Kobe for MVP?

Posted on March 30, 2008 by

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Apparently there are many candidates for MVP, but two front-runners.  Some people favor LeBron James.  Others insist on Kobe Bryant.   What do these two candidates have in common?  Each are currently ranked first and second in the points scored per game rankings (MVP voting is about more than scoring, but scoring certainly plays an important role).

The case for LeBron is actually fairly strong, although I don’t think he should be the final choice.  That story, though, will have to wait for another day.  Today I want to talk about why Kobe shouldn’t be among the front-runners for this award.

And before I get to the details, let me summarize the basic argument.

– Yes, Kobe is a great player.  He just isn’t the most productive player in the NBA.

-The Lakers improvement this year is not about Kobe.

– Kobe, who has not been voted MVP in the past, is actually not much different from what he was in the past.  He just has better teammates.

Okay, here are the details supporting these points.

Let’s start with what the Lakers have done since Shaq left town. 

The Won-Loss Record 

Here is the team’s won-loss record in the first three seasons of the post-Shaq era:

2004-05: 34-48

2005-06: 45-37

2006-07: 42-40

For three seasons without Shaq, the Lakers won 49% of their regular season games.  In sum, this team was about average.

This year the team is much improved.  After 74 games the Lakers have a record of 50-24.  But here is how this record breaks down:

With Andrew Bynum: 24-11

Without Andrew Bynum (before Pau Gasol): 6-5

With Pau Gasol: 15-4 (15-3 if you ignore the game where he was hurt and played only 2 minutes)

Without Pau Gasol: 5-4 (5-5 if you count the game where he was hurt and played only 2 minutes)

With either Bynum or Gasol in the line-up, the team is 39-15 (or 39-16 if we count the Gasol-injury game).  Without Bynum and Gasol the team is 11-9 (or 11-10 with the Gasol-injury game), or pretty much what they were the past three seasons.  In sum, it looks like the Lakers have improved because the talent around Kobe has improved. 

The Wins Produced Story

The story of this team’s won-loss record is also told when we look at Wins Produced.

Table One: The Lakers after 73 games

Table One presents two projections of the Lakers.  The first presumes each player offers as much – on a per-48 minute basis – as he did last year.  The second is based on what the players did this year.

As Table One illustrates, the Lakers are improved this year.  Based on last year’s numbers, this team should have 41 wins after 73 games (Sunday night’s game is not included), or be on pace to win 46 games.  It’s important to note that without Gasol, the Lakers would be on pace to win about 42 games, or right about where they were last year.

The Lakers, though, have had the services of Gasol.  In addition, this team has made a leap forward because it has seen improved production from existing players. The biggest jump we see is in the production from Andrew Bynum. Given what Bynum did last year, the Lakers should have expected about three wins from Bynum’s 1,008 minutes.  Instead, the Lakers have received 8.3 wins, or an additional 5.5 victories.  Bynum’s improvement accounts for about half of the leap we have seen in this team’s win total.  The other half can be traced to the improved play of Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher.

Turning to Kobe, the numbers do tell us that he has improved, but not by much.  And that point brings us to the last story.

Comparing Kobe to Kobe

Here is how Kobe has done in voting for the MVP award since Shaq departed.

2004-05: No Votes

2005-06: 22 first place votes (out of 125), 4th place finish

2006-07: 2 first place votes (out of 129), 3rd place finish

Yes, Kobe has gotten some attention.  But he has not come close to winning. Suddenly, though, Kobe is considered a favorite.  The numbers seem to suggest, though, that Kobe is not really a different player.

Table Two: Comparing Kobe to Kobe

Table Two compares Kobe to Kobe.  Specifically, Kobe in 2007-08 is compared to both Kobe last season and his career averages (before this season). 

Relative to last year his shooting efficiency from the field is basically the same and he is slightly less efficient from the line.  He is also more prone to turnovers.  But he is somewhat improved because he is getting more rebounds and steals.  Specifically, per 48 minutes, Kobe is grabbing one more rebound and 0.6 additional steals.  

So let’s ask this question.  Did Kobe fail to win the MVP award in the past because his rebounding numbers were slightly lower (in the mind of the voters)? I find that story to be implausible.

What I think has happened is that the Lakers have improved.  As a consequence, people’s view of Kobe has changed.  But the value of Kobe really hasn’t changed much.  All that really changed was the value of his teammates.   So if you didn’t think Kobe was MVP last year (and 127 of the 129 voters did not), I don’t think you can change your story this year.  

Comparing Kobe to Manu

One last observation:  The last column of Table Two reports the numbers posted by Manu Ginobili this year.   A few weeks ago John Hollinger argued that Manu is as good as Kobe.  I will say slightly more. I think the numbers tell us that Ginobili is offering a bit more.

With respect to most stats, Ginobili and Kobe are about the same.  The one difference is shooting efficiency from the field, where Ginobili is the better player.  Consequently, Ginobili offers a higher Win Score (and Wins Produced per 48 minutes). 

So should Ginobili be MVP?  No, there are a few players offering even more.  None of these players, though, are named Kobe.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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