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.

Three things to Know: Now what for the Nets, Mavericks?

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Now what for the Nets, Mavericks?

So much for a quiet trade deadline. In a blockbuster trade, the Brooklyn Nets are sending Kyrie Irving and Markieff Morris to the Dallas Mavericks in return for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a 2029 unprotected first-round pick and two second-round picks (the first in 2027). Brooklyn chose the Mavericks’ offer over the Lakers (Russell Westbrook and two first-rounders), Suns (Chris Paul, Jae Crowder and picks), and the Clippers.

The thing is, it can’t be the last move for either the Mavericks or Nets if they want to contend this season. It’s not a coincidence this trade got done days before the deadline, it leaves room for both teams to make more moves to maximize what happened in this deal.

What is next for both?

With this move, Brooklyn signaled they plan to retool a contender around Kevin Durant, which is a noble idea but his roster is not good enough. Adding Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith brings versatility and depth to the Nets lineup, but it leaves them with one star capable of elite shot creation and points in KD, the Nets need more.

Brooklyn can use that depth plus what is now three first-round picks they control to try and trade for another star to go next to Durant, except there are no such stars on the market. At least yet. The Nets did check in with the Raptors to see if any of their stars — maybe Fred VanVleet or O.G. Anunoby — will be made available, reports Ian Begley of SNY.TV. Brooklyn has until early this summer to build a roster Durant believes can win it all and wants to play with, or his trade demand could end up back on the table. There are many other teams — led by the Suns — waiting to see that happen.

As for Dallas…

Trading for Irving is a huge role of the dice for the Mavericks and they need it to work, partly because they reportedly did not commit to a long-term contract with Irving (he wants the max, four years, $198.5 million, he could have gotten). Irving is a free agent after this season and could walk.

To make it work, Dallas needs two ball-dominant players in Irving and Luka Dončić to mesh on the court. More importantly, Dallas has to improve its 23rd-ranked defense (using Cleaning the Glass’ numbers) despite having just traded away its best perimeter defender in Finney-Smith.

Dallas is still active on the trade market to round out the roster— Christian Wood is a very common name bandied about as available — but the focus now has to be on bringing in enough defense. Their offense could be electric with Dončić, Irving and plenty of shooting, but they are not going to score their way out of the West, Dallas needs stops. Which means Dallas needs defenders.

Expect both the Nets and Mavericks to try and make more moves before Thursday.

2) Stephen Curry out “weeks” with shin injury, could be a month

For a Warriors team that is just a game above .500 and struggling to avoid the play-in, they got terrible news on Sunday.

Stephen Curry has torn ligaments in his leg — in the shin area just below the knee — and while the team does not have an official timeline, he will miss time.

Shams Charania reported it would be “weeks” and the Warriors are hoping that means about three and Curry return just after the All-Star break, reports Monty Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

However, Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes said that, while this is a rare injury for the NBA, he likely is out for around a month.

The Warriors are not the same without Curry, who is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game. The Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and get outscored by 5.4 when he is off. Can they hold on to even a play-in spot without him?

Also of interest, Curry will miss the All-Star Game where the fans voted him a starter.

Here’s the interesting question: Fans voted Irving a starter in the East, except now he plays for a Western Conference team. Does Irving now slide into Curry’s starting spot in the West, and then NBA Commissioner Adam Silver name a replacement player in the East? Or, does Silver make the changes in the West (likely bumping Ja Morant to starter and naming a reserve from Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox or Anthony Edwards).

3) Knicks rally from 21 points down to pick up quality win over 76ers

The 76ers had been hot and won 9-of-10, and Joel Embiid had another monster night scoring 31 points (18 of 19 from the free-throw line) and grabbing 14 rebounds.

It was not enough, the Knicks came back from 21 down to get the win behind 24 points from Julius Randle, while Jalen Brunson scored 21 points and Evan Fournier came off the bench to add 17.

“I thought our second unit came in and struggled,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said, via the Associated Press. “This is the second time that has happened. The same thing happened in Orlando (the other recent Philly loss). Both times, we were scoring too easy. The second group comes in and thinks this is an offensive game and they didn’t see why the first group got the lead because of defense.”

Morant says friend banned from arena over incident with Pacers

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant tweeted Sunday that a friend of his has been banned from games at FedExForum for a year as a result of a confrontation between his supporters and members of the Indiana Pacers organization after the game between the teams a week earlier.

The NBA confirmed that unnamed individuals have been banned from the arena, while adding that its investigation found no evidence that anyone was threatened with a weapon during the incident, which happened after the Grizzlies beat the Pacers on Jan. 29.

Citing unnamed sources, The Indianapolis Star and USA Today reported that multiple members of the Pacers saw a red dot pointed at them, and The Athletic reported that a Pacers security guard believed the laser was attached to a gun.

“NBA Security and league investigators conducted an investigation interviewing numerous eyewitnesses and reviewing video surveillance following allegations made by the Indiana Pacers organization regarding a postgame incident on Jan. 29. While we substantiated that a postgame situation arose that was confrontational, based on interviews and other evidence gathered, we could not corroborate that any individual threatened others with a weapon,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in an emailed statement.

“Certain individuals involved in the postgame situation and a related matter during the game that night have been subsequently banned from attending games in the arena. If additional information becomes available related to the postgame situation, the league office will conduct a further review,” Bass’ statement continued.

Morant didn’t play in the Grizzlies’ 106-103 loss to Toronto on Sunday because of right wrist soreness and was not available for comment after the game.

Before the game, Morant tweeted that reports about the incident “paint this negative image on me and my fam. & banned my brother from home games for a year. unbelievable.”

During the Jan. 29 game, there was barking between Pacers players and friends of Morant seated along the sideline. A close friend of Morant’s, Davonte Pack, was escorted from the arena as Pacers bench players shouted in Pack’s direction.

The talking reportedly continued into the players’ parking area after the game.

Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said the team addressed the matter internally.

“Aware of the investigation of the NBA. Did a full investigation,” Jenkins said. “We were fully compliant with it, and I think they came out with a statement saying nothing was corroborated or found.

“That’s what I know, and that’s all I’m going to comment on it.”

Winners, Losers in Kyrie Irving trade to Dallas Mavericks

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Kyrie Irving tried to force his way out of Brooklyn over the summer, but the market for him was thin and his plan didn’t work. He opted in to stay in Brooklyn.

Irving’s plan did work at the trade deadline — he again demanded a trade and this time, he got his wish and was sent to Dallas to team up with Luka Dončić on the Mavericks. It’s a deal with clear winners and losers, but the cases are muddier for both of the principal teams involved. Let’s break down who won and who lost in this latest Kyrie Irving trade. Let’s start with a reminder of what the trade itself involved.

Mavericks receive: Kyrie Irving, Markieff Morris.

Nets receive: Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected 2029 first-round pick, 2027 and 2029 second-round picks.

WINNER: Kyrie Irving

Irving made a brilliant business move demanding a trade before the deadline. His troubles with the Nets going back to the summer stem in part from him not getting the max contract extension he wants — four years, $198.5 million, with no strings. When the Nets weren’t going to give him that extension, Irving forced his way to a new team where he is more likely to get paid (not that it’s close to a lock, the Mavs are reportedly hesitant).

Irving now gets to play next to Dončić, another of the league’s top five players, and is on a team with the potential to contend in a wide-open conference, and he gets a relatively clean slate to prove he is worthy of that massive contract this summer. Irving got what he wanted out of this.

WINNER: Luka Doncic

Luka Dončić was good with this trade — Dallas went to him and got his approval before proceeding with it, reports Marc Stein.

Dončić has been at a historic usage rate this season and was physically wearing down from the load. Dallas desperately needed another shot creator and star next to Dončić to lighten his load. Now, Dallas has that in the guy with maybe the best handles in the league, someone averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game and shooting 37.4% from 3.

There are a lot of questions about the fit of Dončić and Irving together — will Irving accept a role as the No.2 option on this team (as he did with Durant most of the time)? How well will Doncic play off the ball? This trade makes the Mavericks’ 23rd-ranked defense worse. And that is just the start. But it’s a move the Mavericks had to make, and now Dončić knows they will do everything they can to land stars to put around him. Which is what he wanted to see.

LOSER: LeBron James and the Lakers

The Dallas Mavericks showed how desperate they were as a franchise with this potentially Faustian trade.

The only team that might have been more desperate? The Lakers. They are squandering an All-NBA level, record-breaking season of a 38-year-old LeBron James, sitting four games below .500 and outside the play-in tournament. LeBron wanted this trade to happen. The Lakers wanted it to happen. Irving wanted it to happen.

Lakers GM Rob Pelinka tried, the problem is the Nets want to retool a contender around Durant immediately — Brooklyn wanted players who can help them win now. That’s not what the Lakers could offer. The Lajers had tempting future picks, but the player at the heart of any offer was Russell Westbrook. The Mavericks could offer more, better players right now plus the picks (there is also a report that Nets owner Joe Tsai didn’t want to send Irving to his preferred destination). Dallas won the day. LeBron’s reaction?

There is no clear path to building a title contender around LeBron and Anthony Davis. Trading for Irving would have been a huge gamble, but that is where the Lakers are now. They have to roll those dice, and they will try again with the next superstar who becomes available.

ASK AGAIN LATER: Brooklyn Nets

There is a case to make the Nets did well in this trade — and maybe even got better by making the roster deeper, and more versatile. They got out of the Kyrie Irving business and don’t have to pay him long-term — if they had made this trade over the summer the conventional wisdom reaction would have been, “good job getting out from under all this.” And the Nets landed a couple of quality players who can help them now in Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith. Brooklyn GM Sean Marks did as well as he could with the situation.

Still, Brooklyn got worse in the short term — any team that trades a superstar does not get equal talent back.

Whether this ultimately is a win or loss for them will hinge on two future moves, or lack of moves:

1) Can the Nets make another trade or two before the deadline? Even with a healthy Durant and what is now a deep and versatile roster, the Nets lack the second high-end star they will need come the postseason (Ben Simmons is not going to be that guy). Brooklyn now has picks and players at its disposal to make more roster upgrades, particularly defensively.

2) Will Kevin Durant stay in Brooklyn, or ask for another trade? Can the Nets keep him happy? Durant didn’t think there was a future in Brooklyn last summer and asked for a trade, but the Nets didn’t really try couldn’t find one to their liking. If the rest of this season goes just okay and the Nets get bounced in the first round, that KD trade request very well could be back on the table, and the Nets could be back to rebuilding, but without their picks to do it.

There is one other disappointment in all this — it looked like the Nets, under Jacque Vaughn, had figured it out. They went 18-2 in the games before Durant got injured. Vaughn had quieted the noise around the team, had them focus on the court, and Brooklyn looked like a real threat in the East. Now that is gone.

ASK AGAIN LATER: Dallas Mavericks

The argument for this being a win for Dallas is it makes them a contender in the wide-open West — they have two superstars who can match any duo in the conference, and have surrounded them with shooting. The Mavericks’ offense should be elite.

The problem in the contender theory is the Mavericks already have the 23rd-ranked defense in the NBA and now have traded away their best defender in Finney-Smith. If the Mavericks are going to fulfill the promise of their offense, they will have to make more trades to upgrade that defense. Reports are the Mavericks are aggressively looking for other moves to bolster that end of the floor.

However, the biggest question for Dallas is the long term — do they want to give Irving the four-year max contract he wants at the end of this season? Marc Stein reported the Mavericks did not promise a new contract to Irving at the end of the year, but you don’t make this trade if you’re not open to it. The Mavericks get a test run through the final third of the season, although Irving will most likely be on his best behavior the next couple of months.

If the Mavericks don’t bring back Irving, they just traded away their two most valuable trade asset players plus a could of high-value picks — Dallas weakened their position to get the next star. Dallas gave up a lot, do they have to pay up now?

WINNERS: Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks

For 20 games when both Irving and Durant were healthy and on the floor — and the distractions quieted down — the Nets looked like a team that could win the East. Now… not so much. The Nets are good, and maybe they have another move or two that returns them to contender status, but that is a long shot. The Nets are a dangerous opponent, but not one the real contenders in the East, the Buck and the Celtics, can beat.

The Philadelphia 76ers are the team the Bucks and Celtics should worry about.

WINNER: Houston Rockets

Remember when Houston traded James Harden to the Nets? The Rockets now control — either outright have or have swap rights — for every Nets first-round pick between now and 2027. Those picks look much more valuable tonight than they did 24 hours ago, and if Durant does ask for a trade and push his way out of Brooklyn this summer then the Rockets could be sitting on a treasure chest. This trade was good news for the Rockets.

LeBron, other NBA players react to Kyrie Irving trade to Mavericks

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Is there going to be a football game of some kind next weekend? You’d never know the way the NBA trade deadline can dominate the headlines.

Kyrie Irving is getting traded to the Mavericks, which has blown up the NBA world — Dallas looks like a threat in the West, and there is a countdown clock over Kevin Durant‘s time in Brooklyn. It wasn’t just fans and pundits stunned by the news, NBA players past and present took to Twitter and social media to react and give their thoughts on the Irving trade. Starting with LeBron James and one of the guys in the trade.