Friday, March 14, 2008

Amare for MVP?

Last night was a big one in the NBA, because it featured "The Suns." As in, the version of the Phoenix Suns that we've come to know and love over the years. Their second half against Golden State was a work of art. They got Barbosa and Amare ahead of the pack, Raja Bell was firing threes, and Nash was dazzling with his patented full-speed, pull-up three in transition. It was a sight to behold. And coming on the heels of their grind-it-out win against San Antonio on Sunday, I can tell you that the West just got even more interesting. Granted, both games were at home, but they beat a "slower" team and a "faster" team in big, nationally televised games. Dare I say the Suns are on their way?

The other thing I was struck by last night was the play of Amare Stoudemire. On one hand, he didn't do anything different from a normal Amare performance. Yet there was something revelatory about the way he played.

The weird thing about Amare is the way little things get held against him. By most accounts he is a bit of a prima donna, yet a few personality quirks wind up getting exacerbated and the perception of Amare becomes one of "Locker Room Monster." He isn't the strongest defensive player in the world, yet to hear some analysts tell it, he's out there shaving points.

The defensive thing is the most puzzling to me. For starters, he's not the only guy in purple and orange that struggles on that end of the floor. Part of that is that the Suns have assembled a team of poor to quite poor (as opposed to "strong to quite strong") defenders and Amare is one of those. But the other part is that they've never wanted to fixate on defense. They didn't want to challenge shots too closely for fear of fouling and stopping the clock. They were willing to save a little energy on D so that they could run even harder on offense. Amare was just doing what he was told, really. And because everyone railed on the Suns for their poor defense and because Amare became the poster child for said poor defense, he now has this ungodly reputation.

But is it even true?

I will grant you that Stoudemire has too major weaknesses on the defensive end of the floor. They are:

1. Staying out of foul trouble.

2. Doing his work "early." This second issue is one of the major causes of the first and the primary reason he's not an effective on-the-ball defender in the lowpost. He's either a tad lazy or a tad, um, not that bright, because he never seems to be in the right position before his guy catches the ball. Every kid who learns how to play post defense the right way (say, at Big Man Camp) knows that denying cutters and working for superior post position is a huge part of defending the paint. Amare's never quite mastered this task, preferring instead to just wait for someone to have the ball and then try to stop them. This is why skilled post players (skilled not only at shooting and dribbling, but also at positioning and using their bodies) like Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol eat him alive.

That said, he's not entirely without merit on the defensive end. He has fantastic timing as a shot blocker and despite following a "don't foul!" mandate, he still manages to swat 2.24 shots per game (6th in the league). He averages nearly as many rebounds as Kevin Garnett (in similar minutes). So he's not just taking up space out there.

Besides, since when does being an average or subpar defensive player submarine a player's entire reputation. Here is just a quick rundown of some of the NBA legends who lacked a little bit on D:

Steve Nash - Two MVP awards
Charles Barkley - MVP, member of original Dream Team
Magic Johnson - Three MVP awards, considered one of the greatest players of all time
Dirk Nowitzki - MVP award

These are just the guys that come to mind without even thinking very hard about it. It seems more than a little unfair to punish Amare for similarly being "offensively inclined."

Anyway. To get back to my initial point, Amare just seemed like he was on another level last night. With the deadly jumper that he's developed (nearly out to three point range), his body control, and explosive ability to finish at the rim, he's probably the most unstoppable frontcourt player in the game today. Seriously, when was the last time you saw somebody effectively guard him one-on-one?

And while I don't actually think Amare deserves the MVP award in a year like this - with LeBron, Paul, and Kobe playing at ridiculous levels - doesn't he deserve to be thrown into the conversation once in a while?

In addition to the visual evidence that tells me Amare is unique and unguardable, there is also ample statistical evidence to suggest that he's truly one of the four best players in the league this year. By almost any measure, he stacks up as one of the elite. He is:

- 3rd in PER (behind James and Paul)
- 2nd in the league according to Yahoo's fantasy stats
- 4th according to ESPN's fantasy player rater (doesn't include turnovers)
- 3rd in points per 48 minutes (6th overall)
- 4th in field goal percentage
- 6th in blocks per game (as mentioned above)
- 1st in efficiency rating per 48 minutes (3rd overall)

I think it's time we let Amare off the hook for past sins and acknowledge just how incredibly good this guy really is.


jsuns1 said...

Great comments Adam, I agree with you, I'm a huge Suns fan but not the biggest Amare fan, but that's been changing more and more. With him out of the center spot, it's been exciting to see what he can really do! Thanks for the stats, backs up the feeling.

molly said...

He is really playing well. Last night against the Kings he was amazing.

Anonymous said...

Great piece on Amare. He's one of my favorite players in the league. Your suggestion, however, that he's not that bright is probably unfair. I remember an NY Times magazine article about him some years ago that said he tested at a gifted IQ level (130+) in high school, for whatever that's worth.