My favorite topic
By Adam Hoff
Nobody ever really debates the NFL MVP award. Seriously, think about it. When was the last time you remember columnists and analysts (not to be confused with analyst/therapists, ala Tobias Funque – I can’t write the title here unless we want to change our site to an “M” rating) chewing up words discussing this matter? Maybe the league is too corporate and “system” driven, or perhaps the award was tainted forever when Rich Gannon won it a few years back, but nobody has really seemed to care who wins the MVP. Now, all of a sudden, the award is the hot topic de jour.
Not only that, but the debate over the NBA’s top individual honor (an award that actually has been hotly contested, at least ever since Jordan stopped winning it every year) has started after one month! If you read this column, you know I love the MVP award and all of the debate and hyperbole and comparison analysis that goes with it. You get the chance to make statements about what is truly valuable and who was truly the best in his sport for that season. If you are lucky, you write for a website that allows you to post multiple 3,000-word articles on the topic. Every season. For every sport. So even though I’m surprised to see all of the sudden and unlikely devotion to this acronym, I am more than happy to throw my hat in the ring. MVP talk? Bring it on.
NFL MVP is Not Just for Quarterbacks
Might as well start with the NFL side of things, since the sport is you know, actually nearing the end of the season and all. First, why is this award suddenly such a hot topic? As discussed above, this is never a big deal. Every year the talking heads and pundits drone on and on about home field advantage and the wild card race and injuries and all the things that deal directly with two things: team success and who is going to win the Super Bowl. With the exception of individuals breaking records, the focus very rarely strays from the team dynamic. Maybe this makes football better, or maybe it makes it worse than the other sports, but the fact is that team success is a bigger driving force in the NFL than in any other major professional sport.
So why the sudden deluge of MVP talk? I think there are two reasons: 1) Jake Plummer and 2) Running back dominance. Normally, the season plays out and the award is quietly given to the best quarterback or, at least, a standout quarterback from a quality team. That is why the winners the last three years include the likes of Gannon, Steve McNair, and Peyton Manning. The one player that is usually most responsible for team success is the man under center. However, this year, something weird is happening: The Broncos are winning and winning big, and it is not completely in spite of Jake Plummer. People simply don’t know what to do with this information. You would think that someone might look at the Broncos and think, “Well, they are getting solid quarterback play, have a great running game, and play good defense,” attribute that logic to their 9-3 record and move on in search of another MVP candidate. Unfortunately, many experts are taking the bizarre approach of interpreting Jake Plummer’s ability to not screw things up as a reason to make him an MVP candidate. This causes them to write long columns about Plummer and his MVP candidacy. In turn, sane people are taking the time to write long columns countering those pieces and trying to ensure that the world doesn’t spontaneously combust.
On top of the Plummer Phenomenon, you have the fact that a group of running backs are so awesome that they are actually changing the value of the position. Just last year the prevailing theory was that running backs grew on trees and that you were better off going young and cheap than signing a proven commodity to a long term deal. Perhaps ironically, two of the three guys revolutionizing the position were the poster boys for the “downgrade and pay less” theory: Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander. It is why Edge is destroying people on a second straight “franchise tag” one-year deal and why Alexander has played the entire season without a new deal in place. Something tells me that these guys are about to get paid and that the Chargers won’t be making the same mistake with LaDainian Tomlinson. The three best backs in the league are playing for teams with a combined record of 30-6. Is that a coincidence? The Chiefs are suddenly monsters now that Larry Johnson is carrying 30 times for 140 yards every game. Tiki Barber is keeping the Giants in the driver’s seat of the NFC East. Thomas Jones is the heart and soul of the Bears offense (granted, it is their defense that wins the games). This is a banner year for running back value. Even more telling is the play of guys like Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon, Kevin Jones, and Willis McGahee – highly touted players that have rocked their teams’ chances by failing to meet expectations. So yes, I would say that a great running back is pretty valuable.
Now that we’ve nailed down why exactly this is all so suddenly interesting, allow me to present my top five candidates for the MVP award. Don’t worry, you won’t find Jake Plummer on this list.
5. Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers. It’s not easy for a wide receiver to get serious MVP consideration, because if he has good numbers it usually means that he has a fantastic quarterback getting the ball to him. Jake Delhomme is a lot of things, but a fantastic quarterback isn’t one of them. The fact that Steve Smith has such gaudy numbers (leads the NFL in receptions, yards, and touchdowns) playing with an average passer is his first big plus. Next is his ability to move the chains. He scores touchdowns to be sure, but it is all the first downs that make him great (he leads the league in that category as well). Think about it, the Panthers are 9-3 despite playing with a revamped defense and getting virtually no running yards up until last week (when DeShaun Foster went crazy). The only thing Carolina had going all year was Steve Smith. Pretty impressive when a 6’0” wideout is the only weapon moving the chains for a first place team.
4. The Colts: Edge, Manning, and Dwight Freeney. Hey, guys split votes every year, in every sport. Just last year we had Manny and Big Papi in baseball, and Shaq and D-Wade in basketball. When multiple guys for the same team have huge years, it makes it harder to determine that one of them is the most valuable in the entire league. Seriously, who is more valuable to the Colts? Manning? Sure, he’s the easy choice. He certainly draws attention to his value with all the audibles and gaudy passing stats (NFL leading 107.6 passer rating, 25 TD’s against 8 picks, and 2,966 yards). But think back to the first four games of the season when teams were dropping eight guys into pass coverage, rendering Manning almost completely ineffective. In fact, he was traded in every single one of my fantasy leagues. If that doesn’t tell you something was wrong, nothing will. Teams couldn’t stay in that defense though, because Edge was destroying them in the running game. So they are a tie. Not only that, but the biggest difference between last year’s Colts and this year’s Colts is the defense, which is spearheaded by the game’s most fearsome past rusher, Dwight Freeney. How do you choose which guy is most valuable? You can’t, that is why they are all tied for fourth.
3. Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals. You could make a great case for this guy being the MVP. Like Manning, Palmer is the quarterback of a first place team. Like Manning, he has fantastic numbers (second in passer rating at 106.6, second in yards at 3,149, first in completion percentage with 68.7%, first in touchdowns with 26 against 7 interceptions). Like Manning, he has great weapons on offense with Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmandzadeh at receiver and Rudi Johnson at running back. However, unlike Manning, Palmer has a pretty mediocre defense to help him control games. Every time he steps on the field is a shootout, which means that Palmer is the one quarterback in the league single-handedly winning games for his team. (Well, maybe Tom Brady as well, but the Pats aren’t good enough to vault Brady into MVP consideration.)
2. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers. He would probably be the choice had his team not somehow forgotten about him for the first two games of the season. Not only that, but the Chargers would be 10-2 and sitting atop the AFC West, they wouldn’t be worried about making the playoffs, and we wouldn’t be subjected to all of this Plummer for MVP nonsense. That said, LT has been unbelievable this year. He has nearly 1,200 yards on the ground, 17 touchdowns rushing, two receiving, and three passing. He has drawn comparisons to Walter Payton, been called the greatest running back his coach has ever seen, and done it all with class and a constant focus on winning. Right now though, he’s second for two reasons: that brutal game against the Eagles when he ran for seven yards, and the fact that one other guy is just a little bit better.
1. Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks. The top two backs are really 1A and 1B, but hey, I get paid the big bucks to make tough choices. Alexander is everything an MVP should be. He is durable, consistent, explosive, and clutch. Can anyone seriously imagine the Seahawks being anywhere close to 10-2 with someone like Jamal Lewis getting carries? Even someone like Lamont Jordan (a top ten running back this season) would cost them 3-4 wins. Their defense (Monday Night game against Philly notwithstanding) is decent but not dominant, the passing game has been mediocre without Darrell Jackson, and they have this incredible history of failure to contend with. Despite all that, they’ve steamrolled through the NFC. This is all thanks to one man. Alexander is on pace to break the NFL record for rushing touchdowns (he has 22 and needs six more over the final four games to break Priest Holmes’ record of 27). He leads the league in yards, yards per game, is second in carries, and second in yards per carry. What more is there? It is hard to see how anyone has been a more valuable player this year than Shaun Alexander. Now give him a contract!
Start Your NBA MVP Bandwagons!
There might not be a media phenomenon more annoying than the MVP bandwagon, and there might not be a group of writers guiltier of perpetrating this heinous crime than the lemmings that cover the NBA. It happens all the time. How do you explain Karl Malone snagging the hardware from Jordan in 1998? How does Shaq only have one MVP award? What about Steve Nash winning last year? For some reason, the people who vote on the NBA MVP Award are incapable of simply evaluating each player’s value and then voting accordingly. No, instead they have to “discover” candidates early in the season, build them up, and then carry them to the award. It’s like a presidential race. You have the primaries, the onslaught of propaganda, and then the election.
If you don’t believe me, just look at the Steve Nash Disaster. Here is a guy that might not have even been the MVP of his own team (read: Amare Stoudemire) yet he somehow became the first pure point guard (can’t count Magic or Iverson) to ever win the MVP. Isiah couldn’t win it, Stockton couldn’t convince the voters, J-Kidd came up short … but Nash? The only explanation is that when the Suns came out of the gate on fire last year, somebody wrote a “hey, isn’t this fun? Maybe Nash is the MVP!” column. Then another guy picked up the thread. Then Nash missed five games on a road trip (games that backup Leandro Barbosa also missed, meaning that they had NO point guard at all, something that nobody ever mentions), the Suns faltered, and the wishful thinking got some legs. Then Shaq and Duncan got hurt near the end of the season, so the mainstays were out of the race. Since the voters weren’t aware that the Mavs and Sixers were still in the league, Nash surged to the victory. It was amazing. Incredible, actually.
Now fast forward to present day. The Suns lost Joe Johnson to the Hawks and they lost Amare to a devastating injury. Yet they are still right in the hunt at 12-5 with an eight-game winning streak. Granted, Boris Diaw has been superb, some role players are stepping up, and Marion has been his usual reliable self … but isn’t Nash largely responsible for this? He’s averaging more points, more steals, more minutes, and more rebounds than last year. His assists are virtually the same. He’s getting to the line more, where he shoots 96%. All this with a rag tag team! Look, I’m the guy that spent a ridiculous amount of time last year saying that Nash should not win the MVP because he doesn’t play good enough defense. I stand by that and once again I wouldn’t vote for him if the season ended today. But for all those that were clinging to the Nash bandwagon last year, where are you now? They are tabbing guys like Sam Cassell for the award, that’s where they are. How can you vote for Nash last year and now tout Sam Freaking Cassell for the award? If Nash was your MVP choice last year then he HAS to be your MVP this year. This is ridiculous.
Alright, good, it felt nice to get that off my chest.
Now, here are my top ten early season candidates.
10 (tie). Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves are back in the hunt, so it is natural that KG would be back in the MVP discussion. The only problem is that he’s not playing all that well by his standards. His numbers are down in virtually every category and he looks weary. But he’s still KG.
10 (tie). Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers. Solid as always, but I keep waiting for him to really start destroying people.
9. Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons. Detroit doesn’t lend itself to having an MVP candidate, but Billups needs some love. How has this man failed to make an All-Star team? He’s clutch, durable, stays out of foul trouble (an incredibly valuable and overlooked skill), and is playing at the highest level of his career with 17 and 8.5 per. Ask anyone around Detroit basketball who the MVP of the league’s best team is, and I bet you they tell you it’s “Mr. Big Shot” Billups.
8. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns. See above.
7. Dirk Nowitski, Dallas Mavericks. Dirk hadn’t been himself until very recently, but he’s still going for almost 26 and 9 for the team with the second-best record in the West. He should play even better the rest of the way and could shoot up this list if the Mavs keep winning while surviving injuries (Stackhouse, Howard, and now Terry).
6. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat. Why are people ignoring Wade? Perhaps it is because the Heat have struggled without Shaq (making my case for Shaq winning the MVP last year). Maybe people are already bored. The Wade bandwagon hit top speed last year during the playoffs when all those “Wade is better than LeBron” stories were popping up everywhere. Now the guy is going for nearly 26, 7, and 7 every night and no one is even mentioning him. Granted, he needs to get the turnovers down, but its not like he disappeared.
5. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers. He would be higher if the Sixers were in first place in the awful Atlantic division. But the mere fact that they have a good chance to nab the division title and get the third seed in the playoffs puts AI in the running. In hindsight, he should have won the award last year (for more on this, check out the blog archives), and now he’s at it again. Somehow, he gets better every season. How is that possible? His work ethic, passing, shot selection, and leadership have all improved vastly over the past two years, all while somehow withstanding more punishment than any athlete in the sport, serving as the league’s toughest player, and racking up scoring titles. It’s amazing. He’s leading the league in scoring at 33.6 points per game (would be highest average since Jordan way back in 1989-1990), delivering almost eight assists a night, ranking among the league leaders in steals, logging ridiculous minutes (again), and shooting a pretty solid percentage (higher than Wade, Arenas, Kobe, McGrady, Ray Allen, Jason Richardson, and Antawn Jamison, to name a few). I mean, this guy is a marvel.
4. Marcus Camby, Denver Nuggets. First and foremost, this isn’t going to last. Gumby has never made it through even the bulk of a full season in his career, so I would guess that the moon will come hurtling into the Pacific Ocean before Camby pulls off the feat this time around. That said, he’s been incredible thus far. He’s blocking shots, rebounding, shooting a good percentage, and doing all the little things to keep the Nuggets afloat in spite of their inability to get an NBA shooting guard. What I’ve always liked about Camby is that he can run the floor, operate out of the high post, and create easy baskets with terrific outlet passes. I’m not even joking, he’s a fantastic outlet passer.
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. The dude is just ridiculous. I think he will wind up topping this list when it is all said and done.
2. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs. I’m not a huge Duncan fan, but he’s been terrific thus far. The Spurs have barely had Manu Ginobili (and for the most part he’s sucked when has played), they have new players to fold into the system, and teams are gunning for them every night. Yet they are 15-3 and barely breaking a sweat. Gotta give Timmy D some credit.
1. Elton Brand, Los Angeles Clippers. Brand is the classic bandwagon MVP candidate, except for one thing: he’s actually a terrific choice. He has the prerequisite of the new millennium, which is that his team is vastly improved. However, he also is long overdue for some praise, is putting up fantastic numbers across the board (25 and 11 with almost 3 blocks and 56% shooting), and is taking his performance to the next level late in games. I’ll buy it.
(Note: If their teams can get into the playoff picture somehow, throw Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and Gilbert Arenas onto the list.)
Now, can we please stop talking about Jake Plummer and Sam Cassell?
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.