What a Fool Believes..."What a Fool Believes" is a great Doobie Brothers song from the 1978 album "Minute by Minute." It reached number one on the pop charts in 1979 and won Grammys as both "Song of the Year" and "Record of the Year." What does that have to do with basketball? Here are some of the lyrics: "But what a fool believes he sees/No wise man has the power to reason away/What seems to be/Is always better than nothing." That is a good description of Phoenix Suns' advocates who believe that the Suns will win the NBA title this year.
What's so foolish about that? After all, the Suns do have the third best record in the league and split the season series with Dallas, 2-2. As Michael McDonald sang, "What seems to be/Is always better than nothing." The Suns pile up wins in the regular season with a high octane running game, but their uptempo style is not punctuated with layups but rather a record setting barrage of three pointers. This works great against inferior teams that can neither control the tempo of the game nor matchup in the open court with Phoenix' talented group of players. However, there is a reason that Phoenix is just 6-7 versus Dallas, San Antonio and Utah: the elite teams are more equipped to regulate tempo and better able to matchup with Phoenix' personnel.
I just read a blog post by a Phoenix Suns' fan who tried to "debunk" what he called "myths" about the Suns. He questioned why commentators say that the Suns cannot win a championship playing the style that they do and pointed out that there have been previous NBA champions that were high scoring teams. While the latter statement is true, looking at the scoring totals of past champions is deceptive because the NBA was a much higher scoring league in years past. When the 1990-91 Bulls averaged 110.0 ppg they were the seventh highest scoring team in the league and they did not rely on the three point shot nearly as much as Phoenix does. Previous NBA champions that ran a lot (like the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s) ran to shoot layups. The Lakers also had a much better halfcourt game than the current Suns do, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the post or James Worthy isolating on a wing.
A more valid historical comparison to the recent Phoenix teams is not the '91 Bulls or the Showtime Lakers but the 1988-89 Suns: that team won 55 games, the second best mark in the West, just two games behind the Showtime Lakers. They even split the season series with the Lakers 3-3. The Suns led the league in scoring and had a point guard (Kevin Johnson) who averaged 20.4 ppg and 12.2 apg (better numbers in both categories than Nash has posted this year or in either of his MVP seasons); they breezed through the Western Conference playoffs--and got blitzed 4-0 by the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Those Suns averaged 118.6 ppg in the regular season and scored at least 130 points in four of their first eight playoff games but in the four games against the Lakers they only once reached their regular season scoring average. While the scoring numbers then and now are vastly different, the moral of the story is the same: teams that rely on pushing the pace but do not have a strong enough post presence can win a lot of regular season games and can even win some playoff series but in any given year there will always be a handful of teams that can slow them down (granted, this is a relative term when speaking of the NBA in 1988-89) and beat them.
Another of the "myths" that he discussed is "Steve Nash isn't the MVP this year." His primary arguments are that Nash's numbers this year are better than they were the previous two years when he won the MVP and that Nash outplayed Dirk Nowitzki in the two most recent Dallas-Phoenix games; I still don't understand why the latter games "count" more than the first two that Dallas won--when Dallas beat Phoenix twice the race for the best record was still up for grabs but by the time that Phoenix beat Dallas twice the Mavericks had all but sewn up the regular season crown. As for Nash's statistics, I have mentioned before that numbers are absolutely the last place that any Nash advocate should go to seek refuge. Contrary to what some people suggest, I am hardly a Nash "basher." I would place him no lower than fourth this year (behind Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan)--but I don't make my evaluation based strictly on numbers; I watch the games and evaluate a player's overall impact and skill level. That is why I actually "like" Nash more than people who look at things strictly by the numbers. If the MVP were decided purely on the basis of statistics then all categories have to be considered; this is what Nash fans refuse to accept: they trot out his shooting percentages and assists numbers and declare, "Case closed"--except that it isn't, not by a long shot. Nash is not even close to the top five in John Hollinger's PER (player efficiency rating, the NBA's efficiency rating or the the Roland Rating used by Roland Beech at 82Games.com: he ranks 10th, 12th and 10th respectively in those systems.
I would rank Nash higher than any of those statistical systems do because I think that not all of Nash's contributions are captured by those numbers--but to suggest that his intangibles move him from 10th-12th (note that those three different calculations all place Nash in the same general area) to clear first is more than a bit of a stretch.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 AM