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.

Thunder get off to fast start, survive wild ending to win 98-97, even series with Spurs

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, center, scramble with San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, right, for a loose ball as time expires in the second half in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, May 2, 2016, in San Antonio. Oklahoma City won 98-97. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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When the playoffs are all over, and all the confetti has fallen at the parade celebrating the 2016 NBA champion, we are still going to be talking about this game. The Spurs and Warriors gave us everything — great shooting, leads and comebacks, and a wild, controversial ending.

What ultimately matters is the Thunder bounced back from a rough first game, were aggressive from the start and raced out to that early lead using their transition offense. Then a team that blew a lot of leads this season hung on through multiple Spurs comebacks and ultimately got a 98-97 win behind 29 points from Russell Westbrook and 28 from Kevin Durant (who played well at the four spot much of the night). The series is now tied 1-1 heading back to Oklahoma City.

All the controversy at the end doesn’t change that fact, or that the Thunder did some things much better in Game 2.

The Thunder have had moments like this throughout the season, where they defended better, got transition points, and Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter (or someone else) would step up and make plays — but they didn’t sustain that high level of play for very long. They still won 55 games because Durant and Westbrook are talented, but we will see if they can sustain a “beat the Spurs” level of play for most of the next couple weeks.

San Antonio helped out by having their offense not as sharp, and just missing shots — the Spurs started 2-of-15 from the field and finished the game shooting just 26.1 percent from three. The missed shots allowed the Thunder to get out in transition more and get the easy buckets that fuel their offense.

But that’s not what anybody is talking about, this is:

Those final 13 seconds, when the Spurs were down 1 and the Thunder were trying to inbound the ball, is the topic of the day. The referees swallowed their whistles to the point that a rugby scrum broke out.

The most discussed part of the play was the inbound — Dion Waiters reaches across the boundary line to shove Manu Ginobili back, which is a clear foul and a change of possessions. Ginobili had stepped on the end line, which could have been ruled a technical but was not as egregious as Waiters’ blatant foul. There were a host of other fouls in those final seconds: Kawhi Leonard grabbing Westbrook’s jersey, a Spurs fan grabbing Steven Adams when he fell out of bounds and not letting him back in the play, and Ibaka hacking LaMarcus Aldridge in the final seconds.

But that’s not what decided the game. The Spurs made a lot of mistakes and missed a lot of clean looks before that, things they needed at the end. Aldridge had 41 points, and Leonard added 12. However, Tim Duncan was 1-of-8, and Tony Parker was 3-of-9 — those guys are not the top offensive options anymore, but the Spurs need them to be efficient. The hustling Thunder defense had something to do with this, but that doesn’t change that the Spurs need more from these two key players.

The Thunder offense worked not because they shared the ball — as per usual, it happens only in spurts — but because Westbrook and Durant hit their shots, and because they got transition buckets.

If they can do that for a couple more games at home, they will be in command of this series. But it’s not going to be simple or easy.

Referees miss Dion Waiters push off, multiple other calls in final seconds of Thunder’s win over San Antonio

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Manu Ginobili said it perfectly after the game: This one play, this one sequence is not why the Spurs lost Game 2 of their series against the Thunder.

However, I can’t remember a time the referees swallowed their whistles on so many calls in the final seconds of a game.

Oklahoma City was up one with 13.5 seconds left (after Serge Ibaka made a silly foul on LaMarcus Aldridge shooting a three), the Thunder just needed to inbound the ball, get fouled and hit their free throws. But it wasn’t that easy.

First and most notably, Dion Waiters was trying to inbound the ball and pushed off on Manu Ginobili guarding the inbound play. That’s a foul, or a technical depending upon which rule you want to apply. But the Spurs should have had the ball out of bounds, the referees just missed that one and both Chris Webber on the call and the TNT Inside the NBA crew harped on that one. They were right.

The officials admitted as much, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Ken Mauer, lead referee from tonight’s game: “On the floor we did not see a foul on the play. However, upon review we realize and we agree we should have had an offensive foul on the play. It’s a play we’ve never seen before, ever. We should have had an offensive foul on the play.”

The question Thunder fans are asking: Why wasn’t Ginobili called for stepping on the out of bounds line? In the final two minutes that’s a technical (the rule book says it’s a foul if he “crosses or breaks the plane of the boundary line,” Ginobili has a toe on the line). Also Leonard had Russell Westbrook‘s jersey through that entire inbounds play.

Waiters did throw a leaping inbound pass as Ginobili stumbled backwards, and he threw it to Durant — who was held as he went for the ball by Danny Green. That should have been a foul call (although Waiters’ inbound foul would have nullified it if that call had been made).

The Spurs get the ball in a scramble for the rock and end up kicking out to Patty Mills for a corner three (not sure that was the best shot), but he missed. In the rebound scramble there could have been a few calls, but the most obvious was Ibaka hacking Aldridge trying to get a putback. It was another clear foul.

All that obscured some great plays — Ginobili with the no-look, behind the head pass to Mills in the corner, or Steven Adams with an amazing closeout to get a piece of Mills’ shot, to name a couple.

I get it, the referees don’t want to decide the game with their whistle, but when it turns into a rugby scrum there should be calls, and the referees shouldn’t be afraid to make them.

Watch LeBron James make plays when it matters in fourth quarter

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On paper LeBron James didn’t have a great fourth quarter — 2-of-7 shooting, both his buckets right at the rim, and he’d been passive for long stretches of the game.

But when the Cavaliers made a 17-2 run late in the game that earned them the Game 1 win over Atlanta, LeBron was at the heart of it all. He had assists, a key steal, and a powerful and-1 dunk. You can check out LeBron’s impressive play in the last five minutes above.

Revived in crunch time, LeBron James pushes Cavaliers past Hawks in Game 1

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LeBron James  hadn’t scored in more than 10 minutes, and it was getting late in the fourth quarter. The Hawks had gone on 11-0 and 10-0 runs since his last points. And Paul Millsap forced LeBron to lose control of the ball as he went up for a left-handed layup.

A moment of truth for the Cavaliers?

LeBron pushed the ball through the hoop with his right hand while being fouled.

If you didn’t get the message, he flexed and slapped his right bicep once he landed.

It wasn’t always smooth, but Cleveland overpowered Atlanta 104-93 in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday. The Cavaliers have won seven straight overall against the Hawks, including a sweep in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and LeBron is now 9-0 against Atlanta in the playoffs.

“Obviously, you could tell that they went through a longer series than us,” said LeBron, whose Cavs swept the Pistons eight days ago. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six four days later.

Home Game 1 winners have won the series 85% of the time, and Atlanta will have its work cut out to become an exception.

LeBron’s offensive passiveness during Atlanta’s comeback was unwelcome, but when needed, he delivered. His 3-point play highlighted a 17-2 run that would’ve ended the game if not for a garbage-time 3-pointer by the Hawks. LeBron (25 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block) also stole the ball from red-hot Dennis Schröder on consecutive late possessions. This was two-way excellence when it counted, the type of production that has taken LeBron to five straight Finals.

The Cavaliers had such a big lead (18) to blow because they were hot from beyond the arc (15-for-31, 48%). When they missed, Tristan Thompson (seven offensive rebounds) got them extra opportunities.

Kevin Love (17 points and 11 rebounds) threw his body around enough to get a double-double despite shooting 4-for-17. Kyrie Irving (21 points on 8-of-18 shooting and eight assists) forced too many bad shots, but he made some tough ones and kept the ball moving.

At times, it seemed Irving was going one-on-one with Schröder (27 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting and six assists). As impressive as Schröder was from beyond the arc and attacking the rim, Kent Bazemore (16 points, 12 rebounds and four assists) was his only reliable scoring sidekick.

After allowing 30 points in the first quarter, Atlanta cranked up it defense to the frenetic level showed against Boston. Millsap (17 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals), Al Horford (10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals) and Bazemore (two steals) led the effort.

And Cleveland surrendered open 3s when the Hawks moved the ball, which they usually did. If they make more of those open looks, it’s easy to see them winning.

But can they win four of the next six games?

As long as LeBron plays for the Cavs, that’s a monumental challenge.