I Take it All Back
Steve Nash really is the MVP
By Adam Hoff
I can’t believe I am writing this column. In fact, I was so rattled starting out that I misspelled my own name on four consecutive tries. You see, I am about to do something that has never been done in the history of sports/opinion columns (at least to my knowledge): I am about to admit that I was completely and horribly wrong.
You may recall that last year, right around the 70-game mark of the NBA season, I took a rather firm stance against the MVP candidacy of a Mr. Steve Nash. I spent 2,000 words explaining why Shaq was better. I went on a radio station in Canada and backed it up (although looking back, I think they put me on just to incite their listeners – I was blindly playing the role of Skip Bayless on that one). When Shaq missed the end of the season and seemed like a less viable candidate, I simply switched my vote to Allen Iverson and made a case for him over on the blog. Never once did I consider that Steve Nash could really have been the most valuable player. Even when the Suns advanced through the first few rounds of the playoffs, I resisted and hid behind snide comments and effusive praise for Amare Stoudemire. Even when Nash was dropping triple-doubles against the Mavs and obliterating his career-high by pouring in 48 points when his team needed it most, I just kept hammering away at his poor defense, grasping at anything that could back up my previous statements.
Well, now it is almost a year later and the Suns are once again running and gunning and placing among the elite teams in the West. Nash is again giving up a few too many points on the defensive end (although nothing like last year) and turning the ball over a bit too often, but he’s shooting a high percentage and once again leading the league in assists (by far). More importantly, he’s doing it with virtually a whole new team! No Joe Johnson. No Quentin Richardson (not seeming like a real big loss at this point). And no Amare “Freak of Nature” Stoudemire. How is this happening? Not only that, what happened to all the writers who jumped on the Suns/D’Antoni/Nash bandwagon last year? How can you hype them all season a year ago and then bail out a year later? I know that it is all about the Flavor of the Month and that means flowery columns about Elton Brand and exposes on Chauncey Billups and making a case for Kobe the Mad Gunslinger … but what about Nash? All of those players are deserving early season MVP candidates (along with annual “top five” guys in LeBron, Dirk, and Iverson), but nobody has been more valuable than the guy that actually, you know, won the freaking award a year ago.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the carousel spins in the sports media. I talked about this phenomenon in the mailbag earlier in the week, but this is just another example. Last year you literally couldn’t get anyone wearing an “expert” tag to stop drooling over Steve Nash. They just went on and on and on about it. That was part of the reason I was railing against his MVP candidacy so hard – it felt more like the product of massive propaganda than actual research and analysis. Now you can’t find anyone (with the exception of ESPN’s Marc Stein) willing to spend precious words on the phrase “Nash for MVP.” Not only that, but the same writers that made it their life mission to get the scrappy Canadian the hardware last year have moved on to their new pet projects this year. It is as if the MVP award is more about the writers than the players. Imagine that.
Anyway. The real reason I’m writing this isn’t to rant and rave about all the ridiculous pundits and experts out there, but rather to admit that I was wrong about Nash. He really was the Most Valuable Player last year. And the reason I know this is because I believe he is the Most Valuable Player this year, in a season with far more attractive MVP options. Which puts me in the unusual and unexpected position of picking up the torch as a “Nash for MVP” advocate. Who would have thought? How did I arrive in this strange and foreign place?
First, as always, we need to scratch the other names off of the list. The best way to convince yourself of the accuracy of your MVP pick is to leave just one name standing.
Kobe is on pace to have the seventh highest scoring season of all time and Allen Iverson is looking to become only the second player ever to average more than 33 points and seven assists a game (Nate “Tiny” Archibald was the other, in 1972-72). Those two are putting up mind-blowing numbers, but alas, their teams are barely clinging to playoff spots. If they get into the top five in their conference, this all changes, but until then, we have to stick with the tried and true rules that have governed this award for years. Players from the very best teams only, please. (If you don’t believe me about this rule, look at the past winners. In fact, check out the blog, where I will break down the last 25 years.)
LeBron James is ridiculous (nearly 31 a night while shooting close to 50% with threes, steals, boards, assists, whatever you need), but he’s still a year away from taking over games and willing this team to victory. I love the guy, but you can’t very well give the MVP to LeBron this year with Kobe and AI playing like they are.
Dirk Nowitski and Elton Brand are having great seasons, but Dirk’s rebounding is down and much of the Clippers success is due to the new, tough veteran backcourt of Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley. I still like Brand as a darkhorse though if he can keep this up.
Chauncey Billups has been incredible and he might be my new favorite player in any sport, but the fact is that he’s part of a starting lineup that has been playing together and dominating for the past three seasons. However, if the Pistons seriously threaten 70 wins and Billups is still throwing up 19 and 9 every night while hitting all the big shots and smirking at the refs, then he might get my vote.
Then you have Shawn Marion, who has raised his game in every way imaginable. He leads the Suns in nearly every statistical category, plays multiple positions, and never seems to get tired. Still, he has to tack a backseat to Mr. Nash.
Before I go too far into Hyperbole Land, let me just say that if Iverson or Kobe get their teams to a division title, they get the MVP. If Billups leads Detroit to a record-breaking season, he gets it. I’m not ruling anything out, nor am I saying that Nash is some sort of lock for the hardware. What I am saying is that if the season ended today, I would vote for Nash. And if I had it to do over again last year, I would vote for Nash. (Of course, my votes don’t count, but whatever.)
Steve Nash is playing the sport differently than everyone else. He doesn’t get his game going and then feed his teammates when the defense collapses, which is the way that pretty much every other elite player in the NBA operates. I don’t blame those guys, that is just the way things are. You run the offense through your star and make the defense adjust accordingly. But with Nash, he comes out of the gates every night getting guys into the flow. He shoots when he has to and he makes a terrific percentage. He’s had to shoot more this year (at a career high 19.0 points per game), but he still averages 11.5 assists per. But you know what? It isn’t about the stats. They don’t tell the story. He leads the league in assists, but also in turnovers. He leads the league in free throw percentage, but his defensive numbers are underwhelming. His scoring average is up, but it is dwarfed by AI’s numbers. Telling Steve Nash’s story doesn’t work when you use numbers.
I take that back. There are a few numbers that do tell the story. They are: 26 and 15. As in the Suns record, good for fourth best in all of basketball. Without the guy that I credited for all the success last year, Amare Stoudemire. In fact, other than Nash’s porous defense (still not a strong suit, but much improved this year), The Dominance of Amare was the primary argument I forwarded against the idea that Nash was the most valuable guy in the league. However, now that Amare is out and the Suns are still rolling, well, it seems pretty clear now who makes this team go.
Beyond the record, it is the way the Suns are playing that blows my mind. I’ve seen about a dozen Phoenix games this year and not only do I enjoy watching them play immensely (the ideal Finals would be Detroit-Phoenix – I could watch those two teams play each for weeks on end), but it looks like they’ve had that team together for years. Everyone is in rhythm, the ball moves crisply, everyone is ready to catch and score. All Nash. Raja Bell, in addition to being an adept defender, is absolutely dropping bombs from three, as he constantly finds himself wide open and on the receiving end of a 30-foot, left-handed bounce pass from “Little Stevie” (as Bill Walton calls him). Shawn Marion leads the league in dunks. Eddie House, Leandro Barbosa, James Jones, Boris Diaw … they are all thriving. Even Kurt Thomas is doing a halfway decent job, despite the fact that he is physically incapable of running fast enough to be involved in half the plays. The crazy thing about all this is that only Marion was a major contributor for the Suns last year. This just shouldn’t be possible.
It is always hard to determine cause and effect when it comes to things like this, and there is certainly an argument to be made that Nash benefits just as much from playing for Mike D’Antoni and the Suns as they benefit from having him. You have to give credit to the coaching staff and to the unselfishness and athleticism of the Suns’ players, there is no doubt about that. The question is how much credit goes to Little Stevie? Is his presence the cause of everything that has happened in Phoenix the past two years? Or is it a corollary effect? There probably isn’t a way to answer that for sure.
Ultimately, for me, it comes down to the “substitution” rule. If you subbed in the next-best option for the MVP candidate in question, how would it effect his team? With KG in 2003-2004, there was nobody that could have done what he did for the T-Wolves. Throw in the fact that they won the West and it was an open and shut case. Nash seems to be the only guy like that this year. For the first time in recent memory, you could imagine the Heat being just as good with someone like Yao as they are with in aging Shaq. The Sixers could bring in McGrady for Iverson and probably be about the same. Gasol for Brand seems like it would be okay for the Clippers. For that matter, put Gasol on the Mavericks or the Spurs and it seems like those teams would keep winning. In fact, there are only three players this year that feel irreplaceable: Kobe, Nash, and Billups. There is no way their teams could be where they are at without those key players.
Now that we have it whittled down to the three most indispensable players in the league, imagine them switching places. It is hard to see the Pistons losing much ground with Nash instead of Billups (although it is up for debate, considering Billups’ superior defensive skills), and the Lakers would almost certainly seem to be a little better off with Nash than with Kobe. On the other hand, the Suns would be worse no matter who you swapped in for Nash. And for now, that is the difference. The season is far from over and I have a feeling that things will change, but for now, this is my ballot:
1. Steve Nash
2. Chauncey Billups
3. Kobe Bryant
4. Elton Brand
5. (tie) Allen Iverson and LeBron James
Now I am going to go come to terms with what I’ve just done.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com.