Sorry, Dirk, you're no MVP
May. 1, 2007 | feedback
We're headed for the most awkward moment in NBA history within the next 10 days. Here's how it will play out:
(We see Jim Gray, David Stern and Dirk Nowitzki standing awkwardly in front of a single camera at halftime of a Round 2 playoff game.)
--Gray: "I'm here with NBA commissioner David Stern. David--"
--Stern: "Don't talk to me. Seriously. You're lucky I haven't had you killed yet."
--Gray: "Gotcha. Um ... and now to present the 2006-07 Most Valuable Player Award, NBA commissioner David Stern."
--Stern: "Leave. Now."
(Gray slinks off.)
--Stern: "Well, Dirk, maybe the playoffs didn't turn out the way you planned, but for 82 meaningless games during one of the worst seasons of my 23-year tenure, you were the best player in a terrible league. Unfortunately, voting for the award happens right after the regular season, so voters weren't able to factor in your complete meltdown in Round 1 against Golden State. You didn't just fail to step up like an MVP should, you whined and complained the entire series, disgraced your teammates and embarrassed your fans. Not since David Hasselhoff has America been so embarrassed by a German. I don't know whether to hand you this trophy or smash it over your head. Lucky for you, this is being televised, so I can only hand you the trophy and congratulate you on the 2006-07 Most Valuable Player Award. I'm going to leave now so I can throw up."
--Dirk Nowitzki (taking the trophy): "Thank you, Mr. Commissioner."
(Stern waves disgustedly at him and walks away.)
And ... scene!
Has Nowitzki been that bad in the first four games against Golden State? Actually, yeah. You can't kill him for struggling in a playoff series because, admittedly, it happens to the best from time to time. For instance, the Basketball Jesus stunk out the joint against the '85 Lakers and '88 Pistons. MJ submitted a stinkbomb against the '95 Magic. Magic choked in three different losses to the '84 Celtics. Bring up an NBA legend and I could point you to a crummy playoff performance within three seconds.
The difference between Dirk and the others: He's having a complete breakdown as a basketball player. Mentally, he's a mess. You can see it on his face. From a leadership standpoint, he's shown nothing other than a couple of front-running fist pumps and a few "Die Hard" sneers. Every time Dallas needed him to come through in Games 1, 3 and 4, he disappeared. And he made crucial mental mistakes after Game 3 (saying the series hinged on Game 4 for Dallas, which was just dumb) and Game 4 (doing the whole "woe is me, I can't get it going, I'll just have to help us in other ways" routine). For historical purposes, he's edging dangerously close to Karl Malone territory here.
As you know, I didn't have an MVP vote this season because it makes too much sense for the league to give votes to younger writers who obsessively follow the NBA over older writers who secretly despise the league, can't identify with it and would never dream of spending their own money on NBA League Pass. This is how we end up with a system in which Isiah Thomas gets a "Coach of the Year" vote. (By the way, that's a whole other column.) But here's how I explained my decision not to give Dirk the MVP vote that I didn't actually have:
"He can't affect games unless he's scoring, doesn't make his teammates better and plays decent defense at best. If you're giving the MVP to someone because of his offense, he'd better be a killer offensive player. You can't say that about the 2007 Dirk Nowitzki."
One week later, the Golden State series starts. Dirk can't get it going because the Warriors smartly throw Stephen Jackson (a legitimate pit bull) on him -- a smaller player who gets right in his face and keeps trying to poke the ball every time Dirk puts it on the ground. Now, everyone thought Dirk solved the whole "smaller/quicker guys can shut me down" thing against San Antonio and Phoenix last season, but that wasn't necessarily true -- he could shoot over Bruce Bowen and Raja Bell and put the ball on the floor against Shawn Marion. He can't do either of these things against Jackson (or Jason Richardson, for that matter). And if that's not enough, Nellie keeps throwing second guys at him from odd angles, so he never knows when the double team is coming. Believe me, there are legitimate reasons why Nowitzki is struggling against the Warriors. It's not just a shooting slump.
But that's why Dirk shouldn't be the MVP: Take away his scoring and there's not a lot left. Yeah, he'll grab some rebounds and create a couple of easy shots for teammates, but he's not putting his imprint on the game, right? I can see someone winning an MVP award with those limitations, but again, you better be a KILLER offensive player. And he wasn't. As I described his credentials in that MVP column, "(He had a) well-done and thoroughly efficient season. I enjoyed it. He took the Fist Pump/Sneer to new heights. I just don't think he was the MVP."
For example, if you watched T-Mac in Monday night's hard-fought win over the Jazz (16 assists!), that was the quintessential example of a great player beating a good team on a night when his shot wasn't falling. Tim Duncan has those games all the time; he doesn't need to score 25 points to control a game. Same for Jason Kidd. Same for Steve Nash. On the flip side, Kobe needs to score to control games and manages to do it on an astonishingly consistent basis. He's a dominant offensive player, whereas Nowitzki is an efficient offensive player. Big difference. Teams can turn Dirk into a complementary player if they try hard enough. Does that sound like an MVP? Didn't think so. When Kobe's team loses a playoff game, you still know he's there. Same for Nash. Same for Wade. Same for Duncan. Same for LeBron. I thought Nowitzki had reached that point last season -- remember this column? -- but now he's taken an enormous step backward and if the Mavs gets knocked out this week (which I think they will) he becomes the worst MVP choice since Karl Malone in 1997.
As for the magnificent Warriors-Mavs series, it's been said a million times but warrants mentioning again: When they showed the starting lineups for Game 1 and revealed Dallas was going small, I actually screamed out loud. I'm not kidding. For God's sake, even if you plan on eventually going small against a quicker team, you can't change your starting lineup for a No. 8 seed! You knew Nellie was standing there thinking, "I got him, I got him ... I'm in Avery's head!" As weird as this sounds, I thought that was the biggest moment of the entire series. The Warriors probably went into that game thinking they had a puncher's chance, then Avery went small and Nellie was probably standing there in the huddle screaming at them, "We have them! We have them! THEY ARE AFRAID OF US!"
Ten other things that need to be covered before Game 5, which I fully expect the Mavs to win thanks to a 48-20 free-throw advantage and between three and 35 technical fouls on the Warriors, along with the 10 percent chance that Dallas police might need to use a taser on Stephen Jackson before everything is said and done:
1. If the Warriors end up winning the series -- and just for the record, I don't think Dallas can win in Oakland under any circumstances -- it wouldn't be as big an upset as you'd think. After all, Dallas wasn't really a 67-win team (just a very good team that stayed healthy and played hard every night in a terrible league), and G-State wasn't really a No. 8 seed (the Warriors didn't get healthy and gel together until the tail end of the season). In my opinion, the '94 Nuggets (over the '94 Sonics) and '81 Rockets (over the '81 Lakers) were much bigger upsets.
But here's what I can't understand: Where was Vegas during this whole thing? How could they make the Warriors 9-to-1 underdogs when they had three of the best five players in the series and a coach who was put on the earth to win a series like this? Dallas was NINE TIMES AS LIKELY to win this series? Really? Seriously? That was the single strangest series line since Hakeem and the Rockets (defending champs, by the way) were more than 2-to-1 underdogs against a painfully young Magic team in the '95 Finals. Bizarre.
2. I'd like to request that Al Harrington changes his nickname from "Big Al" to "Small Al" or "If We Blow This Series I'm The Reason Al." Thanks.
3. Take it from someone who just spent the last six months watching Doc Rivers and Mike Dunleavy: If you want to see how an NBA game should be coached during the game, watch this series and watch how Avery Johnson uses his timeouts, or how Nellie tests his struggling guys (Harrington, Pietrus and Ellis) every game and yanks them for good at the exact moment it's clear that they don't have it. Really fun to watch.
4. I've seen hammered college kids playing "Pop A Shot" at 3 a.m. with better form than Andris Biedrins from the FT line. Why does it look like both of his arms are in plaster casts? Does he have elbows?
5. No offense, TNT execs ... but Kevin Harlan or Marv Albert should be calling this series. End of story. You screwed up.
6. Just about everyone forgot this because of his on/off the court problems, but Stephen Jackson happens to be a genuinely good player who's played for some quality teams and definitely fits the "I'd go to battle with him" profile. (The Spurs wouldn't have won a title without him in 2003, remember?) I'm always amazed that NBA GMs don't value playoff experience more than they do -- for instance, Indiana tried to give away Jackson for three straight months and nobody bit. By all accounts, he's a loyal teammate (and then some, as witnessed in the Artest melee); Reggie Miller even defended him during one of the playoff broadcasts by saying something like, "People don't realize this, but Stephen's a good guy, he really is." Considering his reasonable salary (averages out to $7 million per year through 2010), his playoff pedigree and his fearlessness in big games, it's hard to believe that a contender like the Suns, Nets or Jazz didn't say, "Screw it, let's take a flier on this guy."
And then, you get e-mails like this one (from Lorenzon in Thousand Oaks, Calif., during Game 2) and it all makes sense: "Just watched Baron Davis and Jason Terry pretend to want to fight each other, and thought the most interesting part of the 'brawl' was the reaction from Stephen Jackson. If you watch closely, his back is turned to the action at the start of the fight. When he turns around and sees his boy about to get at it, he apparently has an Artest flashback, because the crazed look in his eyes is priceless. Unfortunately, nothing interesting came of it, but for a brief moment we had an HD view into the window of a madman. For some reason I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of Stephen Jackson."
7. Reason No. 132 why I love this series: It's not often that you can follow a series, then midway through it, have to call one of your friends just to ask, "Hey, is it just me or did Matt Barnes add a new tattoo on his neck for this game?"
(The NBA ... it's FANNNNNNNNNNN-tastic!)
8. Reason No. 133 why I love this series: The winning coach showing up for his Game 4 news conference holding a can of Bud Light.
9. Yikes, how have I not mentioned Baron Davis yet? And not just because he broke out a fedora with bullets on it before Game 3 -- my favorite moment of the playoffs so far -- but because he's finally healthy and attacking the basket again. The thing is, we always knew he had it in him. Kenny Smith summed it up nicely by recounting a story about the time he asked Baron something like, "Is there anything offensively that you can't do? Is there anything defensively that you can't do? Well, why aren't you one of the best players in the league?"
Was there an answer? Kenny thought it was more of a mental hurdle than anything and I'd have to agree -- thanks to Nellie and his style of play, everything came together for Davis this season. But you can't say it's a surprise because he's done this before: Look at his box scores from Game 3 and Game 4 of the Orlando series in 2002. That was the frustrating thing about Baron Davis' career: He DID have this in him. And we knew it. Now we're seeing it. He's been the undisputed MVP of a series that happens to include the soon-to-be-named MVP of the league.
10. Three more pertinent e-mails and we're done:
Ryan M in Dallas: "Has any city had its collective sports groin kicked in more in 12 months than Dallas has since last June? Summer 2006 gets our hopes up to unprecedented levels as the Mavs pull off the impossible and win an OT Game 7 in San Antonio. So follow that with the worst collapse in NBA Finals history. Two words: Tony Romo. This summer, the Stars (an NHL team ... that's pro hockey for those who forgot) rally back from down 3-1, only to totally fall apart in the third period of Game 7 in Vancouver. And then probably the worst of all, the Mavs win 67 games in preparation for healing the wounds of 10 months ago, only to pull what looks to be the greatest no-show stunt in sports, ever. Have five million people ever simultaneously sworn off sports fandom forever?"
Jennie in San Diego: "As you probably saw at the beginning of the second half of Sunday night's Warriors/Mavs game, TNT showed us all of the celebrities at the Coliseum Arena. I could not believe that they showed Ron Artest sitting in the stands only one time! I feel cheated that they never panned back to him for reaction shots. Stephen Jackson is fricking nuts and to know that Ron Ron is watching him from the sidelines, TNT knows this and where he is sitting and has a camera readily available and STILL doesn't give us reaction shots?! We deserved it as fans for sitting through hundreds of hours of incessant media dissection of that fight! They owed that to us."
James in Boulder: "Couldn't agree with you more when you talked about the greatness of the Golden State fans. I'm a diehard Nuggets fan and was at the game on Saturday night. Late in the game, the Nugs were down five and the crowd started chanting, without prompting, "Let's go Nuggets!" (clap clap clap-clap-clap). It was INCREDIBLY loud. So what do the geniuses at the Pepsi Center do? They start playing some stupid video on the Jumbotron telling us to yell louder while accompanying it with Van Halen's "Right Now." What did the fans do? We had no clue what to do, so the chant ended up getting drowned out by the video. Golden State's management knows how to run the sound during a game and I salute them for it."