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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Fun With Numbers

I thought about writing a recap of San Antonio's 92-83 win over Denver, but that game really did not show us anything that we didn't already know: Allen Iverson is a fantastic scorer (33 points, 15-25 shooting) who can also pass (six assists) but Denver does not play good enough defense to compete with the best teams in the league; the Nuggets are now 3-7 since acquiring Iverson. Granted, Carmelo Anthony has been serving his suspension during that time but I doubt that his return to action will do much to improve Denver's defense; he adds another offensive threat to Denver's lineup but, like several of the Nuggets, his presence on the court increases the offensive efficiency of both teams, if you get my drift. Just having more firepower will lead to a better winning percentage than .300 but the Nuggets still look like a team that will be out of the playoffs no later than the second round and, depending on the seeding, quite probably in the first round. Tim Duncan put up his usual numbers (19 points, 13 rebounds, three blocked shots). For some strange reason, he has morphed into Shaq at the free throw line (3-10) after shooting .799 as recently as 2001-02, but that is a story for another day. Meanwhile, let's have some fun with numbers:

Player A put up these numbers in consecutive seasons:

Season one: 18.9 ppg; 8.4 apg; 3.0 rpg; .526 FG%; .441 3-point FG%; .901 FT%
Team record: 57-25; lost in first round to eventual Conference Finalist.

Season two: 19.6 ppg; 9.1 apg; 3.4 rpg; .459 FG%; .406 3-point FG%; .888 FT%
Team record: 42-40; lost in first round to eventual Conference Semi-Finalist.

Player B put up these numbers in consecutive seasons:

Season one: 15.5 ppg; 11.5 apg; 3.3 rpg; .502 FG%; .431 3-point FG%; .887 FT%
Team record: 62-20; lost in Conference Finals to eventual NBA Champion.

Season two: 18.8 ppg; 10.5 apg; 4.2 rpg; .512 FG%; .439 3-point FG%; .921 FT%
Team record: 54-28; lost in Conference Finals to eventual NBA runner-up.

As a result of these performances, one of these players made one All-Star appearance and earned one All-NBA Third Team selection. The other player won two MVPs, made the All-NBA First Team twice and played in two All-Star Games. If you follow the NBA at all, you have probably figured out that one of these players is Steve Nash. Do you know who the other player is? None other than...Mark Price, who is "Player A" in the above chart. Those seasons are 1988-89 and 1989-90 respectively. Price finished 10th in MVP voting in 1988-89 and did not receive a single MVP vote in 1989-90 (nor did he make the All-Star Team or All-NBA Team). As for his team's results in those seasons, the Cavs of 1988-89 had a comparable record to the Suns of recent vintage but lost in the first round because of Michael Jordan's famous shot over Craig Ehlo. The 1989-90 Cavs traded Ron Harper for the rights to Danny Ferry, lost center Brad Daugherty to injury for half of the season and lost power forward Larry Nance for 20 games due to injury. Of course, MVP voting happens before the playoffs and All-Star selections are made without the benefit of knowing for sure how well or poorly a player's team will finish that season.

What do these numbers tell us about why Nash is a two-time MVP and Price never came close to winning one MVP? Frankly, I don't know. Magic Johnson won the MVP in both of the Price seasons that are listed above, with Michael Jordan finishing second in '89 and third in '90 (Charles Barkley was second in '90). Was the NBA more loaded with superstar talent at that time? Perhaps, but Nash has beaten out Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James to win the last two MVPs. Does anyone doubt that all of those players are future Hall of Famers? Have rules changes regarding perimeter defense made Nash more valuable in today's game? Perhaps, but those same changes also help Bryant, Wade and James--and even Nowitzki, when he plays on the perimeter. Has Nash's status been elevated because he is a white star in a game that has for decades largely been dominated by black players? This issue was mentioned--perhaps most prominently by the Miami Herald's Dan LeBetard--when Nash won his first MVP over O'Neal, but the idea never seemed to gain much public traction; in fact, LeBetard was skewered for diminishing Nash's achievements and for turning the focus away from the action on the court. I cannot recall hearing or seeing any current or former players suggesting that Nash won his MVPs because he is white; that debate has largely gone back and forth among various media members and, for what it's worth, voters don't seem to be divided along racial lines regarding Nash. Of course, Price is also white, so if one takes the position that Nash has won his MVPs because he is white then one has to explain why Price did not receive similar consideration. Then, there is also the matter of John Stockton, a third white point guard who put up similar or better offensive numbers than Price and Nash for a much longer period of time, was a much better defender than both players and never came close to winning one MVP, let alone two.

The reason that this subject is so interesting is that Nash is already one of just nine players who have won back to back NBA MVPs (Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bird, Johnson, Jordan and Duncan are the others). If he wins his third MVP this year, he will join Russell, Chamberlain and Bird as the only players to win three straight MVPs (Julius Erving won three straight MVPs in the ABA, sharing the middle of the three with George McGinnis). I understand that each season's MVP award should be given as a result of that year's performance and that the voters should not be influenced by historical considerations--but is Nash's production in these three seasons really (a) on par with Russell, Chamberlain and Bird (and Erving in the ABA) and (b) head and shoulders above the production of his contemporaries? The other tri-MVP winners all led their teams to at least one championship during their run of individual dominance.

I'm not sure what Nash's MVPs mean but I suspect that 50 years from now, historians will look at the statistics and be at least a little bit puzzled; maybe I'm ahead of my time, but I'm a little bit puzzled now.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM



At Thursday, January 11, 2007 8:46:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

I made this comparison on one of you previous post about in your Is Gilbert a gunner post? I mentioned where does Nash rank in all time point guards and spoke on Price?

Im glad you brought it to light because Mark Price was fun to watch. Very quick release plus he used the backboard from the center, which a lot of players dont do now. They use it at an angle, if at all.

At Thursday, January 11, 2007 11:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yes, you did mention Price and a couple others as well. I like the Price comparison because neither he nor Nash are defensive standouts. Nash is often compared with Stockton but Stockton was a much better defensive player than Nash is. I think that all three are tremendous players but, as I indicated in the post, I struggle a bit to explain why Nash is a two-time MVP who seems to have a good chance of winning his third MVP this year while Stockton and Price not only didn't win one but didn't even come close to winning one.

At Thursday, January 11, 2007 12:53:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Its confusing but it shows how weak the NBA is now. Nash's status has not been elevated because of race...he is just that valuable. Of course James, Bryant and Wade are too. Nash definitely wouldnt have won MVPs years ago.
The MVP is a joke anyway. There are few that Jordan didnt win and should have like 92-93 and 96-97, which would have gave him 3 straight twice.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 1:23:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying this. Nash is a good player, but I was stunned when he won the first MVP. The second MVP award made sense in light of the first (i.e. Nash had a better season, even with Amare Stoudemire out), but none in its own right.

The logic appears to be that Nash should get all the credit for the Suns 33 game improvement in 2004-2005 and the team's high-level of play since then. None should go to his two All-Star level teammates (Shawn Marion, Stoudemire) and the strong group of role-players (Boris Diaw, Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa). If this is the case, why didn't Nash win MVP in 2002-2003 (17.7 ppg, 7.3 apg) when Dallas won 60 games?

By the reasonsing exhibited, if the roles had been reversed (but stats and records unchanged) and Kevin Johnson had joined Charles Barkley in Phoenix for the 1992-1993 season, he would have won MVP.

At Friday, January 12, 2007 2:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bdb, you make some excellent points, but there is one problem with the KJ for '93 MVP idea: he missed 33 games due to injury that year and had a subpar regular season. I thought that Jordan deserved that season's MVP, which he basically proved by outshining Barkley in the Finals.

Another interesting thing to consider about Nash is that Dallas let him go, replaced him with Jason Terry--a solid player who has yet to play in even one All-Star Game--and made it to the Finals, something the Mavericks had never done before. Of course, they beat Nash and his Suns along the way. If Nash has been the very best player in the league for two years straight, how did a team replace him with a non-All-Star and improve? I realize that the Mavericks changed coaches, Josh Howard developed, etc. but I can't picture the Cavs getting rid of LeBron and replacing him with Jason Terry (or fill in the blank with an equivalently talented small forward) without missing a beat.


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