The Dirty Secret Behind “Dwight for MVP”

My feeling: Lovers of the objective choose Dwight over Derrick, but they choose Dwight over LeBron based on the subjective. This is the irony of a clear MVP battle line, our generational war between metrics and Maudlin: Stat-hurling Howard backers might be taking D12 for some of the same reasons pundits pick Rose.

Dwight is a better MVP than Derrick in terms of on-court contributions, a point made well enough to chase Rose supporters into the vagaries of narrative. But, stories are powerful, in so far as people want them to be reality. “Iverson has an indomitable will” was more compelling than, “Shaq is still larger than other people.” Nobody roots for a guy who could step over a standing Tyrone Lue. In the end, Iverson’s cult of personality culled more votes than Shaq’s real contributions. Story favors the small guard.

Today, a new small guard, a similar story. Since Rose’s raw numbers can be questioned, his narrative is greased with “contagious passion,” “work ethic,” and “desire to win.” This is when pundits usually credit a player for being “humble” as though basketball victories are God’s reward for hating yourself. The point here isn’t to deride Rose–who deserves to love himself with a suffocating hug–but simply to parse the rationale of his MVP supporters. Theirs is a case built on factors we cannot quantify, ghosts we cannot touch.

The opposing camp is replete with basketball writers who focus on the tangible, often with the kind of focus that cuts diamonds into razor blades. And they are in near unanimity on backing Howard, which I find curious because LeBron James would be a more viable candidate, statistically speaking. By many measures, James is a better choice–albeit marginally. He’s leading Howard in PER, WARP, and WS. Dwight has a better adjusted plus-minus, but LeBron has a better unfiltered mark. And James is playing more minutes.

So, what gives? Why are those depicted as numbers-brainwashed choosing against the top numbers guy?

My suspicion is that story plays a role here, too. While many metrics-oriented writers have no issue with the Decision, they’re realists about what that does to LeBron’s MVP chances. Also, the Heat did not help his case by ducking preseason expectations. So it makes sense to back the politician, er, player who can win.

But, some stat-steeped writers just plain prefer Dwight Howard as an MVP. The oft-cited reason is “defense,” and Howard is great at it. Orlando is a top defensive unit, despite carrying some doughy sieves (I call them “funnel cakes”) on the roster.

Dwight’s defense is laudable, though I ask: Is there really a way for us to know if he’s defensively better than LeBron? While center is probably a more important position on that end, James can play multiple positions. LeBron’s defensive plus-minus exceeds Dwight’s which could mean a whole lot and could mean absolutely nothing. And, how much of Orlando’s stingy success is attributable to Stan Van Gundy’s team principles? Scott Skiles seems to always turn lackluster rosters into rabid rim shrinkers. Coaching could trump talent when it comes to cohesive basket prevention. Choosing Howard on the basis of his defensive superiority is fraught with subjective judgments, even if the goal is to better appreciate winning basketball.

Another argument made in Howard’s favor is the idea of irreplaceability. There are so few centers in the league and Orlando is so starved for size. Take Dwight off the Magic and he leaves a crater that could cradle a planet. While I understand that Howard has a unique irreplaceability, I’m not sure irreplaceability is the same as value. Why should players get more credit for having their importance inflated by an imbalanced roster? Also, the idea of irreplaceability leads me so far down the subjectivity rabbit hole, that lava licks my shoes into burning puddles.

For instance:

  • What if LeBron played for the Magic this year instead of Dwight? Would Orlando have been better? How would we know?
  • In this scenario, are we counting the Magic as having Gortat, whom they traded in large part because they already had Howard? We’re now playing with multiple hypothetical realities.
  • James might make a theoretical Magic better than Howard could. But, if Dwight replaced LeBron on the Heat, I believe Miami would improve. What do I do with that supposition?

My brain is now funnel cake, one that could sugar shock a zombie.

Pundits see Chicago’s team success and credit their best player for it, though other factors are generating wins. Well, intelligent writers see Orlando’s defensive success and credit their best player for it. This may well be a correct assessment, but it’s a difficult one to prove given the complexities of defense.

When the difference between players is marginal–as is so with LeBron and Dwight–even the best statistical minds must rely on narrative, belief and  imagination. Logic may have gotten us to this point at which reasonable people can disagree, but once we’re there, it’s no longer useful. The dirty secret behind “Dwight for MVP” is that an objective rationale for his victory doesn’t really exist.

Twitter: @SherwoodStrauss

Email: ethanstra@gmail.com

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  2. Derrick Rose for MVP: Is it too late for a debate?
  3. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 2: Beat those Heat!
  4. The Boston Celtics’ Secret To Efficient Crunch Time Scoring
  5. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 11: LeBron is Most Villainous Player
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