NBA Finals MVP Thoughts

The NBA Finals started with a bang but sort of petered out with a whimper.  That whimper sounded almost exactly the sound of LeBron James’ back and legs giving way to the gravity of carrying an undermanned team against a historically great foe.  With the Finals over, this is a good time to take a look at a few lessons learned and interesting issues raised by the series and its outcome.  ­-How good were the 2014-15 Warriors?

The regular season numbers absolutely support the Warriors being in the same conversation of the great teams of All-Time by both record and point differential.  Two of the best in the business, differ on the issue a little.  Kevin Pelton of ranked Golden State 15th best team ever, knocking off a few points for the fact that the Warriors were not as dominant in the playoffs.  Neil Paine of wrote that, when adjusting for competition, the Warrior’s postseason run was eighth best since 1983-84.  In reality, the rankings aren’t that different (Pelton has GS as ninth best post season run since 1983-84).

Separating dominant All-Time teams from each other is a difficult and academic task.  The Warriors are neck-and-neck with all the greats but there are two minor points that you can knock the Warriors on when compared to the other recent dominant teams. The first knock is that the Warriors don’t have a transcendent star.  Stephen Curry is really good but the numbers show him be a bit below the Michael Jordan/Shaquille O’Neal/Magic/Bird tier.  Curry’s advanced stats back this up.  Since 1983-84, Curry’s season ranks 33rd in PER, 43rd in VORP, and 49th in win shares (a counterpoint to this point is that Curry played much fewer minutes than most of these stars and he jumps up to 13th in win shares on a per-minute basis).

The second knock is that, while the Warriors never faced elimination, they twice faced 2-1 deficits with prospect of going down 3-1.  Point differential is an important indicator of dominance, the prospect of facing elimination or a potentially insurmountable deficit (and 3-1 is pretty hard to come back from) is not something accounted for in some statistical ranking models.  By comparison, the 1995-96 Bulls never had an opponent come closer than being down 3-2 (and that team, Seattle started out down 3-0).  Both of these arguments are really nitpicky complaints but that’s the only thing that can be used to differentiate the Warriors from the best team ever, the 1995-96 Bulls.

-Was LeBron the MVP of the Finals? 

The answer to this question depends on one’s individual criteria for MVP in a series.  LBJ was clearly the best player on the court at all times (35. 8 ppg, 13.3 rpg, 8.8 apg) but his shooting dipped, in part due to fatigue and desperation shots, (.398 FG%, .310 3FG%).   So, the question is how much better did James have to be than any members of the winning team to get the award.  The answer depends on how good the winners were.

Andre Iguodala ended up winning the award for helping to slow down LBJ and because his numbers were pretty good as well (16.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.0 apg).  By game score (which is essentially a shorthand for PER), James led all players at 24.6 and Iguodala was only at 13.6 (Curry actually led the team at 17.9).  It is true that game score understates defense impact but it’s not Iguodala was shutting down James or anything.  This is nothing to get too worked up over but, given this huge gap in performance, it seems like James would have been the better choice.

-The Game Score Gap

Just for fun, here are the best game scores by each team in each Finals since 1984-85, together with the game score of the actual MVP (assuming that player is different):

-2014-15 MVP: Andre Iguodala, 13.6 (2nd on Warriors) (best game score: LeBron James, 24.5)

-2013-14 MVP: Kawhi Leonard, 15.8 (1st on Spurs)(best game score: LeBron James, 22.7)

-2012-13 MVP: LeBron James, 22.5 (second best game score: Tim Duncan, 15.9)

-2011-12 MVP: LeBron James, 23.6 (second best game score: Kevin Durant, 20.7)

-2010-11 MVP: Dirk Nowitzki, 16.6 (1st on Mavs)(best game score: Dwyane Wade, 22.7)

-2009-10 MVP: Kobe Bryant, 18.7 (second best game score: Pau Gasol, 18.6)

-2008-09 MVP: Kobe Bryant, 22.8 (second best game score: Pau Gasol, 17.6)

-2007-08 MVP: Paul Pierce, 15.6 (2nd on Celts)(best game score, Ray Allen, 16.7)

-2006-07 MVP:  Tony Parker, 16.2 (second best game score: Tim Duncan, 15.3)

-2005-06 MVP: Dwayne Wade, 25.4 (second best game score: Dirk Nowitzki, 16.2)

-2004-05 MVP: Tim Duncan, 15.9 (1st on Spurs)(best game score: Chauncey Billups, 17.3)

-2003-04 MVP:  Chauncey Billups, 17.9 (1st on Pistons)(best game score: Shaquille O’Neal, 18.7)

-2002-03 MVP:  Tim Duncan, 24.8 (second best game score: Jason Kidd, 13.8)

-2001-02 MVP: Shaquille O’Neal, 30.1 (second best game score: Kobe Bryant, 20.3)

-2000-01 MVP: Shaquille O’Neal, 27.4 (second best game score: Allen Iverson, 20.5)

-1999-00 MVP: Shaquille O’Neal, 30.6 (second best game score: Reggie Miller, 17.6)

-1998-99 MVP: Tim Duncan, 22.6 (second best game score: David Robinson, 15.7)

-1997-98 MVP: Michael Jordan, 21.4 (second best game score: Karl Malone, 18.5)

-1996-97 MVP: Michael Jordan, 23.4 (second best game score: Karl Malone, 16.8)

-1995-96 MVP: Michael Jordan, 18.5 (1st on Bulls)(best game score: Shawn Kemp, 18.9)

-1994-95 MVP: Hakeem Olajuwon, 24.5 (second best game score: Shaquille O’Neal, 21.8)

-1993-94 MVP: Hakeem Olajuwon, 21.0 (second best game score: Derek Harper, 14.8)

-1992-93 MVP: Michael Jordan, 29.6 (second best game score: Charles Barkley, 23.4)

-1991-92 MVP: Michael Jordan, 25.8 (second best game score: Clyde Drexler, 18.4)

-1990-91 MVP: Michael Jordan, 29.4 (second best game score: Magic Johnson, 20.0)

-1989-90 MVP: Isiah Thomas, 20.1 (1st on Pistons)(best game score, Clyde Drexler, 21.3)

-1988-89 MVP: Joe Dumars, 22.4 (second best score, James Worthy, 17.6)

-1987-88 MVP: James Worthy, 16.6 (2nd on Lakers)(best game score, Magic Johnson, 24.4)

-1986-87 MVP: Magic Johnson, 28.3 (second best game score, Larry Bird, 19.6)

-1985-86 MVP: Larry Bird, 23.9 (second best game score, Kevin McHale/Hakeem Olajuwon, 20.3)

-1984-85 MVP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 21.7 (second best game score, Magic Johnson, 20.9)

There are a few interesting facts to glean here.  First, LBJ’s 2014-15 is the highest game score of any player not to win the MVP in the past 30 years and Iggy’s score is the lowest of any MVP winner, which kind of reinforces my initial conclusion that LBJ deserved the award.  Superficially, the circumstances surrounding Leonard’s MVP and Iguodala’s are similar.  Both small forwards played solid overall series and helped stop LeBron to win the award.  Of course, Leonard did everything a little better than AI did and the Spurs were more dominant (winning 4-1), so the justification for Leonard’s MVP is significantly stronger.

Shaq appears to have physically dominated the Finals like no player during this time.  He’s the only player to exceed 30 in game score and he did it twice in his prime (young MJ was pretty close though).

Worthy snagged the 1987-88 MVP primarily his awesome Game 7 performance in a close game (36 pts, 16 rebs, 10 asts).  Magic was better for the series and was no slouch in Game 7 either (19 pts, 14 asts).  Worthy’s high leverage triple double made more of an impression and Magic’s overall series.

-Iguodala vs. Cedric Maxwell

During the 2007 NBA Finals, I wrote an article noting that a vast majority of Finals MVPs were at least All-Stars and most were inner circle Hall of Famers.  At the time, a young Tony Parker was about to win the award and looked like he might among be the worst Finals MVP ever when considering career achievements.   Since then, Parker’s career has soared and is clearly better than the lower rung MVPs (Cedric Maxwell and Jo Jo White).  Now, we have to consider whether Iguodala falls to the bottom of the list.

Here’s how Iggy’s career to-date, compares with Maxwell and White:

-Jo Jo White: 837 career games, 17.2 ppg, 4.9 apg, 14.2 PER, 54 win shares, .087 win shares/48 minutes, 6.9 VORP (seven career All-Star games)(advance stats do not include White’s first four seasons)

-Cedric Maxwell: 835 career games, 12.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 16.4 PER, 78.5 win shares, .159 win shares /48 minutes, 28.8 VORP (no All-Star games)

-Andre Iguodala: 835 career games, 14.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.7 apg, 16.4 PER, 77.6 win shares, .124 win shares/48 minutes, 38.9 VORP (one All-Star game)

Interesting that Iggy has played as many games as both White and Maxwell.  The difference is that Iguodala is only 32 and is still going strong as a player.  Arguments could be made about which player is best to date but if Iguodala can still be a valuable player for another three or four years, this should be sufficient to keep him off the absolute bottom of the Finals MVP list.

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