Originally published March 9th, 2017
By all accounts, Steve Nash seems like a nice guy. I’ve never met him so I have no way of verifying this. In fact, I’m not even sure we’ve ever been in the same state at the same time. But he’s Canadian and every story I’ve read would lead me to believe that it’s true. That being said, he has something that doesn’t belong to him. He’s had it for over a decade, and I wholeheartedly believe he has no intention or delusions of returning this item to its rightful owner.
The 2006 NBA MVP belongs to Kobe Bryant, but it’s sitting in Steve Nash’s trophy room.
Twitter would have you believe they invented, patented and popularized the concept of the sports argument somewhere around 2009. We all engage in it from time to time. Pointless and baseless comparisons of who’s better, as an evolved, by proxy version of “My Dad is Stronger than Your Dad”, remixed for adult sensibilities. It’s the jock version of a philosophy class. We’ll never know if the 2016 Warriors would have beaten the 1996 Chicago Bulls, but it’s fun to talk about (They wouldn’t). We don’t have a way to put Shaquille O’Neal and Wilt Chamberlain in separate time machines to see how each one would have dominated the other’s era (They would have). Maybe the best college team COULD beat the worst professional team (Don’t say dumb things)? They are so endemic to the way we consume sports at this point, that several of these arguments become annual, which brings me back to the MVP.
People say the 2016-2017 MVP race is historically competitive. There are at least four players – Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James – with a legitimate argument for winning and a host of others (Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan) with dark horse candidacies at one point or another.
However, I am of the belief that every MVP in history is as competitive as the narrative would like it to be. We could argue the merits of most any MVP winner from this year working backwards to its inception. I won’t do that here, but it’s an exercise most any barbershop cycles through at least bi-weekly. The opening to this piece lets you know how I feel about the 2006 MVP race. We remember Dirk’s 2007 MVP season differently through the lens of hindsight, knowing that Baron Davis and the “We Believe” Warriors would dunk his Mavericks right out of the 1st round. Shaq was the consensus most dominant player in the league, in the opinion of most GMs, coaches and fellow players, from at least 1999-2003, and yet during that span he only won one (1!) MVP award in 2000. Michael Jordan, you may have heard of him, won his fair share of MVPs, but there are still those both inside and outside of Chicago who refer to Karl Malone as “Mail Fraud” for his theft of the 1997 and 1998 MVPs from His Airness, through a combination of sheer attrition and voter fatigue. A great deal of our dissension here stems from the nebulous definition of what an MVP actually is, or what the award is meant to represent and this year has been a fabulous representation of that.
Most Valuable MEANS Most Valuable (LeBron)
If we take the award’s name at face value, we are giving it to the player who provides the most value, either via wins or otherwise, to his team in any given season. This would be made easier if basketball were to create a statistic similar to baseball’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement), basically measuring a players value by how many wins are gained or loss by their replacement by an average player at the same position. They have value over replacement player, and comparing points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers, while arduous, is probably the best way to approximate this, but it’s really no different from how we vote for the award now so it’s not telling us anything new.
A better way is to see how teams perform with and without a certain player on the court, and comparing those plus/minus values in addition to general stat watching. Michael Wilbon, turn back now. There be analytics ahead.
All four players have a net positive rating for their team when on the floor, as expected, but LeBron leads the pack at a +12.2 offensive rating, a -4.3 defensive rating, and a whopping +16.5 difference. In layman’s terms, LeBron is worth essentially 16.5 points additional points just by stepping on the floor.
In a more traditional way, we compare LeBron to Michael Jordan, simply due to shared perceived, and actualized, greatness. Their games are very dissimilar, they don’t play the same position, and never overlapped in the league. But much in the same way voters in the 1990s seemed to come to the consensus that they had recognized Jordan’s greatness enough, LeBron has experienced a similar effect. The Finals last year were a vociferous statement that LeBron is still the most singularly dominant player in the league right now. The ways in which he is able to affect a game are so numerous that it’s almost laughable to use statistics to argue his merits. There is no team in the league that would say no to any trade in which he was involved. So, in that vein, why did we stop voting for him? We know he’s the best, he knows he’s the best so what’s the harm in recognizing that? LeBron carries the most value, and is nigh untradeable. What other criteria could there be for an award for the MOST VALUABLE player?
Statistical Greatness (Westbrook)
In every sport, the name of the game is to score more points than your opponent. By that measure, the player who is able to exert the most statistical influence on a game must be, by definition, the most valuable. They have the most impact on the most important outcome: who scored more?
Oh, and did I mention he’s also the first man to average a triple double (32.1 PPG, 10.0 APG, 10.5 APG) this late into a season since Oscar Robertson? There were years where we thought of LeBron as a walking triple-double. He just recorded the 50th of his career last night against Detroit. Westbrook has equaled 60% of that total (31) in THIS SEASON, alone.
Nothing Westbrook does is particularly subdued so it would stand to reason that his MVP breakout year would be this “loud”. The knocks against him ring similar to the narrative that plagued Kobe in the post-Shaq years: he dominates the ball to the detriment of his teammates, he selfishly pads his stats, petulant and so on and so forth. The comparison works on its face, as both men averaged above 30 PPG, but falls apart from there. Kobe’s supporting cast in that 2006 season was similarly limited, but the Mamba still averaged 5.5 less assists, and 4.5 less rebounds than Westbrook. In addition, Westbrook has an improved true shooting percentage at 54% to Kobe’s 50%. This news upsets Mark Cuban.
Separate from the fact that Russell Westbrook will never care what anybody else thinks of anything he does anyway, the thought of this Thunder team without him should send a shiver down every spine in Oklahoma City. If he is not taking those shots, would you rather Andre Roberson and Kyle Singler jack them up? Or is a steady diet of Steven Adams post-ups and Anthony Morrow misses more your jam? To discount or diminish Westbrook’s statistical influence is sour grapes at best, and wholly disingenuous at worst. Without taking another shot, making another pass or catching another rebound for the remainder of the regular season he would lead the Thunder in all three categories. In games where Westbrook does not have a triple double, the Thunder record stands at 9-23, so let’s dismiss the notion that his play style hurts the team.
Russ can do what he wants, and damn, does he do it well.
The Turnaround (Harden)
As the old adage goes, success is where preparation and opportunity have the chance to meet. That could not have been more true for the great James Harden Point Guard Experiment. Mike D’Antoni comes by the title of offensive genius honestly. He’s the man who engineered the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, perhaps the greatest team to never make a Finals, unleashed free-wheeling Linsanity in New York and is now the pit boss to Harden’s point guard “rebirth”.
After a year in which he succumbed to the Kardashian curse after a fling with Khloe in the summer, reported to camp overweight, watched his coach get fired after 5 games, and suffered through having to be near Dwight Howard, Harden deserves a little happiness. And luckily for his team, like another bearded man in red, he’s also in a giving mood.
Harden leads the league in total assists and assists per game (11.2), offensive (9.5) and overall win shares (12.8), minutes played (2372), free throws (609) and free throw attempts (715). This Houston team is built around what he is able to do in the open court and takes full advantage of his strengths, as opposed to simply trying to shore his weaknesses. Harden is an evolutionary combination of Manu Ginobili, Nick Van Exel and Jason Kidd in the open floor. He’s equally dangerous with a lefty attack to the rim, as he is hitting a trailer for a three, stopping and popping, or finding a cutting wing for an oop or a layup. Constantly surrounded by three point shooters, and at least one designated rebounder, Harden’s responsibility is to get into the lane and just decide what he wants to do. If zones were still legal, he’d be one of its combo breakers. The coaching staff recognizes his talent, but also trusts his judgment, which is one of the major hallmarks of a great player.
What are the arguments against Harden? The Rockets have vastly improved the team around him relative to last year, coach included, so his success is not wholly unprecedented or unanticipated. Vegas odds makers had Harden as the odds on favorite to win the MVP when the season opened at -120. Though he leads the league in assists, he also leads the league in turnovers for the third straight season, currently at 706. The Rockets are currently the three seed, but are a combined 3-7 against the remainder of the top 4 in the West (Golden State, San Antonio, Utah). They take by far the most threes on average as a team, looking to take more than 50 per game. Is that a formula for long-term success when the game slows down in April, May and June? And for all his offensive wizardry, Harden is still a defensive liability more often than not, losing his focus and his assignment when not fully locked in.
Much of Houston’s success is predicated on two things: three-point percentage and assist to turnover ratio, both of which reside directly in James Harden’s capable hands. Like any of the others, the above criticisms really belie the fact that Harden is singularly responsible for his team’s success or failure. Accepting that responsibility is built into any MVP candidacy, but also provides an unspoken validity to that player’s greatness. Harden accepts it, and we have yet to see how he may wield it.
Dark Horse (Kawhi)
Other than Kevin Durant’s rightfully lauded MVP speech in 2014, of which people really only remember one line (“You the real MVP”), quote one MVP speech from the last 30 years.
Done? Come up with anything? I know you didn’t because nobody cares about MVP speeches, just like complaining about Riley Curry’s presence at a presser is dumb because nobody cares about stock postgame comments. Durant was the exception that proved the rule. So, what do we care if a joyless cyborg wins the award?
The Spurs have a brand to maintain, and that brand is winning. And they do it with a superstar so mellow in pressure situations that you secretly suspect he’s heavily medicated. Tim Duncan was quiet, sure. He wore dad jeans and JNCO shirts that were three sizes to big, had a Punisher themed knee brace and probably posted on messages boards for random TV shows like Joan of Arcadia in his free time. But when it came to winning time, he would lace them up and set out to metaphorically rip your heart from your still beating chest, so that he could take a bite while you watched.
Kawhi is the iPod touch to Timmy’s iPod classic.: same general idea, much sleeker interface. More demonstrably dominant defensively given his position on the wing, Kawhi is a defending two-time Defensive Player of the Year. He is one of the few players that gives LeBron James, a player I just made the argument could be the best in the world, fits defensively. He has a Finals MVP under his belt already, and seems interested in only winning.
Much like the Spurs overall , Kawhi is not flashy. He doesn’t lead the league in any major statistical category outside of Win Shares per 48 Minutes (0.28). However, he is top twenty in the following: Offensive Rating (12th), True Shooting Percentage (13th), Field Goals (19th), 2 PT Field Goals (17th), Field Goal Attempts (20th). He is in the top ten in free throws (8th), free throw attempts (10th), free throw percentage (6th), steals (8th), steal percentage (9th), box plus/minus, points (9th), and points per game (7th). And he is in the top five in offensive win shares (5th), overall win shares (3rd), player efficiency rating (2nd), steals per game (5th), and value over replacement player (5th).
Some people will attribute Kawhi chatter to simply wanting a new narrative this far into the season. We’re in the no man’s land of the season with Christmas and the All-Star break in the rearview mirror while anxiously anticipating the playoffs and draft lottery. So, writers who become bored of writing about LeBron’s needling of his front office, Giannis’ unicorn status, the bad 80s sitcom that is the Knicks and the Warriors continued success, turning to attempts to sway MVP votes in an unorthodox direction.
People detract from Kawhi’s candidacy for the same reason James Harden sees benefit: the system he plays in allows him to succeed. So, why do we so arbitrarily decide how much credit to give to the coach and his offensive or defensive scheme versus lauding the player for executing, by far the most important part? Harden is benefitting from D’Antoni’s system but his candidacy does not suffer for it. Kawhi is lucky to land in San Antonio after a “way more shrewd than we gave it credit for at the time” draft night trade with Indiana and we laud his talent, but attribute it more to Popovich than his singular work ethic.
More and more often, you hear his colleagues in San Antonio trying to change that narrative. Pau Gasol tentatively compared him to Kobe in terms of overall devastation and commitment to excellence, a comparison I’m sure he did not release unmeasured. Pop heaps more praise on him of late, whether for his miraculous game saving plays or a break in the action that allows for this additional effusiveness doesn’t really matter; he’s doing it. And Pop has earned enough cache in the league and otherwise, that when he says something about anything, people tend to listen.
There is probably no more complete player in the league on both sides of the ball than Kawhi. The Spurs are only 1.5 games behind a Warriors team that’s been penciled into the Finals since Kevin Durant signed last July. Much like a college player who stretches great play over several games to win MOP, Kawhi has a chance to make a statement in a marquee matchup with the Warriors coming, and a series of MVP moments from this past week in his immediate wake. If he does come from the back of the pack to win, this could be his tipping point, his “One Shining Moment”. It is March, after all.
But, he’s still a cyborg, so he’ll probably need a software update to get through the speech.
So, are you any closer to deciding? Did you figure out who the MVP is? Now remember that I could do that for every season they have ever given out this award. So, I can’t hold it against Steve Nash that he kept the 2006 MVP. He averaged almost 13 assists and reinvigorated a Suns franchise with his Pete Maravich moves and hair to match. He was a whirling dervish who made everyone around him better to the point that when they left Phoenix, it felt as if their talents stayed as well. Steve Nash was an MVP caliber player.
But I still think my Kobe argument is better.