Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Winning -- THE Most Important Criteria for MVP

I have never been one to like individual awards in team sports, but if they are going to pick award winners, they should at least get it right. I do get miffed when a player on MY team gets slighted. As a great 2008 NBA regular season enters its final month, there’s been a lot of chatter about the MVP award going to Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Lately, two upstarts also have been mentioned: Tracy McGrady of the (formerly) streaking Houston Rockets, and do-it-all PG Chris Paul of the up and coming New Orleans Hornets.

To me, the key to figuring out who should win the MVP is the word “valuable.” The award isn’t for the highest scorer, or the best assist man, or the greatest stat stuffer in the league. The award should go to the player who is the most valuable to one of the best teams in the league. The big question, of course, is to define “value.” Is it a top flight guy who is having a slightly better than average year on a team with a great record, like Dirk Nowitzki on the 67 win Dallas Mavericks last season? Or is it the new leader of a team which has made a great turnaround, like Steve Nash in 2005, who joined a 29 win Suns team and turned them into a 62 win juggernaut? Or how about the high scoring one man band on a decent team who has a slightly better year statistically and leads his team to a handful more wins, like Allen Iverson in 2001. Or is it a dominating big man on the league’s best team, like Tim Duncan in 2002 and 2003, or Shaquille O’Neal in 2000?

This year’s MVP award is going to make the race for the Democratic presidential nomination look like a cakewalk. There are four leading contenders: Kobe, LeBron, Chris Paul, and Kevin Garnett. Who wins the award will come down to the voters’ criteria for the award. If they are looking for the most overwhelming individual player, they would have to go with LeBron James. A great player in his first few years, James is now one of the most dominant non-bigs in the history of the league. James has increased his statistical production in almost every area, scoring 30.7 from 27.3 ppg last year, grabbing 8.1 rebounds, against 6.7 in 2007, and dishing for 7.5 assists a game, compared to 6 assists last year. He’s also up in blocks, steals, FT percentage and FG percentage, at a strong 48.5%. Comparing Lebron’s season to recent MVPs, his statistical uptick of 10% in scoring and ability to engage mediocre teammates compares to AI’s MVP season in 2001. The big difference, and the reason why I don’t think LBJ should be this season’s MVP, is that his team hasn’t improved from the previous year, and is a middle of the pack team. The Cavs are on pace to win 46 games, down five wins from last year’s 51. Now Lebron can do a lot of things, but he can’t be the GM too, and even though it isn’t his fault that he’s surrounded by a less than stellar roster, superstars on sub 50 win teams don’t win the MVP, regardless of individual brilliance. If they did, Dominique Wilkins would have an improved trophy room in Atlanta. Although ‘Nique wasn’t anywhere as good a passer as James, he could score, slam, entertain and rebound with him.

The MVP with the worst record in the past 25 years was Michael Jordan in 1988 with only 50 wins. In MJ’s first MVP season, his brilliance on both ends of the court (35ppg on 53.5% shooting, 5.9apg and 5.5rpg and the Defensive Player of the Year Award) trumped Magic Johnson’s 19.6ppg, 11.9apg and 6.2rpg on the 62 win Lakers, which broke up what would have been the second of four MVPs in a row for Magic. LeBron might be a willing defender, but he isn’t a premier defender. He’s had a great year, and has been unstoppable in many games , he hasn’t led his team into the winner’s circle enough times to be MVP.

Kobe Bryant is the only other contender with overall stats similar to Lebron (28.2ppg, 6.1rpg, and 5.3apg in a system where doesn’t dominate the ball as much as LBJ), and is a much better defender (NBA First Team All-Defensive four out of the past five years). He is also on a much improved team, currently 25 games over .500, compared to a 42-40 squad last season. If this MVP race was a two horse race, I would say that his defensive brilliance and improved record would tilt things toward Kobe, although it certainly isn’t to his credit that the Lakers were able to add actual talent like Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher. Maybe LeBron needs to brush up on his off-season bitching and moaning skills to catch up to Kobe in regard to team building.

Chris Paul is the newcomer to the MVP party. His team has actually improved more than the Lakers win-wise from last season (from four games under .500 in 2007 to 24 games over now). He’s the engine of the unproven Hornets, having the ball in his hands seemingly all the time, and delivering more often than not. His 21.6ppg on 49.4% shooting is impressive for a PG, but more impressive is his 11.3 assists to only 2.5 turnovers a night. He’s tied with Nash for most assists per game in the league, and CP3 also is leading the league in steals, at 2.7 per game. Paul’s season compared favorably to both of Nash’s MVP years in 2005 and 2006. Nash was a bit more efficient scorer, shooting over 50% from the floor and 43% from three, but Paul is a better defender and has a better assist to turnover ratio than Nash did in his two MVP seasons. If Paul can lead the Hornets to the number one seed in the West, he should get strong consideration for the award, but there is one player that should get the most consideration.

That player is 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett, who has led his new team, the Boston Celtics, to what should be the greatest turnaround in the history of the NBA. The Cs stand 41 games over .500 at 54-13, and with an easy schedule the rest of the way, should be a 64 win team at the worst. That would result in an unprecedented 40 win improvement from last season. There have been players who have put up the season that LeBron, Kobe, or CP3 has in 2008, but there has never been this drastic a turnaround in the history of the league. Although KGs stats are not eye-popping (18.8ppg on a career high 53.8% shooting, 9.4rpg, and 3.5apg), his attitude and defensive abilities have totally transformed the Celtics into a defensive monster. He has spearheaded his team to the lead in all major defensive categories (points against, at 90ppg, 41.7% FG% against, 31% 3PT% against). He has infused his new team with a team oriented attitude featuring hard work, competitiveness, and selflessness. He has fostered an environment where every man or the roster is willing to fight and scrap every single defensive possession, whether it is the final stop of a one point game, or a garbage time possession with four minutes left in a blowout win. The 2007 Celtics couldn’t stop a high pick and roll with an elephant guy and a giant net, but this team’s bigs, lead by Garnett, fly around the defensive perimeter like guard dogs in a junkyard. Formerly clueless defenders like Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe, can hedge out on pick and rolls, cover and then recover, step in to take charges, and, in Perk’s case, block shots. The whole defense is predicated on KG’s ability and attitude. No big man can play the pick and roll better than Garnett, and every teammate knows that the Big Ticket has his back if beaten on a drive.

One of the most important elements of Garnett’s Celtics is their level of competitiveness. They have the best road record in the league, at 25-8. Their winning percentage on the road (.757) is better than any other team’s overall winning rate. Think about that for a second. Their record on second nights of back to back games is an incredible 13-2. Their record in road second night B2Bs is 10-2. Teams usually just don’t win like that in the NBA. You need talent to win like that in the NBA, but you need will too. Garnett has spearheaded the will to win on this team. Dirk won the MVP last year in leading the Mavs to 67 wins, despite him not having any increase in productivity from previous season. Dallas won seven more games in 2007 than the year before, and put up the fifth most wins in league history (tied with three other teams at 67 wins). The MVP voters rightly recognized Dirk as the leader of a team with a historic regular season record.

To me, winning is the final and most important piece of the MVP puzzle, and for that reason, 2008 should not be the year that LeBron gets to wear the MVP crown. Kobe has helped his Lakers to a big improvement over last season, but he’s playing at the same (incredible) level as previous season. Chris Paul have put together a phenomenal season in leading the Hornets to a huge turnaround, which in most years would be enough to grab the trophy.

But this season, KG gets the nod. Although he plays with two long time all stars, Garnett is the leader of this Celtic team, and his brilliance and love for the game has driven the Celtics to excellence. Should Garnett be penalized because he plays with two probable Hall of Famers, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen? Or should he be lauded for sublimating his game in order to build a winning team, and getting them to do the same? A 40 win increase in 08 should be enough to tilt the MVP race in KG’s favor. The fact that the Cs were able to go 7-2 with Garnett out with an injury should not detract from his MVP worthiness. It should actually help it, because Garnett’s work with the young big men on the Cs allowed them to be very competitive in his absence. Winning has always been the basis of Celtics Pride, and Garnett has imbued this team with pride the moment he first stepped out on the floor. Talent plus pride has always equaled wins in Boston, and Garnett has brought that pride back after a generation’s absence.

I will be pissed if Garnett gets slighted in this MVP race, possibly because the voters have been swayed by the constant drumbeat from the LeBron shills who equate TV commercials with NBA success. Or the voters who feel that the excellent Kobe Bryant should finally get an MVP now that his Lakers are at the top of the league again (after he helped push them off the top with his foolish feud with Shaq). The ironic thing is that KG probably doesn’t care if he gets the MVP or not, because his entire focus has been on winning. Not statistics. Or flashy play. Good old fashioned, do whatever it takes winning. If that’s where the MVP voters’ heads are at too, KG will be raising that MVP trophy over his head in Boston in April.

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