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Alpha Dogs, Second Bananas, and the Finals MVP

Posted by Neil Paine on June 10, 2010

During yesterday's Kobe Bryant discussion, an interesting point was raised about just what it will take for Laker second banana Pau Gasol to be named Finals MVP this season. My rhetorical question on the matter was this:

"I wonder if an established best player on a team has a sort of "incumbent effect" when it comes to Finals MVPs? In other words, how badly would Kobe have to play -- and how well would Gasol have to play -- for Kobe not to be named Finals MVP? [...] What kind of handicap does a 2nd banana have when trying to overcome the Alpha Dog for Finals MVP?"

Today I want to look at this phenomenon statistically, and see how often the winning team's agreed-upon "best player" won Finals MVP honors, how the second bananas' numbers compared to the Alpha Dogs' during the Finals, and hopefully determine what kind of handicap a non-"Alpha Dog " faces when vying for the award.

First, who is a team's Alpha Dog? We've dealt with this question in the past, and the definition that makes the most sense is the player who uses the most possessions (either in total or as a % of team poss. when on the court) for the team during the entire playoffs. Using that logic, here are the Alpha Dogs for each champ since 1978, along with the Finals MVPs:

Year Champion Finals MVP Usg% Leader Poss Leader
2009 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant Kobe Bryant Kobe Bryant
2008 Boston Celtics Paul Pierce Kevin Garnett Kevin Garnett
2007 San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker Tim Duncan Tony Parker
2006 Miami Heat Dwyane Wade Dwyane Wade Dwyane Wade
2005 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
2004 Detroit Pistons Chauncey Billups Richard Hamilton Richard Hamilton
2003 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
2002 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Kobe Bryant
2001 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal
2000 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal
1999 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
1998 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1997 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1996 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1995 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon
1994 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon
1993 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1992 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1991 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1990 Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas Isiah Thomas Isiah Thomas
1989 Detroit Pistons Joe Dumars Vinnie Johnson Isiah Thomas
1988 Los Angeles Lakers James Worthy James Worthy Magic Johnson
1987 Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Magic Johnson
1986 Boston Celtics Larry Bird Kevin McHale Larry Bird
1985 Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Magic Johnson
1984 Boston Celtics Larry Bird Larry Bird Larry Bird
1983 Philadelphia 76ers Moses Malone Andrew Toney Moses Malone
1982 Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Norm Nixon
1981 Boston Celtics Cedric Maxwell Robert Parish Larry Bird
1980 Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1979 Seattle Supersonics Dennis Johnson Gus Williams Gus Williams
1978 Washington Bullets Wes Unseld Charles Johnson Elvin Hayes

The winning team's Usg% leader has been the Finals MVP in 20 of the 32 seasons, while the possessions leader has been MVP 21 times.

However, the Alpha Dog might not necessarily be the team's "Best Player" per se, so let's also look at how often the team's leader in various metrics was named Finals MVP:

Year Champion Finals MVP PER Leader WS Leader Conventional Wisdom
2009 Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant Kobe Bryant Kobe Bryant Kobe Bryant
2008 Boston Celtics Paul Pierce Kevin Garnett Kevin Garnett Kevin Garnett
2007 San Antonio Spurs Tony Parker Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
2006 Miami Heat Dwyane Wade Dwyane Wade Dwyane Wade Dwyane Wade
2005 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Manu Ginobili Tim Duncan
2004 Detroit Pistons Chauncey Billups Richard Hamilton Chauncey Billups Richard Hamilton
2003 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
2002 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal
2001 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Kobe Bryant Shaquille O'Neal
2000 Los Angeles Lakers Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal Shaquille O'Neal
1999 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan Tim Duncan
1998 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1997 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1996 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1995 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon Clyde Drexler Hakeem Olajuwon
1994 Houston Rockets Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon Hakeem Olajuwon
1993 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1992 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1991 Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan Michael Jordan
1990 Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas Isiah Thomas Isiah Thomas Isiah Thomas
1989 Detroit Pistons Joe Dumars Vinnie Johnson Joe Dumars Isiah Thomas
1988 Los Angeles Lakers James Worthy Magic Johnson Magic Johnson Magic Johnson
1987 Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson Magic Johnson Magic Johnson Magic Johnson
1986 Boston Celtics Larry Bird Larry Bird Larry Bird Larry Bird
1985 Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Magic Johnson Magic Johnson Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1984 Boston Celtics Larry Bird Larry Bird Larry Bird Larry Bird
1983 Philadelphia 76ers Moses Malone Moses Malone Moses Malone Moses Malone
1982 Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson Magic Johnson Magic Johnson Magic Johnson
1981 Boston Celtics Cedric Maxwell Larry Bird Larry Bird Larry Bird
1980 Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
1979 Seattle Supersonics Dennis Johnson Gus Williams Gus Williams Gus Williams
1978 Washington Bullets Wes Unseld Elvin Hayes Elvin Hayes Elvin Hayes

(Note: "Conventional Wisdom" is a simple linear weights formula based on salaries; CW = PPG + .79*RPG + .21*APG)

The team's best player by PER won the Finals MVP 22 of 32 times; the best player by WS won 21 times; the Conventional Wisdom leader won 23 times.

Given this info, we can identify these situations where the Finals MVP was most likely neither the winning team's best player nor its Alpha Dog:

What can we glean from these anomalies? Here are the players' stats for the Finals only (pre-1991 stats courtesy of this underrated site):

Year Team Finals MVP G MPG PPG RPG APG TS% Alpha Dog/Best Player G MPG PPG RPG APG TS%
2008 BOS Paul Pierce 6 38.8 21.8 4.5 6.3 58.8 Kevin Garnett 6 37.9 18.2 13.0 3.0 47.0
2007 SAS Tony Parker 4 37.8 24.5 5.0 3.3 59.5 Tim Duncan 4 37.3 18.3 11.5 3.8 48.3
2004 DET Chauncey Billups 5 38.4 21.0 3.2 5.2 69.6 Richard Hamilton 5 44.4 21.4 5.2 4.0 50.0
1989 DET Joe Dumars 4 36.8 27.3 1.8 6.0 65.9 Isiah Thomas 4 35.3 21.3 2.5 7.3 55.2
1988 LAL James Worthy 7 38.1 22.0 7.4 4.4 54.4 Magic Johnson 7 41.4 21.1 5.7 13.0 67.6
1981 BOS Cedric Maxwell 6 37.8 17.7 9.5 2.8 61.1 Larry Bird 6 42.8 15.3 15.3 7.0 46.0
1980 LAL Magic Johnson 6 42.7 21.5 11.2 8.7 64.8 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 5 40.6 33.4 13.6 3.2 57.8
1979 SEA Dennis Johnson 5 44.8 22.6 6.0 6.0 50.4 Gus Williams 5 36.6 28.6 4.8 3.6 52.7
1978 WSB Wes Unseld 7 39.1 9.0 11.7 3.9 53.6 Elvin Hayes 7 39.4 20.7 11.9 1.4 50.9
Average 39.4 20.8 6.7 5.2 59.8 39.5 22.0 9.3 5.1 52.8

It looks like the second banana generally needs to outscore the Alpha Dog as a prerequisite to vie for Finals MVP honors. They also must shoot with more efficiency to have a chance. In a close series, these restrictions are loosened a bit; all you apparently need is to have a big game at the end of the series and for the Alpha Dog to have a disappointing one. (The only exception took place in 1979, when Dennis Johnson won over Gus Williams largely for his defense.)

Bringing it back to the present-day, here are the stats of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol in the 2010 Finals so far:

Year Team Player G MPG PPG RPG APG TS%
2010 LAL Kobe Bryant 3 39.0 26.7 6.3 5.3 49.9
2010 LAL Pau Gasol 3 42.5 20.3 10.7 3.3 63.9

It doesn't appear Gasol has scored enough to surpass Bryant's Alpha Dog advantage. He has fulfilled the efficiency requirement, but it's unlikely that will be enough to offset the 6.4-PPG deficit compared to Bryant. It's certainly possible that he could have a big game later in the series, especially if the Celtics extend to a 6th or 7th game, and that may be enough to propel him to the MVP. But since Bryant is unquestionably the Lakers' go-to guy in clutch situations, there is very little chance that Gasol will make a memorable game-winning shot. Gasol's best hope is to increase his scoring if possible (this may ding his TS%, but he has a sizable lead over Bryant in that area), continue to rebound at a high level, and hope a crucial game doesn't come down to a Bryant game-winner. Even then, though, his chances of unseating Bryant could be low.

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31 Responses to “Alpha Dogs, Second Bananas, and the Finals MVP”

  1. P Middy Says:

    Very nice work, Neil!

  2. Mike G Says:

    "a team's Alpha Dog ... is the player on the Finals roster who uses the most possessions (either in total or as a % of team poss. when on the court) for the team during the entire playoffs."

    You are looking at possession usage, PER, WS, etc., during the entire playoffs, rather than just in the Finals?
    Finals MVP is for performance during the Finals.

  3. AYC Says:

    4 out of 9 MVP's scored less than the "alpha dog", so I think the examples you use really disprove the theory that you have to outscore the "best" player. Unseld didn't even score in double figures! High shooting % seems to matter alot more; only 2 of 9 MVP's had the lower TS%, and only one (Worthy) had a dramatically lower %.

  4. Mo Says:

    I wonder how the rest of the players' performance in the playoffs. For example, if the Celtics win the series, Rajon Rondo has the inside track because of how he performed in previous series and everyone is primed to think "Rondo is the Celtics' most valuable player".

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    Yes, Mike, I'm looking at entire-playoffs stats in order to establish who the team's Alpha Dog was in general. Maybe Dumars shot the same amount as Thomas in those Finals, but in a larger sample Thomas was clearly their Alpha Dog... I would have included the regular season as well, but when players switch teams it changes the dynamic. Players don't change teams during the playoffs, so we can say with some confidence that the Alpha Dog of the 1989 Pistons (as constructed during the playoffs) was Isiah Thomas, etc.

  6. Neil Paine Says:

    Re: 3 - Right, I wanted to convey that outscoring the Alpha Dog helps increase your chances in general, but you pretty much have to out-TS% them to have a shot. The Unseld situation is a case where Hayes probably would have been MVP had he not disappeared in Game 7 of those Finals.

  7. AYC Says:

    Putting aside the issue of small sample-size,what I take away from this is that rebounding may matter a lot to advanced stats, but not to finals MVP voters (even Unseld didn't outrebound Hayes). Assists don't seem to matter much either. Scoring efficiently seems to make the big difference, but I wonder if the biggest factor is how well you play in the final couple games of a series...? Even in a long series, a big final game can get you MVP (Worthy in '88, Magic in '80)

  8. AYC Says:

    When I think about it, it seems that Gasol has a very good chance at MVP; the examples above suggest that he doesn't have to outscore Kobe, he just has to score a decent amount while being more efficient. So far, so good through 3 games; 20.3 ppg is a decent amount, and his 63.9 ts% blows Kobe away.

    IF the Lakers win it all, Pau has a big final game, and Kobe has another 10-29 style performance, Gasol could certainly pull a "Worthy", especially since some voters would probably love to give it to somebody besides Kobe...

  9. Neil Paine Says:

    I would be inclined to agree, except that nobody has unseated an Alpha Dog while being outscored by as much as Gasol this year since Magic did it in 1980; it's almost like the volume scoring aspect has been amplified in recent years, because the only player to beat out an Alpha Dog while being outscored at all in the last 30 years was Billups in 2004, and he was outscored by 0.4 PPG. That's the biggest reason I'm dubious as to whether Gasol will win it this year, despite the rebounding and shooting efficiency.

  10. Walter Says:

    I agree with AYC above and would throw in one more item. Gasol can't let Garnett do what he did in Game 3 two more times this series. Gasol dominated Garnett in games 1 and 2 but in game 3 Gasol was completely outplayed. If you can't win your individual match-up then you won't win the MVP.
    While Kobe's offense hasn't been particularly great he has been very solid on defense. He has kept Rondo in check for the most part (which no one in previous series could do) and he is playing great help defense (see 7 steals and 4 blocks).

  11. MonkeysFirst Says:

    It would have been good to include Boston in there as the Big4 is a bigger tossup as to who would get it. What's the hierarchy? I had RayRay as MVP as the 4th shortest odd. It seemed to have firmed after Game 2 challenged by Rondo's tripdub. But as the bet apparently didn't get processed I'm secretly hoping it doesn't pan out. Still want the C's to win in 6

  12. luislandry Says:

    Very cool analysis. Only one issue...I'd think conventional wisdom would consider defense, which the metrics too-often overlook, and indicate Ben Wallace was the best player on the championship Pistons.

  13. J Smith Says:

    Very intriguing

  14. Jason J Says:

    So if Kobe sits out the deciding game, and Gasol starts at shooting guard and winds up with 42 points, he has a shot at it... I like those odds! Viva Pau!

  15. Gil Meriken Says:

    Derek Fisher, Final MVP?

  16. Tony Rasmussen Says:

    Very interesting subject, I like the term 'incumbent effect' -- but I also think this is partly the Michael Jordan effect -- Note that pre-Michael (I mean pre-title Michael) it was common for non-'alpha dogs' to win the Finals MVP, in fact I think back then they gave the Finals MVP to the player who had the best series (and the terms alpha dog and second banana would have drawn curious stares, as if the team only had two above average players) -- It was because of Jordan that the whole idea of a team being composed of a superstar and a 'supporting cast' became conventional wisdom -- ultimately leading to the Kobe-Lebron era, where now it is mainly if not entirely about the individual, and even team goals only serve to glorify the individual, i.e. the guys want rings but mainly to validate their own egos.

  17. mrparker Says:

    what rasmussen said

  18. John Doe Says:

    I'm curious as to how you determined that conventional wisdom thought Kareem was the Lakers' alpha dog in '80, then Magic in '82, then Kareem again in '85, then back to Magic in '87 and '88. I know Magic had a few years where LA fans were down on him, but it seems incredibly unlikely that 34 year old Kareem could have lost his alpha dog status to a 22 year old Magic, only to have taken it back from him at the ages of 37 and 25, respectively.

    As for the original question to be answered, I don't think there are any set of reasonable circumstances in which Kobe isn't voted MVP over Pau, even though Pau will have better stats. I can't make a case for this based on the stats given above, but it's also a tiny sample size spread over 30 years that we're using for a precedent.

  19. Neil Paine Says:

    "Conventional Wisdom" was determined by the formula I listed in the post.

  20. Hank Says:

    A lot of the examples where the "best" player didn't win the Finals MVP are pretty close: Pierce/Garnett, Hamilton/Billups, Kareem/Magic, and Williams/DJ. The only huge upset was Cornbread beating Bird.

  21. Hank Says:

    If the Lakers win, I think the Finals MVP would go to Kobe, even though Pau has played better, simply because the voters realize Kobe has been stiffed in career regular season MVP awards.

  22. Sean Says:

    Neil writes: Gasol's best hope is to increase his scoring if possible (this may ding his TS%, but he has a sizable lead over Bryant in that area), continue to rebound at a high level, and hope a crucial game doesn't come down to a Bryant game-winner.>>>>

    If Pau Gasol is 'hoping' a crucial game doesn't come down to a Bryant game winner----i.e., the Lakers win because BRYANT made a game winner----so that HE (Gasol) can stay in the hunt for MVP, then Gasol deserves to be beaten like a rented llama.

  23. Sean Says:

    Hanks says: The only huge upset was Cornbread beating Bird.>>>>>>

    Cedric outscored and outshot Bird in that series, however Bird nearly equalled Moses Malone off the boards (and NOBODY did in those days) and led all players (both teams) in assists. I think it was a case of 'oooooh... the Alpha isn't having a huge scoring series---and look at the nice job this 2nd banana is doing'.... meanwhile, there's little doubt here that Bird's contributions were less valuable... though the door WAS open to be bold and go in another direction for MVP (even though the MVP was still probably Bird).

  24. Sean Says:

    Hank writes: If the Lakers win, I think the Finals MVP would go to Kobe, even though Pau has played better, simply because the voters realize Kobe has been stiffed in career regular season MVP awards.>>>>

    It's an interesting conversation... Kobe controls what direction the Lakers go in. It's almost as if they win, he HAS to be MVP---because he permitted the game to go in the direction of better balance, e.g., more Pau Gasol & Co..... but Kobe seemed to choose the OTHER route in Game #5----with everyone talking about 'waiting for Kobe to go off' in one of these games, he seemed to overdominate the offense last night to try to MAKE THAT HAPPEN... TO FORCE IT. He played well... but the lack of balance sometimes CAUSES your teamates to 'disappear', IMO... and when the pundits are saying 'hey, Kobe needs more help---he can't do it alone'... the guy IMO who needs to get this memo MOST DESPERATELY is KOBE. He must facilitate balance to get the help... especially with the Lakers lack of a true PG. JMO. Let's see what he does in Game #6. If he tries to do it himself again, says here he's increasing the risk the Lakers go down in 6.

  25. Sean Says:

    meanwhile, there's little doubt here that Bird's contributions were less valuable... >>>

    I meant there's little doubt that they WEREN'T less valuable.

  26. Hk Says:

    If Kobe had forced it in Game 5, there wouldn't be a recent blog post here about Kobe's exceptional performance.

    Forcing is is what he did in Game 3 or 4, but he was successful in Game 5.

  27. Hk Says:

    *Forcing it.

    Ron and Fisher are inconsistent offensive weapons. Bynum played 31 minutes and had 6 points and a rebound. Last night I wouldn't put it on Kobe although I would not suggest continuing to take so many difficult shots. LA's ball movement needs to improve.

  28. Sean Says:

    Hk says: If Kobe had forced it in Game 5, there wouldn't be a recent blog post here about Kobe's exceptional performance.

    Forcing is is what he did in Game 3 or 4, but he was successful in Game 5.>>>>>>

    There being a blog about Kobe's good game doesn't eliminate an opinion that he forced things in that game.
    Kobe's TEAM lost Game #5. I'm not sure where he was 'successful'. His TEAM won Game #3----that was a success for him, IMO.

  29. Sean Says:

    Hk Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 8:49 pm
    If Kobe had forced it in Game 5, there wouldn't be a recent blog post here about Kobe's exceptional performance.

    Forcing is is what he did in Game 3 or 4, but he was successful in Game 5.>>>>>

    The TEAM lost Game #5. I don't see how he was 'successful'. He was successful in Game #3, though. IMO, a blog celebrating his individual productivity in Game #5 (or whatever it was celebrating) doesn't mean he didn't force things. JMO.

  30. Sean Says:

    Hk says: Last night I wouldn't put it on Kobe although I would not suggest continuing to take so many difficult shots. LA's ball movement needs to improve.>>>>>>

    I'm not blaming KOBE for the Laker's loss in Game #5. The LAKERS are to blame. IMO, a suggestion that Kobe 'took so many difficult shots' in Game #5 kinda says he was FORCING things, no? And LA's 'improved' ball movement will not happen if Kobe is not part of that plan. JMO.

  31. Sean Says:

    Hk Says:
    June 14th, 2010 at 8:49 pm
    If Kobe had forced it in Game 5, there wouldn't be a recent blog post here about Kobe's exceptional performance.

    Forcing is is what he did in Game 3 or 4, but he was successful in Game 5.>>>>>>>

    Tough to call him 'successful' in a loss. JMO. I also don't believe that a blog about his Game #5 productivity means he didn't force things. JMO.