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Friday, October 31, 2014

Revisiting Nash?s MVP Season: Short-Shorts and Culture Clash in the NBA

[Today's article comes from the mind of David Crockett. "Dr. C" is the director of KnickerBlogger.Net's Culture & Marketing Department. In his spare time, David Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at dcrockett17@yahoo.com.]

I don?t generally pay too much attention to regular season awards but the subject of Steve Nash?s MVP award has stayed on my mind throughout these playoffs for two reasons. First, Nash has played out of his mind offensively in the playoffs. (Amare Stoudemire was just on another planet but that?s for another day.) Heading into last night?s final game of the Western Conference Finals he had posted 24.1 points and 11.4 assists per game on 57% efg shooting with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 26.1, and made it look easy against good defensive clubs (Memphis, Dallas, and San Antonio). The second reason is that the announcers have cooed and squealed like schoolgirls with every assist and every jumper. Some pundits, like Suns fan Neal Pollack at Slate.com, have gone so far as to claim that Nash and the Suns have ?saved the NBA.?

Despite being a fan since Nash?s freshman season at Santa Clara, I really only began following his MVP season closely after Kevin Pelton?s positively inspired two part series on Nash?s MVP credentials (Part I, Part II). Nash, as we all know, was ultimately named the MVP. (See his regular season stats here.) The announcement was almost immediately followed by the inevitable racial mini-controversy about his MVP worthiness. Now I?m not one to gossip, but Michael Sweetney and Trevor Ariza had yet to see their first days of kindergarten the last time a white player (the ?hick from French Lick?) won the award back in 1986. In a business where more than 80% of the work force is black (and has been so for more than a generation now) it should surprise only the most naive that awarding the highest honor to a white player would meet with some skepticism.

The Nash controversy piqued my interest as both an NBA fan and a scholar. In my day job I research the ways that race, class, and culture are part of the marketing and consumption of products. Perhaps the National Basketball Association is more invested in packaging and selling race, class, and culture than any other business and certainly no chief executive has been as successful at it as David Stern. So the racial dynamics surrounding Nash?s MVP award are important and they certainly warrant comment but I thought I?d wait until after Phoenix?s run to comment on it, especially with Nash getting extended play before a national audience really for the first time this season.

Officially, Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard in his May commentary was the first to point to race, the big elephant in the room. He argues that by the traditional measure ? most productive player on a contending team ? Shaq is by far the more deserving MVP candidate. If voters are taking something else into account, he opines, Nash?s racial novelty is likely a part of what is being considered. Clearly Nash, one of only a handful of whites who played American college ball in the entire league, is something of a novelty. Though Le Batard has been roundly criticized for ?bringing race into it,? I found his comments much more balanced and reasoned than those offered by his TV and talk radio critics, even when I disagreed. For instance, it is easy to dismiss his claim that plenty of black players (or any players for that matter) have had a season like Nash?s. Indeed no one other than John Stockton, the short-shorted one himself, has had a passing season like Nash?s 04-05 in more than a generation ? not once you account for pace and league context. (I feel confident in speculating, however, that most MVP voters did not account for pace or league context when making out their ballots.) Yet Le Batard goes out of his way to avoid reducing Nash?s MVP award to a case of ?best white guy available.? He notes that race may be one of numerous things the voters considered and that it may have been no more important than anything else ? or perhaps not important at all. He writes, ?Who is to say that, given the same stats as Nash, 5-5 Earl Boykins, who is black, may not have gotten the MVP vote, too, because he is so tiny?? Trust me, as a Knicks fan having to defended Le Batard?s honor is a painful thing but he really didn’t say anything out of order.

Although Le Batard is totally legitimate to raise the issue of race ultimately he is unable to do so in a way that generates much insight. (It?s at moments like these that Ralph Wiley’s untimely death stings the most. Insight is the rarest of gifts.) Le Batard swings and misses ? or at least swings and foul tips ? on the important race question by merely wondering out loud whether MVP voters are biased against Shaq, even if only subconsciously. The question about race begging to be answered here is NOT why is Nash MVP instead of Shaq? Rather, the far more intriguing and important question is how Nash won the award when John Stockton never came close. As Kevin?s series presaged, Nash won the MVP award in 2005 with the type of low scoring/high assist season routinely produced by Stockton throughout the 80s and 90s. Stockton posted PERs that exceeded Nash?s 22.0 six different times (according to basketball-reference.com). He posted equivalent or superior passing and PER seasons to Nash?s in both 1988 and 1990. Not only did Stockton fail to win the award he never made the top five in balloting. Why, you ask? Low scoring/high assist seasons have traditionally been seen as the stuff of sidekicks rather than leading men. Consequently, such players have been frozen out of MVP consideration; that is until Steve Nash this season. Nash is the first sub-20 point scorer to win the award since Bill Walton in 1978 and has the lowest scoring average in the history of the award. I took the liberty of re-posting Kevin Pelton?s adjusted assists per game chart, adding in PER for each player, along with the actual MVP winners so you can see what voters valued during some of the greatest passing seasons ever.


Player
Year Team 05APG PER MVP

------------------------------------------------------------
John Stockton
1990 UTA 12.0 23.9 Magic Johnson
John Stockton 1988 UTA 11.5 23.2 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1991 UTA 10.9 23.4 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1992 UTA 10.8 22.8 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1995 UTA 10.6 23.3 David Robinson
Steve Nash 2005 PHO 11.5 22.0 Steve Nash
John Stockton 1994 UTA 10.1 22.5 Hakeem Olajuwan
John Stockton 1996 UTA 9.8 21.9 Michael Jordan
Magic Johnson 1991 LAL 9.8 25.1 Michael Jordan
John Stockton 1993 UTA 9.8 21.3 Charles Barkley

Nash?s MVP in light of Stockton?s unheralded 88 and 90 seasons strongly suggests that the league has undergone a major shift in what it thinks an MVP is. What could account for such a shift? How could Nash win the MVP based on production that garnered Stockton all of one first place MVP vote in his superior 1990 season? I think an insightful approach is to consider the role race plays in the context of the ongoing tension between the league?s players, owners, and fans. Race, which I use here as a proxy for culture, style, and aesthetic, may be quite useful in shedding light on the climate change necessary to make MVP voters now value what Nash does.

Kansas City Star columnist and ESPN Sports Reporters panelist Jason Whitlock laid the groundwork for understanding the ongoing cultural climate change this past summer when the USA Basketball slapped Allen Iverson together with 11 virtually identical forwards from the Borg Collective and simply assumed it would win gold. As they bricked and hacked their way out of Olympic gold medal contention Whitlock speculated that many white fans actually rooted against the Olympians, or at least rooted for a style of play euphemistically labeled ?international? or ?European? to prevail. (This label has ever-shifting boundaries and is often based on some pretty crude categorizations.) This public sentiment basically represented, in Whitlock?s view, a vote of no confidence on the NBA by its white patrons. The league has unmistakably come to be seen by many as too closely associated with a hip-hop urban youth subculture whose studio thug imagery sometimes crosses the line into the real thing. In a phrase the NBA has become ?too black,? a point raised repeatedly by a wide array of commentators. Whitlock, like Le Batard, was roundly criticized for ?bringing race into it? but he was basically correct in pointing to widespread ambivalence about the league. Even while it remains popular, large sections of the NBA-watching public are criticizing the ?urban? style of play (another label, also often predicated on crude stereotypes) as overly reliant on athleticism and lacking in fundamentals. The failure of the men?s team to win was an ?I told you so? moment for this growing chorus of critics. Undeniably constructed to run fast and jump high (but apparently not shoot straight), the Olympic team?s failure turned what was a simmering cultural conflict into a full-blown cultural crisis over how the game ?should? be played. This crisis is perhaps best exemplified by the rapid disenchantment with soon to be ex-Memphis Grizzlies point guard/alter ego ?White Chocolate,? the one time hope who is now largely seen as having gone native. Fans and journalists are actively seeking something new. Or, as Neal Pollack at Slate would have us believe, the game needs saving and the ?European? style championed by the Suns is the savior.

It is only in the context of this barely-beneath-the-surface cultural battle involving players, journalists, and fans that Nash?s season could even become part of the MVP discussion. The particular merits of his performance really are not at issue. What is at issue is what the voters value at a given historical moment. It is only in a rapidly changing cultural climate that Nash?s performance could be considered the stuff of a leading man rather than merely that of a sidekick. The aesthetic or stylistic qualities of Nash?s play that have come to be seen as the cure for the league?s rampant hip-hopism are a huge part of why his season generated so much interest.

Personally, I?m glad to see that the voters can deviate from their often stilted and scripted understanding of what Most Valuable Player means. I hope awarding the MVP to Nash foreshadows a much broader consideration of what constitutes ?value? on the basketball court. I would like Nash?s MVP season to be seen by the league and fans for the outstanding performance that it was. But alas, I must confess my skepticism. I fear that awarding Nash the MVP was less a case of updating the script than replacing an old rigid script with a new one that may be just as rigid. Journalists, by rewarding the best player whose style fit their aesthetic preference, may simply have been firing a shot in an ongoing culture war rather than truly expanding what can be considered MVP worthy. That is, since Nash is the antithesis of the hip-hop teenie-boppers so many journalists swear are killing the game I fear they?ve simply fixed the intelligence around the policy so to speak, substituting their sense of style for analysis. (The graceful Nash represents what the game should be and how it should be played.) As a fan I?ve made my peace long ago with the fact that awards handed out by journalists for anything other than journalism will inherently favor whatever passes for ?good copy? over good analysis. I have learned merely to hope that analysis won?t be asked to leave the room.

At the end of the day what I find most disturbing is how these currently competing basketball aesthetics (the so-called European and urban styles) are so highly reliant on cultural fictions and stereotypes their supporters appear blind to how each style informs the other. As a fan I?m greedy. I want to be able to appreciate the similarities and differences between Nash?s game and O?Neal?s without them needing to represent opposing cultural worlds. Maybe we could just let them represent themselves and go from there.