079
Durant             8.75     .571     1.032     .072
Howard           14.58   .530     1.005     .089
James              3.27     .607     1.006     .084
Nowitzki          7.28     .600     1.099     .060
Paul                 1.42     .684     .983       .068
Rose                2.96     .591     .941       .087
Wade               4.98     .573     .996       .082

Some things worth noting before we accumulate the quantitative statistics into valuations:  With the lone SAR in the lowest quintile (<2.89), Chris Paul is the only player in the MVP discussion who is a Primary Distributor (what the traditionalists would call a point guard).  Every other quintile has two representatives vying for the MVP honor: Derrick Rose and Lebron James are the only Combination Distributors (SAR between 2.89 and 4.70, or what the traditionalists might call a shooting guard);  Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are the only Balanced Scorers (SAR between 4.71 and 6.75, or what traditionalists might call a small forward); Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowtizki are the two Primary Finishers (SAR between 6.76 and 9.21); and Lamarcus Aldrige and Dwight Howard are the two representative Absolute Finishers (SAR above 9.22, or what is often referred to as a center).

Looking at the quantitative statistics before converting them into value, a few things stand out:  For a player who is constantly dealing the ball around the court, Paul hardly ever commits a turnover -- this is a remarkable achievement.  James, Nowitzki, Durant and Howard shoot with tremendous efficiency – a statistic even more remarkable for Howard, oddly enough, because he commits an uncommonly large number of turnovers for a big man, and shoots his free throws so poorly (both of these work against his TAPPS, and yet his is still impressive).  And in the discussion of who is more important to the Miami Heat, James or Wade, it is worth noting that James is more of a distributor than Wade (as their respective SARs attest), and yet James still scores points with greater efficiency (as evidenced by their TAPPS) -- which is not common for a player who looks to pass as much as James does.  In fact, James turns the ball over only slightly more than Wade, who is less willing to pass the ball (usually, willing passers commit more turnovers).

The next table will evaluate each players Earnings (E, which corresponds to what a player does when he is on the court); weighted Cumulative Earnings (wCE, which accounts for playing time, and is thus a better measure of what a player does over a full 48 minutes, including his time on the bench); and weighted Price/Earnings ratio, which adjusts a player’s value for his salary.

                        Salary($M)      E          wCE     wP/E

Aldridge          10.70               2.47     2.05     5.22
Bryant             24.81               2.43     1.71     14.51
Durant             6.05                 2.53     2.06     2.94
Howard           16.51               2.45     1.93     8.55
James              14.50               2.53     2.04     7.11
Nowitzki          17.23               2.64     1.89     9.12
Paul                 14.94               2.60     1.96     7.62
Rose                5.57                 2.45     1.91     2.92
Wade               14.00               2.49     1.93     7.25

So, let’s start with the player who is truly most valuable – the one who gives you the most performance for his salary.  To determine this, one would use the wP/E, which divides a player’s salary (his “price”) by his weighted earnings on the court (in this manner, the lower the wP/E, the greater the value the player brings you).  As such, the first ever Basketball I.Q. Most Valuable Players, listed one to three, are:

1.      Derrick Rose (2.92)
2.      Kevin Durant (2.94)
3.      Lamarcus Aldridge (5.22)

In this case, Rose edges out Durant not because his performance is better (indeed, the advanced metrics suggest that Durant outplays Rose by a significant margin), but because his salary is smaller.  The same is true when comparing Rose to Aldridge:  Aldridge’s value over the course of 48 minutes appears to be greater than Rose’s (in large part because of the heavy minutes Aldridge logs), but he gets paid almost twice as much.  But this award isn’t looking for the best player, it is looking for the most valuable, and in 2010-11, the clear winner (though by a narrow margin) is Derrick Rose.

But now let’s look at who is the best player when he’s checked into the game and taking it at the opponent.  The Earnings statistic (E) would be the best measure of this, since it accumulates the additive value of SPR, TAPPS and TOT without regard for playing time or salary.  As such, the first ever Basketball I.Q. Best Guys on the Court, listed one to three, are:

1.      Dirk Nowitzki (2.64)
2.      Chris Paul (2.60)
3.      Kevin Durant (2.53)
Lebron James (2.53)

In this case, salary is not considered, nor are minutes played, and Nowitzki – with his remarkable scoring efficiency (TAPPS), an excellent SPR buffeted by high percentage shooting from the field and the foul line, and an uncanny ability to take care of the ball (a very low TOT) – seems to be the most “go-to” of all the go-to guys.

Finally, let’s look at the statistic that weights performance by playing time, the wCE.  This statistic, in essence, tells you who does the most over the course of a whole game, factoring in how much time he spends on the bench (and thus is unable to provide his team the benefit of his excellent skills).  As such, the first ever Basketball I.Q. Best Players for a Whole Game, listed one to three, are:

1.      Kevin Durant (2.06)
2.      Lamarcus Aldridge (2.05)
3.      Lebron James (2.04)

This award – which probably tells you who really is the most valuable player to his team, independent of salary – is remarkably tight: Durant, Aldridge and James all accumulate a ton of minutes, and, statistically, sit right on top of one another.  Of the three “awards” – MVP, Best Guy on the Court, Best Player for the Whole Game – I think the last is the most important determinant of game achievement, while the first (MVP, considering monetary value) is the most important factor for any GM trying to put together a team -- particularly in the dawning era of a hard salary cap.

There is one final note on which I would like to comment:  Of all nine players on this list, only one made the top three for Most Valuable Player, Best Guy on the Court, and Best Player for a Whole Game.  Aldridge and James each made two out of three, which speaks to what wonderful seasons they had, and how important they are to their teams -- but they did not crack all three lists.

Only Kevin Durant brought it whenever he was on the court; brought himself onto the court whenever he possibly could; and charged his team relatively little for the outstanding services he provided.  And so, for the unified crown of MVP, the choice is clear:

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder.

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