To begin with, it might surprise you to see an article about Kobe winning the MVP award. After all, I am the same guy who wrote a column detailing why LeBron James should take home the hardware. However, in that case, I was offering my opinion as to who should win the award. Here, I am detailing how Kobe Bryant could win the award. There is a big difference between the two.
I personally don’t think Kobe is the MVP of the league for the simple fact that he doesn’t make his teammates better. Lamar Odom was much more consistent playing with Wade in Miami than he has been in Los Angeles. Luke Walton and Chris Mihm have shown relatively little improvement, despite being at a point in their careers where they should be blossoming. Kwame Brown has raised his level of play a bit, but he was already at rock bottom to begin with. The Lakers supporting cast looks terrified to be on the court with Bryant, as if he will get Jerry Buss on the phone and demand a trade should one of them look at him the wrong way (Chuck Atkins, anyone?).
Bryant has had several 40-point performances without tallying a single assist, which is practically impossible for a guy with the ball in his hands as much as Kobe has it. Part of the problem is that he doesn’t pass very often (making it hard to get assists), but the other part of it goes beyond that. With guys like Nash and LeBron and Chris Paul and Jason Kidd, there is something special about getting a pass from those players. When a journeyman player catches a perfect pass from an unselfish star, he almost feels like it is preordained that he will make the shot. Seriously, watch the Suns play and then watch the ridiculous shots that average players make, simply because they are on the receiving end of a Nash pass. It is as if they are thinking, “Steve Nash just threw that and he turns everything into points, so this is going in.” Then the shot goes up free and easy and two points are on the board (or in the case of the Suns, three points).
I honestly believe that the great teammates and passers create not only scoring opportunities for their teammates, but that they also give those guys a psychological boost by merely passing them the ball. Needless to say, none of that is happening with the Lakers. I could go on about this, but you probably get the point. All you have to do is watch an L.A. game and you can see that Kobe is not making his teammates better. He might be winning them some games and striking fear in the hearts of opposing teams, but he’s not raising the play of those around him.
The other reason that I would not choose Bryant as the MVP no matter how many 50-point games he has is that the NBA MVP Award should go to a player from one of the top teams. Unlike baseball, which is a game of individual matchups within the construct of a team game, basketball is the ultimate team sport. And if your team doesn’t win, how valuable can you be? There are only five guys on the court at any given time, so it seems reasonable to expect the most valuable player in the entire league to be so good and so important, that his team is winning and winning pretty big.
In fact, the “comes from a winning team” argument should be reason enough to eliminate Kobe from contention. All one must do is take a quick look at the history of the award to understand the role that team success has played in determining the winner. I alluded to this concept in the LeBron column, but the raw data tells us that the award almost always goes to a player from a top team. In the past 25 years, a whopping 24 of the winners have played for either the first or second place team in the entire NBA. No matter who wins it this year, we are probably going to see a break from that precedent, but to think that a player from a seventh-place team might win the award is mind-boggling.
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 (45 of 50 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)
As Tony Kornheiser would say, “That’s it, that’s the list!” And when you look at that list, you can quickly pull out three of the five outliers. The Pettit award was in the first year, before anybody had a clue about anything, and the McAdoo and ’76 Kareem awards came during the screwy NBA/ABA years in the mid-to-late ’70s. So it is hard to use those seasons as any real precedent for the award.
Looking to the 29 years after the NBA-ABA merger, we see that only Moses (3/6) and Jordan (3/7) broke the “top two” mold. We know that someone will be joining them this year, and the team rankings of most of the candidates pretty closely resemble those of Malone and MJ. Nash (3/4), Dirk (2/3), LeBron (3/7), and Wade (2/5) all play for teams that rank either as good or better than the Rockets and Bulls did in the standings in 1979 and 1988, respectively. This tells me that while 2006 is going to be an odd year, there are still plenty of candidates that fit within an established framework. (It doesn’t matter if Nash’s Suns or LeBron’s Cavs don’t feel like elite teams, I am going strictly off the numbers here.)
The one player who doesn’t fit? Of course, that would be Kobe. His Lakers (7/11) are a modern day version of Kareem’s Lakers in 1976. While we have discounted that season as part of a reasonable framework by which to predict voter behavior, there is another, more compelling, reason to bring it back into play: the dreaded split vote.
Here is what happened in 1976, as best I can reconstruct it: Bob McAdoo had a monstrous statistical season (31 and 12) and led the Buffalo Braves to a 46-36 record and fourth place in the East. For the sake of this argument, we’ll call him the LeBron of the group (best stats of the “traditional” candidates, also led a reasonably good team). Next is Dave Cowens, who gets the Nash spot (great leadership for a stubbornly good team; stats don’t tell the whole story) for leading the Celtics to first place in the East. Then there is Rick Barry who had good stats (21/6/6) for the best team of the bunch, the Golden State Warriors. This puts him in Dirk territory. Finally, we have George McGinnis, who went 24, 12, and 5 for a good Philly team. We’ll call him Dwyane Wade.
(Now, obviously, these comparisons aren’t perfect. For instance, Cowens was a tremendous defensive player and Nash is pretty much the opposite, but you get the idea. We are just looking to establish a general concept.)
Here is how the vote played out among those four “traditional” candidates (team conference and overall standings in parenthesis):
McAdoo (4/5) – 47 first place votes, 393 total points
Cowens (1/2) – 48 first place votes, 378 total points
McGinnis (4/5) – 4 first place votes, 80 total points
As you can see, these four players — particularly McAdoo and Cowens — split the votes. The race between these individuals was close and it featured completely different types of players and circumstances. For some, the MVP should have been Barry for playing terrific all-around basketball for the best team. For others, it was the statistical brilliance for a team on the cusp and therefore, McAdoo was the choice. For others still, the MVP should have gone to the leader with all the intangibles that made everyone else better and kept a good team on top. Thus, all the votes for Cowens (who wasn’t even first-team All-NBA that season).
What ultimately happened is that the 119 first place votes and 1,062 total points that would typically have gone to a clear-cut “traditional” choice got parceled up and spread out among several players. This allowed Kareem to swoop in like one of his sky hooks and win the award with:
Abdul-Jabbar (4/9) – 52 first place votes, 409 total points
He won by a mere 16 points! Despite playing for a team with a losing record! What this proves is that there was a certain percentage of the voting pool that was going to “pull a Musburger” and simply pick the guy they felt was the best player in the league. If you’ve seen any NBA telecasts this year in which Brent Musburger was doing the play-by-play, you know Kobe has his vote. He gushes on and on about the 81-point game, about the work ethic, the “clutch shooting” (which was recently proved to be more myth than fact by the good people at 82games.com), and everything else that truly does make Kobe a terrific player. For whatever reason though, Musburger is unable to grasp the concept of value as the word has been defined for the past 50 years in the NBA. He is simply going off the individual brilliance of the player and that is that. And every year, there will always be a portion of the voting population who picks this way.
Of course, in most years, the more legitimate, traditional candidate drowns that minority population out. Looking at that 1976 vote, Kareem only got 28% of the first-place votes and 25% of the total points. However, because there were so many viable traditional candidates that year, the 75% of the people that knew what they were doing saw the power of their vote diluted. They had reasonable disagreements about value among players from top teams and therefore chose different winners. The end result was that they opened the door for the minority voting block to carry their “best individual player” candidate to victory.
If all of this sounds familiar, well, it should. Everywhere you look, there are columns about the MVP. Every broadcast of an NBA game comes complete with various picks and choices. Last Thursday night on TNT, I heard Barkley and Miller give it to Dirk, and Kenny Smith give it to Shawn Marion. Then I opened up Yahoo.com and saw that Steve Kerr tabbed LeBron. Wade is being forwarded as a candidate (although he is losing ground fast, thus the McGinnis comparison). On Friday night, Bill Walton insisted it was still “Little Stevie Nash” and then on Sunday decided the Billups was the winner. Just as in 1976, reasonable minds are disagreeing about which of these players is truly the most valuable. You know I think it is LeBron, but I can totally understand votes for Nash, Dirk, Wade, and even Billups.
By now you know where this is going. That 75% of the vote that goes to the traditional MVP candidate (as defined by 50 years of NBA history and 29 years of even more relevant post-merger history) is about to get chopped up again. LeBron is going to get 30 first-place votes. Nash is going to get 25. So will Dirk. Wade will get a few. Perhaps even Brand and Billups and Gasol will get a vote. All of which will erode the majority position.
This, of course, leaves the door open for Kobe — and the 25% of MVP voters who see only the gaudy stats — to waltz through and claim the trophy.
Yesterday, when I wrote about LeBron, I surmised that this would be a ridiculous year to stoop down to a seventh place team to find an MVP. With a plethora of terrific candidates who boast both the individual brilliance and the team success, it seemed crazy that Kobe would even be in the conversation. But then it dawned on me. Because there are so many viable candidates for the MVP this year, it is actually creating a perfect storm of sorts. All those viable, fabulous candidates are just going to cancel each other out.
We could very well end up with something like this (note that the numbers will look different than they did in 1976 because there are fewer first place votes now, but far more total points):
Bryant (7/11) – 36 first place votes, 786 points
James (3/7) – 33 first place votes, 739 points
Nash (3/4) – 26 first place votes, 661 points
Dirk (2/3) – 21 first place votes, 608 points
Wade (2/5) – 6 first place votes, 236 points
Everyone else – 5 first place votes, 267 points
We just might be seeing 1976 all over again.
And that is how, against all odds, Kobe Bryant can win the 2006 MVP.