Say what you want about the NBA, but the league offers seven superior features to every other professional sport: a wildly entertaining draft, a new dress code that caused "Big and Tall Store" stock to jump eight points, the wit and wisdom of Mr. Jalen Rose, cheerleaders who dress like hookers, a ridiculously surreal All-Star Weekend and, of course, the only "Most Valuable Player" award that truly matters.
Can you name the last 10 NFL MVPs? Of course not. Can you remember the last 10 MVPs in each baseball league, and definitively say which guy was better every year? Nope. Do you even know the name of the NHL trophy? Unless you're Canadian, probably not. The MVP concept works best in the NBA: Every player is eligible, everyone plays against one another, it's relatively simple to compare statistics and, if you watch the games, you can always figure out which players stand out over everyone else.
Of course, the experts seem just as confused as they were last season, when Steve Nash stumbled into the award because some people thought it would be fun to vote for a white Canadian dude with bad hair who didn't play defense. As it turned out, Nash raised his game in the playoffs and vindicated everyone who picked him. (Note: I thought Shaq should have won the award and still do.) But that raises a bigger question: What makes for an NBA MVP?
I concentrate on three questions:
1. Ten years from now, who will be the first player from this season that pops into my head?
2. In a giant pickup game with every NBA player waiting to play, and two fans forced to pick sides with their lives depending on the outcome of the game (I think this is how the annual Rucker League tournament works), who would be the first player picked based on the way everyone played that season?
3. If you replaced every MVP candidate with a decent player at their position for the entire season, what would be the effect on their teams' records?
The first two questions are subjective. You might think the 2004-05 season belonged to Nash, whereas I thought it belonged to Shaq. And until this season, I would have picked Shaq first in any pickup game, you may have picked Kobe or LeBron. But the third question isn't nearly as subjective, it's also crucial to this year's dilemma. We're dealing with the deepest pool of potential MVP candidates ever (eight by my count). And I think the choice is pretty clear. But before we get to that, check out some of the names who didn't make the cut:
Shawn Marion, Elton Brand, Pau Gasol, Rasheed Wallace: All of them were indispensable to winning teams. Marion was the most explosive, Brand was the most consistent, Gasol carried the biggest burden and Rasheed is the one you would pick for one big game. You can't say one was more valuable than the others. (Although Gasol's straggly, Survivor-like beard had a Plummer-like impact on him and the Grizzlies, insuring its place in the NBA Beard Hall of Fame with Mike Newlin, Mike Gminski, Coby Dietrich, Bill Walton, Phil Jackson and Aaron McKie.) The important thing to remember is that all of them were better than ...
Kevin Garnett: Can you name another alleged "superstar in his prime" who missed the playoffs for two straight seasons? How was his supporting cast worse than Gasol's crew in Memphis, or even Chris Paul's team in New Orleans? Did you know that we haven't had a former MVP miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons in his prime since Bob McAdoo (who never should have won the MVP in the first place because Rick Barry got robbed)? Isn't it his job to carry a crappy team? What do you think Barkley was doing in the late-'80s and early-'90s in Philly? Nobody in the league gets more of a free ride than KG. Nobody.
(Note: There's a difference between being "competitive" and being "no fun whatsover to play with," and KG crossed that line about five years ago. You can't carry yourself that way for eight months each season without eventually committing a homicide. You just can't. He's wound too tight. So if you're reading this 50 years from now and wondering why KG only made it past Round 1 once in his career -- as well as why he murdered everyone in Minnesota's locker room after a 20-point blowout loss during the 2007-08 season -- please consider everything in this parentheses. Thank you.)
Jason Kidd: Firmly entrenched in the "Heather Locklear on 'Spin City' " phase of his career -- he doesn't look good as he once did, but he's still Jason Kidd. And he gets credit for two things: First, he's the only player who could have salvaged Vince Carter's career (like Tarantino taking a chance on Travolta in "Pulp Fiction," only if nobody was hiring Travolta because he didn't try in his last five movies. And second, this current Nets team could win 50 games without rebounders, shot-blockers, and any semblance of a low-post game, as well as a rotation that includes Cliff Robinson, Zoran Planinic, Jacques Vaughn, Lamond Murray and Scott Padgett. Only Kidd could have salvaged this mess. And this is why I hate stats sometimes, because someone like KG will always come off better than someone like Kidd. But the overall objective is to win games, and no matter where he is, Kidd's teams always seem to win more than they lose.
Allen Iverson: Mortal lock to be playing somewhere else next season.
Ben Wallace: In theory, he should be a top-10 pick for starting the Artest melee. Just think, if Wallace had calmed down after the initial shove, Artest never would have lounged on the scorer's table, John Green never would have tossed that drink, the ensuing melee never would have happened, and Detroit's most dangerous rival (an excellent Pacers team) wouldn't have completely self-combusted. Instead, Wallace kept carrying on and trying to reach Artest, and eventually, one of his fans turned into the NBA version of Lee Harvey Oswald. Eighteen months later, the Pacers are floundering and Larry Legend is making noises about blowing everything up.
(By the way, this seems like a good time to mention that Wallace was only suspended for six games. Although David Stern admits privately that, had Wallace handed Lee Harvey Green the cup of soda and screamed, "Throw it at him! Throw it!" ... they probably would have raised it to eight.)
Tim Duncan: In many ways, this isn't his greatest season -- thanks to his Phil Plantieritis or whatever it's called, he couldn't move laterally, couldn't get any lift, wasn't getting as many putbacks, had trouble filling the lane on fast breaks, never looked even remotely comfortable -- and yet, his team kept winning and his numbers didn't look much different than normal. You can't judge a great athlete until he's playing hurt, and in Duncan's case, his consistency was almost heroic. But he wasn't nearly as dominant, and I watched too many Spurs games in which he wasn't even the fifth-best player on the court. So I can't call him an MVP candidate. With many regrets.
Shaquille O'Neal: The best center alive by default (although Yao made a nice run in February and March). He still commands a double-team in every fourth quarter. The referees still call the game differently when he's out there. He's developed into an exceptionally smart passer from the low post. And he remains the league's most entertaining personality, maybe its most popular ambassador since Doctor J.
And with all of that said ... old Shaq is starting to look a little long in the tooth. You knew it was coming; all the stats from every great center forecasted it. Now, it's happening. Justin from Pasadena sums everything up: "With $100 million and 5 [years] left on his contract, and knees that bend no more than 5 degrees, how long do you think it will be before the Knicks make a run at getting Shaq? I'm already getting ready to pre-order my soon-to-be classic Knicks/O'Neal jersey."
(Two notes about that e-mail: First, it's funny because it's true. There's no doubt in hell that Isiah is trading Curry, Crawford and 25 future first-rounders for Shaq in the summer of 2007, followed by Knicks fans rejoicing for the first few months, then eventually turning on the trade and claiming they never liked it in the first place. And second, until last month, I had never received a "Shaq is starting to look washed up" e-mail. Not once.)
All right, enough foreplay. My top eight choices for MVP, in reverse order from eighth to first:
8. Chauncey Billups
The best player on the best team this season. But can you really call anyone "the best player" on a team that works solely because they play so well together?
For instance, "24" wouldn't work without Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer; nobody else could play that part. But "Lost" relies on a number of quality actors, all of whom play a role in the show's success to varying degrees: Jack, Sawyer, Locke, Kate and Hurley (that's their starting five). Personally, I think Sawyer is the best character, not just from an acting standpoint, but from an entertaining/interesting/dramatic standpoint). He's the Rasheed Wallace of the group, someone who doesn't need to carry every episode, brings a ton of stuff to the table and takes nothing off (and they're both funny as hell). As for the rest, Locke is probably Ben Wallace (does all the little stuff); Kate is Tayshaun Prince (the token chick/fifth man); Hurley is Rip Hamilton (totally underrated, always rises to the occasion); and Billups is Jack (the leader of the group).
So here's the question: Does the show work because of Jack, or does it work because of the group as a whole? Obviously, it's because of the group. Well, the same goes for the Pistons; calling Billups a bonafide MVP candidate demeans the contributions of everyone else involved. Would they slip that much with Jason Terry in Billups' spot? Probably not.
(Of course, if Jack ends up taking down The Others, and Billups takes down every contender this spring, maybe we have to re-evaluate.)
7. Chris Paul
The great John Hollinger covered Paul's case in his "third greatest season by a rookie guard ever" column yesterday, even if he didn't give Magic's rookie year nearly enough credit. Remember, Magic was playing out of position that season because of Norm Nixon, and he and Bird DID save the league and all, and he DID average nearly a triple-double in the playoffs and play one of the 10 greatest games in the history of the NBA Finals. (Whatever, we'll have to settle this over fisticuffs at the company barbecue in July.) For the purposes of this column, Paul had the lamest supporting cast of any candidate, played his position about as well as it can be played, and his team overachieved mainly because of him.
Let's say the Hornets finish with 40 wins ... how many would they have won with Deron Williams or Raymond Felton instead of Paul? Twenty? Fifteen? What about the baggage the Hornets had coming into the season, what with the hurricane in New Orleans, new digs in Oklahoma City and everything else? What about how much this team depended on Paul from night to night, even though he was a rookie? I just don't see how anyone can list him lower than seventh. And yes, that screaming is the sound of everyone from Atlanta. Just give them a few seconds.
6. Carmelo Anthony
The best clutch scorer alive -- seven game-winners and a game-tying shot just since Jan. 1, as well as the best clutch numbers of anyone in basketball over the past three seasons (according to 82games.com) -- to the point that we should be using his full name like we do with every other famous assassin. If your life depended on somebody making a game-winning shot in the last 10 seconds, would you pick anyone BUT Melo? I sure wouldn't.
So there's that. He also carried a division-winning Nuggets team that dealt with numerous injuries and numbers problems, a significant trade in mid-February, a glaring lack of outside shooters, and Kenyon Martin gimping around like Ken Reeves on the Bulls. And it's not like he's in his prime; actually, he's only seven months older than LeBron. Maybe there have been some minor flaws here and there -- he takes some quarters off, doesn't rebound enough, acts out sometimes -- but nothing that can't be fixed down the road.
Here's the thing: I'm starting to wonder if LeBron-Wade-Carmelo could become the most important sports rivalry of this generation. Each is great in his own way, each brings something different and unique to the table, and each seems to feed off what's happening with the other two guys. For instance, the Wade-LeBron duel two Saturdays ago (LeBron finished with 47-12-10, Wade with a 44-8-9) wasn't just the most thrilling game of the season, it was a significant experience for anyone who truly gives a crap about this league. Here were two fantastic young players absolutely KILLING it, doing everything they could to win the game, bringing out the absolute best of one another, raising everyone to a higher place.
This was like Pacino and De Niro sharing a scene in "Heat," only if they made the movie together in 1974. This was like Pearl Jam and Nirvana saying in 1992, "Screw it, let's go play at the same tiny club in Seattle and see who the crowd enjoys more." This was like nothing that's ever happened before. I haven't stopped thinking about it for three straight weeks. Could this be where we're headed -- magical game after magical game, like those Celtics-Lakers games in the mid-'80s, only for 12-15 years? What's the ceiling here? Do we even have a ceiling? Ali had Frazier, Bird had Magic, Russell had Chamberlain. Is it possible that LeBron, Wade and Carmelo all have each other? And do you realize that these guys are a combined 66 years old?
Maybe I'm biased as an unabashed NBA junkie, but I truly believe that the collective emergence of LeBron, Wade and Melo could eventually become the most significant thing that ever happened to this league -- bigger than MJ, bigger than Bird and Magic, bigger than everything. I guess we'll see.
5. Steve Nash
Kudos to him for increasing his scoring and seamlessly integrating seven new teammates into Phoenix's offense; in many ways, he was better than last season. He's the only current player whose unselfishness seems to transfer (almost by osmosis) to everyone else on his team. On the flip side, he's even worse defensively than last season; just in the past two months, I watched Shaun Livingston, Delonte West and Kidd completely outplay him in separate games, capped off by Billups simply CREMATING him in Detroit two Sundays ago. Would an MVP ever get decimated like that by someone who plays the same position? Please.
Put it this way: Nash was a cute choice last season, mainly because none of the other candidates stood out, and I could see why someone would have been swayed. (It was like ordering one of those fancy foreign beers at a bar, the ones in the heavy green bottles with the 13-letter name that you can't pronounce, only someone else is drinking it, so you say to yourself, "Ah, screw it, I'm tired of the beer I always drink, lemme try one of those.") But this year? I'm not saying he should be ignored, but if you actually end up picking him, either you're not watching enough basketball or you just want to see a white guy win back-to-back MVP's.
4. Dwyane Wade
Even as recently as four weeks ago, he was my MVP pick ... and then he started struggling, and so did Miami, and now he's hurt. The next three guys just passed him. It's that simple.
3. Dirk Nowitzki
Averaging an astonishing 29-and-10 since the All-Star Break (the only two forwards to average 29-and-10 since the ABA/NBA merger were Bird and the Mailman). He's the only All-Star on a 60-win Dallas team. He shows up for every game. He's an underrated rebounder and superior free-throw shooter in crunch time. He solved the whole "Let's stick a smaller, more athletic guy on him!" strategy by punishing defenders with a variety of herky-jerk moves on the high post. He's German, which makes him fun to dislike whenever he starts sneering at his teammates or arrogantly celebrating after a big bucket. Out of any over-25 player, he made the biggest leap this season; it's hard to imagine anyone meaning more to his team.
Quick Nowitzki story: Clips-Mavs, Monday night, tie game, 18 seconds left. Nowitzki is 5-for-18, but we all know he's getting the final shot -- right at the top of the key, where he's been thriving all season. Naturally, we assume that Dunleavy will send a second guy at him, since you never want to get beat by a franchise guy. So Dallas brings the ball up and feeds Nowitzki on the high post, only Chris Kaman (a gawd-awful defender) switches onto him. And we're waiting for the second guy. And we're waiting. Hell, even Dirk is waiting. Never comes. Finally, with the clock winding down, he puts a quick move on Kaman, upfakes him and drains a 16-footer to win the game, followed by a goofy gesture in which he coldly pulled his jersey out with both forefingers, almost like dueling shotguns. And then his teammates practically chest-bumped him to death.
Here's the point: I wasn't even remotely surprised. Not by any of it. (Well, except for Dunleavy being dumb enough to single-team Dirk with Kaman.) There are franchise guys, and then there are FRANCHISE GUYS. This season, Nowitzki added the caps.
2. LeBron James
Twenty-five months. That's how long it took before one of the Cleveland coaches (and there have been three since LeBron joined the team) made the astounding realization, "Hey, instead of sticking LeBron in the corner or the wing and having entire possessions where he never touches the ball, maybe we should run the offense through him!"
In the words of Colonel James, "Oh, you think so, Doctor?" Really? You want to stick him at the top of the key and run the offense through your best playmaker, as well as someone who's completely unstoppable whenever he decides to drive to the basket? You think that might work?
Now he's putting up 33-8-7 every night, which makes me wonder what would have happened had he handled the ball that much from Day 1. And it's not a very good Cavs team -- nobody plays defense, nobody rebounds, Ilguaskas doesn't fit in at all (terrible signing), even the alleged "shooters" (Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, etc.) rarely make open shots. Replace LeBron with Mike Miller, throw in the Hughes injury and this was probably a 27-win team. Instead, they'll win 50.
The intriguing subplot: LeBron is figuring out how to take over down the stretch, personified by what happened on Saturday in New Jersey (17 in the final quarter). At least once a game, he does something so explosive, so athletic, so incredible, you can't even believe it happened. The last time I remember feeling this way about a professional athlete was Bo Jackson, who wasn't just great ... he stood out. I attended a spring training game once when Bo scored from third base on a 180-foot pop fly -- standing up. It was awesome to watch.
Well, LeBron reminds me of Bo. On those plays when he says, "Screw it, I'm scoring" and heads toward the basket like a runaway freight train. He's like a young Barkley crossed with a young Shawn Kemp crossed with young Magic, but with a little Bo thrown in. Out of anyone in the league, he's the only player who can cripple the other team with one monster play.
There's a perfect example that Hollinger wrote about on Sunday, but screw it, I'm retelling the story. On Saturday afternoon, I TiVo'ed the Nets-Cavs game because the Nets had won 14 straight and officially reached "record all our games" territory. LeBron completely took over the game in the fourth, capped off by one of the most startling plays I have ever seen: Trailing in the final two minutes, LeBron seized some open space in transition and pulled the Runaway Freight Train move, careening toward the basket as one Net reached in and hacked him, followed by another Net on the other side reaching in and fouling him, and then a third guy just to make sure he wouldn't score. LeBron was cradling the ball, taking two giant steps toward the basket and absorbing those karate chops. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Any normal human being would have either lost the ball or lost their balance and tumbled to the ground.
Well, LeBron kept going -- almost like a tight end bouncing off three safeties in the open field. As the last guy walloped him, LeBron jumped in the air (where did he get the strength?!?!?), regained control of the ball, hung in the air, hung in the air for another split-second, gathered the ball (at this point, he was drifting under the right side of the rim), and finally unleashed a righty layup that banked in. The shot was so BLEEPING INCREDIBLE, the referee practically jumped in delight as he called the continuation foul. The Nets were done after that. He ripped their hearts out, MJ-style. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it.
And he's 21. Even more unbelievable.
So why isn't LeBron James the 2006 MVP? Two reasons. First, he hasn't committed himself on the defensive end yet. It's not even an effort thing, I think he's just been poorly coached. Bird and Magic couldn't guard anyone either, but they were always great help defenders, and Bird actually controlled games on that end like a free safety (just watch Game 6 of the 1986 Finals, you'll see what I mean). Defensively, LeBron is a complete non-factor.
More importantly, the next guy has just been a little bit better ...
1. Kobe Bryant
You don't know how much this kills me. Actually, you probably do. But Mamba passes all three MVP questions ...
Question No. 1: When remembering this season 10 years from now, which player will pop into your head first?
Answer: Kobe. The dude scored 62 in three quarters against Dallas, then 81 against Toronto a few weeks later. He's about to become the fifth player in NBA history to average 35 points a game (along with Wilt, MJ, Elgin and Rick Barry). He made up with Shaq. He made up with Phil. He made up with Nike. He appeared on the cover of Slam Magazine with a Mamba snake wrapped around him. He did everything but make the obligatory cameo on "Will and Grace." No player took more abuse from writers, broadcasters and radio hosts this season, but Kobe seemed to feed off that negative energy. It was almost Bondsian. And just when it kept seeming like he might wear down, he'd toss up another 50 just to keep you on your toes. Kobe was relentless. That's the best way to describe him this season.
Question No. 2: In the proverbial giant pickup game with every NBA player waiting to play, who would be the first player picked this season?
Answer: Kobe. He's the best all-around player in the league, the best scorer, the best competitor, and the one guy who terrifies everyone else. Plus, if you DIDN'T pick him, he would make it his mission to haunt you on the other team.
Question No. 3: If you replaced every MVP candidate with a decent player at their position for the entire season, what would be the effect on their teams' records?
Answer: If you replaced Kobe with a decent 2-guard (someone like Jamal Crawford) for the entire 2005-06 Lakers season, they would have won between 15 and 20 games. I can say that in complete confidence. Terrible team. When Smush Parker and Kwame Brown are your third- and fourth-best players, you shouldn't even be allowed to watch the playoffs on TV. Throw Kobe in the mix and they're headed for 45 wins. So he's been worth 25 victories for them. Minimum.
In a weird way, Kobe ended up getting what he always wanted: The Lakers completely revolve around him. He gets to shoot 25-30 times per game. He gets to take every big shot at crunch-time. He gets all the credit. Nobody else on the team dares to challenge him. And even better, because he lucked out with the only possible coach who could make this cockamamie situation work, his supporting cast kills itself to make him look good.
Basically, he's Elvis and everyone else is Joe Esposito. And it's working! That's the crazy thing.
Now they're a sleeper in the West -- seriously, do you think Phoenix wants any part of them in Round 1? -- and have the only player in the league who can win a playoff series by himself. He's the Black Mamba, he's Kobe Bryant, he's the 2006 MVP, and since we finally have that settled, I will now light myself on fire.
Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site here. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.