Pro Basketball Crosstalk: On the cultural currency of the MVP award

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Let’s face it: there are some topics in basketball that are best tackled by having two writers talk past each other at gradually increasing volumes. We’re not making any progress unless we’re yelling our way through the real issues, and that’s precisely what John Krolik and Rob Mahoney hope to accomplish in Pro Basketball Crosstalk.

In each installment, we’ll talk around each other while discussing a choice NBA item. On the docket for today is…

Resolved: That the MVP Award is less concerned with rewarding the best player in the league than it has been in years past.

John Krolik: Rob, this is something that Hollinger touched on yesterday, and it’s something that I’ve been thinking for a while: doesn’t this year’s MVP “race” somehow feel less significant than the last few have? Out of the last couple of MVP awards, the only “well, this guy had a very good year for a great team, let’s give it to him” winner was (sorry, Rob) Dirk; sure, Nash won two in a row, and really didn’t deserve that second one, but at least that MVP discussion was about something. Team success and cute storylines ended up winning out, but Kobe’s insane scoring feats and the dominant LeBron regular season that everyone forgets about made that MVP race that season worth following — even if dominance wasn’t rewarded, it was an important part of the discussion.

LeBron ran away with the award last season, and rightly so — he put together one of the most statistically dominant regular seasons ever for the team with the best record in the league. The year before that, LeBron’s statistical dominance and the Cavs finishing a game ahead of the Lakers freed everyone from the burden of an actual Kobe/LeBron MVP debate, and in the year before that Kobe’s Lakers made things easy by finishing a game ahead of the Hornets in the West.

This year, the dominant individual players don’t seem to be in the MVP conversation. My “never count Kobe out of anything, ever, for any reason” caveat applies here, but the Lakers seem to be too damn deep for Kobe to get the award again (I think the only way for him to get it is if the Lakers run through the rest of the league when the Lakers get Bynum back). LeBron’s “decision” to play with Bosh and Wade may well preclude him from winning the award this season. Durant, the preseason favorite, might not be the best player on his own team this year. Duncan’s MVP discussion days are over, and nobody on the Celtics is going to get the award. Chris Paul should be a favorite, but the Hornets have been sliding and Paul doesn’t have a gaudy scoring average or Canadian citizenship.

Because of this, we’re seeing a lot of “contextual” MVP candidates, namely Derrick Rose and Amar’e Stoudemire. They’re both great players having great seasons, and their teams are both having surprisingly good years thanks in large part to their contributions. The argument for these guys is simple — both of their teams are good, and without them they’d be completely up a creek. Isn’t that the definition of value, after all?

The problem with the It’s a Wonderful Life “take him off the team and ruin would ensue” MVP arguments are that they’re completely obsessed with tangible contributions. The torch-and-pitchfork crowd that came after Hollinger in the comments section of his MVP column for not mentioning Rose repeatedly pointed to the fourth-quarter comebacks that Rose has led. It’s easy to see the power of games like that — without Rose, the Bulls would clearly have lost games they ended up winning. But what about all the games the 17-8 Hornets won because Chris Paul had a great first quarter, or all the games they won because his play prevented a fourth-quarter comeback by the other team? Great players win games without needing to make each and every one of their contributions obvious to the naked eye — in fact, that’s what makes them great. After all, wasn’t the point of It’s a Wonderful Life that the guy was invaluable to everybody for reasons that weren’t immediately obvious?

Again, I’d be fine with the “Most Valuable doesn’t mean best” rhetoric if people weren’t so quick to dismiss subtle contributions to team success — new arrivals get tons of credit for “turning teams around,” but guys don’t get nearly as much credit for being a crucial part of a system they’ve played in for a while. The Magic’s second-ranked defense is the reason they’re 16-8, and it’s clearly built around Dwight Howard, the best defensive player in basketball. Of course, that’s not as easy to see as Amar’e scoring 30 points in every game of a winning streak, and Howard, for some reason, loses MVP points because he already helped make the Magic into playoff contenders. Look at Dirk Nowitzki. He’s 3rd in the league in PER, his True Shooting is 64.3%, he’s averaging 25 and 8, and the Mavericks are 19-5. But he’s never mentioned in MVP talk, and I fear people will remember him short-arming a potential game-tying bucket on Monday instead of all the ways he helped the Mavericks win the previous 12 games. (For the love of God, his unadjusted +/- is a +34.57.) But there’s nothing exciting about calling Dirk the MVP of the league — he’s not putting up eye-popping numbers, he’s not the clear alpha dog on a dominant team, and he doesn’t make for a nice story. Those are pretty much the three ways to be an MVP candidate, and I’m not sure why the latter matters so much.

My other big problem with the “contextual” MVP argument is that it doesn’t account for the fact that win difficulty doesn’t increase on a linear scale — it’s a lot harder for a team to make the jump from 40 wins to 50 than 30 wins to 40, and the jump from 50 wins to 60 is harder than both. I’ll hand it off to you at this point — do you think context is starting to dominate this year’s MVP conversation, and does that prospect trouble you the way it troubles me?

Rob Mahoney: I’m definitely troubled by the way the MVP is interpreted and awarded, but I wouldn’t say that’s anything new.

I guess where our opinions differ is in that I never saw the MVP race as a true assessment of worth at all. The league’s most valuable is traditionally, as you described, determined from some combination of backstory, “The Man”-hood, and simplified statistical dominance. All of those are well and good, but judging by the errors on the part of MVP voters in years past, I fail to see how it’s still considered a legitimate venture into assessing player value.

The right guys — Kobe, LeBron, etc. — seem to win the award eventually, but the timing has never been right. More often than not, players take home the hardware a year or two after they’re due, boosted by voter guilt as much as their own sustained performance.

MVP voters find the silliest criteria through which to disqualify or demerit what should be legitimate award candidates, if not by talking themselves out of an obvious choice then by willingly selecting another for the sake of diversity. Even MJ couldn’t sweep the category when he was at the top of his game, and if that’s not convincing enough then perhaps Allen Iverson’s (or Steve Nash’s, or Dirk Nowitzki’s; argue whichever way you’d like) pose with the trophy could provide a more fitting blemish on the MVP’s reputation. I’d love to hear anyone debate Iverson’s superiority over Duncan, O’Neal, or Garnett, or a handful of other contemporaries for that matter.

Really, what the award has come to represent is which great player the league hasn’t quite tired of yet, and naturally the players featured are typically those with the freshest storylines.

So from that perspective, I don’t see the prominence of contextual MVP candidates as anything new. Rose and Stoudemire may not pass the smell test for the overglorified MVP race, but both are stars in their own right doing marvelous things that demand our attention. Their inclusion in this discussion is just an extension of the “best player on the best team” staple, as all of the above seem to signify a foolish regard for anything but actual value.

I’ve always defined the Most Valuable Player award as a designation of intrinsic value; it should go to whichever player, in and of themselves, has the most value. The team they’re on should be irrelevant. That team’s success should be irrelevant. All that matters is the individual worth of one player, the target recipient of what, lest we forget, is an individual award.

Occasionally, this interpretation aligns with the more conventional approach (LeBron is one obvious example). But more often than not, some form of debate is fueled by the divergence of these perspectives, among others. When we argue for one MVP candidate over another, rarely are we actually advocating for a specific player. Instead, the real debate is over the criteria used to assess the award in the first place. If all were to agree on what ‘valuable’ means and what it doesn’t, we’d all be saddled with boring — but significant — consensus. There would still be matters of taste involved, but the majority of the differences in MVP opinion are structural. Call me crazy, but that’s never something I considered “significant.” The race may have been a hot topic, but it was the same barstool war of our fathers, battled out with cardboard cutouts of Kobe and LeBron.

JK: I see what you’re saying, Rob, and I tried to be careful about playing the “things were better/worse way back when” card, because I’m sure that if we really looked into it we could find that there have been bad MVP picks for as long as there has been an MVP award.

Still, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that we came close to having the MVP award mean something over the past couple of years, and that that meaning is in danger of getting lost now that we’re entering something of a superteam era. (And not just because of “The Decision,” however handy of a timeline-marker that may be.) The 2nd Nash pick both established that a team needed to be a competitor for a player on it to be the MVP and that the MVP voting system was fairly seriously warped. The Nowitzki pick showed that a hyper-efficient player on a great team could be rewarded without eye-popping numbers — the Kobe pick showed that big numbers are fine, so long as they lead to wins, and that Chris Paul needed to wait his turn. The LeBron picks showed that enough wins and statistical dominance can overpower all previous misgivings.

Also, remember how much more important the MVP award has felt since the Nowitzki pick — STAPLES crowds started the “M-V-P” chants that year and never stopped, and now you’ll hear them in nearly every arena. When Kobe’s MVP candidacy became a reality, I think the MVP award gained a type of cultural currency that it hadn’t enjoyed in the years before. With the best players now on superteams, a player being “in the discussion” (whatever that means) for the MVP award now seems a way for fans to validate their franchise players as being worthy of the designation. Given that the award was such a big part of the “best player alive” discussion (which was all-consuming) not that long ago, I’m a bit disappointed by that turn of events, even though we’re only a quarter of the way into the season and there’s a lot of basketball left to be played.

I’ll pull one final stunt before letting you finish: do you agree that the rise of superteams has separated the MVP discussion from the “best player alive” discussion? If so, do we need to change the “best player alive” discussion, or accept that it simply isn’t as important anymore?

RM: I’d agree that given the way the chips have fallen, the award is further separated from the “best player alive” discussion, certainly. What should be interesting to see is if the casual fan catches on. Once the award starts going to the best player not currently part of a team of other incredible players, does it lose some of its conversational merit? Is it less a validation of any particular player’s greatness? You’re definitely onto something in your bit about the MVP’s cultural currency.

Personally, I think that the best player discussion should be completely separate from the MVP race, but that’s just me, and this award is driven by NBA fans at large. They are the ones that give the MVP meaning and in doing so, determine what strange evaluative process we’ll used to dole out the award this season. Though technically voted on by a select group of media members, the MVP has always drawn its power and framework from The People. Columnists may prod the discussion with their constant award rankings and cases for one player over another, but it’s the legitimacy lent to that discussion by page views, comments, and tweets that brought it to cultural relevancy. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of pundits talking past one another.

The fact that Player X won the award because their team finished X games ahead of Player Y should be all you need to know; the MVP is something separate, a strange distinction given to a quality player for any number of surely compelling reasons. I readily accept that this is what the MVP award has become (or maybe always was). I don’t seek to change it, only to differentiate it from measures of actual worth. I don’t anticipate this is a concept that the average fan would find palatable, but in reality, MVP awards speak little more to player value than All-Star selections.

With that comparison in mind, the “best player” designation is the All-NBA team to the MVP’s All-Star team. It may not be perfect still, but at least everyone agrees on what we’re actually debating over.

Carmelo Anthony writes goodbye letter to New York

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The Carmelo Anthony trade rumors are finally over.

The New York Knicks sent the star forward to Oklahoma City in exchange for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a first round draft pick. He will play alongside Russell Westbrook and Paul George during a wild season to come in the Western Conference.

Anthony never wanted to leave New York, but the ineptitude of the organization finally caused such a rift between the two sides that he finally decided he would find a way to waive his no trade clause and exit his home state (Anthony is from Red Hook in Brooklyn).

Anthony only gave the Knicks a few choices to work with, and Houston was always his desired landing spot. That trade approved too to materialize, and the scope was opened up to the Portland Trail Blazers, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Thunder.

Carmelo arrived in Oklahoma City on Sunday, but he still isn’t leaving New York fans out to dry. In a letter released on his website on Monday, Anthony penned a goodbye letter to his beloved New York.

Via This Is Melo:

New York equipped me to make it in any other place in the world. It taught me how to Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable. Saying Goodbye is the hardest thing to do. I never thought I would, especially to you. No one will ever take your place. It’s hard to find someone like you, so know you will always be missed. You helped me laugh. You dried my tears. Because of you, I have no fears. You came into my life and I was blessed. It’s time to raise my hand and say goodbye. It’s not the end, because like I’ve always said, NYC ‘til the end.

Carmelo may miss New York but we are all excited to see him with Westbrook and George in OKC. The high usage stars should make for an interesting triumvirate on the basketball floor.

Three questions the New York Knicks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 31-51, missed the playoffs. Again.

I know what you did last summer: Last weekend, the Carmelo Anthony era came to an end in New York as he was traded to Oklahoma City for Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott (plus a high second-round pick). The Carmelo era came to an end because former team president Phil Jackson poisoned that well, but that and a stupid pissing match with Kristaps Porzingis cost Jackson his job this summer as well. A new front office of Steve Mills and Scott Perry then went out and overpaid for Tim Hardaway Jr., bringing him back to NYC (after the Hawks did the work of developing him). The Knicks also revamped the point guard spot letting Derrick Rose walk and adding Jarrett Jack (free agent) Frank Ntilikina (No. 8 draft pick), and Ramon Sessions (free agent).

THREE QUESTIONS THE KNICKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Kristaps Porzingis, are you ready to lead a team?
Anthony was traded for one primary reason… well two primary reasons: He wanted out (thank’s, Phil), and the Knicks wanted to turn the page and make this entirely Porzingis’ team, getting him out of ‘Melo’s shadow. Well, they got their wish, now it falls to Porzingis to prove he is ready to lead a team — and I don’t mean Latvia in EuroBasket (where he played well, but it’s not the same thing).

Redo the 2015 draft and Porzingis goes second (behind Karl-Anthony Towns), but that is based as much on potential for who he can be as what he has shown for far — and he has shown plenty. Porzingis has all the tools to be an All-NBA player — he can space the floor as a three-point shooter, he’s tougher than people think and can score inside, he’s athletic and can protect the rim — but now he has to put it all together in one improved package. He’s the man, the Knicks are his team, he has to make the plays — and handle some shot creation (because they will not get it from their point guards). More importantly, he has do it consistently. Anthony isn’t isn’t there to stop the ball and jack up shots, particularly in crunch time, now everything should run through KP. He can score, but he needs to lift his teammates up.

Also, Jeff Hornacek needs to get Porzingis time at center — that remains his future, not at the four. The Knicks have Joakim Noah and Enes Kanter who will get minutes there, Guillermo Hernangómez is probably the best of the group, but KP needs time at that slot.

Another part of this is the Knicks need Porzingis to evolve into an elite defender. (Phil Jackson had hoped Joakim Noah would fill that role, paid him $72 million despite injuries and a declining game, and Noah has not been healthy and is the shell of his old self when he was. That contract is now an anchor.) Porzingis has shown some rim-protecting skills, but they need more than a couple blocks from him now, he must quarterback the defense.

Asking Porzingis to be an All-NBA player this season may be a little much (although he should get close), but he should make the All-Star team in a depleted East. If not, the Knicks have bigger issues.

2) Is Tim Hardaway Jr. ready for his turn in the spotlight? The Knicks needed more perimeter scoring, and they turned to an old friend — Tim Hardaway Jr. The former Knick had gone to Atlanta and developed under Mike Budenholzer into a quality rotation player who can hit threes (35.7 percent last season), defend on the perimeter, and he had the promise of getting even better at age 25. The Knicks believed in that promise, but to get the restricted free agent they knew they had to come in big. They did, paying $71 million over four years to get him, far more than anyone else was bidding. Even the Hawks walked away. It was one of the more head-shaking contracts of the summer.

Hardaway will get the chance to prove those who questioned his contract wrong. He’s going to get opportunities, he’s going to get touches, and he should put up more than the 14.5 points a game he did last season. The challenge is he is now the best shot creator and biggest threat on the Knicks perimeter — he has to do more than just score, and he’ll have to do it with the other team’s best perimeter defender in his face every night.

The Knicks are paying him to be a No. 2, can he step into that role? Can he remain efficient when taking on a bigger load? Can he and Porzingis develop chemistry? Hardaway got paid, now he has to prove the Knicks didn’t overvalue him.

3) Freed from the triangle, can Jeff Hornacek get a young team to buy into his style? The answer to that question may start with another question: What is Jeff Hornacek’s style? He would be quick to say it is up-tempo, with plenty of ball movement and certainly more three-point shooting.

That, of course, begs another question: Can he run that system without a good point guard? The Knicks drafted Frank Ntilikina, and he shows promise, but he is an 18-year-old raw rookie about to make a massive leap in the level of competition he faces. Don’t expect too much from him this season. Journeyman Ramon Sessions is probably the best playmaker on the roster. If needed, Ron Baker is there at the guard spot (another guy the Knicks dramatically overpaid this summer using the room exception).

The Knicks were middle of the pack team offensively last season (18th in points per possession), playing through the strange on-again off-again triangle hybrid offense they used. Freed from that, the Knicks need to be better on that end, with Hardaway providing the outside to Porzingis’ inside. That has to start with the players being unleashed to shoot the three ball, the Knicks were bottom 10 in the NBA last season in threes attempted and three-point shooting percentage, Hardaway has to lead a turnaround in that category.

The biggest question facing the Knicks (or at least 1A tied with do they get any point guard play?) is can they get enough stops? The Knicks were 26th in the NBA in defense last season, and swapping out ‘Melo for Enes Kanter isn’t going to improve things. Porzingis can be a rim protector, but he has to do more and quarterback the defense. Hardaway needs to lead an improvement the defense on the perimeter. Hornacek will talk about coaching offense, but getting this team to buy into a defensive plan may be the biggest key to him keeping his job.

It’s going to be a long season in New York, even in a down East, this is not a playoff team. But Knicks fans want to see steps forward, they want hope. And that starts with this becoming Porzingis’ team.

This is why Shaq says he knows Kobe respects him (VIDEO)

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Do Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant hang out these days? Probably not.

But do the to respect each other? The answer, apparently, is yes.

During an interview for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, O’Neal said he knows that Kobe respects him because of a certain play. That play?

Prepare yourself for this one Portland Trail Blazers fans: it’s the famous alley-oop with 41 seconds left from Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals that put the Lakers up by six points.

That play was the exclamation point on an impressive fourth quarter, one in which the Blazers went hilariously ice cold from the field while the Lakers made up a huge deficit.

Here’s how Shaq tells the story:

Game 7. We’re down. I’m telling Kobe ‘Hey man, I’m open’.

[And Kobe responded with] I got you.

He crosses up Scottie Pippen, and he catches eye contact with me like, ‘OK this is the one you wanted.’

He throws it up super, super, super high. I have to go up and get it and throw it down. Puts us up by five [it was six] and I know we’re going to win, we’re going to the Finals.

If you go back to the footage after we win [the game] who jumps in my arms? Kobe Bryant.

Meanwhile, a 12-year-old Dane Carbaugh’s heart still aches from that game.

Carmelo Anthony lands in OKC, gets greeted by fans at airport (VIDEO)

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Carmelo Anthony is now a member of the Oklahoma City thunder.

Man that is still really weird to type.

But this has been an insane offseason, and nevertheless the former New York Knicks forward is now a teammate of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

We are not sure how these teammates are going to play together next season given their propensity for high-usage play, but we are definitely all ready to watch it very soon.

Meanwhile, Anthony was greeted by fans in Oklahoma at the airport after arriving to be with the team.

Via Twitter:

Do you think this will get Carmelo to stay in OKC?

Guess we will just have to find out.