Harbingers of fate

Award-winners, stat leaders foretell team success

The NBA gives out a host of awards each season for individual player accomplishment, the most notable of course being the MVP. But there's also the defensive player of the year, the rookie of the year, sixth man and "most improved" (since 1985-86).

That these awards are determined by voting rather than pure hard facts (just the stats, please) makes for the type of bias in which voters may likely look favorably on a player who plays on a winning team or one that overachieves versus a losing one.

In contrast, statistical titles, those for the leading scorer, leading rebounder, passer and shot blocker among others are all essentially objective. And though they may not carry the cachet of the honors rewarded with hardware, in some cases they are just as important to team success. Thanks to the Basketball-Reference.com's neatly organized list of past winners we can crunch the numbers:

Not surprisingly, the MVP has often gone to a player whose team ended up winning the NBA title 11 times in the last 23 seasons and no MVP led team has been knocked out before the second round.

Oddly, the Sixth Man Award also has been a pretty good harbinger for team success, thanks largely to a strong run back in the 1980s -- Bobby Jones/ Kevin McHale/McHale/Bill Walton all won the award with teams that won 60+ games and, as a group, collected three titles in four years. Toni Kukoc also helped the group's cause by collecting the award in Chicago's 72-win title campaign in 1995-96. Lately, though, the Sixth Man honor has been less indicative of success, with only one winner's team making it past the second round in since Kukoc's Bulls.

Leading passers and rebounders have been good for their teams in general, but have few titles to their credit. Dennis Rodman won three titles with the Bulls as the league's top board man while Moses Malone earned one in 1982-83 with the Sixers.

History has been even more unkind to passers. Magic Johnson won back to back championships while also winning the assist title, but in the last 18 years only one leading "dish man" has seen his team even make the finals -- when Jason Kidd's Nets lost in 2002-03.

Shot blocking, most improved and rookie of the year are apparently nice things to win for an individual, but a bad omen for a team's chances of playoff success.

So let's get back to the question that started this investigation: Is having a league-leading scorer a better indicator of postseason success than having the league's best defensive player? It's close on an average wins basis, but that's including the 21 wins Tracy McGrady's Orlando Magic recorded when he won the scoring title in '03-04. Of the seven instances when the league's leading scorer has won the NBA championship, six are thanks to Michael Jordan and one to Shaquille O'Neal. Given that Jordan also won a defensive player of the year, he clearly helped on both ends of the court.

In 23 years the team with the league's leading scorer team has gone further in the playoffs on 11 occasions, while the team with the league's best defender has been better on 10 occasions; on two occasions, the teams were equal in playoff performance.

On the other hand ...

With Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson looking to distance themselves from the pack in a bid for the scoring title this season, it looks like an "out of the money" finish awaits the scoring leader.

On the other hand, Ben Wallace, the reigning defender of the year has helped the Pistons to the best record in the league this season, he must be consider the frontrunner again. Indeed, looking at the 82games on court/off court points per 100 possessions defensive splits, the leaders as of mid-January were:

Boris Diaw, Phoenix: -10.8
Ben Wallace, Detroit: -10.1
Tayshaun Prince, Detroit: -8.7
Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee: -8.5
Shane Battier, Memphis: -7.5

Ultimately it's not very fair to compare an objective measure, such as points per game, to a subjective "popularity vote" like the defensive player award. Nonetheless, the debate over which is more important -- offense of defense -- dating back to beyond the Bill Russell/Wilt Chamberlain clashes, will no doubt be with us forever.

Bottom line? Having a major NBA award winner on your team is always a good thing.

  found @ 82games.com for cnnsi.com