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.

Jazz guarantee more than $1 million to No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboy, a rare commitment to someone drafted so low

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 18:  Joel Bolomboy #21 of the Weber State Wildcats handles the ball in the first half against the Xavier Musketeers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 18, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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In the first five years of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, two players drafted in the 50s received a $1 million guarantee the same offseason they were selected.

This year, the list has doubled.

The Cavaliers guaranteed $1 million to No. 54 pick Kay Felder, and No. 52 pick Joel Bolomboyjust signed by the Jazz – will get even more.

Bolomboy’s $600,000 salary this season is fully guaranteed, and $452,625 of his salary next season is guaranteed, according to Basketball Insiders. That’s a grand total of $1,052,625 guaranteed on a three-year contract.

Only Tornike Shengelia (No. 54 pick in 2012 from Nets) and Kris Joseph (No. 51 pick in 2012 from Celtics) got more as players picked in the 50s who signed the same offseason under the current CBA. Both received two fully guaranteed seasons.

Bolomboy successfully leveraged a salary-cap environment relatively more favorable to second-rounders than first-rounders. If Utah didn’t make him such a favorable offer, he could’ve accepted the required tender and become a free agent within a year – with numerous potentially offering him a contract. The Jazz, with more cap space than they know what do with, probably didn’t mind paying Bolomboy a little more to secure him at what’s still a low rate for the next three years.

This likely wraps up any preseason competition in Utah for a regular-season roster spot. Bolomboy becomes the 15th Jazz player with a guaranteed 2016-17 salary, so he’ll almost certainly stick beyond the preseason – another plus of this contract.

This gives him security as he tries to develop into a player worthy of a second – presumably higher-paying – NBA contract.

Report: Hawks told Paul Millsap they won’t trade him

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 06:  Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks is introduced prior to Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena on May 6, 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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The Hawks tried to trade Paul Millsap this summer, according to Zach Lowe of ESPN.

After agreeing to terms with center Dwight Howard, Atlanta wanted to put Al Horford – not Millsap – at power forward. But Horford was also a free agent, and he left for the Celtics. So, the Hawks settled for keeping Millsap.

Apparently, they’ll stick with him.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

according to sources near the situation, Millsap has been assured he’s not going anywhere.

Teams often tell a player he won’t be traded. They don’t always mean it.

Most players perform better when they’re not worried about being dealt, ironically, increasing their trade value. Of course, trading a player you told wouldn’t be traded could infuriate him – but that’s no longer your direct problem. He’s gone at that point.

Millsap can opt out next summer, when he’ll be 32. Does Atlanta want to pay him $149 million over the following four seasons? It might take his max to retain him. Millsap is a two-way star, and plenty of teams will covet him. But there’s major risk in paying someone that old.

It could be better to trade him preemptively, especially if the Hawks take a step back and want to continue their youth movement. They already traded starting point guard Jeff Teague for a first-round pick to elevate 22-year-old Dennis Schroder. Howard would be a curious fit, but exchanging Horford for him was already puzzling.

If Howard is providing the best-case scenario of help and Schroder is ready for his bigger role, sure, ride it out with Millsap. But if Atlanta’s season goes south before the trade deadline, I’m not so sure the Hawks will honor their reported commitment to Millsap.

Report: Thunder almost definitely won’t trade Russell Westbrook this season

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 28:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder handles the ball during the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 28, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Russell Westbrook negotiated himself a raise of more than $8 million and chalked it up to loyalty.

Is the feeling mutual?

The Thunder can trade Westbrook six months after he signed his contract extension, which make him eligible to be dealt Feb. 4. The trade deadline will be a few weeks later.

Would Oklahoma City trade its franchise player during that narrow window?

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Sources close to the situation say the Thunder’s view on Westbrook is to see what he can do as the single focal point of the team and plan to keep the noise out of the equation until next summer.

sources close to the situation have said, there is almost no scenario in which the Thunder look at trades with Westbrook this year.

Building around Westbrook is certainly the Thunders City’s first choice. According to this report, they’ll give that route at least a full season to work.

But is there truly no worst-case scenario for the season’s first few months that would convince Oklahoma City to abort the plan early?

The Thunder became accustomed to winning big with Kevin Durant. It’s one thing to know they’ll take a step back after his departure to the Warriors. It’s another to live it every day.

Oklahoma City doesn’t want to lose Westbrook in 2018, when he’ll become an unrestricted free agent. One reported plan is trying to sign Blake Griffin next summer, and that would certainly require Westbrook’s continued presence.

It’d also likely require the Thunder winning at a reasonable clip next season. Griffin probably isn’t leaving the Clippers for a crummy team, even if it’s to his native Oklahoma.

Winning will also be a key ingredient in persuading Westbrook to stay. Absent that, the other way to get value from him is trading him, and he’ll be more valuable if traded in February. Teams will covet the extra half season and playoffs with him on the roster.

Of course, that also applies to the Thunder. If Westbrook can help them reach the postseason and maybe even make some noise in it, they’ll gladly ride him.

But if the playoffs become a far-fetched dream by the trade deadline… I’m curious just how devoted Oklahoma City remains to Westbrook in that scenario.

Did the Clippers change their name?

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 04:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers helps Chris Paul #3 get up from the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on November 4, 2015 in Oakland, California. 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Clippers rebranded themselves with a new logo and uniforms last year.

Did they also give themselves a new name?

Mike Chamernik of Uni Watch:

The Los Angeles Clippers not only changed their name, but they did it a year ago. No one has seemed to notice. Yes, they are still known as the Clippers. The L.A. Clippers.

L.A.

As in, that’s their location name. Not just an abbreviation.

The proof is everywhere. The Clippers refer to themselves as the L.A. (or, sometimes LA) Clippers on their own website, and on their various social media accounts, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. NBA.com refers to them as the L.A. Clippers in stories, transactions listings and site menus, even when mentioning the Los Angeles Lakers (who still go by the full city name). And now, ESPN.com has all references to the city name as LA, both on the team’s page and in standings and schedules.

One of my key pieces of evidence is the team’s media guide (PDF), which says copyright L.A. Clippers.

Chamernik presents a compelling list of evidence, but the Clippers’ silence on the issue – they didn’t return his requests for comment – is odd. Teams usually trumpet any rebranding with grandiose announcements and contrived rational.

Look at this line from the Clippers’ new-uniform announcement: “In addition, the silver lining seen in the Clippers wordmark signifies the renewed collective optimism of Clipper Nation.”

If they want to be L.A. rather than Los Angeles, why didn’t the Clippers tout their edgy and modern new name style? That’s more believable than silver lining representing the collective optimism of the fan base of one of the worst franchises in the history of professional sports.

Whatever peculiarities have accompanied the rollout of this apparent renaming, the proof is in the pudding – and that seems to say they’re the L.A., not Los Angeles, Clippers.