Amar'e Stoudemire

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.

Howard, Millsap, Hardaway lead Hawks past Wizards 114-99

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 27:  Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks shoots against Andrew Nicholson #44 of the Washington Wizards at Philips Arena on October 27, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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ATLANTA (AP) Dwight Howard dominated the boards in his Atlanta debut, Paul Millsap scored 28 points and Tim Hardaway Jr. ignited the new-look Hawks to a 114-99 victory over the Washington Wizards in their season opener Thursday night.

Howard grabbed 19 rebounds to go along with 11 points, just what the Hawks expected from their new center, and it certainly wasn’t unusual for three-time All-Star Millsap to lead the way in scoring.

But Hardaway’s performance was totally unexpected given the way he struggled in his first season with the Hawks, when he was largely confined to the bench and even forced to spend time in the D-League.

He scored 21 points, matching his high in an Atlanta uniform, and broke open a close game with back-to-back 3-pointers in the fourth. The Hawks, who led only 81-80 heading to the final period, outscored the Wizards 33-19 over the final 12 minutes.

Markieff Morris led Washington with 22 points, but it was a tough night for the Wizards’ dynamic backcourt duo. John Wall finished with only 12 points on 3-of-15 shooting, while Bradley Beal was held to 13.

Hardaway, on the other hand, scored 12 points in the final period, breaking open a game that was close through the first three quarters.


Wizards: Marcin Gortat had 11 rebounds but didn’t have much help. Washington was outrebounded 52-40. … Otto Porter was the only other Washington player in double figures with 10 points. … The Wizards locked arms during the national anthem.

Hawks: Howard posted the most rebounds for anyone in their Atlanta debut, breaking the mark of 18 that Shareef Abdur-Rahim set at Houston on Oct. 30, 2001. … Dennis Schroder, taking over as the starting point guard after the trade of Jeff Teague, had 14 points but only two assists.

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at . His work can be found at .

Report: Kevin Garnett joining TNT; in talks with Cavaliers, others about coaching consultant role

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If you’re wondering what Kevin Garnett is going to do now that he’s retired, turns out sitting on the couch with a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and watching Judge Judy is not the answer.

He is headed to the TNT studio show, something announced Thursday night during the broadcast.

Garnett also may be consulting with some teams — including the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers. So reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

There are a lot of teams that could use KG as a consultant, I would expect the Timberwolves are part of that mix as well. He’s going to have the respect and ear of players for teams trying to get a message across to a young squad.

Garnett isn’t doing this for the money, he can pick-and-choose where he feels comfortable and needed.

Watch Dwyane Wade hit dagger three to lift Bulls past Celtics


What spacing problems?

Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Rajon Rondo combined to shoot 9-of-14 from three in the Bulls season opener at home Thursday night. As a team, the Bulls shot 44 percent from three.

That included Dwyane Wade’s dagger three with a hand in his face to seal the 105-99 win.

The Bulls are not going to shoot like this every night, but they looked good on Thursday.



76ers players may respond in wake of national anthem flap

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 01:  Actress Sevyn Streeter speaks onstage during the 'Ringside' panel discussion at the TV One portion of the 2016 Television Critics Association Summer Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 1, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia 76ers held a team meeting Thursday and may take action in the wake of the organization’s decision to cancel the national anthem performance by a singer wearing a “We Matter” jersey.

Sevyn Streeter said she was told by the team she could not perform the anthem before Wednesday night’s season opener because of the slogan.

The Sixers players met at their practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, and are considering whether to respond to Streeter’s cancellation.

“Everybody expressed their emotions about it,” forward Robert Covington said. “We want to take steps about it. We just don’t know exactly what steps we want to take. We talked about a lot of different things.”

The Sixers play at home Saturday afternoon against Atlanta.

Streeter said in an interview with The Associated Press late Wednesday she was told she would not sing just minutes before her performance.

“I’d say two minutes before we were about to walk out … the organization told me that I could not wear my shirt while singing the national anthem at their game,” the R&B singer said by phone. “I was never given any kind of dress code. I was never asked beforehand to show my wardrobe.”

The Sixers declined to say why Streeter’s performance was canceled.

“The Philadelphia 76ers organization encourages meaningful actions to drive social change. We use our games to bring people together, to build trust and to strengthen our communities. As we move from symbolic gestures to action, we will continue to leverage our platform to positively impact our community,” the Sixers said in a statement.

The Sixers had a member of their dance team sing the anthem.

Sixers management declined comment on Thursday.

Coach Brett Brown said there are several options on the table.

“We understand the situation and we respect the social issue involved,” Brown said Thursday. “We completely get it. As a group, we will try to find a way to deal with this.”

Streeter has written songs for Chris Brown, Ariana Grande and other stars. In 2013, she had a Top 40 hit with “It Won’t Stop,” a duet with Brown that reached RIAA gold status.

The singer, born Amber Denise Streeter, said she was hurt by the NBA team’s actions.

“I was angry, extremely, extremely angry and disappointed and honestly brought to tears by all of it. It broke my heart,” she said. “Honestly, I was very excited about being able to perform the national anthem. I was really looking forward to that.”

This isn’t the first time the Sixers were brought into a national anthem controversy. A woman performing the national anthem before the team played a preseason game in Miami did so while kneeling at midcourt.

Denasia Lawrence opened her jacket just before she started to sing, revealing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt, then dropped to her left knee and performed the song. She said it was her way of protesting racial oppression.

The anthem issue has been a major topic in sports in recent months, starting with the decision by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to not stand while it is played. Kaepernick cited racial injustice and police brutality among the reasons for his protest, and athletes from many sports – and many levels, from youth all the way to professional – have followed his lead in various ways.

“I also felt it was important to express the ongoing challenges and ongoing injustice we face as a black community within the United States of America – that’s very important to me,” Streeter said. “Yes, we live in the greatest country in the world but there are issues that we cannot ignore. This can’t be ignored.”