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Tuesday, April 15, 2008
NBA MVP breakdown, Part I

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Once the 2007-08 regular season finishes Wednesday night, we can say that we witnessed the fourth greatest MVP race in NBA history. For the first time in 47 years, you could make compelling cases for five different candidates: Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and, of course, Earl Barron, the heart and soul of the Tankapalooza All-Stars in Miami.

Why bother ranking the greatest MVP races? You got me. It's a complete waste of time. But that didn't stop me from spending two hours figuring it out, so you could enjoy the bland sidebars to the right.

THE THIRD GREATEST MVP RACE EVER

1993: Charles Barkley averaged a 26-12-5 for the 62-win Suns and won because everyone was tired of voting for Michael Jordan, which became awkward when Jordan cremated the Suns in the Finals. In fact, MJ finished third in the voting behind Hakeem Olajuwon, who submitted one of the greatest all-around seasons of the modern era (averaging a 26-13 with 150 steals and 342 blocks). Any time three of the greatest 20 players peak during the same year, that's a pretty good MVP race.
While researching the various seasons, I stumbled upon an old Web page that featured voting for every race through 2000 -- a riveting read not just for little nuggets like "Cedric Ceballos got a fifth-place vote in 1995????," but because there's a definitiveness to the voting that can't possibly capture the swings of a specific season. During the first 30 games of this season, we were engraving Kevin Garnett's name on the trophy. When KG suffered an injury, LeBron took center stage, and then Kobe, then Paul, and now it's up in the air again. Can you remember another season when four different players seemed like locks at different times? Those crazy swings won't show up in the final voting, but, at the very least, we can get the winner right. Thank God I have a vote.

(Important note: Since the NBA refuses to give me an official ballot, I was forced to fly to the Bay Area and take compromising photos of Ric Bucher coming out of a tanning salon, then heading into a neighboring hair salon to buy $300 worth of hair gel. Let's just say I now "control" Bucher's vote. Big year for me. Back to the column.)

Can you make the right choice here? Actually, I think you can. But it's only right that we split this column up over two days, two parts and nearly 55,000 words. For Part I, let's take a look at some players who didn't make the cut (and where they finished on my ballot in the top 450).

In reverse order ...

THE SECOND GREATEST MVP RACE EVER

1987: Magic Johnson finished first with a remarkable 24-12-6 season in which he finally seized control of the Lakers from Kareem. Michael Jordan averaged 37 a game, officially became "The Next Great Player" and finished second. And the reigning three-time MVP submitted his finest season ever (28-9-8, 53 percent FG, 40 percent 3FG, 90 percent FT, 3,000 minutes and his best blonde afro ever) and finished a distant third only because everyone was tired of voting for Larry Bird. When you get career years from the greatest forward and point guard ever, along with a breakout year for the best player ever, that's a pretty good MVP race.
450. Stephon Marbury
Even before the season, Marbury looked like the favorite for my annual LVP ("Least Valuable Player") Award thanks to some peculiar TV interviews, a prominent role in the sexual harrassment suit against the Knicks and the inspiration for at least 50,000 fantasy team names that somehow involved the words "truck" and "party." Then the season started and he splintered the Knicks during a vicious argument with Isiah Thomas that included the reported threat, "He thinks he can [bleep] me, but I'll [bleep] him first." He was immortalized on YouTube with the superb "Night At The Starbury" parody. He played 24 games and participated in a whopping six victories (considering he makes $20 million, that's more than $3.3 million per victory), then took an extended leave of absence after his father's death and nobody cared if he came back. And finally, he opted for season-ending ankle surgery when he easily could have waited until the summer. We've had nuclear leaks that were remembered more positively than Marbury's 2007-08 season.

(You know it has been memorable when you're asking with a straight face, "Do you think he'll even be alive in two years?" Did I mention that he's on the books for $21 million next season and might be the single most untradeable professional athlete since Rae Carruth's final days on the Panthers' roster? Now that, my friends, is an LVP.)

449. Zach Randolph
Any time the same player is widely credited for one team's resurgence (simply because he left), another team's ongoing demise (simply because he showed up) and the firing of a third team's GM (Milwaukee's Larry Harris, who made the fatal mistake of trying to convince his owner that the Bucks should trade for him), that should have been enough for him to cruise to the LVP Award. Zach, I'm sorry. I don't know what else you could have done short of stabbing Nate Robinson during a timeout.

THE GREATEST MVP RACE EVER

1961: Bill Russell (a career year) and Bob Pettit (averaged a 28-20) finish 1-2 in the voting; Elgin Baylor averaged a 35-20 that season and finished third; Wilt Chamberlain averaged a 38-27 and finished fourth; and rookie Oscar Robertson scored 30 a game and finished fifth. When the No. 5 guy comes within 0.3 assists of averaging a triple double, that's a pretty good MVP race.
445. Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic (tie)
Did anyone else find it interesting these two played together during the same spring Screech threatened to "gut" Brian Dunkleman on "Celebrity Fit Club?"

423. James Augustine
Our 2008 winner of the "Wait, Instead of Paying That Guy For the Season, Why Not Sign Rod Benson And Boost The Traffic To Your Team's Web Site?" Award, narrowly edging Casey Jacobsen, Louis Amundson and Maceo Baston.

414. Jamaal Tinsley
Gave us an embarrassing off-court incident, a tantalizing fantasy stretch in November/December that was ultimately derailed by an injury, a February filled with "Indiana is actively trying to shop Tinsley but nobody wants to take his contract" stories and then a season-ending injury resulting in another year in which he missed more games than he played. In other words, it was just like every other Jamaal Tinsley season! We're one year away from the Pacers slipping an opiate into his Gatorade, waiting an hour, then forcing him to pee into a cup at gunpoint to get him off their cap.

397. Marco Belinelli
Let's make a pact: Nobody is allowed to get excited about a summer league performance ever again. OK? We good on this?

372. Jermaine O'Neal
Ever since O'Neal punched out Turtle during the Artest Melee, he morphed into C-Webb 2.0. Check out his past four seasons: 122 missed games (and counting), declining stats each season and one of the most damaging contracts in the league. Is it too late to set him up with Tyra Banks? By the way, if you had to rank the most destructive moments to an NBA franchise in the past 30 years in terms of immediate damage and long-term ramifications, the Artest Melee ranks just below Lenny Bias' coke overdose and the Bowie/Jordan pick at this point.

356. Juwan Howard, Jamaal Magloire (tie)
Most confusing NBA trend of the year: Contenders wasting free-agent exceptions to sign washed-up guys who couldn't possibly help them unless a time machine was involved. What's the point? To look better on paper? Dallas should have skipped the Howard/Magloire signings and gone after Scottie Pippen and Oscar Robertson.

335. D.J. Strawberry
My favorite bench guy who never played this season, mainly because Mike D'Antoni didn't want to invest time in his rookies, not when he could play a seven-man rotation and run Hill and Nash into the ground. (I love Mike D., but ever since the agonizing loss to the Spurs last spring, he has been wound more tightly than Priscilla Presley's face. Could one of his assistant coaches buy him some herbal tea before the playoffs? And maybe one of those massage chairs?) Anyway, here's the 2008 Bill Simmons All-Star Team of "Guys I Like (In Some Cases, Inexplicably) With Potential To Become Quality Role Players For A Contender And/Or Overpaid By One Dumb G.M." -- Strawberry, Glen Davis, Aaron Gray, Steve Novak, Jamario Moon, Kyle Lowry, Arron Afflalo, Ramon Sessions (note: I had him in there BEFORE the 24-assist game), Francisco Garcia, Kelenna Azubuike, four-time B.S. All-Star Quinton Ross and 2008 B.S. MVP Louis Williams.

(Important note: Because Carl Landry, Brandon Bass and Leon Powe actually did contribute to good teams, they were ruled ineligible for the Simmons All-Stars. Too bad. Slim pickings for the Simmons All-Stars this year, by the way. It's staggering that Miami didn't have a representative. I tried to talk myself into Chris Quinn and it just didn't stick.)

314. Tim Thomas
I guess the question is this: Is there an NBA forward alive who couldn't play 31 minutes a game, score 12 points, notch five rebounds and three assists, miss 70 percent of his 3-pointers and allow his guy to score at will? If baseball has VORP (value over replacement player), then basketball should have VOTT (value over Tim Thomas). And that's not even half the story. During a Lakers-Clips game last week, the Postmaster General (that's my nickname for him) spent a large chunk of the third quarter jogging between the two 3-point lines without ever crossing either line, almost like he wagered a teammate that he could play an entire quarter without going within 24 feet of either basket. It might have been the most riveting moment of the Clippers' season. He's such a dog that PETA might protest this paragraph.

292. Larry Hughes
He plays to enjoy himself. Some people take this the wrong way, but winning a championship is not what he bases everything on. He was given an opportunity to play basketball, travel around and have fun doing it, and that's what he wants to do.

(Insert footage of Chris Crocker screaming, "And how [bleeping] dare anyone blame Larry Hughes after all he has been through! He's a human! Leave Larry Hughes alone! Leave him alone! For God's sake, leave him aloooooooooooooooooooone!")

271. Yi Jianlian
If you're a Celtics fan, it's officially time to re-read my column from May 23, 2007, factor in the tidbit that the Chairman is three years old than his listed age of 20, check out the decline in his monthly splits, remember the Celtics would have taken him had Seattle not agreed to trade Ray Allen, take a long look at Boston's place in the 2007-08 NBA standings, then spend the next 15 to 45 minutes doing Tiger fist pumps.

249. Chris Andersen
Could somebody make a YouTube video of Chris Andersen telling the Slam Dunk Contest cameras, "It's time for the Birdman to fly," followed by a clip of Judge Smails hissing, "Wellllllll? We're waiting!" I'd really appreciate it. Thank you. It's time for the Birdman to fly. We need to encourage him.

228. Bobby Jones
It wasn't just that Bobby broke the record by playing for five teams in the same season. He spent the first two months playing for the craziest team in the league (Denver). Then he spent January with the Grizzlies, probably exchanged at least one high-five with Darko Milicic and got waived when they gave Gasol away. Then he spent two games on the Rockets during their 22-game winning streak. In March, he headed over to Miami for six games to take part in Tankapalooza 2008 on the worst professional basketball team ever assembled. Then he had a cup of coffee in April with the Spurs before heading back to the Nuggets for the rest of the season and the playoffs. No player has been inadvertently involved in more memorable story lines for one season than Bobby Jones -- if he had been in the passenger's seat during Carmelo's alleged DUI, that really would have pushed it over the top.

217. Ben Wallace
You know the wheels have come off when his name can be used as a descriptive sports noun. For example ...

205. Rasho Nesterovic
Check out Rasho's improbable contract run down the stretch. Eighteen points and eight rebounds a game in April???? Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat? Should he hire Jerome James' old agent right now or wait until the playoffs? What a shame Isiah won't be around to shell out the obligatory $30 million free-agent offer. You know he's looking at Rasho's box scores and getting the shakes. It's unfair. It really is.

199. Devean George
All right, on a scale of 1 to 10, how awkward do you think every interaction between Mark Cuban and Devean George is? A 15? A 23? Every time Cuban looks at him, do you think he sees a burning pile of $11 million atop George's neck? Part of me hopes George becomes the Mavs' playoff goat this spring, then sneaks back into his Dallas house to get his stuff in a scene that unfolds like Butch going back to get his father's watch in "Pulp Fiction."

(Quick movie tangent: I watched "Pulp" for the first time in eons last weekend and forgot how excruciating all the scenes with Butch and his girlfriend were. I mean, those would have been unbearable as deleted scenes on a DVD, much less as scenes in the actual movie. Can't all the cable networks agree to cut the first two scenes and just show the scene where Butch finds out that she forgot his watch? More importantly, did we ever figure out the deal with the Gimp? He was trapped in a trunk wearing an S&M outfit and a leather mask, only it was unclear whether he lived in the trunk or if he just happened to be there that day. I'd like this cleared up, it has been bothering me for 15 years. Also, did you ever check out the IMDB.com profile of Steve Hibbert, the guy who played the Gimp? Not only was he married to Julia Sweeney (the lady who played Pat on "Saturday Night Live," but he appeared on "Boy Meets World" and played an inept security guard in the second "Austin Powers" movie. Now that's a career! How many people do you think haven't believed him when he said, "Yeah, I was the Gimp in Pulp Fiction" over the years? More than 200? More than 400? More than 1,200? Did he keep the outfit? I'm like three questions away from having enough questions to invite Steve Hibbert on my podcast. Whoops, where was I?)

190. Andrea Bargnani
How do you say "I'm incredibly disappointed" in Italian?

179. Andrei Kirilenko
It's almost like he's trying to hurt us at this point. In last year's MVP column, I created the All-Star team for sudden career collapses by an elite player that didn't involve a drug/alcohol problem or major injury (scroll down to No. 447). Do we replace X-Man with Kirilenko in the starting five right now? Do we wait until after Utah loses in the playoffs because he went 7-for-79 in the series? Do we wait to see if Kirilenko can be redeemed on another team, or if he has been playing with an undiagnosed case of Lyme Disease these past two seasons? Tell me what to do.

166. Marvin Williams
The whole "Atlanta could have taken Chris Paul!" thing has officially become awkward. I can't even make eye contact with Hawks fans anymore.

(OK, I don't know any Hawks fans. And neither do you. But if we DID know any Hawks fans, we'd have trouble making eye contact with them. You have to admit.)

156. Dwyane Wade
Games played by Penny Hardaway, first five seasons: 82, 77, 82, 59, 19.

Games played by Dwyane Wade, first five seasons: 61, 77, 75, 51, 51.

Playoff games played by Penny Hardaway, first five seasons: 3, 21, 12, 5, 0.

Playoff games played by Dwyane Wade, first five seasons: 13, 14, 23, 4, 0.

(In other words ... uh-oh.)

145. Tyree Ricardo Davis
After playing such a pivotal role for the Tankapalooza All-Stars in Miami, Ricky has a rare chance to become one of the biggest losers in the history of sports. Some relevant stats for you: He has played in 661 career regular-season games but only 10 career playoff games; he has been traded five times; his teams from 2001-2008 finished a combined 175 games under .500; he has played for a 17-win team and a 14-win team; and he has had 224 different teammates told by a coach or front office official, "Look, you're not allowed to hang out with Ricky after 10 p.m. under any circumstances, are we clear?" The best part? He's only 29! He still has four or five more teams and the inevitable Clippers' stint in him! Has anyone ever lost 1,000 career games before?

133. Luol Deng/Ben Gordon/Emeka Okafor (tie)
"On second thought ... um ... I WILL take that extension!"

125. Jamal Crawford
Other than David Lee and possibly Renaldo Balkman, he's the only Knick from the Isiah era who could potentially crack the top-nine for a contender some day. On the right team, he could be a taller, more versatile version of the Malibu Forest Fire (Jannero Pargo). I bring this up only because it's fascinating that Isiah spent $400-plus million and squandered two lottery picks (as well as another No. 1 in 2010 that Utah is getting), only to finish his tenure with a roster that includes three potentially valuable bench players and that's it.

(Uh-oh, I can't resist ... )

Ladies and gentleman, the Isiah Thomas era! Let's give him one last hand! Isiah Thomas everyone! One more time ... the great Isiah Thomas!

112. Yao Ming
You know what's great about this country? If you have a sports column and write opinions like, "Yao is overrated" and "When he's out of the lineup, the Rockets are quicker and more effective defensively," you'll get a few angry e-mails from readers claiming you're just downing Yao because he's Chinese. I love where we're headed as a society. Let's all take a bow.

105. Shawn Marion
Game Show Host: "Welcome back to 'Control Your NBA Destiny,' I'm Peter Tomarkin Jr. We're here with Shawn Marion of the Phoenix Suns. Shawn, before we went to commercial, we gave you the choice of two doors. Behind Door No. 1, you have the chance to keep playing with the great Steve Nash and potentially win an NBA title in Arizona. Behind Door No. 2, you can change your destiny, move to Miami, play with Ricky Davis and half the D-League on a terrible team, go for your own stats for a few weeks, then get sidelined with a made-up injury and get all of March, April, May and June off. Shawn, it's up to you ... it's time to control your NBA destiny."

Marion: "In Miami, even if we missed the playoffs and I got all that time off, I'd get paid the same amount, right?"

Game Show Host: "That's correct: $16 million this year, $17 million next year."

Shawn: "I'll take Door No. 2!"

99. Andrew Bogut
Cracks the top 100 for the clip of when he high-fived himself after a free throw because his teammates ignored him. I continue to maintain you can't go wrong with Australians or Canadians under any circumstances.

90. Rashard Lewis
Look, any time you can tie up your cap space by giving a free agent $118 million over six years to be your third-best guy and average 18 points and five rebounds a game, you have to do it. OK? Let's stop arguing about this.

87. Kyle Korver
I've already stroked the Korver trade enough, but watch the Jazz with a two-point lead or a three-point lead in the final 20 seconds -- their only goal is to inbound the ball to Korver so he can put the game away on the free-throw line. Great free-throw shooters, such as Korver, are almost like baseball closers, which made me think we should come up with a name for these guys, right? I'm partial to "The Cooler" if only for the "Road House" ties, so let's go with that one. Anyway, only seven contenders or fringe contenders have someone shooting 88 percent or better from the line -- Utah (Korver), Phoenix (Nash), New Orleans (Peja), Boston (Allen), Detroit (Billups), Washington (Butler) and Dallas (Nowitzki) -- but I'd only give "cooler" status to five of them (Peja, Nowitzki, Billups, Korver and Nash), as well as Kobe and Manu simply because they never choke in that spot. But wouldn't you love to know the best coolers over the past three seasons, as well as how many teams have won a title without a cooler in the past 15? There has to be a way to figure that out, right?

(Note: If you think that's an open challenge to the gang at 82games.com, you know me too well.)

85. Vince Carter
I mailed in this paragraph in his honor.

82. Leandro Barbosa
The odds-on favorite for the Al Harrington Award in the 2008 playoffs, given to the nonsuperstar who somehow holds an enormous amount of sway over his team's playoff chances, and what makes it really frustrating is that, deep down, his teammates know they can't totally count on him, so when he craps the bed in a playoff series, it's doubly frustrating and becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Did that make sense? Wait until one of the next three rounds. It will make sense.

77. Sasha Vujacic
My favorite bench guy this season (I wrote about this a few weeks ago), as well as the guy who led to this exchange with my friend Connor at the Clips-Lakers game last week:

73. Al Horford
The season's second-best rookie -- he defended every quality big man, averaged a double-double, contributed to a playoff team, became a hero in Toronto for accidentally knocking T.J. Ford out of the lineup for six weeks (and opening the door for the Jose Calderon era), and if that's not enough, he sparked a heated e-mail exchange about his ROY credentials between me, LZ Granderson and two Page 2 editors last week. Can we give him the nickname "A-Ho" to push this season over the top? Who's with me?

64. Sam Dalembert, Mike Dunleavy Jr. (tie)
Any time two guys play themselves off the All-Overpaid Team in the same season, we have to commemorate the moment, right? You have to give Big Sam credit for being the only reliable rebounder/shotblocker on a playoff team that went 22-11 down the stretch. Meanwhile, check out Junior's numbers in '08: A 19-5-5 every game, coupled with 84 percent FT shooting, 48 percent FG shooting and 42 percent from 3-point territory, making him the official backup for Mike Miller as the "Token White Guy" on our 2008 Olympic team. I have to admit, I'm battling some flabbergastation about the whole thing. I can't be alone.

55. Rajon Rondo
(Thinking.)

Forget it. I don't want to jinx it.

48. Kevin Durant
Our 2008 Rookie of the Year for four reasons.

Notable Rookie Seasons By 19-Year-Old Forwards
PLAYER MPG PPG RPG FG% FT% 3FG%
LeBron James 39.5 20.9 5.5 41.7 75.4 .290
Carmelo Anthony 36.5 21.0 6.0 42.6 77.7 .322
Kevin Durant 34.5 20.0 4.2 42.4 87.3 .286
Kevin Garnett 28.7 10.4 6.4 49.1 70.5 .286
Dirk Nowitzki 20.4 8.2 3.5 40.5 77.3 .206
1. Has a highly touted rookie ever been thrown into a worse situation than Durant in Seattle? As a teenager, KD was expected to lead a dysfunctional lottery team with a new coach; he played out of position at 2-guard because the Sonics didn't want him to take an unneccessary pounding down low; his two point guards were alternatingly feuding/sulking/pining for more playing time; he had veteran teammates complaining because they were worried about their own stats; and if that's not enough, the potential of a sleazy Oklahoma City move hung over everything and sucked the life out of the season and the franchise. This made Michael Jordan fighting for shots with Orlando Woolridge and Quentin Dailey as a rookie look positively pleasurable by comparison.

2. Somehow, Durant evolved into a legitimate scorer after the All-Star Break (21.3 points and 47 percent shooting) even though defenses were keying on him and he weighs about 120 pounds. Check out the sidebar to the right -- he's well ahead of Nowitzki and KG and right there with LeBron and Melo, right? When his 3-point shooting comes around (a safe bet) and he moves to forward and starts getting easier baskets (especially off offensive rebounds), he's going to average 30-plus a game. And it's going to happen sooner than you think. Like, potentially next year.

3. Durant gets extra credit for his performance in Seattle's last (and potentially final) two home games. In a revenge performance against a Denver team that desperately needed to win, Durant hit game-tying 3s in regulation and OT -- the last one was a 35-foot bomb in which Durant was so far away, you couldn't even see him celebrating when the half-court camera followed the shot into the basket) -- and finished with a career-high 37 points. And then, in an emotional season finale against Dallas, KD scored the go-ahead and clinching baskets in the final minute, celebrated like he just won the championship and admitted he almost cried afterward.

4. Of all the cruel footnotes for the Sonics getting hijacked from Seattle by a group of guys who have been proven to be lying sleazeballs, losing the chance to follow a potential superduperstar pains Sonics fans nearly as much as losing their team. Despite impossible circumstances, Durant managed to forge a connection with a broken city that tried like hell not to care about him because it didn't want to get too attached, yet ended up getting attached to him, anyway. Over everything else, that's why he's the 2007-08 Rookie of the Year. Keep your head up, Seattle. Life ain't fair.

Coming tomorrow: Part II.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.