If you missed Part I of my MVP Ballot column, click here. Now it’s time to rip through the top 47 and come up with a winner. Although, really, we’re all winners, because this season rocked. But before we do that, I’d like to apologize to Ric Bucher for a joke in Tuesday’s column that he purchased $300 worth of hair gel. Bucher would never spend less than $500 on hair gel, and for me to insinuate otherwise was just plain wrong. My apologies, Buch.
As for the rest of my ballot, here we go
47. Grant Hill
Cracked the 70-game mark for the first time in eight years, averaged 32 minutes a game, did an admirable impression of a poor man’s Shawn Marion over the past three months and became one of the feel-good stories of the season, right up there with a rejuvenated Kevin Garnett, the Reverse Jail Blazers, Philly’s playoff run, Houston’s 22-game winning streak and Larry Krystkowiak going 82 games without wearing a suit that cost more than $89.99. Of course, someone could walk into Disney World and decapitate Mickey with a ninja sword and they wouldn’t be as despised in Orlando as much as Hill. So I guess there’s that.
42. Jose Calderon
Currently working on a 58-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for the month of April. Holy schnikes. He’s somewhere between 5 million and 12 million times more popular than T.J. Ford in Toronto right now.
39. LaMarcus Aldridge
Note to Portland fans: You were right, I was wrong. He’s a keeper. Even if he reminds me so much of Charles Smith that I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost a key playoff game some day because LeBron blocked his layup three straight times at the buzzer.
(Whoops, I just accidentally blindsided Knicks fans with a reference to the Charles Smith game! Sorry about that. You guys have been through enough.)
33. Danny Granger
All right, imagine Toronto’s team if the Raptors had just taken him over Joey Graham in 2005, which, by the way, WAS THE LOGICAL MOVE! Whoops, I just went all crazy TV analyst on you. My bad.
30. Stephen Jackson
A reader named Tim from British Columbia sums it up best: “Do you think Stephen Jackson is the best NBA player to have ever discharged a firearm in a public place?”
27. Rasheed Wallace
My favorite random memory from any game I attended this season: After they introduced the Pistons before the first Detroit game in Boston, they started one of those get-the-crowd-fired-up laser videos on the Jumbotron before introducing the Boston starters. For some reason, I glanced over to Detroit’s bench and noticed the Pistons standing in a tight circle with Sheed jumping around like a crazy person in the middle, whooping and hollering and singing and doing everything he could to get his teammates charged up in the most deafening road venue possible. I just don’t think there’s another guy in the league who (A) would have pulled this off effectively and (B) had the charisma to pull me away from that Jumbotron showing getting-everyone-fired-up Celtics highlights. He’s a force of nature. The thought of Rasheed and KG battling over seven games in the playoffs already has me giddy.
25. Monta Ellis
The most valuable under-25 free agent to hit the market since Tracy McGrady. Even though he’s restricted, the Grizzlies should pull out every possible stop to land him or that franchise should be disbanded. It’s that simple. Which reminds me
24. Pau Gasol
In person, his low-post skills (first class), speed down the floor (for a 7-footer, totally unique) and body (he’s much taller than you’d think) stand out to the point that any nonbasketball fan could watch Gasol for 10 minutes and realize he’s a special offensive player. For the life of me, I don’t understand how any team could have given him away when he’s only 27. It’s inexplicable. If a friend of yours bought a Ferrari for $20,000, you would be blown away perpetually for the rest of the time he had that car, right? Every time you saw it, you’d say, “I can’t believe you got a Ferrari in mint condition for $20,000.” Same goes for the Gasol trade. It just continues to blow me away. We’re ranking him this high simply because the Lakers were headed for the lottery with Kwame Brown and D.J. Mbenga as their centers. I don’t know, this seems relevant.
(Hold on, we’re switching to a speed round for the next few guys.)
23. Carmelo Anthony
Quietly accumulating enough off-court incidents for a riveting “Beyond the Glory” show.
22. Antawn Jamison
Fine, I’ll say it: He has had the third-best career of anyone from that much-hyped 1998 draft class. I’d rank him behind Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, just ahead of Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis and 813 spots ahead of Michael Olowokandi.
21. Andre Miller
Broke the record for “latest age anyone improbably turned into a franchise point guard.” He’s 32 years old, it’s his ninth season I mean, why now? I will never figure this league out.
20. Baron Davis
Ran out of gas down the stretch and that’s an understatement. He’s like a starting pitcher who can give you 175 quality innings every year, but for every inning after that, his ERA will be more than 6.00. Why do I feel like he’s headed for the Clippers next season? He seems like a logical guy for them to acquire right as I’m debating whether to renew my tickets, followed by me renewing and Davis deciding to retire and become a movie producer full-time three weeks into the season. Good times! Count me in!
19. Carlos Boozer, David West (tie)
Different styles, similar impacts, neither gets enough credit. Of course, West never screwed over an entire city.
17. Allen Iverson
We entered the “playing with the house’s money” stage of Iverson’s prime about two years ago. And it’s still going. Amazing. You could make an entire documentary of people telling Iverson stories like this one that I’m about to make up (as far as you know): So we’re eating at Denny’s at 6 a.m. in Atlantic City. Iverson shows up with his posse and proceeds to order $300 worth of food, they eat breakfast and leave at around 8, and that night I’m watching TV and he drops 48 points on the Nets. I’m not kidding, there are 75,000 Iverson stories like that one; all of them involve him being up late and having a huge game one night later. The man doesn’t sleep. He’s not a night owl, he’s a straight-out vampire. Throw in the ferocious pounding he takes for a little guy and it’s unclear how he’s still alive, much less playing at an All-Star level.
16. Tracy McGrady
Docked a few spots because he missed 19 games and got a little pissy during the second month of the season; besides, it’s hard to get too excited about someone who shot 42 percent and averaged a 22-5-6. He might have had the first-ever overrated underrated season.
Speaking of T-Mac, here’s my No. 1 NBA pet peeve this season: When a lousy long-range shooter has no qualms about jacking up 3-pointers every game. For instance, T-Mac shot 34, 33, 31, 33 and 30 percent on 3s the past five seasons, but that didn’t stop him from jacking up 4.5 per game this season. Really, T-Mac? If you can’t shoot 3s, why shoot them? Take my beloved Celtics, for whom Tony Allen has improbably launched 121 3s over the past three seasons despite nearly killing a ballboy with one errant shot in 2005. You know how many of those 121 3s went in? Thirty-seven. Every time he shoots a 3, he should be yanked from the game for endangering my dad’s health.
Of the famous offenders besides T-Mac, there’s LeBron (359 3s, 32 percent shooting), Davis (513 3s, 33 percent), Iverson (274 3s, a career 31 percent shooter), Andre Iguodala (297 3s, 32 percent), Gerald Wallace (221 3s, 32 percent), Lamar Odom (113 3s, 27 percent) and even my man-crush Kevin Durant (203 3s, 29 percent). And let’s not forget the nonstars who inexplicably keep launching them, like Kyle Lowry (130 3s, 25 percent), Charlie Villanueva (180 3s, 30 percent), Willie Green (180 3s, 28 percent) and, my favorite of all, Casey Jacobsen (69 3s, 23 percent). If we banned all of these bricklayers from shooting 3s, the league would be a safer place. And that’s my pet peeve for 2008.
15. Chauncey Billups
Our token “Somebody on the Pistons has to crack the top 15” guy.
14. Andre Iguodala
Of all the dummies who turned down lucrative extensions last summer, he’s the only one who made himself more money during the season. We knew he was a gifted defender and open-court player, but who knew that he’d turn into a go-to guy, inherit the “A.I.” nickname from Iverson and get the beaten-down Philly fans excited about hoops again? Banner season for him.
13. Amare Stoudemire
The Shaq trade made him the league’s most unstoppable big man, and if that’s not enough
(A) He’s about to break the “most agents and P.R. people hired by an NBA star over the course of his career” record before he turns 27.
(B) We finally have a microfracture success story! In fact, we have two if you include Portland getting the gift of wiping Darius Miles off its cap because of a microfracture surgery that either went horribly wrong or failed because Nate McMillan kept hitting Miles’ knee with a two-by-four.
(Important note: The Celtics were forced to carry Reggie Lewis on their cap for three years after he passed away, as well as Vin Baker for three years after everyone agreed he was showing up drunk for practices. Somehow, Portland is allowed to wipe Miles off its cap because of a career-ending knee injury? Whaaaaaaaaaat? I’m starting the conspiracy theory that David Stern needed the Blazers to be good because he wanted Seattle to have a good team close by after Clay Bennett hijacked the Sonics, so he rigged the 2007 lottery and made this insane Miles decision. Now the Blazers are going to have the best young team in the league and they’ll be a gazillion dollars under the cap after the 2009-09 season. Really, this is his finest work since he forced MJ to play baseball for 18 months as a pseudo-suspension. The man is a genius.)
11. Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu (tie)
It’s now patently clear that (A) Howard is a top-five fantasy pick and (B) you should deal him right before his post-Christmas dip. I hate saying that a 22-year-old guy who just averaged a 21-14 should be better, but man doesn’t it feel like he should dominate every game? I can’t shake the David Robinson parallels here.
As for Turkoglu, remember when I mentioned the “Hombre” phrase in an NBA mailbag two weeks ago? Here’s a starter on the All-Hombre Team, a guy who takes and makes big shots with the frequency of Eddy Curry digging into a 20-piece McNuggets. Did you ever watch those Kings teams in the earlier part of this decade and think Turkoglu would be the most relevant player in 2008? Me neither.
(My All-Hombre Team for 2008: We’re going small for the starters with Nash, Kobe, Turkoglu, LeBron and Rasheed; Manu is the sixth man; Iverson, Davis, West, Butler, Sasha Vujacic and Tyson Chandler round out the bench; Jason Richardson, Jerry Stackhouse and Teresa Weatherspoon are the alternates.)
10. Paul Pierce
You could not have asked for better season from Mr. Pierce on a personal, professional, competitive or efficient levels. An absolute joy to watch from January on. I’d say more, but some serious Celtic-related gushing is about to happen 20 paragraphs from now. You might want to put on a wet suit just to be safe.
9. Deron Williams
Only two hurdles remain: He needs to grab the “Best Young Point Guard Alive” torch from Chris Paul (definitely tough, but not impossible), and he needs to become dominant enough and respected enough that nobody mistakenly calls him “De-RON” anymore (a little more realistic). Of the top 15 guys on this list, he’s the one who could make the biggest leap in the playoffs if everything falls right.
7. Tim Duncan, Steve Nash (tie)
Two of my favorites, but both of them entered the “How much longer can they remain at this level?” stage this season. In my opinion, Duncan has one more elite season in him (although we’ve seen subtle signs of slippage already), and this was Nash’s last season as an impact guy from a “35 minutes per game for 90-100 games a year” standpoint unless the Suns get him a backup. And soon. Like, right now. Today. As you’re reading this.
6. Dirk Nowitzki
Here’s the best thing I can say about the J-Kidd trade: During the ’06 season and most of the playoffs, remember how Dirk would get that “Look, There’s No F—— Way We’re Losing This Game!” look on his face? When he lost confidence after the Finals and then the playoffs last year, it seemed like that look was never coming back. Now? It’s back. I have to admit, I’m a little intrigued to watch the Big German during these next few weeks. Nobody showed more character and grit down the stretch of the regular season with one exception: The Sonics fans, who handled a legitimately unfair situation with the perfect balance of rage and nostalgia and brought the sport to a higher place in those final two home games.
(Note to David Stern: This was your Bay of Pigs. This was your Watergate. This seedy, incomprehensible saga stained your legacy — it did — and the sooner you publicly admit that you handled this situation appallingly from start to finish and do your best to make amends, the better off you will be. I’m speaking for all of us here: We don’t want to follow a league in which anyone’s franchise can be basically hijacked on a billionaire’s whim. You need to fix this. You need to fix this right now. Back to the column.)
5. Manu Ginobili
Ginobili’s particularly unique impact this season defied any conceivable statistical measure until our friends at 82games.com unveiled “Clutch Stats” (fourth quarter or OT, five minutes or less, five-point margin or less) and “Super-Clutch Stats” (fourth quarter or OT, two minutes or less, three-point margin or less). In “Clutch” situations, the Argentinian (I love calling him that) averaged nearly a point a minute and shot 57 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3 and 93 percent from the foul line. In “Super-Clutch” situations, Manu was the third-best scorer (behind LeBron and Kobe) and shot a jaw-dropping 62 percent from the field. Throw in free-throw attempts and you could make a case that Manu was a lock to score seven out of 10 times in the last two minutes of every close game. There might be better players, but nobody’s better with the bread in the toaster. Not even Kobe.
First-Team: Duncan, Garnett, LeBron, Kobe, Paul
Second-Team: Howard, Nowitzki, Pierce, Ginobili, Nash
Third-Team: Stoudamire, Boozer, West, McGrady, Williams
All right, we’re down to the top four. Please hold your applause. As I write every year, I concentrate on these three questions to help determine my MVP vote.
Question No. 1: Ten years from now, who will be the first player from this regular season that pops into my head?
Question No. 2: In a giant pickup game with every NBA player waiting to play, and two fans forced to pick sides with their lives depending on the outcome of the game (I think this is how the annual Rucker League tournament works, by the way), who would be the first player picked based on the way everyone played that season?
Question No. 3: If you replaced every MVP candidate with a decent player at their position for the entire season, what would be the effect on their teams’ records?
Back to the ballot
4. LeBron James
I feel for him for two reasons: That’s a 20-win team without him, and it’s hard to imagine any 24-year-old NBA player averaging a 30-8-7 and finishing fourth in the balloting. Alas, that’s where we are. He’s the most terrifying player in the league, the guy with the best chance of winning a playoff series by himself, a force of basketball nature unlike anything we’ve seen since Young Shaq, someone who spawned more debate, hope and general intrigue than any young player since Jordan. And he’s fourth. Incredible.
Back in New Orleans during the All-Star break, a friend from NBA Entertainment and I were discussing LeBron’s career and trying to figure out where it might be headed. This is one of my favorite basketball friends, someone who has spent the past 20-plus years working for the league and legitimately cares about it. When I make the joke about how I’m one of the last 20 NBA fans, obviously the number is higher than that but I do think there’s a small number of people who care not just about the league right now, but what the league used to be, and how everything ties together over the years. We are fanatics. Kool-Aid drinkers. Quite simply, the league means a little too much to us. It’s a relatively small group that takes a noticeable hit every time we lose someone like Ralph Wiley, who would have absolutely adored this particular season, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Anyway, I asked my friend what he thought the ceiling for LeBron’s career could be. Again, this is someone who was overqualified to answer that question, as well as someone who loves the NBA too much to exaggerate his answer just for a reaction. So I knew I’d get an honest take from him. Here was his answer.
“Doesn’t have one.”
If he had said that two years ago, I would have snickered. If he had said that last year, I would have snickered. This year? I nodded.
3. Kobe Bryant
There wasn’t anything different about this particular Kobe season than the past three Kobe seasons, except for two things:
(A) He gave us a phenomenal soap opera from start to finish: In the preseason, he was bashing teammates and demanding a trade. Then he played the first few weeks of the season with the same steely smile on his face that Gov. Spitzer’s wife had during the first “Client No. 9” news conference. Then he gradually started having fun once he realized the young guys had made such a dramatic leap. Then the Gasol robbery changed everything. And by the end of the season, he was jumping Aston Martins on YouTube, smiling during games like Magic Johnson, and doing flying chest bumps with Ronny Turiaf. From a “rollercoaster ride” standpoint, it was definitely memorable.
(B) His teammates were much, much, MUCH better. Statistically, Kobe’s stats don’t stand out from his numbers the previous four seasons, although there was a five-week stretch right after the Gasol trade when he played the most inspired all-around basketball of his career. (The splits from that month don’t reflect how well he was playing, but it was fascinating that Phil Jackson mentioned during that stretch that Kobe hadn’t played so superbly from an all-around standpoint in seven seasons, which was both a compliment and a slight dig.) Then Gasol went down and it turned into The Kobe Show again. If No. 8 — er, No. 24 — wins the MVP, then we need to go back and retroactively make him the unanimous 2005-06 MVP as well, because it was much more impressive when he dragged that putrid Lakers team (Odom, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Brian Cook, Devean George, Luke Walton and a pre-useful Sasha Vujacic to 45 wins compared to leading this current Lakers team (Odom, Derek Fisher, Bynum, Ronny Turiaf, an extremely useful Vujacic, Walton, an effective Bynum for the first half of the season and a rejuvenated Gasol for the season half) to 56 wins.
Rookie of the Year: Kevin Durant
Coach of the Year: Rick Adelman
Most improved: Rajon Rondo
6th Man of the Year: Manu Ginobili
True 6th of the Year: Jannero Pargo
Cooler of the Year: Dirk Nowitzki
Defensive Player of the Year: Kevin Garnett
Biggest Rollercoaster Ride: J.R. Smith
Biggest Rookie Bust: Yi Jianlian
Biggest Disappointment: Luol Deng
Most Washed-Up Player: Antoine Walker
Craziest Player of the Year: Gilbert Arenas
B.S. All-Stars MVP: Louis Williams
Unintentional Comedy MVP: Isiah Thomas
Is Kobe the best all-around player in the league? Yes. But that was the case last season, and the season before that, and the season before that. (Remember, this award goes to the most valuable player, not the best individual player. That’s the rule.) Should we reward him this season because he’s playing for the No. 1 team in the West? I don’t see why, when the Celtics are going to end up with 10 more wins and went 2-0 against the Lakers. In short, I don’t get the Kobe argument unless you’re playing the “career achievement award” angle, which is just a moronic way to look at it. That’s the type of thinking that led to Marty Scorcese finally winning an Oscar for a movie that ended with a rat crawling on the balcony as a big neon “SYMBOLISM! SYMBOLISM!” sign flashed in the background. Come on.
2. Chris Paul
For MVP Question No. 1, we’ll remember him for saving basketball in New Orleans, turning the Hornets into a playoff contender, carrying himself with grace and aplomb on and off the court, and driving an entire fan base in Atlanta to hard alcohol and drugs. In the giant pickup game (Question No. 2), he wouldn’t get picked ahead of Kobe or LeBron, but he’d definitely be the first point guard picked and possibly the third player overall. And if you replaced him with a decent player for the whole season (someone like Devin Harris), the Hornets would have won 30-32 games instead of 56. I’d say that’s a significant swing.
Of course, his résumé goes a little deeper. The most talented 6-foot-and-under player ever (sorry, Isiah), he just submitted the greatest all-around season of any point guard since Oscar Robertson (including a scintillating 22-13-4 with 50-82-41 percentages after the All-Star break) and played the position with particular style (nobody converted more alley-oop passes with a high degree of difficulty). Over the course of six months, I only saw him neutralized by two teams out of 29 (the Celtics because of their team defense, and the Jazz because of Deron Williams). And of all the top guys, other than Kevin Garnett, nobody meant more to his teammates. In fact, my favorite Chris Paul game of the year was the one in which he blew two clinching free throws in Orlando, then sweated out a missed Turkoglu 3 at the buzzer. When it was over, Paul was too disappointed in himself to celebrate, so his teammates and coaches immediately trickled over and rubbed his head, slapped his back and did everything else possible to let him know how important he was to them.
There’s a difference between genuine affection (the way Paul and his teammates interact) and contrived affection (the way Kobe and his teammates interact), and over everything else, that’s why Paul gets the No. 2 spot on my ballot. He’s the heart and soul of the Hornets. You could never say that about Kobe; he’s too detached, too cut-throat, too willing to roll his eyes and hold an angry stare for that extra second every time something goes wrong. (With Kobe, the underlying implication is he’s on your side as long as you’re playing well. Anyone who has watched him in person during the past few years knows exactly what I mean.) In fact, the most interesting thing about Paul’s MVP campaign (as well as the campaign of the No. 1 guy on this list) is how vociferously his teammates have been lobbying for him. They just love the guy. When Paul appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last week, his teammates came to the show and sat in the audience to support him. After the show, when Kimmel asked him to film a comedy bit and Paul agreed, his teammates tagged along and attended the shoot instead of hitting the town. They all left together. I thought that was interesting. These are the stories I want to hear about my MVP candidates.
1. Kevin Garnett
Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way so you don’t think this is a homer vote: I don’t think Garnett is the most talented player in the league; I don’t trust him at the end of games because he gets too wound up; it drives me crazy that he relies on his fall-away so much (especially in fourth quarters); and I’d rather have Tim Duncan for a playoff series if my life depended on it. Of course, none of that stuff matters in an MVP discussion. He’s the one guy everyone will remember from this regular season (sorry, Kobe) and he was worth a 30-win swing to the Celtics this season. In other words, he’s the first choice for two of my three MVP questions.
But that’s not why I’m picking him. On May 22, 2007, professional basketball was effectively murdered in Boston. Garnett transformed every single facet of the franchise upon his arrival, from playing for the Celtics to coaching them to following them to owning them to working for them. What he did can’t be measured by statistics; it can’t even be measured in a few paragraphs like the section you’re reading right now. It would belittle what he did. He transformed the culture of the team. He taught everyone to care about defense, to care about practice, to care about being a professional, to care about leaving everything they had on the court, to stop caring about stats and start caring about wins. He single-handedly transformed the careers of three young players (Rajon Rondo, Leon Powe and Kendrick Perkins), one veteran (Pierce) and one coach (Doc Rivers), all five of whom could have gone the other way. He played every exhibition game like it was the seventh game of the Finals. During blowouts, he stood on the sidelines and cheered on his teammates like it was a tight game; because of that, the bench guys did the same thing for the starters and basically turned into a bunch of giddy scrubs on a 14-seed in a March Madness upset during every game.
The best word for him would either be “contagious” or “selfless.” By Thanksgiving, the entire team was emulating him. Every time a young player got carried away with himself during a game — like the time Perkins started going for his own stats or the time Rondo snapped at his coach — KG was there to set him straight and scare the living hell out him. Every time one of his teammates was intimidated, KG had his back. Every time one of his teammates got knocked down, KG rushed over to pick him up; eventually, four teammates were rushing over to help that fifth guy up, and that’s just the way it goes with the team now. Every time an opponent kept going for a shot after a whistle, KG defiantly blocked the shot just out of principle. Eventually, everyone started doing it. No shots after the whistle against the Celtics. That was the rule. It was a series of little things, baby steps if you will, but they added up to something much bigger.
You can’t measure Garnett’s impact with individual statistics, but these numbers seem pretty relevant: 24 (number of ’07 Celtics wins); 16 (number of ’08 Celtics losses); four (number of useful free agents who signed with Boston after the KG trade); 0 (number of useful free agents who signed with Boston in the 15 years before that); 10.2 (Boston’s point differential this season, an historic number); three (number of Texas teams they beat on the road in a four-day span, as well as the Celtics’ total number of double-digit defeats this season); 4,753 (estimated number of teammate hugs, shattering the record of the ’84 Lakers); 42 (field-goal percentage for Boston opponents this season); 41 (number of home sellouts this season); and 3-to-2 (the Celtics’ odds to win the 2008 title).
Look at the Celtics last season and look at them this season. Does any of the good stuff happen without Garnett? Any of it? Maybe his MVP campaign lost some steam when he missed 10 games earlier in the season; I have to admit, even I shifted my attention toward Kobe, Paul and LeBron these past two months. During a conversation with my father last weekend, I mentioned the MVP “argument” and he quickly responded with a fired-up rant that was very unlike my Pops. I’ll do my best to paraphrase it:
“Argument? There’s no argument, it’s Garnett. I went to almost every home game. He’s standing on the bench screaming for his teammates when we’re up 30 points. He’s a maniac! A few weeks ago, I couldn’t go to a Wednesday night game so I put my tickets online and they sold in four minutes. Four minutes! Last year, I would have been walking around my office asking if anyone wanted to go, and I would have probably ended up eating the tickets. This year? Four minutes. Who did more for a team in one year? We lost 18 straight games last season. We were nothing. Didn’t you watch the games? How could anyone be more valuable than KG was this season?”
It’s a great question, and since I couldn’t answer it without sounding like a fool, Kevin Garnett gets my MVP vote for 2007-08. Just remember, the “V” stands for “valuable.”
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.