By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Apr 1 2011 12:53PM
Where polarization happens.
That might as well be the slogan for this season's Race To the MVP, because just as with national and local politics these days -- and the cable TV networks that cover them -- there has been a hardening of battle lines over the NBA's 2010-11 Most Valuable Player.
Maybe it's the nature of the media beast nowadays, pushed by the glut of outlets and voices to stake out turf at the extremes in an attept to be noticed. Maybe it's the culture overall in 2011, where so many of us have swapped out listening for yammering.
It certainly doesn't seem driven by the field of top MVP candidates, all of whom are tremendous talents with legitimate portfolios and generally agreeable personalities. But something has turned this season's Race into one of the most hostile in years, driving so many pundits to not only argue on behalf of their particular choices but to denigrate those who might (in their view) usurp votes for their guys.
It has become MSNBC vs. Fox News, where one side is all right and the other side is all wrong. Regardless of the side you're on.
Some of the most snide, strident and extreme MVP arguments have come from factions that can generally be defined as "statistics" vs. "storyline" partisans. That is, those media members who favor a "best player in the league" interpretation of the award and can marshal a flash-drive full of stats to separate candidates vs. those who don't. Many of these metrics are new, or relatively so, and most often are embraced by the growing number of Web writers as opposed to (with definite exceptions) newspaper beat writers, national NBA columnists or team and network broadcasters.
That latter group of folks, from their side of the gulch, traditionally have favored scenarios that focus on the tricky definition of "valuable" in the MVP. They tend to give more weight to the expectations for a team and it star player, along with intangibles such as the gap between the award candidate and his "supporting cast," a club's overall "chemistry" and a range of squishy factors such as freshness, voter fatigue and more.
For example, Chicago's Derrick Rose -- a top MVP choice for much of this season -- scores points with these voters not merely for his individual stats but for the games missed to injury by Bulls teammates Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, as well as the breakthrough nature of his performance (he would be the youngest MVP ever and never got a single fifth-place vote in his first two pro seasons). LeBron James, meanwhile, has won the past two MVPs, which means there's no special thrill or satisfaction for some voters in writing his name atop their ballot again -- especially if they didn't like his relocation from Cleveland to Miami.
It would be nice if the two sides could meet in the middle more often. Imagine if the stats mongers were telling us, for instance, how many of Rose's 3-point misses came via desperation heaves at the end of quarters? Those are the type of plays more savvy MVP candidates eschew for the deleterious effects it has on shooting percentage. Well, a Chicago Tribune reader did just that, and the answer is that Rose's shooting has been watered down by 21 such flings (including a 70-footer and a 40-footer at Minnesota on Wednesday). Drop those and Rose's percentages bump up to 35.4 from the arc and 44.5 overall.
It would be nice if someone would crunch numbers showing how Dwight Howard's rash of technical fouls impacts his relationships with referees, who then either do or don't give him the benefit of the doubt on physical plays. How do stats reflect the confidence of teammates who might actually play well when their MVP candidate is taking a breather, because they're filled with confidence knowing he'll soon check back in? If you want to measure a team's play without him, focus on the games he's out, not the minutes against someone else's second unit.
What the storyline squad sees as a vague gap between a star's talents and his teammates', the stats community could bring in to better focus -- but often don't. Consider the scoring "gap" associated with many MVP winners: Over the past 10 years, when the MVP has been his team's leading scorer, there has been no secondary scorer on his team who averaged 20 points or more. That's been the case, too, for 14 of the past 15 MVPs, and it's a trend that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would have to buck this spring.
But to many who favor empirical data, basketball players are like robots pulled from a closet, their performance self-contained and predictable regardless of circumstances. Some view games as a series of possessions, all identical, first quarter same as fourth, April the same as November, like a stack of dinner plates. No urgency, no clutch play, no circumstantial adjustments that disregard a drive toward more and better personal stats.
To which the Race committee can only say: Huh? Seriously?
Where is the allowance (and numbers) for chemistry in running a pick-and-roll with one teammate vs. another? A measure of the quality of screens set by various power forwards? Basketball isn't baseball, where at-bats and pitcher confrontations are a sequence of individual moments. Basketball is free-flowing, more interdependent than most sports.
Might as well apply standards for country-western music to jazz.
One solution might be to have separate awards, something suggested in this space back in January. The NBA could create an Offensive Player of the Year to parallel its Defensive Player honor, and the results can be spit out of a computer based on efficiency, scoring and other stat information. But leave the MVP alone or rename it the "Most Impactful Player" to allow for those stars who actually infiltrate and alter a team from within, both tangibly and intangibly.
Clearly, you can see that the Race favors the "storyline" approach to gauging MVP candidates. The whole thing is an inexact science -- wait, scratch that, because it's not a science at all. It is a barroom argument at the sport's highest level, based entirely on opinion, with an end date only because there is a deadline -- April 14, 3 p.m. EDT -- for ballots to be cast. Then, after a few months spent sifting through rubble and shooting the wounded, everyone turns their attention to next year's MVP.
The scariest part of the polarization -- forget about bruised feelings or even the negative arguments made against outstanding players -- is the danger that some voters might "game" the MVP voting system. Remember, this isn't a simple either/or process like most political elections. This is a ballot with five slots for names, and a point system in which all five players add -- or not -- to their totals based on being picked second, third, fourth or fifth.
Might some of those with ballots, so passionate in their views, put that ahead of integrity? It is possible that some might not be content to just vote for the player they deem most deserving and then, in sporting fashion, rank the next four candidates who come close. Someone might attempt to cast, simultaneously, votes for their choices and votes against others.
Conside the 2006 MVP race, when Phoenix's Steve Nash won for second consecutive year. Kobe Bryant finished fourth that year even though only Nash (57) had more first-place votes. Bryant had 22, more than James' 16 or Dirk Nowitzki's 14, but they finished second and third by getting more votes for second, third or fourth. Bryant had 30 votes for fifth place, which dragged down his overall point total (the system counts first-place votes as 10 points, second as seven points, third five, fourth three and fifth just one point).
So a Howard backer who sticks James down at No. 5 -- or leaves him off his ballot entirely -- would be "gaming" this system.
It's an issue the NBA would rather not mess with and, in a year such as this one with six or seven solid candidates, it would be hard to prosecute anyway. League spokesman Tim Frank said Thursday: "We have a very qualified voting base and there are many different ways to define an MVP. Who are we to say someone is wrong for whomever they place their vote?"
The NBA has promised some transparency in the results this year, so that folks might be able to attach names to the ballots and connect any suspicious dots. It also would take a movement or conspiracy to completely "rob" someone of the award -- in 2006, Nash still wold have won handily if Bryant's fifth- and second-place vote totals had been flipped.
But with politics, or at least the climate of it, rearing its head in the MVP process, it's worth noting that two major candidates come from that haven of voting irregularity (Florida) and from the City of Big Smoke-Filled Backrooms (Chicago).
Two Race notes:
• Last week, Bob Cousy was short-changed as an MVP whose team won a national championship because Cousy was a presumably ineligible freshman at Holy Cross in 1947 when his school took won the NCAA title. Nope, he was eligible and played.
• Next week, as a companion to the season's final Race -- it will be the last gasp before the April 14 voting deadline -- the committee will sift through and post readers' arguments for the top candidates. So e-mail them in (via the link below) but please focus on positive lobbying on behalf of your No. 1 choice. Tearing down other candidates will get you nowhere, in terms of either persuasion or posting.
And now, the penultimate Race rankings:
Dropping out: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio (No. 10 last week).
Honorable mention: Carmelo Anthony, New York; Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers; Chris Paul, New Orleans; Zach Randolph, Memphis
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