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:
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:
(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:
- 2008 Boston Celtics - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Kevin Garnett ... Finals MVP: Paul Pierce
- 2007 San Antonio Spurs - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Tim Duncan ... Finals MVP: Tony Parker
- 2004 Detroit Pistons - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Rip Hamilton ... Finals MVP: Chauncey Billups
- 1989 Detroit Pistons - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Isiah Thomas ... Finals MVP: Joe Dumars
- 1988 L.A. Lakers - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Magic Johnson ... Finals MVP: James Worthy
- 1981 Boston Celtics - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Larry Bird ... Finals MVP: Cedric Maxwell
- 1980 L.A. Lakers - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ... Finals MVP: Magic Johnson
- 1979 Seattle Sonics - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Gus Williams ... Finals MVP: Dennis Johnson
- 1978 Washington Bullets - Alpha Dog/Best Player: Elvin Hayes ... Finals MVP: Wes Unseld
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|
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.)
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.