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Fran Blinebury

Tony Parker is averaging 18.5 ppg and 7.7 apg this season for the West-leading Spurs.
NBAE via Getty Images

Parker sets the tone for Spurs and makes quiet case for MVP

Posted Apr 20 2012 10:08AM

Kia Race to the MVP Ladder

Why not Tony Parker?

If the purpose of the MVP award is to simply identify the player who is the game's most unstoppable all-around force, then it would make sense to roll another dozen off the assembly line and mail them each spring to LeBron James' Miami address until he finally tires of wearing the crown and walks away.

But in that case, doesn't somebody have a lot of explaining to do to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who both filled that role for many seasons and who were so honored only once each in the prime of their combined nine-championship careers?

If the designation is intended to go to a singular offensive talent who can do score from virtually anywhere past mid-court, then Kevin Durant should already have a carpenter building a set of extra-large shelves in his den to hold all of the shiny hardware that will be arriving over the next decade.

However, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter stare at empty trophy cases now because the MVP award is about more than YouTube clips and frying a calculator's microchip.

So why not Tony Parker?

"This has been his best year," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

If you simply read the stats, Parker would seem a lesser-caliber candidate than the big guns. Though his 18.5 points per game (23rd in the NBA) is solid, it is not as eye-popping in comparison to Durant's 27.8 (2nd) or James' 27.1 (3rd). Parker is averaging a career-high 7.7 assists, but James and Durant are both averaging 7.9 rebounds.

Never mind the old argument about how far their respective teams might struggle without their leading scorers. The same could be said if you took away the top gun on every club. What is unique about Parker in the evaluation is how much his role has changed this season in San Antonio.

Parker was challenged with a much higher bar of expectation by the Spurs' coaching staff and front office and has cleared it with room to spare. He's done it while Popovich has kept the soon-to-be-36-year-old Tim Duncan's minutes to a career low. He's done it while Manu Ginobili has missed 30 games with a broken bone in one hand a hip flexor injury. He's done it with a starting lineup that has often included rookie in Kawhi Leonard or third-year journeyman Danny Green. He's done it through the relentless pace and all the back-to-back games in this meat grinder of a post-lockout schedule.

The Spurs wouldn't be within a Texas-sized mile of the best record in the Western Conference or best overall mark in the league without the 6-foot-3 Parker embracing the burden of not only being asked to score more -- a lot more -- while having to run the offense, too.

For a player with a career-scoring average of 16.9 points, he has had to pump in at least 23 on 18 different nights. Parker has scored 30 or more seven times and also handed out double-digit assists in a dozen games.

"When he scores, I tell him he needs to pass," Popovich jokes, "and when he assists, I tell him he needs to score."

On a night when Durant and the high-octane Thunder rolled into San Antonio, Popovich got his Parker's ear and told him he would have to shoot. During the first timeout in the first quarter, when he'd seen Parker trying to set up teammates, Popovich barked a reminder. So Parker finished with 42 points in an easy Spurs win -- the same night he passed Avery Johnson to become the Spurs all-time assist leader.

Parker plays with a spark and a glint in his eye. That makes it hard sometimes to remember that Popovich once thought a 19-year-old Parker, who arrived from France in 2001, was too soft. You watch him as the backbone of these Spurs and it's difficult to think that there might have been some sentiment to trade Parker last summer. The growth couldn't be more evident if it was marked off with a pencil on the kitchen wall.

"He's more willing in timeouts to let people know what should be going on out on the court if it's not happening," Popovich said. "On the court, he's more demonstrative and quick to react to score, time on the clock, situation in the game, matchups that might be able to be taken advantage of. There are times when I'll call a play and he'll wave me off because he's got something in mind. He goes and goes at it ala Avery Johnson. He's gotten to that stage where he feels comfortable with what's going on out there."

Part of the reason that Duncan has been able to look so spry (and even explosive) in the past few weeks is that Parker has enabled him to conserve his energy for the stretch run and postseason. Part of the reason that Ginobili has been able to carefully work his way back into game shape is that Parker has been able to light the offensive fuse when it's needed. Much of the reason the Spurs are feeling so much better about their health and their potential for another championship run as the playoffs draw near is everything Parker has done to get them here.

"It's always a process, especially for somebody who's not a natural point, somebody who is more of a scoring point and who has come to learn, kind of halfway." Popovich said. "We always talked about a spectrum where John Stockton's over here and we didn't want Tony to be the exact opposite, just scoring. We wanted him to come halfway to Stockton and understand the passing part and all the other things that he's acquired over the years. He's done a good job."

Good enough to ask the MVP question: Why not Tony Parker?

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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