Podoloff’s Box ’08

by April 14, 2008

By Myles Brown


val·u·a·ble [val-yoo-uh-buhl]–adjective

1. having considerable monetary worth; costing
or bringing a high price: a valuable painting; a valuable crop.
2. having qualities worthy of respect, admiration,
or esteem: a valuable friend.
3. of considerable use, service, or importance:
a valuable player.
4. apparently not Jerry West. (But he got the logo, so it’s all good.)

*And if you don’t know, now you know.

It didn’t come to me in a dream and alas, I have no analogies. Crazy, right? No academy awards, no presidential elections, no beauty pageants, no monster truck rallies, none of that sh*t. All I have are the facts and because of them, I’m wide awake and hopping mad. The NBA MVP has lost much of it’s significance in recent years due to questionable voting results, but this year I sincerely hoped that since the Suns had set and Dirk had been properly chastised that the public-and the press-would be more responsible in casting their vote. But apparently the insanity continues, as people pay absolutely no regard to history. Or the present, for that matter. It’s 2 AM, I’m wide awake and hopping mad. Because of Chris F*cking Paul.

It’s been a fantastic year highlighted by four compelling candidates, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Each player has dominated a portion of this season, but as the schedule draws to a close several pundits have found themselves incredulously gazing at the Hornets record alongside Paul’s production and wonder how CP3 could not be MVP. I sat between two of them during a recent Wolves game who did everything short of have me escorted from the building for even questioning it. I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to go ahead and call bullsh*t on this one. As compelling as these four candidates have been, in my not so humble opinion only two of them are actually worthy.

[Insert dismissive cries of “Hater!” here]

LeBron James has had a spectacular year. But his team didn’t. He’s consistently approaching that elusive triple double average, but it’s only been in an effort to keep his team afloat as they’ve found themselves adrift in a shallow Eastern Conference. Honestly, I think that last years Finals was a fluke and that those raised expectations have unfairly skewed the perspective on Cleveland’s performance this year. Regardless, Bron’s chances aren’t hurt just because the Cavs wont win 50 games, it’s how they’ve regressed. And just as the previous years Finals appearance-fluke or not-would’ve bolstered his case had the team even come close to defending their Conference position, (the same happened for Dirk in the previous year…) it will cost him as they falter down the stretch.

He delivered with big stats (30.2, 7.9 & 7.3) that didn’t translate into wins. His increased scoring and assists didn’t result in any significant increases for the team, in fact Cleveland is scoring almost exactly the same amount of points per game as they did last year (96.9). More importantly, their much vaunted defense is allowing almost five more points per game (92.9 to 97.2, which actually gives them a negative point differential on the year) and they’ve slipped significantly in offensive and defensive rankings. (from 105.5-8th & 101.3-4th to 106.2-19th & 106.6-11th) Who did they lose that would explain this? Anderson Varejao? Things turning on the loss of such a seemingly inconsequential player would run contrary to the faction who insist that Bron carries a gang of ne’er do wells. But it’s either that or that this team was simply not ready to defend their crown, even after a midseason trade that was supposed to make them stronger. Which is somewhat reflective of the King’s leadership, no? If not, it certainly doesn’t show how he “makes his teammates better”. Regardless, fair or not, he who takes the credit must also shoulder the blame. Maybe that’s what “Chosen One” means.

Oh, and call me picky if you’d like but I still can’t help but notice that if Bron suits up for the remaining five games (which may not be likely considering his back spasms) he still will have played in two less games this year due to the six games he sat out with that mysterious sprain. On his non-shooting hand. Whether he should’ve played or not, those games may cost the team home court advantage as they hover only 1.5 games above the reinvigorated Wizards. Actually, they’re only two games in front of the streaking 76ers who sit in sixth place and these things matter since Cleveland has lost six of their last ten and ten of their last twenty games heading into the postseason. If their unimpressive record was eclipsed by strong play as the playoffs began, Bron would have more of a case. They haven’t and he doesn’t.

Which brings us back to Chris Paul and the surprising Hornets who still sit atop the Western Conference. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed. He deserves a hearty thanks, a pat on the back, a hug, a Kit Kat, a Vogue cover, anything but an MVP trophy. Why? First of all, like LeBron, Paul is upheld by his advocates as a player who ‘carries’ a sub par roster. My problem is that many of those same advocates also want to point at New Orleans record and call them the ‘best’ team in the West. It can’t be both. If it’s a sub par roster, then they’re not the best team and if they are the best team, then the roster isn’t sub par. But let’s take a closer look.

Paul is averaging four more points per game (17.3 to 21.5) on three more shots (13.6 to 16.5) and is shooting the ball considerably better (43.7% to 49.1% and 35.0% to 37.2% from three) while adding almost three more assists per game to his totals (8.9 to 11.5). The team has also made noteworthy improvements, shooting better from the field (44.5% to 46.6%), from three (36.2% to 39.3%-on 250+ more attempts. And counting…) and from the line (74% to 77%) in addition to an assist total that has already been surpassed (+125) with two games left on the schedule. These stats, along with New Orleans 16 game improvement in the win column have prompted many to declare Paul as the catalyst for change instead of acknowledging the return of David West (52 games in ’07) and Peja Stojakovic (13 games in ’07).

West (20.3 & 8.9) is a physical PF in the paint who can also run the floor, board, defend and step outside the paint to make the open jumper. Stojakovic (45.0% on 6.7 3PA) is one of the games greatest shooters of all time and a three time All Star. Granted, they are not two of the first names anyone would call out in a fantasy draft, but they are the perfect compliments for a point guard. No one would argue CP3’s ability to utilize his teammates, but too many are declaring that Paul has ‘carried’ or ‘made’ these players instead of acknowledging how they’ve made the game easier for him. I had the chance to speak with Coach Byron Scott about this on Wednesday.

SLAM: You played with an iconic PG in Magic and coached another one in Kidd, how is Paul different?

Scott: Well I think he has a little bit of those guys in him. Magic was obviously very unique at 6’9″, the way he could run a team, his passion for the game, his leadership. Chris has a lot of those qualities, as far as his leadership and Magic could take over a game at any time. I think Chris has that ability. Jason Kidd, the way he could push the ball and find guys in the open court so and the passes he could make to certain people that you just didn’t think would be made, Chris has that ability. So he has a little bit of both of those guys in him, but I still think that he’s more like Isiah than anyone I’ve seen in a long time.

SLAM: It’s obvious that Chris makes the people around him better, but going back to the injuries that you mentioned before, how has the return of Peja and David West for a full season made him better?

Scott: Well David ended up missing thirty games last year, obviously that hurt us big time, but Peja missing almost a whole entire season was a killer. So having him back and healthy, and playing the way he’s capable of playing, which was a slow process cause he still had to get back to being comfortable out there on the basketball court and probably took about a month to a month and a half. But having him now has been fantastic. You don’t sometimes realize how much you’ll miss a guy until he’s gone and not having him last year was a big blow to our team.

SLAM: Do you think that can be directly attributed to Chris’ rise in FG% and assists? He’s certainly worked on his game, but that has to spread the floor and make things easier for him.

Scott: It does and when you have a guy out there who can make threes on a consistent basis like Peja, your assists are gonna go up. We do a good job of letting spreading the floor and letting Chris try to attack people and when they (the defense) sag in, he finds the open guy. All they’ve gotta do is make shots and if they do that, it’s gonna be a pretty good night.

Then I had an opportunity to catch up with the candidate himself.

SLAM: There’s no real set criteria for the award, what do you think it means to be an MVP?

Paul: It’s exactly what it says, most valuable player on a team and which team couldn’t do without that player. You know, not necessarily the best player in the league but if-I’ll pop you in your mouth if you keep talkin’ (That was for Bonzi, not me. These guys are hilarious. I’d tell you more, but this is already long enough.)

SLAM: There’s a lot of talk about an MVP making his teammates better. What do you think it means to make your teammates better and how do you do that on this team?

Paul: I don’t think it’s always necessarily about scoring, it’s about your teammates having that confidence in you and when you go out there on the court you give your teammates more confidence.

SLAM: Byron Scott has mentioned that the teams backgrounds and the way you guys were raised by your respective families has made you easier to coach and by effect made this a better team. How do you think your background has affected you as a ballplayer?

Paul: I think it has a lot. It’s made me a lot more thankful for my teammates and the relationship that we have and we realize that we’re not just teammates, we’re a family and we go out there and play for each other every night.

SLAM: You’ve also been very open with your faith. How does that affect your approach to the game?

Paul: It helps me to respect the game and also understand that I’ve been truly blessed. I definitely understand that this can be taken away from me in the blink of an eye. God has blessed me with the opportunity to play the game that I love, take care of my family….words can’t even describe it. I’m riding so high right now I don’t even wanna come down.

SLAM: So God makes point guards?

Paul: Oh yeah, God makes everything. God makes all of this possible.

SLAM: What do think you still need to improve on?

: Everything. Defense, shooting, I want to cut down my turnovers if possible.

SLAM: There’s been a lot of people rallying around Byron for Coach of the Year and yourself for MVP, but there isn’t as much talk about the team going into the playoffs. Do you think that you guys can be a top seed and still be an underdog?

Paul: I think so, but all that matters right now is what everyone in our locker room thinks. We haven’t been in the playoffs the past two seasons, I’m the only person in our starting five who hasn’t played in a playoff game, but if that’s the way we’ve gotta approach it, I’m comfortable with that.

SLAM: The Saints rallied around the city back when they made it to the NFC Championship and now you guys are enjoying a similar run. What does it mean to you to be able to do that for New Orleans?

Paul: It means a lot. It’s our first full season back in New Orleans and we’ve had opportunities to get back out in the community and show the fans how much we appreciate them and that’s had a lot to do with our success.

SLAM: What’s the most important thing you think you’ve done for the community?

Paul: Just giving the city a little more hope. We go out there every night, on the road or at home with New Orleans on our chest.

SLAM: People readily acknowledge how you make your teammates better, but how has the return of David West and Peja Stojakovic made the game easier for you?

Paul: Well D.West is an All Star. I think we compliment each other really well and he’s easily one of the best power forwards in the league. And Peja, he’s been one of the best shooters to ever play in the NBA and I think that the style of play we have right now compliments him. He really makes the game easier for me. Both of those guys.

SLAM: If you could cast a vote for MVP and couldn’t vote for yourself, who would you vote for?

Paul: David West.

The New Orleans Hornets have had an exceptional year and Chris Paul is undoubtedly the primary reason for that. But it’s only been one year and contrary to popular belief, the MVP is not a one year award. A closer look at the awards recipients will reveal as much. The voting process and varying criteria suggested for the award are far from perfect, but one aspect has pretty much held firm over the past 52 years: there’s a line. A player first has to establish himself as a worthy candidate and then disprove his detractors before receiving an MVP.

While there have been controversial winners recently, much more often than not, the victor has proven himself beyond a shadow of doubt because he has been denied in past votes and returned the following season to answer all questions concerning his candidacy. It’s a process established by the greatest players in NBA history. 14 times (Garnett ’03, Duncan ’01, K.Malone ’98, Jordan ’97, D.Robinson ’94, Olajuwon ’93, Jordan ’87, Bird ’83, Erving ’80, Walton ’77, McAdoo ’74, Abdul-Jabbar ’73, Reed ’69, Russell ’60) a player has finished second in the voting before moving on to capture the award the next year. 8 other times (Nowitzki ’06, Jordan ’90, M.Johnson ’88, M.Johnson ’86, Abdul-Jabbar ’70, Russell ’64, O.Robertson ’63, Cousy ’56) third place went on to receive their just due. And 5 times (Petit 4th in ’58, Chamberlain 5th in ’65, Abdul-Jabbar 5th in ’75, Abdul-Jabbar 4th in ’79, M.Malone 4th in ’81) a player has been in the top 5 the year before winning the MVP. That’s 27 out of 52 times a top 5 player has had to bolster his case, be it through personal or team improvement before getting the nod. Every other time was a repeat or the winner has been 6th or lower on the previous ballot.

Except for five players. Five times in NBA history a player has won MVP without appearing on the previous years ballot. Wilt Chamberlain (23 years old averaging 37.6, 27.0 & 2.3) was 1960‘s Rookie of the Year and the MVP, a feat duplicated by Wes Unseld (22 years old averaging 13.8, 18.2 & 2.6) in 1969. Dave Cowens (24 years old averaging 20.5, 16.2 & 4.1) won in 1973 (but there were only 5 people who even received votes the previous year) and Moses Malone (23 years old averaging 24.8, 17.6 & 1.8) came out of nowhere in 1979. Those are four stalwart post presences and proven championship cornerstones. The fifth player joined the list 26 years later and we all know who he is.

Steve F*cking Nash (30 years old averaging 15.5, 3.3 & 11.5).

This is the guy the CP34MVP camp are pointing to for precedent. One of-if not the-most unprecedented and contested MVPs in NBA history. After back to back MVPs, the first for turning the Suns around and the second for sustaining them through injuries, the voters finally placed the onus on Nash to make a Finals appearance before blessing him with a third. He still hasn’t been there and it still fuels the ire of his critics. And this is the guy who’s supposed to justify Chris Paul becoming sixth player ever to not appear on the previous years ballot? The youngest MVP ever? (Tied with Unseld at 22.) The third to win MVP with no post season experience? (Joining Wilt and Unseld) In one of the tightest races in recent memory?

Get the f*ck outta here.

Thing is, many were ready to deny Nash not because of his skin color, or his defense, but because of his position. Point guards, at least ones not named Johnson, simply didn’t win MVP. The last point to win the award before Magic was Bob Cousy back in 1957. Point guards historically haven’t won the award because they’re just not as versatile as the other positions on the floor. They don’t rebound as well. They can’t punish anyone in the post and before hand checking was outlawed they weren’t much of a threat in the paint. They can’t rise over a player from the perimeter as easily as others. They aren’t going to fly in from the weak side and block a shot or deny anyone at the rim. And quick as they are, the defensive pressure isn’t the same as that of a larger player. Point guards are the playmakers, the brains of an offense. They deserve more recognition, but they shouldn’t be winning MVP every other year because they simply can’t do as much.

No one does it alone and everyone benefits from the presence of better players, but while no one is more capable of “making teammates better”, no one is as dependent on their teammates as the point guard. But I’m supposed to ignore all of that because “nobody picked the Hornets to be on top of the Western Conference at the beginning of the season, they were 39-43 last year!” Well who picked the Lakers?! They only won three more games!

In fact, discussing personal and team progression-or regression-in itself (something practically everyone does…) continues to support the notion that this isn’t simply a ‘one year award’. This sh*t does not operate in a vacuum. If it did no one would hate Kobe Bryant. No one would still be shouting ‘Colorado!’ at him, no one would call him a ball hog, or say that his numbers have dipped.

For the past two years he’s heard how his lust for scoring has come at the cost of his teammates development, when in fact his teammates just weren’t ready and that was the reason Phil challenged Kobe to be the strike player in the offense rather than the facilitator. But now the revisionists are saying that Kobe is passing more because he’s trusting teammates who’ve always been capable, when in fact he’s trusting teammates who’ve finally become capable. These were primarily young (average age, 24) and inexperienced players learning an offense that even Hall of Fame players don’t grasp immediately. Word to Gary Payton. Sasha Vujacic? Jordan Farmar? Vladmir Radmonvic? Rony Turiaf? You’re telling me they were ready two years ago? Last year? I don’t believe that, you don’t believe it yourself.

This team was in absolute turmoil from the moment Kobe took to the podium after being burned by the Suns in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Weeks later, his parking lot press conference only confirmed that he was thinking the same things that everyone else was. And what was it he said during that much discussed diatribe that was so abhorrent? “Ship his ass out of here”? Really? That’s it? “We’re talking about Jason Kidd”? We were! And more people than are now willing to admit agreed with him. In fact, a faction of management led by Jim Buss, questioned whether Phil Jackson needed to go. Not Kobe Bryant. The only thing most of them could agree on was that this team was not ready. And fans across the nation echoed that sentiment.

Months later Andrew Bynum was well on his way to MIP status before suffering a season ending injury and it’s difficult to believe that the 20 year old’s strong play wasn’t fueled by a determination to dismiss all naysayers who sided with Kobe. The same can be said of his other teammates who’ve raised their game collectively. (Minus Walton, everyones stats increased in a number of categories, particularly Farmar and Vujacic who’ve doubled their scoring.)

Team scoring and defense improved (from 103.3 & 103.4 to 108.4 & 101.5) which was particularly impressive considering that the team Pace Factor went up (from 93.5-8th to 95.6-6th). Their offensive rating which was already respectable (108.6-7th last year) moved even higher (112.8-3rd), due to less turnovers this year (1273 to 1128) and improved shooting percentages (46.6% to 47.6%) in spite of picking up the pace. But where this team showed true growth was on the defensive end, with an astronomical leap in their defensive rating (from 108.6-24th to 105.7-6th) that could take them from first round flameouts to certifiable contenders.

So as stupid as it probably was, the fact remains that Kobe publicly challenged his teammates and they responded. His will to win went from practically tearing the franchise apart to taking it further than anyone expected. In hindsight, he probably wasn’t MVP in either of the past two years, but the experience his teammates gained from those playoff appearances will be invaluable to them as they head into the post season this year. This is now a young and experienced team ready for the rigors of spring basketball because they’ve felt the pressure of a Game 7 and conquered what could be the toughest race in Conference history. Thanks in no small part to Kobe Bryant.

But there’s more than a few folks who want to explain all that away by saying Pau Gasol (18.9, 7.7 & 3.6). Really? That’s it? He’s only played in 26 games since arriving in mid-January and the team was 30-16 before he got there. Much is made of the run the team made after acquiring Gasol, but that stretch-in addition to the preceding and following ones-deserves a closer look.

In Gasol’s first 18 games as a Laker the team went 15-3, which is nothing to be ignored. But upon closer inspection, one would find that of those 18 games only 8 were against playoff teams and only 6 of those “playoff teams” were playing above .500 basketball (They played the ATL twice. 1,2,3…mediocrity!). In the ten games prior to Pau, the Lakers were also without Andrew Bynum and they went 5-5. For ten games following that 15-3 run, they were without Bynum and Pau and went 5-5 again. But during that twenty game stretch, fifteen of their opponents were playoff teams (dependent on the Denver/Golden State outcome this number would go down one or two games) and all fifteen of those teams were playing +.500 ball. That stretch should have killed their playoff positioning, especially in the ‘win or die’ West.

But Kobe Bryant wouldn’t let that happen. In the first ten games he raised his numbers across the board (33.6 ppg on 52.4% & 38.2% 3P, 7.9 rpg & 5.6 apg) and in the second ten games he raised everything except his shooting percentage (31.1 ppg on 42.1% & 35% 3P, 7.3 rpg & 5.6 apg), but that was probably because of the torn ligament in his shooting hand. Oh, and did I mention that he didn’t miss a game? Or that it’s still torn? Maybe things would’ve been worse if he sprained it, but that’s neither here nor there.

So Kobe subjugates his game for the good of the team (-2 FGA this season), seamlessly incorporates new players into a complex offense, won’t take a game off with a serious injury and steps his game up when everyone needs him. This all results in the marked team improvement (+14) that critics demanded he show in past MVP votes. How could he not be MVP? Could he have been any better? What else could he have done?

Maybe he should have been Kevin Garnett.

But I’ll get to him tomorrow. Or the next day. I still haven’t decided who should win. Not that it matters.