Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Great (G)Nashing of Teeth

As I expected, my recent column touting Steve Nash for MVP inspired a lot of email responses. The feelings about my choice seem to be 50/50, with half agreeing that Nash is the choice and the other half seeking my banishment to the ends of the earth for being an idiot.

The funny thing about the anti-Nash feedback is that very few of the emails touted someone else (a few pushed hard for Dirk, a few others named X-Factor players), instead focusing on why Nash should not win the award. This isn't surprising, because we are a pretty negative culture these days and it is far easier to pick people apart then build them up, but I admit I was a little startled by how many people seem seriously angry about the possibility of Nash winning a third MVP. For those arguments that hinge on the mere fact that he shouldn't be a three-time winner, I simply direct them to my column, where I already address this point.

However, I will tackle the other primary argument, which was that Nash doesn't deserve the award because he's a defensive liability. First of all, this is ironic, because I wrote a rather aggressive (and in hindsight, stupid) column back in the spring of 2005 relying on the same point to prove why Nash should not win the MVP that year. I believe I was wrong then to fixate on his defensive shortcomings and I believe it is wrong to do so now.

Right off the top, let me say that Nash is a much improved defensive player. He's not a gifted on-the-ball defender, but he gives a strong effort and is a very heady player. He knows how to help down in the post, get over screens, and deny passing lanes. Not only that, but he seems to take at least two charging fouls a game; plays that give his team the ball and also inspire his teammates. And while he is still a player that opposing teams can attack, it seems that very few point guards are capable of doing it to any real effect. Baron Davis is probably the best at it in the league, as he has size and strength to go with quickness and good ball skills. Everyone else just seems to bog down the offense as they run isolation plays at Nash to the detriment of their game plan. Other than Davis, Devin Harris, and Tony Parker (hit or miss), I don't remember any Western Conference points doing much damage against Nash. (Note: Deron Williams and Allen Iverson are both playoff guards that have the ability to score on Nash, but he never has to guard either of them, instead matching up with Utah's 2-guard of the moment and Steve Blake.) And needless to say, he got it all back and then some on the other end.

Not only is he a better defensive player than people give him credit for, it is also hardly a relevant point to the debate this year. Unless you are going to give the award to Tim Duncan or maybe Tracy McGrady, there isn't a two-way stud playing for a good defensive team in the mix. Kobe can get stops when he puts his mind to it and Bosh is a decent defensive player, but the Lakers and Raptors are two of the worst defensive teams in the league. The Cavs are pretty solid on D, but LeBron is still playing good defense only in spurts and while he gets in passing lanes and blocks some shots, he still has too many lapses. So again, among legit candidates, only Duncan and McGrady are doing anything special on the defensive end of the floor. If you want to give the MVP to one of them, I can live with that. There is a bit of history on Duncan's side, as I mentioned in the column, since Nash (last year) and Jordan (in 1988) both won the MVP playing for a #3 seed. However, a McGrady win would be unprecendented in the post-ABA era, as no team has ever produced an MVP without finishing in the top three in its conference.

The real problem I have with this whole Nash/defense argument is that it is being used to disqualify him in favor of Dirk. What? I know Nowitzki has improved on defense - along with his Dallas team - but lets not mistake him for a stopper. Josh Howard takes the best opposing forwards, Devin Harris prevents dribble penetration, and Desagna Diop and Erick Dampier protect the rim. Dirk is just out there, trying not to get torched. I love Nowitzki, but get real, people. Whatever defensive deficiencies Nash might have, they aren't any worse than those of Nowitzki. You just notice them more often because Nash guards the point guard and the point guard always has the ball.

So that is my response to all the emailers who played the "defense" card. Nash is better than you think. He is better than he was two years ago. And he's just as good as Dirk. So unless you want to give it to Duncan or T-Mac, there is no case to be made here.

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