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On Stats Alone

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At the end of last week, I tried an experiment. The idea was to take a sample MVP vote using blind comparisons of the candidate’s statistical profiles. Everyone has different criteria for measuring the value of a player, so reaching a consensus on a ‘most valuable player’ is nigh impossible. I wanted to see what the discussion would look like when all the variables, except statistical production were removed. Last night at 6PM I marked down the results. Up to that point, 527 votes had been cast and the results looked like this:

[table id=46 /]

The rules of my experiment allowed people the option of up to three votes, not ranked, for a deserving MVP. In retrospect this was probably not the best way to do it. The way the numbers worked out it’s clear that some visitors chose to vote only once, some multiple times. Regardless, it’s incredible that LeBron James ended up with more than a third of the vote. That means nearly every participant, whether they voted multiple times or just once, selected his statistical profile as award-worthy. His numbers are overwhelming for sure, but most of the early MVP columns I’ve read don’t seem to consider him a lock.

There is support for Kevin Durant and the way he has led the Thunder to the top of the Western Conference. There is support for Chris Paul and the way he has turned the Clippers around. There is support for Kobe Bryant and the way he has kept the Lakers afloat. There is support for Derrick Rose, who has led the Bulls to the best record in the league. Even Kevin Love is mentioned often for helping return the Timberwolves to relevance. However in this experiment, all of those stories paled in comparison to LeBron’s numbers.

My point is not that LeBron is the only, or even the best candidate; for those arguments I encourage you to return to whatever criteria on which you normally rely. This experiment was merely meant to illustrate how HUGE a role narrative plays in the designation of Most Valuable Player. On statistical production alone LeBron should be an overwhelming favorite to win the award. In reality that is probably close to where he stands, but tons of basketball fans and writers are seem to be looking for an out. His story, at this point, lacks gripping universal themes. The bottom line is that he is supposed to be dominant and so are the Heat. ‘The Decision’ and his playoff performance the past two seasons has left many with a distaste for his particular brand of dominance. In the end his statistical performance will most likely overwhelm the narrative and he’ll be crowned this season’s MVP. But the fact that his statistical performance will have to overwhelm a less compelling story speaks to the balance by which this award is usually judged.

I know that this experiment was not pure and some features of the statistical profiles make them recognizable, even with the names removed. Still I found the results fascinating. I watched the votes closely as they came in. After the first seventy votes, Tyson Chandler ranked fourth, trailing only LeBron, Durant and Rose. In the first hundred and fifty votes, not a single one was cast for Chris Paul or Dwyane Wade. Those, and other nuances, have inspired me enough to try again. I’m hoping to have blind profiles up for Rookie of the Year sometime early next week. Come back and cast your vote.

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