Who is the "Best Player," Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash?ESPN's Ric Bucher recently said that the NBA does not provide specific criteria for MVP voters because the league wants there to be a lot of debate and buzz about the award. I don't think that anyone in the NBA actually thought this issue through that carefully and deliberately but Bucher has a point that the lack of a clear definition of what an MVP is makes for very lively discussion. Should the award go to the best player on the best team? Should it go to the best player, period? Should it go to the player who is best at "making his teammates better"? Should it go to the most efficient player? Those are just some of the criteria that are bandied about by broadcasters, writers and fans. Even when people agree on which criteria to use they still may disagree about which player best fits that particular mold. My take has always been that the MVP should be awarded to the best player, regardless of his team's record. I define the best player to be the one who is the most skilled--or, in certain cases, the most dominant; I think that Shaquille O'Neal should have been the MVP in 2004-05 because of how dominant he was in the low post. If he had come back sooner this season and played at his current level he would be a viable MVP candidate this year, too. In the absence of a truly dominant low post threat who distorts team's defenses, this year's MVP should go to the most skilled player in the league: Kobe Bryant.
I just read a post that asserts that Steve Nash is a better player than Kobe Bryant. The author starts by comparing Steve Nash's "64 point game" to Kobe Bryant's 65 point game. He asserts that Nash had a 64 point game if you add his 32 points against Dallas to his 16 assists (times two). Then he goes a step further, noting that some of the assists were probably on three point shots, so that Nash actually was worth perhaps 70 points in that game. Nash's performance came against the team with the league's best record, while Bryant's 65 point game and his subsequent 50 point game came against teams with losing records. Looking at their season averages, Nash produces 42.1 points per game (19.1 ppg plus 11.5 apg, times two) and Bryant produces 41.0 points per game (30 ppg plus 5.5 apg, times two). He adds that he looked at Nash's game log from last season and thinks that Nash's 28 point, 22 assist game is more impressive than Bryant's 81 point game. He concludes by saying that he is literally pained by the idea that so many people believe that Bryant is the "best player in the game" and he says that they are fooled by Bryant's "flying through air, and dunking, and hitting crazy reverse layups and ridiculous 'I can't believe he just took that shot' fadeaways. In short, it's all about looking good in the highlight reel."
Valuing each assist at a full two points gives a lot of credit to the passer. This is a good "quick and dirty" way to count up what I call "tangible points" and I used this method myself in an earlier post--but this is a very thin reed on which to base one's entire conclusion about who is the best player in the game. If we give two points to the passer then do we give zero to the player who actually scored? Clearly, the more one thinks about this the less sense it makes. I don't know how many 32-16 or 28-22 games there have been in NBA history but there have been a lot more games like that than 81 point games. Bryant is also the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to follow a 60 point game with a 50 point game. Has nobody else in history ever played against two bad teams in a row? Bryant's shooting percentages in the 81, 65 and 50 point games are fantastic, his team won all three games and anyone who watched those games knows that if Bryant had not scored that way his team would have lost all three. Bryant's scoring feats, from a 35.4 ppg season average to his two months of 40+ ppg to his 81 point game to the 65-50 duo, can only be compared to those of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan.
We are supposed to believe that Nash is doing things that we have never seen before but, as Bill Walton might say, I am old enough to remember John Stockton, who averaged at least 14.4 ppg and 10.5 apg for 10 straight years. During that time he missed a total of four games and never had a "true shooting percentage" (which factors in three point shooting and free throw shooting) below .584. In most of those years, he had a tsp better than .600 and averaged more than 15 ppg and 12 apg. Stockton's career numbers--in 19 seasons, mind you, not retiring until the age of 40--are 13.1 ppg and 10.5 apg, with a .608 true shooting percentage. Nash's career true shooting percentage (not including this season) is .591 and he has averaged 13.5 ppg and 7.1 apg.
I looked up some Stockton game logs and found these numbers (points-assists): 21-23 (also, 10-13 from the field), 20-19, 27-17, 24-19, 25-19. Those all come just from 1991-92. Stockton had higher ppg averages in the preceding three seasons--and presumably more such stat lines--but those box scores are not available online. Remember, you have to go back to Wilt Chamberlain--and only Wilt Chamberlain--to find a 65-50 or a game with more than 80 points. Based on scarcity, I'm taking Bryant's scoring explosions over Nash's points/assists combos. Allen Iverson just had a 44-15, which is just the fourth 40-15 game in the last 20 years--so Nash's 32-16 is not even the best points/assists line of the month, let alone being comparable to the second best scoring outburst of all time. Is it overkill to add that Bryant scored his 81 in regulation and his 65 in a one overtime game, while Nash needed two overtimes for his 32-16?
I find it odd that the writer emphasizes that the season totals of ppg plus apg (times two) only slightly favors Nash, who has won the last two MVPs and probably will get more MVP votes than Bryant this year. It's hard to be considered the underdog when you already have won two MVPs. Bryant was a distant fourth last year. Since his production is, according to this writer, virtually identical to Nash's and since Bryant clearly is passing to vastly inferior teammates--leading to fewer assist opportunities and more double teaming of Bryant because the other four guys cannot shoot--it would seem that the writer should be bent out of shape because of how the voters disrespected Bryant last year. Based on his logic, the voting should have been a dead heat between Bryant and Nash, not a Nash runaway.
The reality is that Nash for MVP advocates should be hiding the numbers under the table, not bringing out a spotlight. There simply is not a good statistical case for voting for Nash as MVP. His candidacy is based on intangibles such as "making his teammates better." Supposedly, Nash is more "efficient" than Bryant, based on shooting percentages and assists. Wait a minute, though: according to the NBA's official efficiency statistic, Bryant ranks fourth in the league and Nash ranks twelfth. What about John Hollinger's PER rankings? Bryant is again fourth, while Nash is ninth. I would not base my MVP voting just on numbers--but if I were stumping for Nash's candidacy, numbers would be the last thing that I would bring up.
Bryant is the game's best and most skillful player because he has no weaknesses. He can score in the post, in the mid-post, from three point range and on the drive. He can finish with either hand. He rebounds, defends, passes well and can handle the ball with either hand. No other player is as complete. Tim Duncan and LeBron James have free throw weaknesses. Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are not as good defensively as Bryant, nor can they guard multiple positions as well as he can. Dwyane Wade has no three point shot and is not as good of a ballhandler.
The much replayed three point shot that Bryant hit from the corner against Portland is a perfect example of why Bryant is so great. That play combined athleticism with perfect footwork. Find a video of that shot, rewind it and play it forward in slow motion. Watch his pivoting, how he set up the defenders. The final execution of the shot was aided by his strength and jumping ability but he freed himself with good footwork. He is a technician in that regard, just like Jordan was. The reason that so many well informed people call Bryant the "best player" is because he is, in fact, the best player. A lot of those same people would not vote Bryant as the MVP because they believe that the award is not necessarily meant to honor the "best player." Charles Barkley, Greg Anthony and the numerous other former players who are now talking heads and who say that Bryant is the "best player" are not being fooled because Bryant is "looking good in the highlight reel." When I interviewed Dave Bing, one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, he said of Bryant, "I think that he is probably one of the most gifted players that I have seen in a long time. Kobe comes to play and he's got all the skills." I've spoken to a number of current and former players about Bryant and they are all amazed by his abilities.
My MVP ballot this year would read Bryant, Nowitzki, Nash. I don't have a big problem with Nowitzki or Nash winning, if the criteria used emphasizes team success--just don't tell me that either one is "better" than Bryant or that a 32-16 game is somehow "better" than an 81 point game or a 65 point game.
The funny thing about the Kobe Bryant haters is that facts never get in the way of their zingers and they can shamelessly tailor their attacks to "fit" any situation. Remember when Bryant outscored Dallas 62-61 for three quarters? That is the same Dallas team that made it to last year's Finals (that might be better than 32-16...). Did that win over Bryant's haters? Nope; he should have stayed in the game and gone for 70 or 80--he cheated the fans of a chance to see history. So, when Bryant placed a dead in the water Lakers team on his back, dragged them from way behind to a win and scored 81 points, that must have won over the critics, right? Nope; that just showed that he is a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring than anything else. I think that Bryant's haters are the children and grandchildren of the Chamberlain haters who will insist to your face that Chamberlain's team lost in his 100 point game.
Many of the people who "analyze" Bryant's abilities as a basketball player could save a lot of time, paper and/or bandwidth by simply writing "I hate Kobe Bryant and if he averages a triple double for six seasons in a row and wins the championship each year I will still hate him and never give him his due. The end."
posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 AM