Monday, October 20, 2014

Kobe and NBA Rank

On the surface, Kobe's NBA Rank shouldn’t be all that controversial. After all, Kobe is 36, he only played in 6 games last season and he didn’t look very good when he was on the court. If you put out a list of every NBA player’s statistical projections for this season, Kobe wouldn’t be very high on it and no one would really care. People would understand why the numbers were so low and they would feel free to accept or reject the assumptions behind them.

The problem with NBA Rank is there are no metrics to evaluate - it’s a popularity contest where every player is graded subjectively. The only thing to argue is the validity of the opinions of the people doing the grading. I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s dad argues with the Mandelbaum family about whether being “No. 1 Dad” trumps being “The World’s Greatest Dad.” As Jerry says, I don’t know how official any of these rankings really are.

The broader point is why exactly does it matter if Kobe Bryant is the 40th best player in the NBA this season? He is one of the biggest stars in the league and one of its only players who draws casual fans and brings them to the arena - the exact “value” of what Kobe does for the Lakers on the court isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. To put it another way, where would Derek Jeter have been in MLB Rank and why should anyone care?

Jeter’s final season with the New York Yankees was one of the biggest stories of the season, even though he was no longer near the player he once was. The Yankees weren’t paying him to put up All-Star numbers - they were paying him because their team wasn’t very good and he was one of the only reasons for fans to go to the ballpark and watch them on TV. Like Jeter, Kobe is an iconic figure who makes money for his team every time he plays.

The argument about whether Kobe is the No. 40 player in the NBA completely misses the point for the same reason that it doesn’t matter whether he is still the player he once was or whether he is “worth” his $25 million salary. If Kobe was making the minimum and taking 8 shots a game, the Lakers would still be terrible. The only difference in that scenario is their fans would have no reason to come to their games or watch them on TV.

Even if Kobe had taken less money, the Lakers would not have been able to sign any of the best free agents on the market. Only a year ago, Dwight Howard took less money in order to leave LA. Why? Because the only thing the Lakers could sell him on was playing next to a 35-year old shooting guard in the final stages of his career. Free agents aren’t coming to a losing situation - LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony weren’t walking through that door.

Kobe’s salary with the Lakers was partly a goodwill gesture, recognizing that he was underpaid relative to his production in his prime, partly a nod to his drawing power in the box office and partly a way to put lipstick on a pig. L.A. had nothing to gain out of nickle and diming Kobe and everything to lose - if he was going to take less money this season, he could take less money on a team that could contend for a title and how would they ever sell tickets?

A lot more goes into the decision-making process behind the Lakers payroll besides expected value for the 2014-2015 season. In that respect, they are no different than any other corporation in the United States. Are we going to pretend that there aren’t people at ESPN who are getting paid to be the guy they were 5-10 years ago? For all its ruthlessness, ESPN isn’t trying to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of its employees like blood from a stone.

That, unfortunately, is the mindset in which fans have been trained to view the modern player, as a result of a series of lop-sided CBA agreements which tilted things the owners way. In a league which just agreed to a TV deal worth $2.4 billion a season, the owners pleaded poverty and enacted a strict series of luxury tax penalties to reign in spending on player salaries. It’s a contradiction that Kobe himself pointed out on Twitter last month.

In the brave new world of the modern NBA, a player’s contract is as important as his skill-set. The most valued players are guys whose value exceeds their contract - young players on cost-controlled rookie deals and elite players on a max salaries. Being “overpaid” has become the worst sin in the NBA. Joe Johnson is still a very good player who won a lot of games for the Nets last season, but the only thing people can talk about is his contract.

Take a look at how the story is framed. The Hawks trade Joe Johnson, their best player, for a bunch of nobodies on expiring contracts and a future draft pick. (Also, keeping MarShon Brooks was a key objective for the Nets in the trade - these are the same people who told you Anthony Davis, MKG and Thomas Robinson were the only instant impact players in the 2012 draft) This, we are told, could help them acquire Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Never mind the fact that no big-name free agent is going to sign with the Hawks, precisely because they do things like give away their best player for nothing!

Look what happened to the first pick they acquired for Johnson. They drafted an interesting prospect, who may or may not turn out to be a good NBA player in a few years, and traded him to the Toronto Raptors for John Salmons (whom they promptly released)*. Go ahead and guess what the spin on that was. The move helped them open up a lot of cap room, which they used to give Thabo Sefolosha $4 million and not give Luol Deng $10 million because he had a little bit of African in him.** As for the pick swap? There's no guarantee they finish with a better record than the Nets this season, especially if they end up trading more players to increase their financial flexibility.

* If I really wanted to be cynical, I would point out they traded Lucas Nogueira before they ever had to pay his salary. On another note - is he really going to be better than Rudy Gobert aka the French Shawn Bradley?

** Take a look at the transcript of Ferry's conference call about Deng. Does it sound anything like this

 photo bobs_zps8d113200.jpg

In your own words, what would you say your win shares per 48 minutes were last season? 

It's almost Orwellian the way NBA teams have convinced fans and the media to internalize their corporate spin - the Bobs in Office Space were all about increasing IniTech's financial flexibility, I guarantee you that. So when a team decides to make a move that looks beyond quarterly profit reports, it defies explanation. The outrage about Kobe's contract was palpable - no longer worth the money! Never mind that Kobe is the public face of a company that made hundreds of millions of dollars last year and the goodwill he generates among their massive fan-base is worth at least $25 million. Not only is breaking off a tiny percentage of the profits to Kobe right thing to do, it's also the obvious business move.

The salary cap has turned fans into the unpaid accountants of unimaginably rich people who are making unimaginably large amounts of money and we become indignant when paying the employees eats into even a small percentage of the profits. Do not be distracted by the man behind the curtain. Donald Sterling made $2 billion for running the Los Angeles Clippers into the ground for 30 years, but the real story is whether DeAndre Jordan is worth a contract starting at $15 million a season. Kobe knows the deal - the players are overpaid, but the owners are too.

This season, Kobe is being paid like he is one of the top 5 players in the NBA, even though he probably isn't. Only at ESPN could making a few fairly mundane observations about an older player be turned into a bold exercise in telling truth to power. There's nothing new under the sun - while we may have more advanced statistics at our disposal these days, fans in the 1980's wouldn't have been shocked to find out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't the same player at 36 that he was at 26. The only difference now is we are much more concerned with precisely monitoring the efficiency output of every player.

These days, a huge part of the conversation around basketball revolves around obsessively ranking the value of its players. Synergy stats? Let's use them to rank players. SportsVU cameras? Rank players. It's a twist on this famous internet cartoon about sports writing. The problem is that when we commodify human beings and judge them based on their output alone, we end up missing the big picture. At the very least, you should hope your boss thinks that way when he decides what he wants to pay you this year.

That's what Moneyball was all about and that's what this whole story comes down too. The same people who financialized every other industry in this country want to do to the same thing to sports and they want you to cheer along when they talk about how to Moneyball your office. That's why owners are constantly bringing Wall Street people into the front office - if you can figure out a few new ways to crunch the numbers, there is always more money that can be wrung from the players. We are going to streamline the operation, we are going to make it more efficient, we are not going to be wedded to the old ways of doing things.

Did you ever ask yourself why so many companies wanted Michael Lewis to speak to them about Moneyball? Michael Lewis is a lot like Malcolm Gladwell - they are smart guys who know how to follow the money and they know how to write the types of stories that the people in power (who have all the money) want to hear. They write modern-day morality tales with modern-day morals. Blink. The Blind Side. The Tipping Point. Liar's Poker. Outliers. Moneyball. Who is the big hero of Moneyball? The middle manager who assembled a competent workforce from a shoestring budget.

The Oakland A's may have been making a lot of money and they were planning on making a lot more money in the future, but that didn't mean they had any intention of spending any of that money on their players. What did Billy Beane find out? The best way to save money is to let go of all your older employees and hope that you could find a few younger guys who would do their job for a fraction of the cost. If this isn't the story of just about every company in the Fortune 500 over the last generation, I will eat my hat.

That's the way the world is going. Companies aren't trying to reward their employees and spread the wealth around a bit. Every bit of profit must go back to the owners - it is an iron law of business that must be adhered too at all times. Kobe Bryant must not be allowed to steal money from the Lakers, and if he does, the Lakers should be punished for that type of short-sighted management. There is only so much amount of money that a company can be permitted to pay its employees! Once we agree to that, all that's left is figuring out which ones are earning their keep.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Steve Nash and Two-Way Players

My piece about Steve Nash got pushed around the blogosphere a bit over the last few days and there were some interesting reactions too it. A lot of the disconnect between my perception of Nash and the conventional wisdom comes from a few underlying assumptions about how to evaluate basketball players which are worth unpacking. 

A good way to think about it is this - there are 22 starters in football and only 5 in basketball. The difference is that a football team starts 11 guys on offense and 11 guys on defense while a basketball team starts the same 5 guys on offense and defense. So when you remove a guy from the starting line-up, you are really removing him from two different units - the starting offense and the starting defense. 

When building a team, the idea is you want a good offense and a good defense. It's all connected - a good defense creates opportunities in transition by getting stops, a good offense prevents transition opportunities by scoring. Most guys are better on one side of the floor over the other, so coaches end up having to make a lot of trade-offs when it comes to setting up their rotation. If you start an offensive specialist, you want guys who are good at defense around him and if you start a defensive specialist, you better have guys who can score around him. 

The value of a good two-way player is that you can put them next to either an offensive or a defensive specialist, so it gives a coach much more flexibility when it comes to setting their line-up. That's why, when I evaluate guys for the draft, I am always looking for two-way players. When you are building a team, you want to give yourself as many outs as possible, because you never really know what type of player is going to be available in next year's draft or in free agency or on the trade market. 

This is a long-winded way of getting to one of the more non-intuitive things I said in the Nash piece - which was that no one-way player, no matter how good they are on that side of the ball, is truly irreplaceable. For as great as Nash was on offense, the Mavs brought in more defensive-minded players and re-distributed his possessions to other guys (i.e Dirk) who were already on the team. The Mavs went from being a very lop-sided team, with an all-time great offense and a below-average defense, to a more balanced squad which could win on both sides of the floor. 

You can draw some really interesting conclusions from this, which I touched on in the Nash piece but will go into more detail here.
Curry is probably the closest player to Nash in the modern NBA. He is one of the best offensive players in the league, with a combination of shooting, ball-handling and passing ability that is unprecedented in NBA history. He is one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA, he is widely considered one of its top 10 players and he is in the MVP discussion every season.

At the same time, he's not great on defense and the Warriors usually hide him on the other team's least threatening perimeter player, often cross-switching him with Klay Thompson. A lot of people would say that has more to do with Curry's offensive work-load than anything else and they would point his play in the World Cup as well as comments from Brian Scalabrine, the assistant coach who was pushed out by Mark Jackson and said that he thought Curry was more than capable of defending his own position.

Regardless of his defensive responsibilities (or lack of them), most people would look at the on-court/off-court numbers* with Curry and call him one of the most irreplaceable players in the league, but I'm not so sure. For example, let's say you switched him with Kyle Lowry, one of the best two-way PG's in the league, and spread out the play-making responsibilities more evenly among Lowry, Thompson and Andre Iguodala. Would Golden State be a worse team?

* Those numbers are especially tricky with the Warriors because Mark Jackson didn't stagger his starters nearly as much as most NBA coaches, preferring to go with all second-unit squads which really couldn't compete. I'm not a terribly huge fan of those numbers because so much of it depends on a guy's backup and his coach's substitution patterns.

If you had Lowry, Thompson and Iguodala pressing up on other team's ball-handlers and Andrew Bogut behind them, you would probably have the No. 1 defense in the NBA. And while Lowry isn't in Curry's league as an offensive player, he's no slouch either - he was the primary ball-handler on a good Raptors team who averaged 17/7/5 on 43/38/81 shooting last season. You couldn't build an entire offense around Lowry like you can with Curry, but if you are going to give out max contracts to Thompson and Iggy, they should probably have higher usage ratings anyway.

Lowry is not as good an offensive player than Curry and he's not as valuable to the Raptors as Curry is to the Warriors, but if he was the starting PG in Golden State, they would be more balanced. They would be a very different team and the other guys would all have different roles in order to replace what Curry does, but they have a lot of really talented guys on offense who could be utilized more. Would they be better? I don't know, but I think the possibility exists that they could.

The point isn't that Steph Curry isn't a great player - it's that Kyle Lowry is a fucking boss and he's one of the most underrated players in the league. Two-way starters who are really good on offense and really good on defense often are.

** It's also worth pointing out that replacing Curry with a good but not great shooter like Lowry could really affect Golden State's floor spacing, since they start two non-shooters upfront as well as a somewhat inconsistent one at SF in Iggy. At the same time, if they had a PG who could defend his position, Thompson's defensive versatility might not have been as big a deal and they might have been more willing to include him in a trade for Kevin Love. Everything is connected and all the pieces matter - shout out to Lester Freamon. 

It's almost impossible to replace a two-way star, especially upfront, as there are very few 6'8+ players with the skill to be great on offense and the length and athleticism to be great at defense. A perfect example of this is Dwight Howard and it's why I think he's under-appreciated by most people. Dwight is one of the best defensive players in the league - even if he's not quite at the level where he was winning 3 DPOY's in a row, he's still a premier shot-blocker, rebounder and post defender. He's one of a handful of centers who can be the centerpiece of an elite defense, allowing you to hide poor offensive players in front of him.

You know all those viral videos of James Harden's defense last season? The Rockets were still No. 13 in the league on D, so someone behind him was having to do some heavy lifting. They were No. 16 the year before because the previous center (Omer Asik) was also an elite defensive player. The difference between Howard and Asik is that Dwight gives you Asik's defense plus 19 points on 59% shooting. That combination is incredibly valuable - Dwight is elite on offense and on defense, which makes it A) really easy to put players around him while B) still having a good team.

So when you lose a guy like Dwight, there's no way to replace him because you can't replace all of the different things he did on offense AND defense. You either have to get a center whose as good on offense and defense - and those guys aren't walking through the door in the modern NBA - or you have to get a center who can replace him on one side of the floor and than add a whole bunch of two-way players at other positions to complement the one-way center where he is good and protect him where he is weak. In short, you need a massive rebuilding effort.

That's what's happening in Orlando and LA - when Dwight leaves, turn off the lights because the party is over. The Magic went from playoff team to worst team in the league and two years later, they are still in the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They are going to be terrible this season, they are going to be terrible next season and they will be lucky to be decent in two seasons. It's the same story with the Lakers.

To be sure, this is a very counter-intuitive way of looking at things and when you follow the logic to its conclusion, you find yourself in some weird places.
I hate to say it because Dirk isn't just my favorite basketball player of all-time, he's one of my favorite human beings of all-time. He was a paradigm-shifting player who changed the game of basketball and he's in the discussion for greatest offensive player of all-time, when you look at the way his shooting ability at 7'0 distorts the floor and opens things up for everyone else. Conversely, KG is one of the few great basketball players whom I really can't stand, in terms of how he acts on the court. Nevertheless, he was one of the great two-way players of all-time and Dirk was not.

What would have happened if you switched Dirk and KG in the early part of the 2000's? If you put KG on some of those Mavs rosters, I think they end up winning 2-3 titles. Those teams had no shortage of offense - you could have re-distributed Dirk's shots to Nash, Finley, Van Exel or one of the Toine's and had KG anchor your defense while still giving you 20/10/5 on 48% shooting. KG was such a monster and it was obscured by how awful his teammates were in Minnesota.

At the same time, I don't think that would hold true in 2011. What made those Mavs so great was all the pieces fit together perfectly - they put much more defensive-minded players around Dirk, which allowed him to maximize his offense to carry them to a title. If you look at, they needed the precise skill-sets of Chandler, Dirk, Marion, Kidd and Terry to succeed. It was damn near providential the way all those guys meshed together.

It's all about context - when you look at Dirk and KG, I think there are more contexts where you could put a championship team around KG than Dirk. That's what it comes down to for me when I'm evaluating players and I think that's going to become more important than ever in the NBA's new economic climate, where player turnover is at an all-time high. What made KG so great is that he was the ultimate Swiss Army Knife - he could do everything so well that he could succeed in almost any context.

Everyone knocked him for his lack of playoff success with the Wolves, but look at what happened to that franchise when he left. You can argue that they still haven't recovered 8 years later! Replacing what KG meant to their offense and defense meant a complete rebuild and the organization wasn't capable of finding enough players in the draft to get back into the playoffs.

A good test of this theory is what will happen with Minnesota this season. The Wolves will try to re-distribute Kevin Love's possessions to Pekovic, Rubio and Andrew Wiggins and play better defense with Thaddeus Young at the 4. I don't how successful they will be given that I'm not sure how good Young will be at defense, especially in the West, where his lack of size will be more of a problem. Nevertheless, if they are better than expected and hit the over on their season win total, my guess is it will be because they replaced a one-way superstar and became a more balanced team in the process.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Steve Nash: Hate Hard

The Lakers will get a lot of press coverage this season because they are the Lakers, but it's hard to see a scenario where there will be much to talk about on the court. As a result, there's likely to be a ton of stories about Steve Nash's last season in the NBA, his legacy and his impact on the game. Nash is one of the most beloved players of the last generation and he's almost certain to be in the Hall of Fame one day, but he has never done all that much for me.

That mostly comes from watching Nash in Dallas, before he became "Steve Nash". Mavs fans have a pretty unique relationship with the guy - we saw him start at the bottom, when it looked like he might not even stick in the league. He spent his age 23-29 seasons in Dallas, turning himself into an All-Star and one of the featured players on a 60+ win team. We knew he was a good player, but we damn sure didn't see any MVP in him.

When you have players of that caliber early in their career, you can kind of tell. Jason Kidd left in his mid-20's, but if someone told us he would one day be an MVP candidate who carried a team to the NBA Finals, we would have believed him. Same thing with Dirk Nowitzki. Real greatness is like pornograpy - it's hard to define, but you know it when you see it. No one wanted Nash to leave in 2004, but we understood why Cuban let him go, given the contract he received.

Nash put up great numbers in Dallas and he was the QB of one of the best offenses in the NBA, but it was getting harder and harder to ignore how awful he was on defense, especially given the make-up of the rest of the roster. With guys like Dirk, Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel, Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker around, there was no shortage of offense and a huge deficit on defense. Nash was as bad as all those guys on D, if not worse.

The big dogs in the West in that time frame were San Antonio and LA, but the roadblock for Dallas was always the Sacramento Kings, who beat them in the second round in 2002 and the first round in 2004. They almost beat them in 2003, losing in seven games, even though Chris Webber tore his knee in the middle of that series and was never the same after that. The Kings made a living running a train on Nash on D - it was kinda sad.

At the start of the game, you could kind of hide him on Doug Christie, even though Christie was a much better offensive player than people gave him credit for. However, when it was crunch time, they went small with Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson and whoever Nash guarded had a free line to the front of the rim or a wide-open J. Let's be perfectly clear - Steve Nash could not defend his way out of a paper bag and it was a massive problem for every team he was on.

The reality was that the Mavs were never going to win if they were paying big money to Nash, Finley and Dirk without ever addressing their defensive issues. They didn't really need Nash to be a great team, because Dirk was more than capable of having everything run through him and they had plenty of weapons to play off of him. Here's what they did in their first three seasons of the post-Nash era: 58 wins, 60 wins, 67 wins.

Nash never got a ton of publicity in Dallas, as Finley was the man when the Big Three era started and Dirk had taken the baton by the end. So when he exploded in Phoenix, it was like he appeared sui generis on the national scene. People couldn't believe this Canadian wizard and all the things he could with the ball in his hands. But while everyone else saw how he made the Suns better, Mavs fans were seeing how the Suns made him better.

It was the perfect marriage of player, system and coach. In their first season together, Mike D'Antoni brought the spread pick-and-roll to the NBA, only playing one big man and spreading the floor with four shooters. He put Nash in a pick-and-roll with Amare Stoudemire, the best finisher in the NBA, and he forced the other three defenders to stay out on the three point-line. It was the beginning of a revolution - ten years later, everyone is doing it.

Nash was great, but the key to the system is not the PG - there are a lot of PG's who can make a killing against a spread floor. All you have to do is look at what happened in PHX with The Dragon and Eric Bledsoe. Remember Linsanity? The big men are the key to the spread pick-and-roll, because they are asked to do so much. Amare had to move from the 4 to the 5 and Shawn Marion had to move from the 3 to the 4 - they had to defend much bigger players and they had to have the shooting and finishing ability to make them pay on the offensive end.

Marion, in particular, always got a bad rap in Phoenix. Everyone acted like he was a creation of Nash's offense even though he averaged 20/10 on 45% shooting in the three seasons before Nash got into town. Shawn Marion was an All-Star way before Nash and D'Antoni and without him, none of their stuff would have worked. 

Marion had to do everything in Phoenix - he got 20 a game without having plays called for him or having the ball in his hands, he spread the floor and gave them room to run the pick-and-roll, he cleared the defensive glass against much bigger players, he jumped passing lanes, protected the rim and initiated the tempo of the game AND he got the toughest individual assignment on defense. Marion defended Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki and everyone in between those two. How many guys in the history of the NBA could have done that?

There's a legitimate argument was to whether Nash was the MVP of that Suns team, which makes his two NBA MVP's all the more insane. Cuz while he was doing his little song and dance in Phoenix, Shaq was turning the Miami Heat into a championship team. You saw the difference between Shaq and Nash in those two years - when a team loses Shaq, there's no way he can be replaced. What happened to the Lakers in their first three seasons without Shaq? 34 wins, 45 wins, 42 wins. 

Let's not forget - Shaq's teams in 2005 and 2006 did much better than Nash's. The Heat took the Pistons to Game 7 of the 2005 ECF, even with Wade getting hurt towards the end of the series, and they won it all in 2006. The Suns, meanwhile, just could not get past the Spurs. All sorts of people will cop all sorts of pleas about why they couldn't and cry about how unfair it all was when the reality is any team built around Tim Duncan is going to beat the tar out of a team built around Steve Nash 9 out of 10 times. 

Duncan got Nash in 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2012 and lost in 2010. The match-up was terrible for Phoenix - San Antonio could beat them by pounding the ball into Duncan and controlling tempo and they could beat them in an uptempo, rock' em sock' em game. They had one of the best players of all-time and he could control the game at either end of the floor. I'll give you two words for whether Nash was ever better than Duncan in any of those seasons - "Fuck" and "no". 

I saw what happened in 2007 because apparently no one else did. Let's not forget, Phoenix had home court advantage in that series and lost it in Game 1. They had Amare and Boris Diaw in five of those six games - when those two teams were at full strength, San Antonio was up 3-2 in that series. The Spurs played better defense and they were the flat-out better team, regardless of whether or not the NBA should have enforced the rules about leaving the bench.

The Suns had a lot of close calls in the playoffs because they were a fundamentally imbalanced team that played incredible offense but couldn't get stops when it mattered. Things were always going to go against them because a lack of defense always gets you in the end, no matter how flashy your offense is. Even worse, they were trying to win a title in an era of great 7'0 who dominated the NBA landscape - Shaq, Duncan, Dirk and Kevin Garnett.

At no point in that time was Nash better than any of those 4 guys at the game of basketball. Nor, for that matter, was he better than Kobe Bryant. That's five guys who could have been MVP in 2005 and 2006 and who would have been much more deserving of the award. It's not that I dislike Nash cuz he seems like a nice guy and he plays a really fun style of basketball, but he got gassed up to be something he is not and the basketball gods were not going to allow him to win a title and have media people front like he was the best PG of all-time. 

This all came back to the surface for me when I was watching the latest Open Court on NBATV, where all the Turner guys discussed the Top 50 players of all-time and who should be the next 10 added to the list. At one point, Kenny "The Jet" Smith brings up Nash because he won two MVP's right? And everyone looks at him like .... no. Shaq had the best reaction. He goes - he won two MVP's over me!?? And then he flicks his wrist and gives the Jet the FOH face.

And it's hard to argue with him, really. If you think Steve Nash was a having a bigger impact on a basketball game than the Big Aristotle, than I suggest you re-evaluate whatever metric you are using to evaluate basketball players.* There's a lot of names before you can even think about a guy like Nash - Reggie Miller said to pretty unanimous agreement that all the guys on the panel would take Jason Kidd and Gary Payton over Nash.

*Though, to be fair to the metric gurus, I kind of doubt any of them would have had Nash over Shaq in 2005. Player A: 24 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, 2.5 blocks on 60% shooting, 27 PER. Player B: 16 points, 12 assists, 3.5 rebounds on 50% shooting, 22 PER. How was this even close? Is there an advanced stat for being easy to root for? 

In their prime, Kidd and The Glove were incredible on defense and offense, unlike our handsome friend from North of the Wall aka Mr. Canada. That really matters when it comes to how you build a roster, regardless if it shows up in the conventional statistics. Nor, by any reasonable measure, were Nash's stats all that incredible anyway. 19/11 on 51% shooting was a Tuesday for John Stockton, one of many PG's who put up similar numbers on really good teams and were never even considered for the award.

In what universe does this distribution of MVP's make sense?

2 - Duncan, Nash
1 - Shaq, Kobe, KG, Dirk
0 - Stockton, Kidd, GP

Here are a few take-aways from the whole situation:

1) Context is king

The stats would tell you that Nash became a much better player between the ages of 29 and 30, but he was the exact same guy. The difference was the types of players he was playing with and the role he had on his team. When you are evaluating individual players, you always have to remember that. You cannot take individual stats out of the context in which they are produced. This is something I have found to be very important in college basketball and evaluating guys for the draft - if you are going to scout a prospect, you had better scout his teammates and his coaches too. It's all connected.

2) No guy who only excels on one side of the ball is irreplaceable

Nash was a great offensive player, but Dallas lost him for nothing and got better because they brought in more defensive-minded players and they redistributed Nash's shots to other good offensive players. Dirk became a much better player without Nash because he got to dominate the ball, mitigating the loss of Nash on offense, and the team's defense improved without Nash. Compare that to Shaq, whose left a gaping hole in the Lakers offense and defense that could not be replaced.

3) The media doesn't necessarily know what they are talking about

The way Dirk and Nash were viewed nationally from 2005-2009 went a large way towards me writing about basketball. Cuz I'm watching these guys play and I'm just not seeing what I'm seeing on the court being reflected in the media - I'm seeing a whole bunch of silliness from people who really should know better. This is something an MVP voter at SI wrote about the Nash candidacy. Unfortunately, the link has been lost in the interwebs, but I still have the excerpt because I e-mailed one of the Mavs beat writers like WTF is this. 
The Suns couldn't earn close to their current 55 wins without Nash. Plus Nash is just so easy to cheer for. He's the rare NBA underdog in a league dominated by intimidating athletes.
"Intimidating athletes" ... I'm not a big fan of playing the code word game when it comes to race, but what the hell does that mean exactly? For that matter, how exactly is someone like Tim Duncan "intimidating"? He's the most reserved and calm basketball player of all-time! It's also funny that Nash is an "NBA underdog" when he comes from a family of professional athletes - he has plenty of natural ability.

Let's just say you could write an entire dissertation about race relations in this country in the context of that two sentence excerpt and leave it at that.

The worst part about it is that if you asked any of these guys about the vote now, they wouldn't even have the decency to be embarrassed about it.

4) There is some justice in the universe

Even without the MVP's, I could get behind Nash getting into the Hall of Fame because of the length of his career and his prominent role on a lot of really good teams. However, I'm also a big believer in an inclusive Hall of Fame and I would have the bar a lot lower than many people for who I would want to enshrine.

Like to me, Shawn Marion is an easy Hall of Famer. At his peak, he could you get 20/10 on 50% shooting without having any plays run for him while spreading the floor and defending four positions at a really high level. He just helped your team in so many different ways that it was hard to have a bad team with a prime Matrix on it and it was really easy to build a contender around him.

Before Dirk developed a post game*, there were only two guys I was scared of guarding him - Lamar Odom and the Matrix. They had the quickness to stay in front of him on the perimeter, the length to contest his shot and the core strength to push him out of the paint and keep him off the glass. Lammy Odom is a guy who had HOF talent, but off the court stuff prevented him from putting it all together.

*After the post game? No one. He's a boss, but you already knew that.

Even towards the end of his career, Marion was so, so crucial to the Mavs 2011 championship. They flat out don't win a title without him - he contained KD and LeBron in consecutive rounds on defense than got 12/6/2/1/1 on 47% shooting while spreading the floor and never needing the ball. Remember LeBron's Finals against Dallas where everyone decided he was a punk? Let's not forget who was playing defense on him! If you look at what he did over the rest of his career, maybe we should give a little more credit to what Marion was doing.

I'll break it down for y'all real simply: A) basketball is 50% offense and 50% defense. B) defense is the more important half of the ball - all things being equal, a great defense is going to beat a great offense. C) The Matrix was much, much better on offense than Nash was on defense. D) The gap between Marion's offense and Nash's defense is MUCH wider than the gap between Marion's defense and Nash's offense.

This matters because it is much easier to put a championship team around Shawn Marion than it is Steve Nash. To be great, Nash needed to have the ball in his hands and be the centerpiece of the offense while being surrounded by great athletes who could spread the floor for him and cover him on defense. Marion, in contrast, could be great in almost any context.

You might want to bring up his one and a half seasons in Toronto and Miami, and to be sure, he wasn't a franchise-caliber player whose presence alone instantly guaranteed title contention. Because guess what? Neither was Nash! In the year and a half after Marion left, the Suns lost in the first round and then missed the playoffs entirely. From there, we already know what happened.

So before you start throwing efficiency statistics at me, I got one stat and one stat only. Count the MOTHER FUCKING ringz! #hatehard