Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Roundtable: The NBA's Uninjured MVP

 Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving lock eyes during a charity game. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty)

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among a group of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

This week's question: With Kobe Bryant's injury potentially putting the Los Angeles Lakers in a holding pattern, which uninjured NBA player is most valuable to his team?

The "most valuable player" category is always tricky because people naturally think of the most talented players. While I consider this player one of the best in the NBA, he is not one of the four or five elite scorers that first come to mind.

My most valuable player that a team can't afford to lose to injury is one of the best floor generals in the game; Chris Paul. I considered Carmelo Anthony and James Harden, who both lead their teams in scoring by more than 10 points more than the second leading scorer, but imagine the type of office the Clippers run without Paul. Paul finds his teammates so well (9.6 assists per game) that it almost overlooks the fact he scores 16.6 points per game. Paul's defense and 2.4 steals per game is just as valuable. Other players on the team should be good enough to at least somewhat make up for a lack of scoring, due to injury, on a playoff-caliber team. But good luck finding a backup point guard that can match what Paul brings to the table.

An injury to LeBron James or Kevin Durant would draw questions to the Heat or Thunder's title chances but Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook are both capable of taking over scoring loads. How Paul is able to run the Clippers while he's on the floor is a thing of beauty that fellow Clippers point guards Chauncey Billups and Eric Bledsoe, along with most of the other point guards in the NBA, cannot emulate.

Dwight Howard. The Lakers with a healthy and motivated Howard look like a completely different team. Since the All-Star break, Dwight is averaging 17 points, 15 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on 55% shooting. Not surprisingly, the Lakers are 9-3 since then. He’s finally starting to regain his athleticism. He fights hard for rebounds and leaps high for blocks. His demeanor has changed as he finally seems to be having fun on the court again.

The Lakers simply do not have good defensive players outside of Dwight and Metta World Peace. Howard has a tremendous amount of responsibility to protect the paint as speedy point guards blow by the Laker perimeter defense. As soon as Dwight has to come out of the game, the opposing team drives the lane relentlessly without fear. His responsibility is magnified with Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol both being out, forcing the Lakers to go as far as playing World Peace at center while Dwight rests.

There is no denying Kobe has been fantastic this season, but the Lakers wouldn’t have a chance at the playoffs without the recent play of Dwight Howard.

My answer is Kyrie Irving. I just cannot help myself. The guy is not CP3, but he doesn't play in Los Angeles, either. Despite the Cleveland Cavaliers not being a playoff contender this season, Irving has taken fans' recently broken hearts and has begun mending them back together, possession by possession. Irving has brought basketball life back to Cleveland sooner than anyone expected.

This season, Irving averages 23 ppg, shoots over 40 percent from both the field and behind the arc, and dishes away nearly six assists per game. It's not about the numbers. Irving is a showman. Pepsi's 'Uncle Drew' documentaries are enjoyed by everyone, young and old, basketball fan or not. Irving was this year's three-point contest winner at the All-Star Game in Houston. His game presents cunning elements of flash, style and technique all appealing to the eye.

Before Irving even has turned 21, Cleveland has seen plenty of disappointment. We remember Micheal Jordan beating the buzzer, jumping in celebration. We remember 'The Decision', the removal of 'We are Witnesses' posters, and jerseys set aflame as a town feeling betrayed cursed their once hometown hero. Irving will be able to enjoy a well-deserved cocktail a week from tomorrow.

Irving's importance to the Cavaliers is clear. He is the guy and, barring injury, he will be for a long time. 

If Bryant suffered a more serious injury – one that sidelined him for the rest of the regular season – the answer would be Steve Nash. He would be the captain capable of solidifying the Lakers as the eighth seed or possibly overtaking the Rockets to move higher. In the absence of an alternately ball dominant or uber-facilitating Kobe, Mike D’Antoni would hand Nash the reigns to a slightly diluted Seven Seconds Or Less offense that incorporated pick-and-rolls with Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

As it stands, however, Bryant only has a (badly) sprained ankle and a reputation for playing through pain. Instead of Nash, another point guard is the most important, uninjured asset of his team: Jrue Holiday. Working with the Philadelphia 76ers’ patchwork roster of under-developed young players, journeymen and aging role players in the absence of could-have, should-have, would-have been game changer Andrew Bynum, Holiday has been the brightest spot for a team that was competing for a playoff spot until a few weeks ago.

Aspects of Holiday’s game could certainly use improvement, namely his main duty of ball handling. The fourth-year PG has committed 232 turnovers this season (third in the NBA), but that is due more to his position as a crutch in the Sixers’ offense. It only becomes troubling if the trend continues if/when Bynum returns and Philadelphia’s strategy shifts, as Holiday’s miscues have spiked this season by 1.8 more turnovers per game.

Luckily for his team, the good outweighs the bad: Holiday is fourth in the league in assists with 8.7 per game and second in the overall category with 521. Not surprisingly, he is assisting on 39.1 percent of his teammates field goals when on the floor. Presuming those numbers sustain through the end of the season (or even if he can rack up just 11 more assists), they will all be career highs. While a .445 field goal percentage – brought down by a .326 percentage from long range – does not jump off the page, Holiday is shouldering the 76ers’ burden by playing 38.6 minutes per game, leading the scoring charge with 18.6 points per game (which, if he keeps it up, will make for a career-best season 4.6 ppg higher than his current record) and facilitating at a high rate to teammates of a lesser quality.

Holiday’s Win Shares per 48 minutes has dipped since he became the team’s focal point this season, but his career-high 17.7 player efficiency rating and first All-Star nod validate his performance. Philadelphia is 8.5 games out of the eighth seed. Barring a miracle, the Sixers will miss the postseason. But with even a slightly better supporting cast or even a few games swung by a healthy Bynum? We could get caught up in the pre-playoff rush and be talking Holiday up to be the NBA’s next great point guard.

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  1. Can we show a little respect to Ty Lawson?

    1. Absolutely. He was in my top three, but Denver has a better collective than Philadelphia. Kyle gave Lawson some props in last week's roundtable: