One of my favorite dopey ideas: What if the weights of Olympic medals varied depending on the importance of the event? If someone triumphs in the decathlon after two grueling days of events, his ensuing 30-pound gold medal should look like something Flavor Flav would wear. It shouldn’t be the same size as someone’s medal from some random swimming relay race, right? At the very least, a contentious process of figuring out the weights/sizes/worthiness of every medal would be just as entertaining as watching the Olympics.
I think a similar notion could spice up the NBA’s annual MVP race this season. It’s been LeBron’s trophy to lose for about eight weeks (with little buzz about the MVP race itself), which makes me wonder if we could spruce things up here.1 Just a little. What if the MVP trophy varied by five weights, with voters selecting the size (as well as the winner) depending on the quality of the MVP race and the transcendence of the MVP’s season itself? Here’s how the sizes could break down
Admittedly, I care about the NBA MVP more than most. Just feel like it’s the best possible reflection on who mattered in any given season, and why. And given the nature of the sport — 82 games, 12 guys per team, only five playing at once — the NBA’s definition of “valuable” is the most fun to interpret.
40 POUNDS: The mack daddy, you-can-barely-hold-it-over-your-head size, reserved for any monster season in which a future Hall of Famer annihilates his competition and leaves no doubt whatsoever. This is my league right now. Some examples: 2000 Shaq, 1996 Jordan, 1983 Moses. Only defining seasons from signature players can qualify.
25 POUNDS: A smaller, gutted-it-out trophy for a future Hall of Famer who prevails in an especially memorable race. You know, like 1990, when Magic (22-7-12, 48/38/79 shooting percentages for a 63-win, Kareem-less Lakers team) barely edged out one of Jordan’s best statistical seasons (33.6-7-6, 52/38/80 for a 55-win team), Ewing’s greatest season (28.6 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 55% FG, 4.0 BPG) and a monster Barkley season (25.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG, 4.1 APG, 60% FG for an undermanned 53-win Philly team). Now THAT’S an MVP race!2
In my basketball book, I wrote a swollen chapter about MVP races (and the most egregious mistakes over the years). For 1990, I came to the conclusion that MJ should have won (although it was damned close). And he absolutely should have won in 1993 and 1997. MJ won five MVPs but should have had eight. Kobe won one MVP and should have had two; he got semi-robbed in 2006. This is a long way of saying that we really need to stop pretending that Kobe/MJ is an argument.
10 POUNDS: The typical MVP trophy (sized like our current one), handed out for a stereotypical rock-solid MVP season: Think Kobe in 2008, Hakeem in 1994, Jordan in 1992, Magic in 1989, any of the three Bird MVPs just a really good season for a great player.3
I have no idea whether the MVP trophy weighs 10 pounds; I’m just guessing.
5 POUNDS: A trophy that’s 50 percent smaller, given out for those lack-of-consensus MVP seasons in which we kinda-sorta-maybe had to talk ourselves into a candidate because there wasn’t a clear winner. Recent examples: Rose (2011), Nowitzki (2007), Iverson (2001), Nash’s first MVP (2005) and probably this season (hold tight, we’ll get there).
1 POUND: You know those goofy platters that the Wimbledon runner-up gets? The one that always gives them that, “I’m just gonna hold this up and smile for a couple of photos, and then I’m going to give it to my coach or sister and it will probably end up hanging over their fireplace or something” face? That’s what you should be given for stumbling into an NBA MVP trophy for the following (and always loathsome) reason: “Well, somebody had to win.”4
If you don’t like this idea, I’m also fine with just rolling the MVP trophy over to the next season and making it worth two — kind of like a skins game in golf.
Some good examples: 2006 Nash, 1981 Doc, 1978 Walton, and, of course, the defining example of all time: that 50-game, strike-shortened, excruciating-to-watch 1999 season that didn’t last long enough for a dominant player or team to emerge, so Karl Malone rode his 13th-best statistical campaign (no, seriously, look it up) to squeak by Alonzo Mourning (yikes), Chris Webber and Allen Iverson. We shouldn’t live in a world in which the Mailman has any MVP awards; somehow, the man won two. His 1999 trophy should have looked like a Wimbledon platter. Maybe there’s still time.
One other wrinkle for this “varying MVP trophy sizes” idea: We keep the voting process the same — you vote right after the regular season, with the winner getting announced in Round 2 — but vote for the actual trophy’s weight after the playoffs. Why? Because that gives us flexibility to change trophy sizes depending on the postseason results. Remember when the 1995 Spurs won 62 games and everyone decided David Robinson was our MVP, then they gave him the trophy before a Spurs-Rockets playoff game in front of a pissed-off Hakeem Olajuwon?5 You know what happened next: Hakeem eviscerated Robinson for the next four games and rendered that MVP vote obsolete. Robinson should have been downgraded from a 10-pounder to the Wimbledon platter. Same for Karl Malone after the 1997 Finals, Nowitzki after Dallas’s 2007 collapse to Golden State, LeBron after checking out of the 2010 Boston series, and so on.
When Robert Horry came on the B.S. Report last month, he remembered Hakeem fuming during the ceremony, That’s MY trophy, and thinking, Uh-oh.
That brings us to our current lockout-shortened season. Who are the MVP candidates, who’s going to win, and what should his trophy look like?
Unlike the ’99 calamity, our marquee players actually showed up in shape this time around well, except for you, Carmelo. The quality of play has exceeded everyone’s expectations. We don’t have a quote-unquote dominant team, but there are three semi-ringers (Oklahoma City, Miami and Chicago), a genuine sleeper (Memphis) and six flawed contenders lurking in the background for different reasons (the Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks, Clippers, Celtics and Magic).6 Heading into the All-Star break, LeBron’s third trophy looked like a bigger lock than The Artist winning “Best Picture” — despite a condensed schedule, the King drifted into MJ territory statistically (27-8-7, 55/41/77 shooting splits and a potentially historic 33 PER) and submitted one of the best two-way, day-after-day, ass-kicking performances we have ever seen.
You’re fuckin’-A right I threw the Celtics in here, especially with the way they’ve been playing defense lately. And for the record, don’t think I haven’t sketched out the whole “Boston wins the division, gets the no. 4 seed, beats up Indiana in Round 1, then gets the Bulls in Round 2, only Rose is still hobbled by his mystery injury, leading to — YES! — another upset, and meanwhile, the Magic (secretly well-equipped to beat Miami if they’re making 3s) upset the LeBrons for the second time in four years, leading to an improbable Celtics-Magic Eastern Finals (and by the way, the Celtics own Orlando) and the final act of the Celtics-Lakers Finals trilogy. Odds of this happening? About 100-to-1. But still.
You know what happened next: The King tailed off in March. So did his team. At the same time, Oklahoma City started coming on like a freight train — at least until Memphis tagged them with an uppercut Monday night — and now, suddenly, we have ourselves the semblance of a halfhearted MVP race! Before we tackle our six (really, two plus some serious window dressing) candidates, the following should be mentioned: If anyone cared about the “Coach of the Year” award, and if the award hadn’t been ruined by the inexplicable fact that Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich only won it a combined TWO times, then we’d be arguing the merits of Popovich (an absolutely masterful job this season), Doc Rivers (kept the aging Celtics from imploding pre-trade deadline), Stan Van Gundy (dealt the single crappiest hand of any playoff coach and somehow didn’t let the pathetic Dwight Saga derail Orlando), Tom Thibodeau (kept the Bulls humming without Rose), Lionel Hollins (kept the Grizzlies humming without Z-Bo), Ty Corbin (um, how are the Jazz a playoff team???) and Vinny Del Negro (just kidding). That’s a much more competitive/fascinating/loaded race than the league’s MVP race, but again nobody cares. Too bad.7
For the record, I’d vote for Doc. He lost Jeff Green, Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox AND Mickael Pietrus. Danny tried to trade his point guard right before the season. Everyone on the team thought they were being shipped out before the deadline — and for the record, they DID explore trading the Big 3, with Pierce coming the closest to leaving (to New Jersey for a cheaper version of what the Nets ended up paying in their incomprehensible Gerald Wallace trade). And the Celtics kept coming. I still believe Doc did an awful job from 2005 through 2007 and nobody will ever convince me otherwise. He was passable in 2008 — just passable. He was better in 2009, and 2010 was excellent. By 2012, he’s clearly one of the best two or three coaches we have. He’s been amazing this season. It’s like anything else — the more you do something, the better you get at it. He’s a really good basketball coach.
Last note: The league’s MVP will be decided over these next three weeks. Right now, I have this earmarked as a piddling five-pound trophy season in other words, the quality of the race isn’t quite good enough to merit even the average-sized trophy. If Oklahoma City keeps surging, or if LeBron goes on another one of his scorching 30-9-10 tears? Maybe that could change. I’m not optimistic, especially with the shortened schedule heading into its most ruthless stretch. Here are our 2012 MVP candidates in reverse order (along with their Vegas odds).
6. Dwight Howard (+1500)
Don’t worry, he’s disqualified. Nobody can vote for Dwight after what he inflicted on his teammates, coaches and fans — a three-month soap opera of wishy-washiness that undermined his team and goes on his permanent résumé. From start to finish, he handled the proceedings so poorly, so indefensibly I mean I don’t know how he’ll ever live it down. Can you win the title with someone like that? Not as your best player. No way. For someone who cared about his “brand” so much, it’s pretty funny that he ended up with the brand of “Wishy-Washy Guy.” Good luck selling that to sponsors, Dwight.
The shame of it all: Even a distracted, detached, emotionally feeble Howard can’t help but still be the league’s best center and most consistently impactful two-way player other than LeBron. Switch him with any other center and Orlando immediately falls apart defensively, morphs into the league’s worst rebounding team and free-falls into the Unibrow Sweepstakes. It’s the only playoff team built specifically (and precariously) around the talents of one player and one player only. We should be appreciating him instead of picking him apart, and yet he left us little choice.8
A really good Dwight theory from Someone Who Knows Things: Dwight pulled that last-minute 180 right before the deadline because he was getting destroyed on Twitter for pushing his way out of Orlando. As SWKT said, “People don’t understand how often some of these guys check their Twitter replies. Dwight was getting crushed, I think it got into his head and made him think he was doing something wrong, so he panicked.” I like this theory — who knew Twitter could reshape NBA history! It’s certainly the only feasible explanation for Dwight stupidly/improbably/inconceivably delaying his free agency so this insufferable saga could keep going for another year.
The bigger question (for me, anyway): The Finals are really about handling adversity and persevering with the biggest possible spotlight shining on you, when games, sequences and even single plays determine how you’ll be remembered/regarded/digested as a basketball player. Think about what happened to LeBron in last year’s Finals. Dwight melted down during a trade deadline. Yeeeeeesh. Anyway
5. Chris Paul (+500)
Dirty little secret: This isn’t a very good Clippers team. Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Kenyon Martin, Mo Williams, Eric Bledsoe those are all spare parts. Backups, basically. DeAndre Jordan just isn’t getting better; he’s an emphatic dunker and weakside shot blocker, that’s it.9 Blake Griffin plays his Kia-driving butt off, puts up 23-11’s every night on pure athleticism, takes an unfathomable pounding, keeps coming and coming only he’s an unpolished gem, someone who’s never been coached, hasn’t played enough games, doesn’t know what he’s doing defensively and struggles in the half-court game (especially against good teams). The Clippers look better on paper than in real life: They’re a team devoid of any traditional perimeter athletes, always seem to be undersized or oversized, can’t decide on an identity (for them, it’s either Lob City or Slow It Down with no in-between) and might be saddled with the 2012 postseason’s worst coach (Del Negro).
Lost in all the other dumb things that Golden State did recently: They dodged a bullet by not having to pay Jordan and Andris Biedrins $20 million-plus per season for this year and the next two. Yikes.
So you can’t sleep on what Chris Paul has done for them, especially during this current six-game winning streak (20-11, 50% FG). He gets everyone involved, keeps them together, controls the tempo, pretends to listen to his coach and manages the identity of a pretty confused team. He also executes the Isiah Thomas Playbook (get everyone involved for the first 43 minutes, take over the last five) so flawlessly that Isiah probably gets jealous. Even if his traditional numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping (19.6 PPG, 8.8 APG, 49/38/86 splits), his numbers for the season become markedly better with advanced metrics (26.7 PER, 59% True Shooting, 2.73 win shares per 48),10 victories (the Clips still have a chance for a 2-seed) and Paul’s performance in close games (according to 82games.com, he’s fifth in PPG and 10th in APG per 48 crunch-time minutes, a fancy way of saying that Paul ALWAYS has the ball when it matters). Trust me, I have Clippers season tickets — their offense in the last four minutes of any close game is “Hey Chris, come up with something.”
He’s third in the league in PER and second in win shares per 48.
Why not rank him higher than fifth? If you think of him like a race car, it makes more sense. After he checked out this year’s brutally unforgiving schedule, I believe that Chris made an executive decision that he’d be better off cruising in second or third gear for the majority of games, then shifting up to fifth gear in crunch time. Why? Because of the aforementioned Isiah Playbook, but also to protect his surgically repaired knee and save his legs for the playoffs. It’s yet another reason why he’s the league’s smartest player. You can count on every one of Chris Paul’s basketball decisions coming from a place of genuine logic — and I mean everything, right down to stuff like “I can’t give Blake that spin move alley-oop pass there because Kurt Thomas is in the game and he’ll clothesline Blake and hurt him” or “I’m going to talk to this ref during these free throws and butter him up so he’ll give me a call later.”
He’s always thinking, moving, talking, gesturing, chirping, directing actually, just calling him the league’s smartest player doesn’t do it justice. I’ve never seen a player control his environment more than Chris Paul does. It’s the best thing about seeing him in person — like watching a charismatic defense attorney connect with the judge, the jury and every courtroom spectator all at once. I don’t know how he does it. And yet, because he’s pacing himself for the playoffs, Chris goes entire quarters without driving to the basket, or, even worse, pretending he might consider driving to the basket. It’s counterproductive because teams know, “We don’t have to REALLY worry about Chris until late,”11 so they play him differently, making things more difficult for a team that’s already saddled with a generic game plan, the league’s most predictable offense and a playing rotation that the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo couldn’t decipher. Even if he’s doing it for a greater good, as long as we’re judging players on regular-season performance only, it’s difficult to stick someone higher than fifth when the words “on/off switch” are involved.
Here’s the statistical evidence to back it up: Before Monday’s win in Dallas, Paul averaged 14.5 field goal attempts (28th in the league overall) and 4.7 free throw attempts per game (36th overall), but that includes his crunch-time numbers and in crunch time per 48 minutes, he averaged 28.2 field goal attempts (ninth overall) and 15.5 free throw attempts (ninth overall). I’m sure there’s a more in-depth way to break this down; I just didn’t want to spend 15 hours on Synergy’s website trying to figure it out.
(Come playoff time? That switch will be flicked to “on.” You wait. My dream for the Clippers’ postseason remains Vinny getting dismissed midway through a seemingly finished playoff series, then an injured Chauncey Billups taking over like Lance Harbor did in Varsity Blues — with CP3 as Mox, Blake Griffin as Tweeter and the entire supporting cast as Billy Bob.)
4. Kobe Bryant (+500)
Can you guess the identity of these three players?
Player A: 30.7 PPG, 42.4% FG, 30.8% 3FG, 24.2 FGA, 10.5 FTA, 4.6 TO, 23.2 PER, 42.3 MPG.
Player B: 28.1 PPG, 42.4% FG, 29.1% 3FG, 23.5 FGA, 8.0 FTA, 3.7 TO, 22.1 PER, 38.6 MPG
Player C: 26.4 PPG, 45.8% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 19.0 FGA, 9.7 FTA, 3.0 TO, 20.9 PER, 41.8 MPG.
I will give you two more seconds
Player A: Allen Iverson’s 2004-05 season, which happened right during the height of the whole “You can’t win with Iverson, he monopolizes the ball!” craze.12
Iverson was actually my no. 2 MVP choice that season. I even explained the reasoning with a now super-dated Survivor reference. You know you want to look. Come on, just click on it.
Player B: Kobe this season.
Player C: Iverson’s 2007-08 season, which doubled as his last relevant season as an NBA player.
Look, I don’t care if you’re anti-Iverson or pro-2012 Kobe but you can’t be both. You can’t defend Kobe’s current season as “He’s a warrior, he’s doing what it takes to win, he’s only shooting so much because they don’t have anyone else” while also dismissing the entirety of Iverson’s career (which people love to do now, especially the statheads). You want to talk about a crummy supporting cast? In 2005, Philly’s top five scorers for much of the season were Iverson, Marc Jackson, Kyle Korver, Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson. Not a misprint. They finished 43-39. Also not a misprint. The truth is, Kobe turned into a taller Iverson last season and it’s staying that way. He’s a 42 percent volume shooter who plays an ungodly number of minutes, shakes off every injury, fills the box score (good and bad), keeps coming and coming, and fervently believes he’s always the best guy on the floor (even when it’s not true).
I can’t believe I’m about to write the words “give Kobe the benefit of the doubt,” but screw it even as Kobe’s season limps toward the finish line (40 percent shooting since the All-Star break), he gets massive amounts of credit for playing an ungodly amount of minutes (he’s leading the league!!!),13 grinding out his 24 shots and eight free throws every game, fighting through injuries and refusing to allow his Lakers to become irrelevant. Maybe his quality of play hasn’t been up to his usual standards, and maybe he hasn’t been that much fun to play with (was he ever?), and maybe this paragraph is going to feel like one long backhanded compliment but shit, before the season, I would have given you 100-to-1 odds on the parlay of “The Lakers Won’t Get Dwight Howard But Will Still Get a 2-Seed” and “Kobe Will Lead the League in Minutes.” He’s a machine at this point. (With a German engine. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) And even if that machine has been sputtering lately, it’s going to be hard to remember this 66-game season without thinking of Kobe Bean Bryant.
Repeat: He’s leading the league!!!!!!!!!!
3. Kevin Love (+1200)
Fact: Love is averaging 26.5 points and 13.6 rebounds with 45/39/82 shooting splits right now. This seems impossible, I know. I checked five times. It’s definitely true.
Fact: Neither Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, Larry Bird nor Karl Malone ever averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds per game in the same season.
Fact: Love’s low-post game has really turned into something special. He can make 20-foot stepbacks, jump hooks or up-and-unders. He can back guys down and get easy five-footers. He can pull bigger guys away from the hoop and shoot 3s over them. And if you double-team him, he’s one of the best low-post passers we have.
Fact: I’m not a giant fan of adjusted plus-minus stats, especially for individual players, but it’s worth mentioning that Minnesota averages about 107 points per 100 possessions when Love plays and about 97 points per 100 when he sits (one of the highest discrepancies in the league). Check out this really confusing and über-dorky page for more details.14
Thanks to Friend of Grantland Zach Lowe for figuring out that page. Zach made the “Love is an MVP candidate” case last week.
Fact: Even after Minnesota’s inspiring postseason run was derailed by Kobe pulling a Bernard Pollard on Ricky Rubio’s right knee,15 Love simply refused to allow them to stink — and by the way, when the rest of your top eight is Luke Ridnour, JJ Barea, Nik Pekovic, Darko Milicic, Mike Beasley, Martell Webster and Wesley “What Happened to Me????” Johnson, you stink — averaging a Moses-at-his-apex-like 31 and 15 for the month of March. 31 and 15???????? Sorry, I have to swear ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???16
I know it wasn’t Kobe’s fault — it’s just fun to say to any Laker fan.
In March, Love became the first player in NBA history to lead the league in scoring, rebounding AND made 3s. Even Larry Legend has to be mildly impressed by that one.
Fact: Love sent an Oklahoma City game into overtime two weeks ago by posting up 25 feet from the basket, sealing his guy off, then draining a buzzer-beating stepback 3 that was so blatantly ripped off from Larry Bird that he should have just worn a blond permafro wig. If you’re ripping off the Legend successfully, you have my attention.
Fact: Watching Love and Rubio run high screens was my single favorite thing about this season. They were on another level of everything. It was just sublime. I can’t tell you how much I loved it. It was basketball porn. DVDs of Love-Rubio high screens should be edited and handed out at basketball camps with the title, “How to Run High Screens.”
Fact: In back-to-back summers, Chris Wallace traded Love’s rights for O.J. Mayo’s rights17 and drafted Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden and Ricky Rubio and somehow, Memphis is still my favorite 2012 sleeper. I know, this has nothing to do with Love’s MVP campaign. I just didn’t know where else to put it in the column. The Love/Mayo swap doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough.
That trade was even worse than just Mayo for Love — Memphis took two bad contracts (Antoine Walker and Marko Jaric) and gave up Mike Miller back when people still thought Mike Miller was good.
Fact: Love rates off the charts on the most crucial MVP question: Would the difference in his team’s victory total drop dramatically if you replaced him with a half-decent player all season? The answer? Hell yes. You can’t blame Love because he’s playing for a .500 team in a stacked conference, or because that team fell out of the playoff race only because its second-best player went down. That’s a 13-win team if you flipped him with, say, Brandon Bass. It’s true.
Fact: Despite everything you just read, Love can’t make First-Team All-NBA because of our next two guys.
2. Kevin Durant (+150)
Enjoying his most efficient season (28-8-4, 50/38/85) for our best regular-season team (at least right now). When you remember that it’s more fun to vote for Durant than for LeBron I mean why did it take until Monday for Durant’s MVP odds to drop from +250 to +150? When in doubt, people vote for the best player on the best team. Couldn’t you say there’s some doubt right now? Two other things I like about Durant’s candidacy:
• You can’t underrate his Duncan-like effect on the Zombie Sonics. When your best player cares the most, plays the hardest, works the hardest, pulls for everyone else and doesn’t care about his own numbers, you’re always going to be in good shape. Durant could jack up 25 shots per game, easily win another scoring title and maybe even try for something like “I want to be one of the four guys in the last half century who averaged more than 36 points a game.” He doesn’t care. Does it make sense that Durant’s point guard is averaging as many shots per game (19.4) as the modern-day cross between George Gervin, Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and Spider-Man (19.5)? Of course not. Durant doesn’t care. He knows that Westbrook needs those shots to get going; hence, he gives them to Westbrook. Here’s how KD explained it yesterday when he came after Skip Bayless for downing Westbrook:
“We’re worse when I take more shots. Like I said, [Bayless] doesn’t know a thing. I don’t think he watches us. I think he just looks at the stats. And traditionally, a point guard is not supposed to take more shots than everybody else on the team. But we’re better when he does do that and he’s aggressive. And I’m better when I’m out there facilitating, rebounding, defending and being more efficient on my shots with less shots.”
It’s hard for me to believe that any basketball team would be better off with someone else taking more shots than a once-in-a-generation scorer who was built to score points the same way sharks are built to eat. Come playoff time, when it truly matters? I have a feeling Durant will be taking back a few of them. But the philosophy behind that sacrifice is really interesting. At least for now, the more shots Westbrook gets, the more aggressive he becomes and when Westbrook is flying around and doing his thing, that’s when Oklahoma City becomes abjectly frightening. I love that Durant sees and appreciates this.
• Speaking of Westbrook, you can’t say enough about what happened those first few weeks of the season, when Westbrook was worrying about a contract extension, battling trade rumors, fuming about being scapegoated for last spring’s playoff collapse and playing with an uncharacteristic hostility. From what I heard, Westbrook had gotten deep into his own head, concerned that his buddy Durant had become soooooooo beloved (by fans, media members, teammates, everyone) that Westbrook pretty much couldn’t win — if Oklahoma City succeeded, Durant would get the credit, and if they failed, Westbrook would be blamed. That’s an impossible place to be.
And you know what? It could have combusted on the wrong team with the wrong superstar, especially after Westbrook’s ghastly 0-for-13 fiasco against Memphis right after Christmas. Durant simply wouldn’t allow it. The amount of time Durant and his teammates spent supporting Westbrook, building him up, rubbing his shoulders, slapping him on the back, inspiring him and everything else was almost comical. As Phil Jackson would say, they wouldn’t allow him to drift off the reservation. In mid-January, once it became clear that he was getting an extension (it finally got announced on January 19), Westbrook settled down and started playing out of his mind. He’s been a 26-5-5 guy for two and a half months.
Even better, he’s playing with that breathtaking swagger again, to the point that it’s impossible to think about the Zombie Sonics without him — over everything else, it’s their relentless athleticism that makes them (potentially) special. They didn’t just beat the Lakers on Thursday night. They made them look like old farts. And look, I’m not saying that Westbrook regained his mojo solely because of Durant, or that Westbrook doesn’t deserve a major chunk of the credit for their recent resurgence. But their situation was threatening to drift into that Shaq-Kobe/Shaq-Penny/KG-Steph/Avon-Stringer direction, and maybe even would have landed there, if Durant wasn’t wired like he’s wired. I really believe that. He could be averaging 37 a game this season — if he wanted — but he’s measuring himself by wins and wins only, and he’s protecting his house at all times (like he did with the Bayless dust-up Monday). That’s exactly where we want him to be: basically, the Duncan Zone — where relationships matter more than numbers, where winning is the only way to be measured.
Last thought: In that aforementioned Miami game, Durant had what Mike Lombardi loves to call “The Look.” I’ll leave it at that. You know it when you see it. My issue with Durant’s candidacy is this: I haven’t seen The Look from him quite enough. There are times when Westbrook has it, too. Which is why we’re headed for a five-pound trophy with this 2012 MVP race. Nobody has really taken that trophy and grabbed it. Including
1. LeBron James (-180)
Hasn’t been the same since that possibly meaningful All-Star Game you know, the one LeBron dominated until the final minute, then passed up a chance to close (earning not one but two on-court lectures from a semi-disgusted Kobe). Following the predictable media backlash (and then the backlash to the backlash), it was easy to say, “Come on, everybody, it’s just an All-Star Game, this doesn’t matter.”
I’m not so sure. LeBron famously shrank from The Moment against Boston. A friend of mine sat right next to Miami’s bench in Dallas during Game 4 of the Finals and told me the following story: If you remember, Dallas called timeout after Miami jumped to a seven-point lead with 10 minutes to play. The series looked like it was over, or headed that way, barring a semi-improbable comeback. Wade had been carrying them for this game and the previous one; now, the table was set for LeBron to bring them home. His teammates knew better than anyone.
Here’s how my friend remembers it: “They were excited in the huddle because they knew they were close (to finishing Dallas off). I was right there, I was sitting three feet away from their trainer. LeBron sat down and started chewing his fingers. I remember (assistant coach) Bob McAdoo and a few other bench guys kept coming over, slapping him on the shoulder and saying, ‘Come on, Bron, take us home.’ And he was just staring into space and chewing his nails. I remember AT THAT MOMENT wondering, ‘How would MJ be right now?’ I thought for sure LeBron would get fired up and feed off those guys. He looked like he wanted no part of it! So they go back out and Dallas starts coming back. Next timeout, same thing. ‘Come on, Bron, take us home.’ And he’s staring into space and chewing his nails. I could see Wade’s face. Remember, Wade played his ass off in those Dallas games. Wade had this look on his face like, ‘Oh, fuck me.’ That was when I knew Dallas could win. I don’t think LeBron has it in him. I will never forget watching that from that close. I feel like I witnessed history and actually felt that way as it was happening.”
So when that issue resurfaced in the All-Star Game, it meant something, and it will keep meaning something until the league’s most talented player starts asserting his will in a truly meaningful way. Why hasn’t LeBron felt any obligation to dominate one of these statement games (Orlando, Chicago, Indiana, Oklahoma City and Boston, all losses)? Shouldn’t we be worried about his inability to shift gears depending on the game, the situation, or even the moment? He actually thinks he’s doing the right thing by playing unselfishly, getting everyone involved, making the right pass at the right time and doing everything else you’d do in a vacuum when situations didn’t matter. Remember Chris Paul’s on/off switch? I’m not even sure LeBron has a switch.
A good example: Sunday’s blowout defeat in Boston, something of a must-win for Miami because of the moment (national TV, coming off a cold streak, with doubts forming), the opponent (a suddenly resurgent Boston team) and the playoff implications (they might play in Round 2). For perimeter defenders, Boston has Paul Pierce (34 years old), Sasha Pavlovic (literally, a 0-tool NBA player) and Marquis Daniels (who was washed up four years ago). That’s the entire “Guys Who Can Defend LeBron on Boston” list. If there was ever a day for LeBron to say, “Get out of my way, I’m going to keep attacking Pierce, draw some fouls on him and then annihilate the two stiffs backing him up,” it was this game.
And yet he’s just not wired that way. He’s like a chess player who can’t see the board. The Heat ended up getting blown out in a truly passive performance — Miami at its worst, just guys standing around watching each other go one-on-one — then the media incorrectly turned it into a “What’s wrong with Miami?” story. The answer is simple: The Heat just want the playoffs to start. Durant and Westbrook have the whole “We can be the best team in the league!” thing driving them. Chicago can’t succeed unless they’re going balls-to-the-wall. Kobe has 40,000 points and six rings pushing him. Memphis, Indiana and the Clippers just want to be relevant. The Celtics know it’s their last dance together, and maybe the Spurs and Mavericks know it, too. The Heat? They’re on cruise control.
Of course, that’s when your signature guy should be saying, “Not on my watch, fellas, I can feel things slipping, I’m gonna have to throw in a little extra tonight.” That’s the calibration meter that LeBron seems to be missing — knowing when to step on that gas pedal, when to be selfish, when to seize the moment, maybe even when to morph into a homicidally competitive dick (Jordan-style) for three hours just to prove a point. We spend too much time picking basketball players apart (especially LeBron), but in this case? It’s totally valid. The Celtics shouldn’t have been celebrating in their locker room on Sunday and saying, “Man, thank God LeBron didn’t come at us.” Because I guarantee that’s what happened. That he can’t see the chess board after nine seasons makes me wonder if he’ll ever see it.
Regardless, I still have LeBron winning the MVP with three weeks to play. Just know that it’s going to be one of those forgettable, five-pound trophy victories. On the bright side, I guess that’s better than the Wimbledon platter.