Monday, May 09, 2005

I voted for Earl Boykins...

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who isn't happy for Steve Nash. Nash was ridiculed by many for signing a free-agent contract with the Phoenix Suns, and for leaving the high-flying Dallas Mavericks in the process. The fact that the Suns were coming off a 50-loss disaster of a season made Nash, who signed for $65 million over five years, look like another greedy athlete who thinks money is more important than winning. This perception existed no matter how emphatic Nash was in his belief that the Suns could win, and no matter how emphatic Suns management was in its belief the team could win.

82 games and 62 wins later, the Suns and Nash look like geniuses. Nash led the league in assists, directing the most exciting offense the league has seen in a decade. He was the maestro, the conductor of an absolute masterpiece of a season. These factors were enough to sway 68 voters to elect Nash the NBA's Most Valuable Player for 2004-2005.

As happy as I am for Nash, who comes across as one of the better people in the NBA, I am left puzzled by the final vote...

--> How could Shaquille O'Neal have possibly been completely left off one of the 127 MVP ballots, while being listed fifth on one and fourth on three others? The argument could be made that Nash was the MVP in the league, though I don't buy it and will discuss it at more length shortly. With that in mind, what self-respecting voter (assuming that these voters are selected from a group of people who actually know a thing or two about the NBA) could even consider leaving O'Neal off the ballot completely? The NBA keeps secret the identity of individual voters, but I wonder how many people will read that O'Neal was left off a ballot and wonder the motivations of that individual voter? I am not playing and will not play the race card, but when you read the thoughts of those who choose to at least imply that race may have played a factor i this vote, such as Dan LeBatard of The Miami Herald, keep in mind that one voter left O'Neal off his ballot.

--> There is no question in my mind that Nash made a huge impact. There is also no question in my mind that Nash wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team, much less in the NBA. The emergence of Amare Stoudemire as a superstar had just as big an impact, if not a bigger one, on the Suns' success. Stoudemire was a force on both ends of the floor, leading the team in scoring while finishing second in rebounding and leading in blocked shots. The offseason addition of free agent Quentin Richardson was also huge for Phoenix, and Joe Johnson set career highs in points, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage (47 percent). Nash had a lot to do with Johnson's improved shooting, but it doesn't matter how wide-open most players are, or how well the point guard sets them up. They still won't hit 47 percent of their threes. The Suns won 33 more games than last season. Nash played a big role in that. The Dallas Mavericks won six more games this season than last, with Nash having bolted as a free agent.

--> Nash is a defensive liability. You won't find a single NBA scout who thinks Nash plays good defense. It's not that he doesn't care or doesn't try. He's just not very good at it. I don't know that any past NBA MVP has been more of a defensive liability, while averaging less than 20 points per game on the offensive end. Yes, Nash led the league in assists, but he is anything but an all-around player. He's a great passer and an okay shooter who is not at all a good defensive player. This fact is not lost when you consider how the Mavericks improved by six wins. They were much better this season on defense, in part because they had people on the perimeter who could guard scoring point guards better than Nash does. The Suns were awful defensively this season, again in part because of their performance against scoring point guards, players Nash is simply does not match up well against.

--> I already brought up the impact that Nash had on the Suns (the team won 33 more games than they did in 2003-2004) and the impact his departure had on Dallas (they improved by six wins). To be fair, let's look at the impact that Shaquille O'Neal's departure had on the Los Angeles Lakers, and the impact his arrival had on the Miami Heat. The Lakers were 56-26 in 2003-2004, winning the Western Conference title and losing to Detroit in the NBA Finals. After trading O'Neal to Miami in the offseason (reportedly to appease fellow star and then-free agent Kobe Bryant), the Lakers slipped to 34-48 this season, a drop of 22 wins. Meanwhile, Miami, a 42-40 team in 2003-2004 (they lost in the second round of the playoffs), jumped 17 wins this season after Shaq's arrival.

--> The Big Fella didn't just help the Heat win more games. His presence was a big reason why Eddie Jones, Damon Jones (who?), and Udonis Haslem all averaged in double figures. Yes, O'Neal had Dwyane Wade, but Nash had Stoudemire, Johnson, and Richardson. If you take the most dominant big man in recent NBA history away from the Miami Heat, do Udonis Haslem and Damon Jones (who?) average in double figures for a 59-win team? Jones (Damon) averaged 4.5 points per game above his career high. Haslem upped his per-game average by about 3.5 points, while shooting almost ten percent better from the floor than in 2003-2004. Eddie Jones, thought to be on his way out as an NBA player, didn't score as much as in previous years, but he shot better than he had in three years.

--> The biggest misnomer of them all comes from those who want to compare the records of the two teams without their star players. Without Nash, some will say, the Suns were inept, scoring just 80 in a game against Detroit, and just 79 in a game against Memphis. What they won't tell you is that Detroit and Memphis were among just four teams in the league that didn't allow 92 or more points per game this season. What they won't tell you is that while the Suns went just 2-5 without Nash, they only played one team (Clippers) that missed the playoffs. And they beat that team. It's not like the Suns lost to terrible teams, where the losses could be pinned on Nash's absense. Meanwhile, the Heat, who were 4-3 in seven games that Shaq did not play in, suffered all their losses to playoff teams as well. If you believe in using a stat devised from an insanely small sample size (less than ten percent of the total games played by these teams), it's still hard to look seriously at these numbers and get anything meaningful out of them.

Much respect to Nash, who proved the critics wrong by having a wonderful season and leading Phoenix fans on an amazing ride. But the snubbing of O'Neal for this award furthers the reputation of the man who might be the most underappreciated player of this NBA generation. It is inexplicable that a player the caliber of O'Neal could play 13 years in this league and only win the MVP award once...especially when a season like this leaves him playing second fiddle to Nash.

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