Spurs Swipe Homecourt Advantage From SunsThe San Antonio Spurs' 111-106 game one victory left the Phoenix Suns battered and bloodied both literally and figuratively. Steve Nash missed several crucial possessions down the stretch because of uncontrollable bleeding from his nose, the result of an accidental head butt that he suffered when he collided with Tony Parker while going for a steal with 2:53 remaining and the Suns trailing 100-99. Parker remained on the ground longer than Nash and emerged with a nasty bump on his head but Nash looked like he, not Oscar de la Hoya, had just gone 12 rounds with Floyd Mayweather. The Suns were able to patch Nash up so that he could stay in the game initially and he made a three pointer and a tough driving layup to keep the Suns in contact but Nash had to leave the game with :54 left when the bleeding could not be stopped. The Suns trailed 106-104 at that point and they were behind 110-106 when he came back in the game with :09 remaining. Nash's injury will provide Suns' apologists with a welcome excuse but the bigger picture reality is that this is a devastating loss for Phoenix: the game was played at their pace, on their homecourt and they still lost despite Nash's 31 points and eight assists.
Nothing has changed: the Spurs are more versatile than the Suns and are a better defensive team. We all know that they can beat the Suns in a slow down game but they can also beat them in an uptempo game, even if that is not San Antonio's preference. Nash's scoring was a little better than usual and his 8/3 assist/turnover ratio was a little worse than usual but that is all part of San Antonio's defensive plan: the Spurs make sure that they get back on defense in order to deny easy lob passes to Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. That puts the onus on Nash to either run the shot clock down farther than he wants or to take on a bigger role as a scorer. I've never understood why anyone double-teams Nash; it makes more sense to stay at home on the other four guys and do your best to slow Nash down one on one. That may result in a big scoring night for Nash, but that means 30-35 points, not 50-60, and the Suns cannot win with Nash scoring 30-35 while everyone else is held in check. Stoudemire shot just 6-19 from the field, though he certainly had some good moments as well en route to 20 points, 18 rebounds and five blocked shots. Nevertheless, Tim Duncan more than offset those numbers with 33 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots; Duncan shot 12-24 from the field. Meanwhile, Nash's counterpart Parker scored 32 points and had eight assists. Nash shot 11-18 (.611), which is very good, but Parker shot an even better 14-22 (.636). Yes, the game was close and either team could have won but that should be the rallying cry of the road team, not the home team; now the Suns must win game two, because heading to San Antonio for two games down 0-2 is a recipe for quick exit from the playoffs. Something else that may become a factor if the Suns are able to extend the series to six or seven games is the Spurs' superior depth: the Suns used just eight players, five of whom played at least 33 minutes, while the Spurs used 10 players, three of whom played at least 33 minutes. If the Suns make it to game six or game seven they will be a tired, worn down team by that time.
This series is interesting for two reasons: (1) the battle for Western Conference supremacy; (2) the eternal question of who is the NBA's best player. Nash is not a statistically dominant player: his numbers are comparable to those put up by his predecessors John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price and others, none of whom got close to winning an MVP, and he is not ranked as the best player in the NBA by any of the most widely used formulas: Hollinger's PER, NBA EFF or the Roland Rating. There is no precedent for the league's best passer to be selected as the MVP unless that player also had a tremendous all around game (Magic Johnson--scorer, rebounder, passer deluxe) and/or was leading teams to championships (Magic Johnson again).
How does that relate to my oft repeated view that Kobe Bryant is both the best and the most valuable player? Bryant's claim to those titles is not based on the nebulous concept of "making one's teammates better" that Nash advocates use in lieu of individual statistics and/or championship success; all great players make their teammates better by drawing more defensive attention and then passing the ball when that extra coverage arrives, so Nash is no different than the other top five or 10 players in the league in that sense. Bryant is the best player because he is the most complete player, someone who scores, rebounds, passes and defends. From a scouting report standpoint, his game has no weaknesses. That does not mean that he is perfect or that he never makes mistakes or forces shots; that means that his game has no glaring holes. Nowitzki--well, let's not beat on a man while he is down; Nash is not a great one on one defender, so his impact is mainly felt on one end of the court; Duncan and LeBron James each have free throw line weaknesses.
As for value as it relates to winning, Bryant's value to his team can be demonstrated statistically by looking at the Lakers' performance when he is not on the court or aesthetically by simply watching a few Lakers games. Warning: the results are not pretty; Lakers Coach Phil Jackson had good reason to recently say that his players performed with the intelligence of slugs and earthworms. Bryant's status as the best/most valuable player should not hinge on whether or not his teammates convert the open shots that he provides. Bryant's impact is obvious and it is equally obvious that he is willing to distribute the ball or shoot as the situation warrants; he leads the team in assists but is also capable of averaging 40 ppg for a month if his coach says that is the only way to save the season.
Nash may yet lead the Suns past the Spurs and to an NBA title but the more likely scenario is that in a week to 10 days he will be on the same fishing boat with Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. Then maybe someone can explain why Nash is better than Nowitzki or Bryant, each of whom has enjoyed greater success both statistically and from a team standpoint than Nash has so far. The statistical case to support Nash as the best player is simply not there and after three years we are still waiting to see Nash's "value toward winning" translate into even one NBA Finals appearance. An even better question is this: Duncan's Spurs won the championship during Nash's first MVP year (2005), so how will it look if they knock off the Suns and win the title this year, giving Duncan two championships in three years but no MVPs during that span? If Nash got two MVPs based solely on his contributions to team success, shouldn't he forward the trophies to a player who actually has led his team to ultimate success?
Nash is a great player, one of the five best in the NBA today in my opinion. What I don't understand is his ascension in the eyes of many to the number one spot despite a lack of statistical support or championship hardware to justify ranking him as the absolute best. The other thing that I don't get is why it is some kind of sacrilege to suggest that Nash might "merely" be a top five player and not the consensus number one. Nash fanatics regularly suggest that Bryant is not even a top ten player and that his defense is overrated, two claims that are so ludicrous on the surface that they barely deserve reply; suffice it to say that it would be hard to find many coaches or scouts who would agree with those sentiments (out of context statements by one or two people do not count as a consensus of opinion among coaches and scouts).
This is an interesting time for Nash-philes because if he leads the Suns to the title then he is simply living up to the outsized expectations that have been placed on him--but if the Suns again fail to even make it to the Finals then Nash's "supreme" contributions to winning deserve some scrutiny. Rather than awarding regular season MVPs based on what we think or expect a team's ultimate success will be why not simply determine who the best, most complete player is and give that player the award? Then we won't feel like we need a recount after each round of the playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 AM