Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The MVP Discussion, Brought to You by the Word "Intangible"

Kind of an unorthodox crossover, isn't it? He must be studying that patented Ginobili travel.

This week, the NBA has handed out year-end hardware to Kevin Garnett for Defensive Player of the Year, Manu Ginobili for Sixth Man of the Year, Byron Scott for Coach of the Year, and Kevin "Daggers" Durant for Rookie of the Year. Presumably, that means the MVP winner will be announced tomorrow. Across the many basketball blogs, columns, and podcasts that cross my path, the argument about which player is most deserving of that MVP has raged for the past several months. In the end, the voting will come down to the four players we expected, and the winner will be based on a balance of statistics and intangibles, as is always the case. What's interesting to me is that the argument always comes down to what each voter's subjective definition of "most valuable player" is. Is it the most outstanding, the overall best player? Is it the player who made the biggest contribution to his team? Is it the person who will be remembered historically from this year? More than anything, it's a mixture of all of those components, which makes this year's race particularly interesting, since each candidate presents a unique balance of those qualities.

LeBron James will probably come in fourth on the sportswriters' ballots. He led the league in scoring with 30.0 points a game and supplemented that with prodigious averages of 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists. Only Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan have reached the 30/7/7 barrier, so that puts King's performance in quite a historical context. Still, a vote for him would purely be a nod to individual statistics. He's the only option on a middling team that limped into the playoffs as a fourth seed in the East. He hasn't grown much as a leader and, though he scores more points in the fourth quarter than anyone else in the L (8.3), he has still struggled in the clutch at times. As far as intangibles--unquantifiable ways he helps his team--he's got nothing, and sportswriters are guys who sit around wondering about what the way LeBron plays really means (sound familiar?), so they're not voting for someone without those intangibles.

Fourth place? Bitch, don't you know who the fuck I am?

Kevin Garnett will place third but will probably garner quite a few first place votes because he's the opposite of LeBron in many ways, which sportswriters love. (Also, people other than Zaza Pachulia are afraid of him.) He is the spiritual and emotional leader of the team that ended the regular season with the best record, which is often an important measuring stick for the award. Furthermore, his presence persuaded some important Celtics acquisitions (Posey, House, Cassell) to sign for way less money than they would normally command. His tenacious, defensive mindset set the tone for the rest of a team, a team that had the biggest turnaround in wins in NBA history largely due to their focus on D. However, a vote for Kevin Garnett places those intangibles over everything else. Despite the glacial shift in the Celtics' fortune once he signed on, anyone voting for Garnett would be ignoring the individual side of the award. Since he has been forced to spread the wealth with Pierce and Allen, Garnett's numbers in everything but steals have actually seen a decline. Most people don't realize it, but his numbers are actually not even as good as Al Jefferson's, one of the parts for which he was traded. Whoever votes for Garnett has an abstract vision of the Podoloff statue, and I'm not sure there are enough of those people for him to win.

A gem. I could have just put up this video as a post by itself. You get the power of hindsight, vintage Isiah idiocy, cameos by Bryant Reeves and Shawn Respert, and some twill caps. Merry Christmas, guys.

Chris Paul, the demi-god masquerading as a pointguard, is a much more realistic winner because he balances the two elements that separate James and Garnett. He has elevated the Hornets to an unexpected 56 wins and is unquestionably the team's leader on and off the court. As the often cited test goes, if you were to take him off the team and replace him with even an average player, it's doubtful that the Hornets are even in the playoffs. At the same time, he was the league leader in assists and steals, and he still pours in a respectable 21.1 points per game. Though he's not seen as a score-first point, he still put up more points than Garnett. He piled up double-doubles during the season and has blessed us with as memorable a year as any other pointguard in the history of the league. The only thing keeping him from being the consensus pick for MVP is that he's still young, and sportwriters believe he has a lot of time to win the award in the future. Whereas...

A science project on the Hornets? Why isn't this kid yelling at me on "Around the Horn"?

Kobe Bryant has been acknowledged as the best player on the planet (TM Doug Collins) for years now, yet he has never won MVP before--ironically, because of an intangible. This season he put up his typically overpowering numbers, placing second in scoring behind LeBron, and he also led his team to the number one seed in the highly-contested West. Plus he did it with a dislocated pinkie--intangible alert. I'm not telling you anything you don't know at this point, but what I've locquaciously set up is the battle between Chris Paul and Kobe. The numbers edge goes to Chris Paul. Especially with the help given to him in the form of Pau Gasol, Kobe has had a more capable supporting cast around him than Paul as well. In fact, the only real bargaining chip Kobes has in this debate is that he's a Great player--if he wins a championship this year, he jumps a level in that conversation--who has not won an MVP award. And that will be enough for him to win.

Most people who have admitted this have treated it as some kind of unavoidable but unfortunate circumstance. Kobe probably has not played as well as CP3, but the voters will hand over the MVP to him as a lifetime achievement award, which is exactly what it's not supposed to be. Does this get at a central inequality of the award? Did people already decide who won months ago?


No. It's just another intangible. Chris Paul was a better player than Kobe this year, but I have no problem giving Kobe the MVP just because it seems weird that he doesn't have one yet. He should have won two years ago. Instead of debating whether or not that lifetime achievement aspect is valid, people should be debating how much more weight it has over those other factors. Anyone who is considering giving the hardware to Garnett for something as tangential as getting other players to sign with the team shouldn't have a problem with the intangible of Kobe "deserving it." I don't see how that's any less pure of a reason. Chris Paul had a chance at the award, and the voting will probably be closer than expected. It was possible for him to win, but in the end he didn't do enough to overcome some aspects of voting that can't be ignored. Eventually, he'll play well enough that he'll outdo any kind of excuse, and he can find some solace in that. That is, if he even cares about an MVP award, which certainly would mean more to Kobe than it would to him.

In the past, Kobe didn't win the award for many reasons unrelated to his play. He's not sociable, and no one on his team likes him. He was accused of rape in the middle of his prime. He was a poor teammate who pushed Shaq and Phil Jackson out of L.A., thus destroying one of the better NBA Live teams in recent memory. And yes, earlier in his career people figured, like Paul, that he was so young he would have many opportunities to win later in his career. He was a victim of that thinking when he was Chris Paul's age, so why should he not benefit from it now? Why is it that it seemed so reasonable for him not to win because of intangibles, but people are apologizing for giving it to him because of different intangibles? Have I written the word "intangibles" enough in this column?

Next week, as he leads the Lakers through another round of the playoffs, Kobe will raise the Maurice Podoloff Trophy with that forced, fake grin of his, and he will know deliverance, if only intangibly.

My imaginary vote?
1st place- Kobe Bryant
2nd place- Chris Paul
3rd place- Birdman

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