Photo by Fernando Medina
The MVP award is one of the hardest to define, and though usually it is given to a statistically dominant player, it occasionally goes to a guy whose stats don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes critics agree that a certain player is dominant even if other players have a statistical edge. Other times, the award seems to be given strictly for things outside the stat sheet.
“The best player in the league” is not technically the definition of the Most Valuable Player. Statistics are usually the starting point; LeBron James’ last two MVP awards bear “witness” (ouch) to the effect of eye-popping statistical totals (28 points per game, eight rebounds per game, and seven assists per game for his first MVP season. 30 points per game, seven rebounds per game, and nine assists per game in his second MVP season).
Without question there are times when the MVP is not statistically the best in the league, though. Steve Nash, for instance, took his second MVP in 2006, averaging 20 points and 10 assists per game. He was easily outscored Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who averaged 35 and 31 points respectively in the same season. Both Kobe and LeBron put up impressive numbers in other categories as well, but lost out to Nash in the final vote.
Nash’s MVP victory shows that the award is not always directly related to statistical dominance. Intangibles are hard to define, but the award can be based on other more conceptual things like “effect on teammates,” “team success,” and “ability to take over a game.”
With that in mind, you can start to see potential MVP candidates outside the league leaders in scoring or triple-doubles. Dwight Howard may never be considered “the best player in the league” because he is strictly a back-to-the-basket player–that limits the amount of raw numbers he can produce. However, as his game continues to develop, he should be considered an MVP candidate right now.
Side note: Back-to-the-basket players can win MVP’s and be the leagues best player simultaneously, pending they are statistically dominant. Shaq won the MVP in 2000 after a season where he posted 30 points per game and 13 rebounds on a team with Kobe Bryant, who was scoring 22 a game. His stats and situation were just flat out better than Dwight’s are right now. So the positional limitations of Dwight can’t really be counted against him in comparison with Shaq’s MVP (and best player in the league) season.
Now, let’s look at Dwight statistically. He is averaging 23 points and 13 rebounds per game, similar to Tim Duncan’s numbers in 2001-2002 when he won his first MVP (Duncan went 22 and 12 on the year).
Even the biggest Dwight fan on the planet would have to acknowledge that he is not Tim Duncan yet. And while plenty of players stack the stat line more than Howard and Duncan, the biggest difference between the two is Duncan’s championship ring. Still, it’s not as though Dwight’s numbers pale in comparison to past big-men MVP’s.
The advanced statistics rate Howard more impressively. Currently he sits just a few decimals short of Lebron James in Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating. There is some criticism that the PER system is weighted too heavily on the offensive side, and Dwight is a game-changing presence defensively. So, you might even rank him a spot ahead of James if you consider his shot-blocking (2.2 blocks per game this season). Thus, if you believe player efficiency is important, Dwight deserves a close look as this year’s MVP.
What about the so-called “intangibles” of Howard’s game? Effect on teammates is certainly a plus for Dwight at the moment. The Magic are good when the floor is spread, the ball is moving quickly, and the three pointers are hitting. That offense starts with entry into a threatening post player — Dwight Howard. When he is filling it up on the low block, it enables J.J. Redick, Jameer Nelson, and the rest of the deep bombers to do what they do best. Dwight is the anchor, and he is developing into this role more and more each season.
Team success is less difficult to calculate, but harder to gauge its effect. Teams and MVP candidates alike are judged on whether or not they have won championships. I don’t think this standard is particularly fair, as only eight different teams have won a championship in the past 30 years. However, if you are a perennial contender in your conference, and if you consistently have a strong opportunity to make a run at the Finals, you should be considered “successful” enough to contain an MVP. The Magic do, so Dwight should remain in the conversation at the end of the season.
Ability to take over a game seems to be the weak link in Dwight’s program. Sure, there will be games when he goes for 40 points and 20 rebounds, but he has not proven himself in big games often enough yet to be viewed as a “juggernaut” on the level with Kobe or LeBron (he’s certainly not “the closer” at this point in his career). Perhaps it will come with more playoff experience, but that is what is separating Dwight from being considered a top contender for the MVP, and certainly what is hindering his chances at ever being considered the best player in the league.
Either way, Orlando will do well to consider keeping Dwight on staff for a few more years, especially if he shows signs that he is able to put on a Tim Duncan/Shaq-like performance in the playoffs. If he can’t do that, then he’ll just have to out perform the rest of the field of elite players statistically.