Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Case for MVP

The NBA regular season often takes on an air of inconsequence, but this year has produced one of the most compelling MVP races in recent memory. Given that many of the usual suspects have suffered through injuries (Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady), or bad seasons by their teams (Kevin Garnett), or just haven't lived up to their usual lofty standard (Tim Duncan), the battle for MVP is wide open and as many as 10 players belong in the discussion.

The philosophical issue around this award is whether it goes to the best player in the league or the one who simply is the most critical to his teams success. In sorting through the candidates, I've come to the conclusion that the player who meets both criteria is one and the same.

My top five, in reverse order:

5) Chauncey Billups, Detroit: One of the game's most underrated players for a long time now has a Finals MVP to his credit from 2004 and was in the upper echelon of this discussion when the Pistons got out of the gate quickly. His 19 points and nearly nine assists per game are five points and four assists better than his career highs. But ultimately the Pistons thrive because of how well their players complement one another. Billups is the best of the bunch and the glue, but he has more help than anyone in the league except possibly Duncan.
4) Dwyane Wade, Miami: With O'Neal limited to 57 games so far this year, Wade has become the Heat's unquestioned star. He's fifth in the NBA scoring and also ranks in the top 10 in steals and assists. But Miami has added balance and depth that was missing last year, and ultimately, Pat Riley will get the credit for molding it into the second-best team in the East. Wade's negatives are his weak 3-point shooting (.171) and the team's 11 1/2 game deficit to Detroit in the East.
3) Steve Nash, Phoenix: Last year's winner has to be in the hunt again, after taking a team that's been without three starters from last season's Western Conference finalist squad. After the trade of Quentin Richardson, the free-agent loss of Joe Johnson and the injury to Amare Stoudemire, Nash has led a Suns squad and turned players such as Raja Bell and Boris Diaw into stars. He has increased his scoring to more than 19 points a game and leads the league in assists. But the Suns have taken a back seat to the Spurs and Mavericks in the West, so the award has to go elsewhere this year.
2) Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas: Nowitzki will never be a great defender, but his leadership and willingness to expend the effort to learn coach Avery Johnson's scrappier style of play has inspired the Mavericks to nearly the best record in the West. What Nowitzki will always be is a great shooter, perhaps the game's best and certainly one of its most clutch. There's also the nine rebounds per game that his 7-foot frame affords him and his stellar free-throw percentage (.897, which is sixth in the league but only third among the people on this top-five list). He only loses out because of the caliber of the man in front of him.
1) LeBron James, Cleveland: There just aren't enough superlatives to describe this man's ascendance into basketball legend. Just three years ago James was in high school and the Cavaliers were a franchise on life support. Now the kid from nearby Akron has taken Cleveland to 47 wins (fourth in the East) and averages nearly 32 points per game. He adds seven rebounds and seven assists a game, making him a candidate for a triple-double every game, and he's doing it with the help of a solid, but certainly not imposing cast around him. He is unafraid to take -- and make -- the big shot, evidenced by his 19-for-29 shooting performance in the last two minutes of a one-possession game. James might wear out in the playoffs (averaging 43 minutes per game), but somewhere along the way he should pick up his first of what should be many MVP awards.

Not in my top five is Kobe Bryant, who leads the league in scoring and had the second-most points in a game in NBA history with 81. Along with LeBron, he's the most likely player in the sport to take a last-second shot when his team needs it. But for those who want to make the argument that without Kobe, the Lakers would be one of the league's worst teams, I rebutt with this: Without Kobe, the Lakers probably have O'Neal, and they'd be no worse off at all.



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