Pre-Playoff Ennui: The Case for LeBron James as the (almost) DPOY

April 14th, 2009 by John Krolik

 

The MVP vote is all but official, and by all accounts it appears that LeBron James, in his third season of being the best player in the NBA, is going to win his first MVP award at age 24. For some reason, I’m almost strangely unfufilled by this. I think this is because the award has been completely tainted by the past few horrible selections; almost every MVP has come with a caveat-here are mine in the LeBron era:

1. Steve Nash, part one: I really thought this should have been Shaq at the time, although revisionist history tells us we were really underestimating Wade. Then again, if you’re the best player on a team as good as the Suns this year and can’t crack the playoffs, you probably never deserved an MVP.

2. Steve Nash, part deux: Maybe the worst MVP vote in history. Somehow people only talk about how Kobe got robbed this year when LeBron had better all-around numbers, more wins, similarly terrible teammates, and more actual MVP votes.

3. Dirk Nowitzki: This was a pretty meh year for individual performances overall, so they just went with the best player on the best team. Ironically, if Nash hadn’t won an MVP before this was probably the year he deserved one. 

4. Kobe Bryant: James had the best all-around numbers of anyone and carried a god-awful team, Paul had better numbers than Kobe and carried a clearly inferior team right to the top of the West, but Kobe’s one extra win was the excuse voters needed to give him a lifetime achievement award.

And yet the books will show LeBron’s season as being equal to everyone else’s. I dream of a unanimous vote, (although there will always be, ahem, complications) or at least an asterisk in the books that says “was actually the best player in the league.”

Basically, I’ve become so used to arguing passionately that LeBron was the best player in the league this time of year I have leftover righteous anger now that LeBron has had a good enough year to just power right through all the circular logic and political crap that has kept him from winning the award before.

So I’m going to use my righteous anger to make the case that LeBron deserves very, very serious consideration for the defensive player of the year award like no player since Duncan took home the award.

 

1. Clause one:  The politics of being a “great defender”

The statistics that track defense, like in all sports, are nowhere near as good as the statistics that track offense, for the simple reason offensive players are measured by doing things and defensive players should be measured by their ability to keep things from happening. So defenders, especially on the perimeter, end up getting judged by reputation rather than actual merit, especially great offensive players. On the flip side, a bad defensive reputation can dog a player for years. 

Here’s something to chew on: LeBron James was a really, really, really, really good defender last year. In the past two playoffs, Cleveland has overacheived their record because of its ability to play absolutely stifling defense, and a lot of that is because LeBron gets unleashed at the defensive end. Last year in the playoffs, Cleveland defended as well as any team in the league, and LeBron absolutely shut down Paul Pierce for six out of seven games before Pierce went on to light up the Lakers for a Finals MVP award. And yet it was Kobe who taught LeBron how to play defense this off-season. Of course. Never forget how much we in the media love a good storyline. 

LeBron didn’t have a magical epiphany. We replaced Larry Hughes’ miserable and overrated perimeter defense with Delonte West’s great on-ball defense, freeing up LeBron to roam and recover for the first three quarters. We were good enough offensively so that LeBron could expend more energy at that end. Andy and Ben showed up healthy and in-shape, allowing LeBron to trust his help more. Nate McMillan, coach of the 14th-best defensive team in the league, did not show LeBron a magic light. But of course, if we say that, there’s a more poetic reason to give LeBron the MVP this year than the fact he has much better teammates, which people just hate to acknowledge.

Part 2: The Numbers

But LeBron’s DPOY campaign is a lot more than reputation or storylines. There’s a solid case to be made based on numbers, numbers that don’t care what LeBron’s name is. Unlike some great all-around players who coast on their reputations for 35 minutes a night, play some tough D for the final 5 minutes of the game, and occasionally make flashy defensive plays and get rewarded with all-defense selections, LeBron’s defensive accomplishments show up in metrics that, while far from perfect, have none of the bias you’d expect when you’re talking about a nebulous quality from one of the game’s biggest names. So we’re going to get nitty-gritty and break this thing down. Here are my candidates, both real contenders and “control” names who are in the race on reputation, for defensive player of the year:

Dwight Howard

Kevin Garnett (hurt for too much time to actually recieve award) 

LeBron James

Kobe Bryant

Wade

Shane Battier (see note regarding Garnett)

Now here, in decending order, are the factors I put into trying to determine a DPOY:

1. Team Defense (Measured In Defensive Efficiency)

Oddly, the idea of “best player on the best defensive team” being the DPOY is much less accepted than the “best player on the best team” being the MVP, even though it’s much, much easier to attain team-independent value with statistics than it is to attain team-independent defensive value with statistics. Basically, all the statistics after this one can flat-out tell a false story much more easily than offensive statistics can be similarly manipulated, but you can’t fake having a great defensive team. I use pace-independent efficiency per 100 possessions instead of raw points or opponent’s field goal percentage, which actually hurts LeBron since the Cavs play at an extremely slow pace. Here are those rankings:

1. Howard (ORL): 99.1 (1st overall)

2. Garnett (BOS): 99.1 (2nd)

3. James (CLE): 99.2 (3rd)

4. Battier (HOU): 101.4 (4th)

5. Bryant (LAL): 101.7 (5th)

6. Wade (MIA): 104.8 (13th)

Note how there’s essentially a three-way tie for first place among the league’s three defensive teams and then a fairly significant gap; with KG missing significant time, I see this as essentially a two-way race between Howard and James. Also notice how bad Wade’s team is defensively for him to be in this discussion; with all the intangibles involved in playing defense, Wade’s in this discussion despite a middling defensive team, and his supporting cast isn’t nearly as miserable defensively as they are offensively. Moon/Marion are a composite good defender, Chalmers has defended well at the point, Haslem isn’t a liability, and JON is solid on the back-line. As comical as the Wade for MVP argument is/was, the Wade for DPOY or even all-defensive 1st time argument is exponentially more ridiculous.

I love all the logical backflips that have been made to stick Wade in the “best player” discussion with nobody mentioning the one credential that really puts him in it: in the biggest games of his life, he had maybe the best NBA finals ever and absolutely carried an overmatched team to a ring. However, the “big-game player” caveat is reserved for Bryant, whose best resume mark in that regard is being the second-best player on a juggernaut championship team 7 years ago. Please, media, stop making me dislike Wade. 

2. Defensive +/- Rating

Again, this is far from perfect and has a lurking variable in the “bad backup” caveat, but it comes as close to any individual number to capturing all the intangible things that go into playing defense. When we use it for players who play on good defensive teams, we can get good ideas of who’s doing what-that the Grizzlies go from horrible to almost decent defensively when Hakim Warrick replaced Rudy Gay doesn’t mean much for Warrick, but if a guy has a high +/- on a great defensive team, that means something.

1. LeBron James: -7.3 (the Cavs gave up 7.3 less points per 100 possessions with James on the court)

2. Kevin Garnett: -6.3

3. Dwyane Wade: -3.8

4. Shane Battier: -1.9

5. Dwight Howard: -1.5

6. Kobe Bryant: +.9

Garnett and James sticking out so far in this category is explainable on one level: their backups are primarily Wally Sczerbiak and Leon Powe/Glen Davis, none of whom are very strong defensively. Still, the facts that two of the three best defensive teams in the league go from the bottom half of the league defensively to the top of the league when they’re on and off the floor is a huge point in their favor, and is a reason I still belive KG is the league’s best defensive player when going 100%.

Battier and Bryant’s relatively low scores can be explained by the opposit phenomenon: they generally split time with Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza, two absolutely phenominal defenders. Still, in the case of Bryant, it’s hard to argue for him as an all-defensive player when he hasn’t the best perimeter defender on his own team on a night in/night out basis. Howard’s relatively low score is somewhat of a mystery to me, but one I ultimately attribute to noise considering how high he scores on other metrics. 

3. Opponent’s PER

This one is more significant for perimeter players, and has a huge caveat to it as well: good defenders will often as not draw tougher assignments than bad defenders, and hence will have higher opponent PERs than they rightfully should. Still, when used in conjuction with defensive +/- and the next metric I’ll use, it can be very valuable. (League-Average PER is 15, single-digit players should not be in a rotation)

1. LeBron James: 10.3 (Opponent PER)

2. Dwyane Wade: 12.2 

3. Shane Battier: 12.6 

4. Kevin Garnett: 13.5

5. Dwight Howard: 13.9

6. Kobe Bryant: 14.0

It’s apples and oranges to compare this rating for perimeter players and big men, as big men are mainly responsible for help defense rather than locking one man down. Another thing you look for when comparing in perimeter players if if there’s a “leak” in the other perimeter defender on the team.

To explain: generally, small forwards and shooting guards are more or less interchangeable defensively, so often instead of defending “by position” they divide it up among which player is more talented. If one swingman has a low opponent’s PER and his partner has an abnormally high one, as often as not the player with a low opponent’s PER is guarding an inferior player and leaving his partner on an island as he goes around and gambles. For LeBron, Kobe, and Artest their swingman partners (West, Artest, and Odom/Ariza) have opp. PERs lower than 15; for Wade, both Marion and Moon, good defenders, have opp. PERs higher than 17, which support’s my thesis that there’s a “leak” in Wade’s low opponent’s PER. 

4. Blocks/Steals

Obvious problems here; as stated, defense is the art of keeping things from happening, so tracking things defensive players make happen is beyond the point. Still, a block often prevents a basket and a steal results in the end of a possession, so it’s foolish to presume they have no merit. I’m no engineer, so I simply added together our candidate’s blocks and steals.

1. Dwight Howard: 304

2. Dwyane Wade: 279

3. LeBron James: 230

4. Kobe Bryant: 155

5. Kevin Garnett: 131

6. Shane Battier: 99

We expected Howard to be the king here, and Wade’s help-side numbers are simply staggering-however, it’s clear a lack of discipline and unwillingness to take tough assignments are leaving holes in that defense, although if there wasn’t that low team metric I’d be more than impressed with how Wade is shaking out here. I’d need to pull an Arnovitz to tell you what’s going on exactly, but there are holes that shouldn’t be there in Wade’s team’s defense. Erik Spolestra has done a wonderful job over there, but in the off-season this team needs to drill some rotations. There’s a pretty clear gap in the guys who are impact weak-side defenders and the guys who aren’t, although KG’s and Battier’s missed time hurts them here as well. 

5. Defensive Rebound Rate

People can argue about if rebounds should go into a DPOY conversation, but in my mind a defensive rebound is necessary to finish a defensive possession. Here, I went by rebound rate and took each player relative to their position, with tiebreakers or close calls going to the bigger men-a good rebounding center is more valuable than a good rebounding guard on the boards.

1. Dwight Howard: 29.4 DRR, 3rd among centers

2. Kevin Garnett: 26.7 DRR, 6th among power forwards

3. LeBron James: 19.0 DRR, 3rd among small forwards

4. Kobe Bryant: 12.8 DRR, 13th among shooting guards

5. Dwyane Wade: 12.3 DRR, 19th among shooting guards

6. Shane Battier: NR among shooting guards (I don’t get insider)

Pretty self-explanatory here; the for-postition adjustment ended up being unnecessary. I gave KG the bump over James because they’re close and LBJ spends time at the 4 while KG does not spend time at the 3. 

6. Defensive Rating and Win Shares

I give these extremely little value because I don’t understand them, and apparently would have to buy a book to have them explained to me. However, they interest me because there are no PER-esque catch-all defensive metrics, and those are reputation-independent. With these, I give a point in favor if they do well on them but don’t take away if they do badly-basically, they’re extra credit. 

Defensive Rating:

1. Dwight Howard: 94.8 (1st overall)

2. Kevin Garnett: 97.3 (2nd overall)

3. LeBron James: 99.0 (3rd overall)

4. Kobe Bryant: 105.0 (NR)

5. Dwyane Wade: 105.0 (NR)

6. Shane Battier: 105.0 (NR, I’m pretty sure this isn’t a mistake that they’re all the same)

Defensive Win Shares:

1. Dwight Howard: 7.5 (1st overall) 

2. LeBron James: 6.4 (2nd overall)

3. Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant: 4.2 (T-17th overall)

4. Kevin Garnett: 4.1 (19th overall)

5. Shane Battier: 2.9 (NR)

Again, I’m not sure what really to make of these; they appear to mainly rely on blocks, steals, team defense, and minutes played ( the latter only for WS.) 

What you should take away from this:

LeBron James is head and shoulders above the other perimeter MVP candidates in nearly every defensive category I had listed, and it’s tough to get away putting him as one of the three best defenders in the NBA-as he is on offense, his all-around game excellence is evident in these metrics.

I probably should have included Paul in here-he’d do well on these.

The toughest judgement call you have is Wade vs. Battier on the defensive end. 

Part 3: Beyond the Statistics

Again, I find it interesting not that LeBron’s not the favorite, but that he’s not in contention for the award, as his arguments for DPOY essentially mirror the “beyond the numbers” type of logical caveats that have kept LeBron from winning the MVP when metrics point his way. 

LeBron, critized for having a “one-dimensional” offensive game, has become the league’s most versatile defensive players. He can, and has, guarded the 1 through the 4 effectively. He’s as good of a help-side defender the league has, and he’s as capable of anyone at locking his man down. His leadership is evident; a center is expected to be a defensive anchor, but LeBron has gone above and beyond to not coast on defense but instill a defensive mentality from the small forward position. His chase-down blocks are the most YouTube-able defensive plays this side of LaPhonso Ellis, and have the kind of asthetic sense of wonder long attributed to Kobe’s picture-perfect twisting fadeaway 24-footers that somehow managed to be insane and textbook at the same time. He’s smarter on that end than Howard, and never gets into foul trouble or bites hard. In crunch-time, where most of the offense is simple ISOs or pick-and-rolls, he’s much more valuable shutting down the other team’s money player than Howard is helping. By non-advanced metrics, the Cavaliers appear easily the best defensive team in the league. It’s interesting that he’s not reaping the benefits of the logic that went against him in MVP/”best player” arguments for years on the defensive side of the coin.

Okay, I just wrote 2,700 words on this. Why?

-Because it’s time someone analyzed the DPOY race with the same detail the MVP award is looked at.

-Because LeBron’s defense goes beyond reputation or storylines.

-Because I’m trying to work off playoff terror and years of MVP arguing has broken my brain. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m made it to the 5th and final book of 2666 and I want to finish that thing.

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