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Award Season

My choice for MVP

By Adam Hoff

They say that the stretch from the Golden Globes to the Oscars is “Award Season,” but that is only true if you care about overpaid movie stars. Me, I care about overpaid basketball players. So award season is right now and that means it is time to select an MVP. And even though every man, woman, and child with a laptop computer and a working knowledge of HTML is posting a version of this same column, I am going ahead with my picks anyway.

(You can find the rest of my award picks over on the blog, complete with pictures!)

Most Valuable Player – Steve Nash. I’ve found the commentary on this year’s MVP award frustrating, as always. This time around some of the arguments I am hearing are that Dirk should win simply because he’s “the best player on the best team” and that Nash should NOT win because “he really shouldn’t win three in a row.” Since when are these the criteria? Of course, no one seems to agree on a criteria, which is part of the problem.

So what can we work with for a basic premise? I’ve explored this in greater detail in the past on the blog, but the recent history of the award seems to indicate that the winner will come from a top team. 16 of the past 26 winners were from the top team in the NBA, 8 were from the #2 overall team, and 2 (Jordan in 1988 and Nash last year) came from the #3 team in its conference. Based on the established track record, Dirk Nowitzki (best player from top team wins 62% of the time), Steve Nash (#2 overall team produces an MVP 31% of the time), Tim Duncan (#3 in the West, 4% of the time), and LeBron James (#3 in the East, 4% of the time) are the only players with a chance (Note: Chris Bosh plays for the third-seeded Raptors, but the Cavs actually have the third-best record in the East). Kobe Bryant has had a terrific year and in my opinion is right there with Dwayne Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, and Steve Nash as the best player in the league, but the fact is that his team is currently .500 and struggled to make the playoffs. There is no historical precedent for Bryant winning the MVP award. And Wade missed too much time with injury and plays for a team too far down the standings, so he’s clearly out as well.

So, it’s a four-horse race. I think we can immediately rule out LeBron given the Cavs’ inability to lock up the #2 seed in the East. Choosing from the remaining three players is a far more difficult task. Tim Duncan has flown below the radar all year, but the Spurs are about to win 60 games and he has averaged 20 and 10 with 2.4 blocks and a shooting percentage of 54.7%. If he played more minutes, those numbers would be even better. Unfortunately, he would also average well over 3 turnovers a game (2.8 as it is) and brick even more free throws (63.6%). Duncan’s inability to make free throws and his disturbing tendency to turn the ball over against double-teams (a habit that started in the 2004 Olympics but has somehow gone completely unmentioned by the national media for the past three seasons) means that he doesn’t get the award. He’s the clear #3 though.

(Note: some might point to Nash’s high turnover total as a counter to my comments about Duncan above, but that is an apples-and-oranges argument. Nash has the ball in his hands the entire game, brings it up against pressure, and bears the responsibility of creating plays for all his teammates. All Duncan has to do is catch it in the post and not hand it to the other team.)

So, it comes down to Dirk and Nash. Best buddies, former teammates. I think Nowitzki had a great season (even though his numbers were down just a bit), but that he ultimately can’t beat Nash for this award. While it is true that the MVP goes to a player from the best team in the majority of seasons, it isn’t a hard and fast rule. (Otherwise, the award would have gone to Chauncey Billups last year, Jermaine O’Neal in 2004, Chris Webber in 2002, and so on.) Dirk was great across the board with 24.7 points per game, 9.0 rebounds, and sparkling percentages (50.1% from the field, 41.1% from three, and 90.3% from the line). The problem is that Nash was just better.

Despite once again leading the NBA in assists with a career-high of 11.5 per game, Nash is also in the top 25 in scoring at a career-high 18.9 points per game. Every time a team tries to turn Nash into a scorer, he, well, scores. And his percentages are even more remarkable than those of Nowitzki. Nash is tied for third among all guards in FT% at 89.6, is first among guards in FG% at 53.5, and first among guards (and second overall, behind Jason Kapono) in 3PT% at 46.3. Those numbers are just ridiculous and it comes as no surprise that Nash leads the entire NBA in both effective field goal percentage (accounting for threes) and true shooting percentage (looking at all shots, both field goals and free throws). So in the two most telling shooting efficiency statistics, Nash leads the entire league. And he’s a passer.

However, it is more than the stats that tell the story of Nash’s value. He is the epitome of an MVP; a guy whose presence is constantly either felt or missed, who makes every player on his team better, and who does whatever it takes to win. This is not to take anything away from Dirk, but just to say that Nash is infinitely more valuable and irreplaceable to the Suns. Take Nowitzki off the Mavs and what would happen? Josh Howard would score more, Jerry Stackhouse would be more aggressive, Keith Van Horn would jack some threes, and the guards would still push the tempo and create mismatches. They wouldn’t have had a shot at 70 wins, but Dallas still would have won 50-55 games with relative ease and been a top five seed in the playoffs. The Suns without Nash? I’m sorry, it wouldn’t happen. Perhaps this just illustrates the value of a point guard and if so, that is a good thing. The NBA needs to realize how valuable a great point guard is.

And for those that would dispute this choice because it would give Nash three MVPs, I only argue this: while he isn’t on the level of Jordan or Magic or Bill Russell (and certainly not in terms of titles, since he doesn’t yet have one), Nash is just like them in the sense that he has emerged as the prototype recipient of the award over an extended period of time. He epitomizes the concept of value to a team. He is playing in an era with new rules, new points of emphasis, and imbalanced conferences. And in that landscape, he has become – by far – the most valuable player in the NBA. Nobody else could have steered this Suns team to nearly 180 wins over the past three seasons. Nobody else could have piloted the best offense in the NBA for seven straight seasons. There is a reason we fret when he misses an All-Star game or bemoan his Canadian citizenship when it comes time for the Olympics: it is because everyone knows that Nash playing point guard will transform every other player on the court.

Steve Nash is in the midst of a brilliant run, one that will forever cement the value of point guards, or necessitate rule changes, or both. But whether he wins titles or not, goes down as an all-time great or not, his MVP run makes all the sense in the world given the current state of the NBA. And when you get right down to it, he is pretty obviously the MVP yet again. The most valuable player in today’s NBA, having his best year ever, for a team about to set a franchise record for wins. I would say that adds up.

My final tally:
1. Steve Nash
2. Dirk Nowitzki
3. Tim Duncan
4. LeBron James
5. Kobe Bryant
6. Chris Bosh
7. Tracy McGrady
8. Carlos Boozer
9. Gilbert Arenas
10(tie). Amare Stoudemire and Josh Howard

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com. He can be reached at wis.insider@gmail.com.

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