What the MVP debate is really about

March, 31, 2011
3/31/11
2:25
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
When it comes to the MVP discussion, the focus of debate has shifted.

We're not talking about the players anymore.

We're talking about valuation methods.

From where I sit, a growing separation has developed between traditional media and those who rely on statistics to arrive at their choice. It's essentially becoming a battle between story and stats.

In a recent SportsNation chat, ESPN columnist Michael Wilbon disagreed with Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard's anti-Rose-for-MVP position, saying, "I tease Dan all the time that he's a baseball guy who has no instincts for basketball...Dan wants to apply all these baseball metrics to [basketball] that, to me, don't fit at all." Similarly, ESPN writer Ric Bucher recently chatted with readers and explained why statistics don't do Rose justice, saying "to be clear, stats can be very valuable - in gauging a player's improvement, efficiency, etc. But using them to compare players on different teams in different systems with different roles...well, a lot of people (who don't work in or around the NBA) do it. But it doesn't make it right." Heat Index's own Michael Wallace tweeted the other day, "Keep your PERs, APRs, RPIs and +/-. I watch games, results. No player's done better under heavier burden this year than Rose."

Evidently, defending Rose for MVP has often led to discrediting the statistical side of player evaluation.

Bloggers under the TrueHoop Network umbrella have delivered some powerful pieces in recent days outlining why the voters (i.e. the credential-bearing media) may be prematurely putting the MVP crown on Rose. Mark Haubner of The Painted Area goes through the numbers (specifically the four factors of winning, devised by ESPN's new director of analytics Dean Oliver) and makes a strong case that Dwight Howard may be more essential to his team's success than Rose. Magic Basketball's Eddy Rivera chimes in (if you can chime in with 2,500 words) with a thorough, well-researched piece that assesses Rose's candidacy and Rivera concludes that Howard and LeBron James are more deserving. Moreover, in his endorsement for LeBron, Ethan Sherwood Strauss of Hoopspeak hits hard and contends that the criteria for the MVP award is narrative-driven or in his words, "a witch’s brew, derived from causation fallacies, preseason expectations, market size, and media story crafting." In Thursday's PER Diem column, ESPN Insider John Hollinger punched holes in the "The Derrick Rose Story" and argued, rather convincingly, why Howard deserves this season's MVP. Most of these arguments are grounded in the numbers and analytics.

But this MVP sparring match between narratives and numbers is nothing new in the sports world. In his piece at Magic Basketball, Rivera makes the connection to baseball and the rise of sabermetrics, the objective analysis of baseball. In baseball, we've seen the sabermetric crowd back a particular MVP or Cy Young candidate much in the same way that basketball's advanced stats community has backed Rose's competitors. In 2005, the media voted Bartolo Colon for Cy Young largely because of the media's fetish for pitcher win totals while the sabermetric crowd campaigned for Johan Santana and his vastly superior statistical profile. Last season, however, in what can be seen as a sabermetric triumph, Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez, owner of an underwhelming 13-12 record, won the American League Cy Young award. The 21-7 C.C. Sabathia, a starter for the New York Yankees, finished a distant third once the votes were cast. The voting criteria has undoubtedly been affected by the rise of sabermetrics.

The NBA has been slow to catch on to the statistical revolution that permeated throughout the baseball world years ago. But it's safe to say that the wave has arrived. More and more, NBA teams hire statistical analysts to gain an edge in today's ultra-competitive landscape and the analytically-focused are increasingly getting their voices heard in the media now that the barriers to entry are easier to overcome.

In terms of analysis and valuation, basketball is following in the footsteps of baseball. And as we're seeing with the current MVP debate, it has become blatantly clear:

When it comes to selecting your MVP, it's not who you believe in, but what you believe in.

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