Posting this is a bit of a departure. Kaufman, of Salon.com, though, is my favorite sports columnist.
May 10, 2005 | I like Steve Nash. He’s Canadian, which is kind of different, NBA-wise. He played his college ball in the Bay Area, so I got to watch him a fair bit and develop the opinion that he was going to be a good pro, which he turned out to be.
He wore an anti-war T-shirt to the All-Star Game a few years ago, he has great teeth and he plays and leads an exciting brand of basketball.
Because of all that, and because what happens in the NBA “regular” season is about as interesting to me as fluctuations in the soybean futures market, I’m OK with Nash winning the MVP. Commissioner David Stern gave him the trophy before Game 1 of the Suns-Mavericks series Monday night in Phoenix. It’s fine, really. Nice moment for the home fans.
But come on.
I’m not too far from Magic Johnson’s idea: “Of course Shaq is always the MVP of every season,” Johnson said before praising Nash on TNT’s studio show Monday.
The voters don’t agree. As much as Shaquille O’Neal has dominated the league during his 13-year career, he’s won the MVP once, in 2000. He’s only finished in the top three in the voting five times, if you can believe that. Picture Barry Bonds with one MVP.
The NBA’s award is voted on by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters, which is about all you need to know about it. There were 127 ballots this year. Nash got 65 first-place votes to O’Neal’s 58. Allen Iverson also got two, and Tim Duncan and Amare Stoudemire one each.
Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald wrote a column Sunday wondering whether race was a factor in Nash’s win. “I don’t pretend to know,” he wrote. “But don’t you have to ask these questions when confronted with something unprecedented?”
What’s unprecedented about Nash winning, Le Batard writes, is that “in the history of the award, a tiny, one-dimensional point guard who plays no defense and averages fewer than 16 points a game never has won it.”
Le Batard is taking some heat for the column. “Why can’t Nash just win the MVP award in peace?” read a headline in the San Jose Mercury News. Charles Barkley called the column “stupid and asinine,” though he mischaracterized it as “saying the only reason Steve Nash got the award was because he was white,” which isn’t what it said at all.
You always take heat for bringing up race from the crowd that wants to yell, “This isn’t about race, dammit! Now shut up about race!” And that’s a big crowd. But it’s almost always about race at least a little bit. You can’t have a white guy win the MVP in an overwhelmingly black league without putting up MVP-type numbers and say it’s not about race. And Nash didn’t put up MVP-type numbers.
In fact, the only players who’ve won the MVP without scoring 16 a game are Bill Russell and Wes Unseld, outrageous, Hall of Fame defenders and rebounders. The last man to win it without scoring 20 a game was Bill Walton in 1978, who was an OK choice if you pretend Kareem Abdul-Jabaar wasn’t playing that year and who is also, I can’t help noticing, white.
Le Batard wrote that part of Nash’s appeal to voters is that he’s “different and the underdog. And being white is part of what made him those things.”
Is that why I like Nash? Because he’s white? Yeah, that’s probably in there. I think I’d like him just as much if he were the same person and black, but if he were black he wouldn’t be the same person, would he?
It has to be at least some small part of Nash’s appeal to me that he looks kind of like me, only cuter and with stringier hair. And while I haven’t seen a pictorial roster of the 127 people who voted on the MVP award this year, I feel comfortable assuming most of them are white too. Is it out of the question that part of his appeal to them runs along the same lines? I think not.
On the other hand, you can take this stuff too far. Nash isn’t my favorite player. That would be Iverson, who’s black, and who would get a spot ahead of Nash on my MVP ballot if I had one. But most NBA players are black so my favorite has a pretty good chance at blackness.
And it’s hard to argue that there’s some sort of pro-white conspiracy in the MVP voting. Nash, Walton and Larry Bird are the only white guys to win the award in the last three decades. Plenty of great white players have been available if the voters were interested in handing out MVP awards to Caucasians at any cost.
John Stockton alone had six seasons when he averaged at least 15 points and 12 assists a game — Nash averaged 15.5 and 11.5 this year — while turning the ball over about as often as Nash did this year.
“Pro Basketball Prospectus” author John Hollinger developed a metric called player efficiency rating, which attempts to account for all of a player’s positive and negative contributions and express the result as a single number. League average is 15.0. Nash’s PER this year was 22.0, which by the way was 18th in the league. Stockton’s PER was higher than that 10 times.
The NBA has a similar stat called efficiency rating. Nash was 15th in the league in that this year, at 22.08. Stockton topped that number 10 times also.
In other words, Stockton made a whole career out of playing at least as well as Nash did this year, and often better. He was also the very epitome of whiteness, with an old-school game and an old-school look, the last man in the league to shun the baggy shorts popularized by Michael Jordan and the University of Michigan’s all-black Fab Five.
But in 19 years, Stockton, playing on a perennial playoff team that twice had the best record in the conference, never finished higher than seventh in the MVP voting, and got exactly one first-place vote his whole career. So much for just handing out awards to white guys.
One of the most prominent arguments in Nash’s favor has been that the Suns added him and improved from 29 wins to 62, the third-best improvement in league history. The Miami Heat, meanwhile, added O’Neal and only improved from 42 to 59 wins.
Pretty silly argument. For one thing, who cares what happened last year? For another, if you do care, what about the teams those two left? The Mavericks lost Nash and improved from 52 to 58 wins. The Lakers lost Shaq and went from 56 wins to a 34-win nightmare.
And what about Kevin Garnett, who led the league in both Hollinger’s PER and the league’s efficiency rating? His team, which won 58 games last year, still won 44 this year, mostly because of his efforts. The rest of the team completely tanked.
And then there’s Nash’s teammate, Stoudemire, who Jerry Stackhouse of the Mavericks said was Phoenix’s most valuable player. He wasn’t talking nonsense. Stoudemire was third in the league in field goals made, second in shooting percentage, first in free throws attempted, third in free throws made, fifth in scoring, fourth in PER and fourth in efficiency rating.
With any number of decent point guards, the Suns would still be a pretty good team, but how many guys could replace Stoudemire? I’d ask the same question for Shaq, who’s irreplaceable in Miami. (Remember the Heat traded away two starters to get him. The Suns merely added Nash.) And that’s true in spades for Garnett and Iverson, who almost single-handedly carried lousy teams to winning records.
My ballot would have gone Garnett, O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Stoudemire and Iverson in that order. But I sure do like that Steve Nash.