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.

Grizzlies healthy, excited for training camp with new coach

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33), of Spain, poses for a picture on NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Associated Press
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Marc Gasol‘s surgically repaired right foot is healthy, and the Memphis Grizzlies center insists he’s back – perhaps better than ever.

Point guard Mike Conley is healthy too, his aching Achilles a distant memory. Jarell Martin‘s own left foot is as healthy as it’s been in a long time.

Chandler Parsons, the Grizzlies’ big free agent signee this summer , is the only person still recovering from his own knee surgery as the Grizzlies held media day Monday. It’s a welcome change for a franchise that set a dubious NBA mark last season playing 28 different players due to injuries that ravaged the roster, giving new coach David Fizdale a healthy roster for the start of training camp Tuesday.

The Grizzlies still reached the playoffs only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

“Last year, man it was tough with all the injuries, especially the playoffs not having a full-strength team, so it was very tough,” forward Zach Randolph said Monday. “Now we all healthy, and now we looking at the big picture and that’s getting a championship and getting a ring.”

Losing Gasol was the biggest hit. Memphis was fifth in the Western Conference on Feb. 8 when Gasol last played and slipped to the No. 7 seed as the injuries mounted. He had surgery to repair a non-displaced fracture in the navicular bone of his right foot Feb. 20, starting a long rehabilitation process to return him to the court.

Recovery kept Gasol from playing for Spain during the Olympics, though the center wanted to play. He followed all the doctors’ orders and stuck with his rehabilitation. Gasol said he’s never felt any discomfort in his foot, which makes him confident the repair worked. He’s now ready to help lead the Grizzlies back to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2013 and even further to a place Memphis has never been: the NBA Finals.

“I’m confident that I have the capability of not just being the same player, but better,” Gasol said. “Better player, more productive, more consistent. Hopefully a better rebounder. … It’s going to be a challenge for me, but I’m up for it. I’m up for any challenge. I love challenges, and this year’s going to be another one.”

Guard Tony Allen said Gasol looks like he’s added to his game, noting the man nicknamed Big Spain knocked down six straight 3s in a pickup game recently.

Being healthy isn’t the only difference for Memphis from the end of last season. The Grizzlies start training camp Tuesday with a new coach in Fizdale , a long-time Miami Heat assistant who Memphis hired in late May after firing Dave Joerger who was then hired by Sacramento.

The Grizzlies also announced Monday they hired a new medical director in Allen Gruver, promoted Jim Scholler to head athletic trainer and added Eric Oetter as director of performance. Conley said the Grizzlies have bolstered the staff to help players, even adding massage therapists to help with recovery.

Fizdale also suggested to the Grizzlies that they show up a couple weeks early and play together to start building chemistry and conditioning. Fizdale said he couldn’t make them do it, and he liked how they listened. Managing Gasol’s minutes will be a big focus for Fizdale who plans to pull him early from some practices and keep him out of some games through the season.

“I’m definitely going to preserve him,” Fizdale said. “I don’t want to kill him throughout the year and don’t have him for the playoffs so it’ll be very mindful of how I attack him coming back from an injury.”

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Life without Tim Duncan begins for the new-look Spurs

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich addresses the media during an NBA basketball news conference, Tuesday, July 12, 2016, in San Antonio, the day after Tim Duncan announced his retirement. Popovich wore a T-shirt with the likeness of Duncan as he reflected on his relationship with the 19-year Spurs veteran and talked about his contributions to the team and to him personally. (Kin Man Hui/The San Antonio Express-News via AP)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Life without Tim Duncan has officially begun for the San Antonio Spurs, even if they aren’t quite ready to accept it.

For the first time since Bill Clinton was in the White House and “Men In Black” was a box office hit, the Spurs will open training camp without Duncan.

During the team’s annual media day Monday, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich joked that Duncan is being fined daily – “$2,500 a day, every day that he does not show up.”

“I wasn’t here with him that long so it’s not as dramatic for me as it will be for everybody else, but it definitely feels like he should walk in any moment but he hasn’t yet,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said.

Duncan retired in July after 19 seasons as arguably the greatest power forward of all time. A two-time MVP, Duncan led San Antonio to five NBA titles and helped set a selfless, team-first standard that is the envy of many sports franchises.

The transition from the Spurs’ reliance on the Big Three of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili began in earnest last season with the addition of Aldridge and the continued growth of Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio continued the makeover in the offseason with the signing of Pau Gasol, but that doesn’t soften the blow of losing Duncan.

“I think it’s going to hit me more tomorrow when we get on the court,” Parker said. “We’re definitely going to miss him. You can’t replace a guy like that. He’s been the face of the franchise for the last two decades. It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be weird without him, especially now that we have a lot of young guys, a lot of new faces and so it’s going to be a lot of teaching to do at the beginning of the season.”

Duncan will attend some practices to assist with coaching, but it will be up to Parker, Ginobili and the other veterans to acclimate the largest number of new faces in Popovich’s 20 seasons as Spurs coach.

San Antonio added 11 new players to its training camp roster, including rookies Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans and free agents like Gasol and David Lee.

“It’s a lot of fun just to think about new bodies and new blood in the gym,” Popovich said. “Not just the players, the staff. I don’t know half of the names of the new staff we hired in the film room, interns and management and all that kind of thing. A lot of people walking around, both players and staff. It will be exciting who comes up with what ideas, who plays well and who fits together.”

Gasol is the most critical addition. Entering his 17th season, the 7-foot center has won two NBA championships and made his sixth All-Star appearance last season while with the Chicago Bulls.

Stepping into Duncan’s place in the starting lineup will be one of the biggest challenges of his career.

“Tim has been so exceptional and unique,” Gasol said. “He is considered by most of us the best power forward that has ever played the game. So, I’m not coming here to fill his shoes and the spot that he left, but I’m here to make the best that I can to fit in as best as I can and to work with the guys that are here to win a title and work as hard as I can to do that. It’s an opportunity, it’s a privilege but at the same time, it’s a huge challenge.”

Gasol’s presence will help ease the burden on Leonard and Aldridge.

The All-Star forwards led San Antonio to a franchise-record 67 victories last season before falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.

“I think everybody has to take on that burden,” Aldridge said. “It’s not a one-player’s job, no one can be Tim Duncan. It’s going to be everyone’s job.”

Jason Kidd plans to bring Greg Monroe off Bucks’ bench, which is news to Monroe

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 20:  Head coach Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks stands on the court during introductions to the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 20, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Bucks defeated the Suns 101-95. 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Bucks spent most of the summer trying to trade Greg Monroe, and the asking price was rumored to be so low most of the buzz around the league was a deal would get done. Except to trade Monroe another team had to want Monroe, and therein lied the rub.

Monroe was at Bucks media day on Monday, and coach Jason Kidd announced he plans to bring Monroe in off the bench. That got interesting. From Gery Woelfel of the of the Racine Journal Times:

It shouldn’t be news, Kidd brought Monroe off the bench for part of last season, too.

If Monroe doesn’t start, it means John Henson or Miles Plumlee will start (unless Kidd wants to go crazy small and start Mirza Teletovic).

The real takeaway here: Don’t draft Monroe on your fantasy team. And expect him to get traded at some point this season.

Draymond Green says he will stand for anthem, criticism of Kaepernick “ridiculous”

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry conducts an interview during NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Associated Press
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I’ve said this before: while there will be national anthem protests once the NBA starts playing games in a couple of weeks, don’t expect it from the biggest names — the guys with the biggest international brands to promote. At the same time, expect all those guys to back Collin Kaepernick and others who have done these protests.

The latest example came from the Golden State Warriors media day and Draymond Green. Here is what he said in a passionate talk about the protests, via Anthony Slater of the San Jose Mercury News.

I respect Colin for that because he took a stand, that he knew would probably create some controversy. And he didn’t care. And I respect that because sometimes controversy is needed in order to get the point across. And I think he’s gotten his point across. But my question is like what’s next?…

And of course if everyone wants to talk about Colin, and he’s disrespecting America. No, we’re going to talk about what he’s doing and try to sweep what he’s really talking about under the rug. I think it’s quite ridiculous, to be quite frank. Am I going to kneel down and put my fist up, no I’m not. That’s no disrespect to Colin or anybody else that’s doing it. But they’ve gotten the point across. I don’t think I need to come out and do a National Anthem protest. Because it’s already been started. There’s already a conversation.

What Green is asking is what a lot of people — athletes, activists, people who care about this country — are asking: What kind of actions, what kinds of change can come out of the start of this conversation? Because the question isn’t about respect for the flag or lack thereof — that’s a side issue, a distraction from people who don’t want to talk about race in America and the challenges we still face as a nation in that area. Some of these police shootings are a brutal reminder of how far this nation has to go, but they are just part of a broader issue.

Stephen Curry — whose hometown of Charlotte has experienced rioting after a police shooting in recent days — also was asked about the protest issue and struck a similar tone. Here’s his answer via Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“I respect everybody’s voice, everybody’s platform, and their opportunity and right to protest what they feel in their heart is something they want changed. I’ve said that plenty of times about Colin. I respect what he’s doing. I respect the message that he’s fighting for, and I hope all the spotlight is on that particular message and the things we can do to make changes that are blatantly obvious we need change, so I hope going forward it’s not about who’s raising their fist, who’s kneeling, who’s standing, who’s doing this or that. It’s about what Colin and other guys – what the message is, and what we don’t want to stand for any more.”