Monday, March 03, 2008

M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!

These days, you can't watch an NBA game without hearing the hometown crowd serenade its star player with the familiar M-V-P chant. Brandon Roy goes for 17 in a win over the Sonics? M-V-P! Joe Johnson gets an "and one" to cement a victory over the Bobcats? M-V-P!

Ridiculous doesn't even begin to describe the phenomenon. It's gotten as annoying as student bodies storming the court and Roger Clemens opening his mouth to speak.

That said, this weekend the M-V-P chants were flowing and, for once, they were completely justified.

If you tuned in to the NBA on ESPN this weekend, then you were treated to three amazing home performances from three of the season's top four MVP candidates. By my count, there are four primary candidates for The Most Confusing Award in Sports: Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Chris Paul (in no particular order). Typically about this time of year we start to hear endless shilling for the lead MVP candidate. This year? Crickets. My theory for the silence is that no one has any idea who to anoint as the favorite. It is literally a four-horse race and one that is too close to call.

Which is what made this weekend so spectacular. KG didn't get a national TV platform, but still went for 20 and 16 against the Hawks as Boston pushed its NBA-best record to 46-12. Garnett's infectious intensity was on full display and when he went to the line for his lone free throws he was showered with M-V-P chants. Of course he was.

But this weekend belonged to the other three lead dogs.

It kicked off on Friday night with Chris Paul taking advantage of a rare national TV appearance by putting together a masterful performance against the Jazz. He had 13 and 7 by the end of a incredible first quarter that featured a 25-1 run by the Hornets and finished with 24 points, 16 assists, and 5 steals. Plus, he got to the line for 14 free throws which gave the crowd plenty of chances to vocalize which award they think Paul should win. What made the performance so impressive was the way he went right at Deron Williams just weeks after being crushed by his Utah rival. In fact, that night in Salt Lake City was probably the biggest flaw on his MVP résumé ... until now. Paul's body control, quickness, ballhandling, and anticipation are unrivaled in the NBA and for the time being, he has left no doubt who the best point guard in the NBA is.

LeBron James warmed up for his national TV showcase by working over the T-Wolves to the tune of 30 points, 13 assists, and 8 rebounds on Friday night and then turned it up a notch on Sunday morning. Playing the Bulls in a fairly in a game made more intriguing because of the recent trade between the two teams, LeBron came flying out of the gates with a series of ridiculous shots, scored 23 first half points, and then finished things off with one of the sickest dunks I've ever seen (his head was at least six inches above the rim and he must have thrown that thing down at about 75 mph), followed by a stepback jumper to win it. He once again prove that nobody on the planet can match his combination of strength and speed, that no one should be able to lead the league in scoring and still pass the way he does, and that his fourth quarter woes are a thing of the DISTANT past. Watching LeBron these days doesn't feel like watching a basketball player - it feels like watching a superhero. The Cavs fans must have noticed this as well, because they responded in the best way they know how ... "M-V-P! M-V-P!"

Despite Paul's wizardry on the grand stage and LeBron's incredible stat (and rim) stuffing ways, Kobe Bryant probably had the best weekend in terms of MVP momentum. Despite losing to the Blazers on Friday night, Bryant took full advantage of a big matchup with Dallas on Sunday to go screaming to the front of the pack (not unlike Cole Trickle "dropping the hammer" in Days of Thunder). Bryant did all of his usual Kobe things against the Mavs - hitting jumpers from everywhere (everyone talks about Rip being the best midrange shooter in the league, but my money is on Bryant) and finishing acrobatic plays at the rim. The sheer force of his will was amazing. He scored 22 in the fourth quarter, eight more in overtime, and 52 for the game, while grabbing 11 boards. (Note: Jason Kidd may be solid defending big guards, but only if "big guards" doesn't include Kobe Bryant.) Even more impressive than those numbers was his work at the free throw line. Somehow - maybe because of the injured pinkie - he missed seven of his first 10 free throw attempts (my theory is that he was distracted by all the MVP chants!). It was downright bizarre. But in true Kobe fashion, he turned his steely resolve to sinking free throws, shaking off the 30% start to hit his last 17 free throws. Why isn't anyone talking about this?

All told, there were a lot of MVP chants coming down from the rafters of Staples, Quicken, and the New Orleans Arena this weekend.

Before I let you go, I'll go ahead and give you my vote for MVP now. If the season ended today, I would order the big four as follows:

1. Kobe Bryant. He qualifies under the Oscar-esque lifetime achievement criteria. He's the #2 scorer in the league and the most dangerous end-game finisher since Jordan (although LeBron is closing fast). His team is on top of the West. He's playing with a broken pinky. He's not as good defensively as everyone thinks (Roy abused him repeatedly on Friday, eventually forcing a switch), but is still far superior on that end to 90% of the superstars in the league. What more is he supposed to do? I've never been a huge Kobe Bryant fan and remain convinced that he's one of the most contrived people on planet earth, but no matter how you define this award - most valuable, best player, most talented, best stats - Kobe is in the mix, if not the clear favorite.

2. Chris Paul. He could go up or down depending on whether his team goes up and down. If the Hornets win the West, I'm afraid Mr. Bryant's mantle might have to remain empty. And when it comes to pure value, there might not be anybody who makes a better case than Paul. He's turned David West and Tyson Chandler into All-Star level players, is the most disruptive perimeter defender in the league (I've never seen anybody who can pick pockets like Paul), and on his way to the first 20 points/10 assists per game season in a really long time.

3. LeBron James. LeBron might have actually passed Kobe for the imaginary title of "best player in the league" now that he's playing with ferocious intensity each night, starting to impact games on the defensive end, and leading the NBA in fourth quarter points (20% more than the nearest player - Bryant). Plus, his numbers are insane and his valuable is off the charts. That said, the MVP award almost never goes to teams with middling records. In fact, a look at the entire 50-year history of the MVP Award reveals that the winner has come from the first or second best team in the league a remarkable 90 percent of the time (47 of 52 years). The only exceptions were the following:

1956 - Bob Pettit (his St. Louis Hawks finished third in a four-team conference and sixth in an eight-team NBA in the first year the MVP was awarded)

1975 - Bob McAdoo (the Buffalo Braves were third in the East and third overall)
1976 - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Kareem's fourth of six trophies came in his first year with the Lakers, when they finished fourth in the West and ninth overall)

1979 - Moses Malone (his Rockets were third in the West and sixth overall)

1988 - Michael Jordan (the Bulls finished third in the East and seventh overall)

I know LeBron is having an amazing year, but Kobe had an amazing year in 2006 but was crushed in the MVP voting. James himself had an amazing season in 2007 but was thwarted by Dirk Nowitzki. Plus, LeBron is trying to buck historical trends in a year featuring plenty of more traditional candidates (KG plays on the #1 in the NBA, Kobe for the current #2 in the West and #4 overall, and Paul for the #3 in the West and #5 overall). If the Lakers or Hornets win the West, are voters really going to dig down to the #4 or #5 seed in the Least? Come on.

4. Kevin Garnett. I know it isn't his fault that he got injured (which is pretty much as rare as a lunar eclipse - coincidentally, they occurred at the same time), but the fact remains that he missed nine games (Boston went 7-2 in those contests) and his numbers are down. Stats aren't everything, but in a year like this, they put him back a few paces.

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