Sunday, June 12, 2016

LeBron James and the Eastern Conference: How Many Years Has He Been the Conference’s Best Player?

Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar LeBron James is currently in the NBA Finals for the sixth straight season, with his team having won the Eastern Conference the past six times. While the championship is the ultimate prize in the NBA, winning an NBA conference is itself not an insignificant feat, given that there are 15 teams in each conference. If the NBA as a whole now was the same size as it was in the 1960s then James may well have got a whole handful of rings, or more, by now.
Thinking about James’ dominance in this way made me wonder about how many Most Valuable Player awards he would have won if a separate MVP was handed out for each conference each season. This is essentially what happens in Major League Baseball, with an MVP awarded for both Leagues, where the baseball Leagues are about the same size as the NBA conferences.
To work out how many hypothetical Conference MVPs LeBron James would have won I assumed that the player in each conference who got the most votes in the MVP voting each season would have won the Conference MVP. Perhaps, given the part that narrative seems to play in MVP voting the voting would turn out somewhat differently if there were two separate Conference MVPs to vote for, but otherwise I think it is a reasonable assumption.
Under that assumption, LeBron James would have won nine Eastern Conference MVPs by now, including the past five. Below is the player who led the MVP voting in each conference in each season since the NBA-ABA merger.
LeBron’s dominance in leading his conference in MVP voting however is not unprecedented. Magic Johnson had the most MVP votes of any Western Conference player for an amazing nine straight seasons, from 1982-83 to 1990-91. Michael Jordan would also get nine Conference MVPs; three ‘three-peats’ of MVPs in fact.
Given the emphasis in the NBA on MVP awards in assessing players – which admittedly may be diluted if two such awards were handed out each season – it is interesting to consider how differently some players may have been viewed if Conference MVPs were awarded instead. Consider the following points:
*Magic Johnson would have nine MVPs and Larry Bird would have just four, instead of them having the same number (three each). Bird of course was in the same conference as Jordan, reducing his chances of winning.
*Kevin Durant would have been a four-time MVP by the age of 25.
*Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal would have received three MVPs each, instead of just one.
*Shaquille O’Neal would have three MVPs with three different teams.
*O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, and Moses Malone would be the players to have won MVPs in both conferences.
*Scottie Pippen would have an MVP, making it back-to-back wins by different Bulls players following Jordan’s win in ‘93.
*Alonzo Mourning would have two MVPs, one more than Hakeem Olajuwon.
*Tracy McGrady would have an MVP. And so would Jermaine O’Neal. Jason Kidd, George Gervin, and Pete Maravich would each have one too.
*Clyde Drexler would be the only extra MVP from the Western Conference; that is, all of the other Western Conference MVPs already have an MVP award.
*Isiah Thomas, Chris Paul, Patrick Ewing, Dwyane Wade, and Russell Westbrook would all still be MVP-less.
Magic and Durant are the big winners for me from this exercise. Nine times Magic was considered the best player in the Western Conference, even with the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the same team. Based on that, maybe the difference between him and Michael Jordan in terms of the NBA’s best-ever guard was closer than I thought.

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