At this point, the general consensus is that the MVP race is down to two serious candidates: LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
So who deserves the award?
The race is so tight that it may very well come down to the last few games of the season, but let’s take a look at each player’s statistical resume thus far and see if we can identify the front-runner.
EPG: Efficiency Per Game from NBA.com
PER: John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating
WS/48: Win Share / 48 Minutes from Basketball-Reference
Adj. +/-: Adjusted +/- from Basketball Value
Net On/Off: On Court – Off Court from 82games
Clutch Pts: Per 48 Minutes scoring in the clutch*
Clutch Ast: Per 48 Minutes assists in the clutch*
Clutch +/-: Per 48 Minutes +/- in the clutch*
Clutch FG%: Shooting accuracy in the clutch*
Clutch FT%: Free throw accuracy in the clutch*
*clutch: 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points
It appears that LeBron, dominates most of the full-game stats, including APG, SPG, EPG, PER, WS/48, Adj. +/- and Net On/Off, but Durant has been a far better scorer in the clutch, represented by his superior Clutch Pts, Clutch +/- and shooting percentages. LeBron is a terrific playmaker in the clutch (9.3 assists per 48 minutes), but his shooting percentages take a nosedive down the stretch in tight games. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t score as much in the clutch since he plays with Dwyane Wade, who is one of the best closers in the game.
The team win percentages are a wash as the Heat and Thunder are both sitting in second place in their respective conferences.
LeBron has the reputation of being the better defender, and this is supported by the rise in his team’s Defensive Efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) from 101.0 when he’s in the game to 104.3 when he’s on the bench. In fact, LeBron is on the short list of Defensive Player of the Year candidates. The Thunder’s DEF EFF only rises by 0.3 points when Durant is out of the game.
LeBron has the better supporting cast, and his team would still be good without him, since they could lean on Wade and Chris Bosh, who is capable of averaging 24/11, if necessary. On the other hand, I don’t think the Thunder would fare very well if Russell Westbrook and James Harden were asked to carry the load.
Another thing I like to look at is how a player performs against top competition. Here is a look at each player’s numbers against the top four teams in each conference: the Bulls, Heat, Pacers, Celtics, Spurs, Thunder, Lakers and Clippers.
It appears that Durant steps his game up against better competition, averaging 29.5 EFF versus the 26.8 EFF he averaged against the rest of the league. Conversely, LeBron’s EFF was lower against the best competition, though his scoring and three-point shooting were both up.
At the end of the day, a case can be made for either player. If defense and full-game production are key, then LeBron is the choice. If clutch play and “big game” performance is more important, then Durant is the man.
For me, LeBron’s defensive play — along with his performance with Wade and Bosh in and out of the lineup — makes his case a little stronger. But I wouldn’t argue against Durant in any way. He has had a terrific season and is just as deserving.
Still, given his superior clutch and “big game” production, the question remains — can LeBron play big when the pressure is on? He’ll certainly have a chance to answer that question again during the 2012 NBA Playoffs.