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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Steve Nash for MVP? (Part II)

[This is Part II of a two-part column by KnickerBlogger Head West Coast Analyst Kevin Pelton analyzing Steve Nash's season and MVP chances. Please read Part I if you haven't already by scrolling down or clicking here. Kevin serves as the Sonics and Storm beat writer for SUPERSONICS.COM and storm.wnba.com. He formerly wrote the APBRmetric "Page 23" column for Hoopsworld.com.]

I left off Monday by drawing the conclusion that Steve Nash’s 2004-05 season is statistically very similar to John Stockton’s prime years. Based on that, it may be illuminating to look at Stockton’s MVP performance.

The short-shorted one peaked in MVP voting in 1988-89, when he finished seventh. Remarkably, during his entire Hall of Fame career, Stockton received just one first-place MVP vote. In 1989-90, after setting the all-time record for assists per game, Stockton finished ninth in MVP voting, behind Tom Chambers.

Stockton’s notable lack of MVP credit brings us back to one of the initial questions: Just what does a point guard have to do to win MVP? Oddly, at the same time Stockton was getting no MVP respect, Magic Johnson was winning the award in 1987, 1989 and 1990. Since Johnson retired, however, only four point guards – Anfernee Hardaway in 1995-96, Tim Hardaway in 1996-97, Gary Payton in 1997-98 and the aforementioned Kidd in 2001-02 – have even finished top five in MVP voting. And three of those four were high scorers.

Surely, MVP voters often come to different conclusions than the NBA’s statistical analysts. But Stockton also never finished better than sixth in the league in John Hollinger’s PER Rating. Point guards have performed even more dismally by PER, the most popular all-inclusive rating system, than in MVP voting; no point guard has finished in the top five since Johnson.

Do we, as a community of analysts, undervalue point guards and, by extension, assists? It’s a fair question to ask. Of the statistics that are actually available, there is a solid logical base for valuing everything but assists. (The logic behind the weights different analysts use can vary for things like offensive rebounds, but there is logic.) With assists? Even people like Hollinger and Dean Oliver have been forced to resort to thinking along the lines of, “How many actions in an assisted shot are performed by the shooter and how many by the passer?”

Uncertainty and undervalued aren’t the same thing, and Dan Rosenbaum has done some persuasive research that tends to indicate that assists might actually be less valuable than they’re generally credited as, at least for point guards, but I’ve yet to be completely convinced by it. I’d say I operate from the principle that all positions are equally important, and try to rate players according to that ideal. If that means more weight to assists, so be it.

(I should point out that the lack of a point guard rated as a top-flight superstar in the last 13 years doesn’t necessarily mean the position is undervalued overall, but it’s not a good sign either.)

Whatever your take, it follows logically from this discussion that responding to the Nash for MVP advocates by saying, “But his PER is only ninth in the league!” is a wholly inadequate response. PER, like all other ratings based on traditional statistics, is an abstraction of value. It’s a guess, at the end of the day. A good guess, yes, and a very useful one, but hardly proof that Nash isn’t the MVP.

While I’d say I generally favor individual statistics to plus-minus data when there is a discrepancy between the two, in this discussion plus-minus is valuable because of its inherent bias-free nature. It doesn’t care about the value of an assist or whether point guards get the credit they deserve. All plus-minus sees is whether a team is outscoring its opponents or not. The Suns quite clearly are, and they’re doing it more with Nash, who, as of Feb. 15, ranked third in the league in Roland Rating, trailing only Dirk Nowitzki and Andrei Kirilenko (whose knee injury ended any faint MVP dreams). Looking at raw +/- per 48 minutes, unadjusted for team quality, Nash again ranks third, this time trailing Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan.

(The counterpoint here has been that Nash’s backup, Leandro Barbosa, has struggled this season. Apparently tired of the bashing, Barbosa responded with 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting (although just two assists) against the L.A. Clippers last Wednesday in a game Nash missed with a strained hamstring. Either way, Barbosa can’t possibly be as bad as he’s been made out to be; at his best, he should rank in the middle of the pack amongst backup point guards.)

Stockton was always subject to something of a “chicken or egg?” debate with fellow legend Karl Malone. Most people answered Malone, which is why he won two MVPs and always dramatically outpaced Stockton in the voting. Nash has something similar with Amar? Stoudemire; how much of Stoudemire’s remarkable improvement this season is to be expected from a 22-year-old, and how much of it is due to his teammates?

Considering no young player has ever really made a comparable improvement to Stoudemire’s leap from a 47.5% field-goal percentage to 57.2% this season, clearly teammates have been a part of it. That’s not just Nash, however; Rosenbaum has pointed out how surrounding Stoudemire with shooters has made it impossible for opposing defenses to double-team him.

The best explanation I’ve heard, this one borrowed from Eric Neel, is that the Suns are like a finely-tuned engine. All of the parts have to be in place and running smoothly for the engine to work. So as much as Nash’s January injury and the Suns’ subsequent losing streak helped his MVP candidacy, the same thing might have happened had any of the Phoenix starters gone down. That’s a pretty strong argument that while the Suns are great as a team, it’s because they have lots of valuable parts, not one most valuable player.

(None of the other starters has missed a game this season, though the Suns would probably be okay without Joe Johnson or Quentin Richardson now that Jim Jackson is behind them. Turns out they might be okay without Nash too, winning two straight without him, including at Dallas, between my writing this column and its posting.)

Two days and nearly 2,000 words later, let us return to the opening question: Is Steve Nash the NBA’s MVP for the 2004-05 season? My answer, as befits a poor columnist, is “I don’t know.” That’s partially because, of course, there are still 26 games and slightly less than a third left in the Suns’ season. More importantly, however, I think persuasive arguments can be made both for and against Nash.

If today was the end of the season and, more improbably, I was an NBA MVP voter (and not indebted by virtue of my paycheck to pick Ray Allen), I’d probably vote Duncan first and Nash second, but I guarantee you this: I’d take a good hard look at Nash’s candidacy. If I leave you with nothing else, I hope I can convince you of this: Nash’s candidacy is not a simple matter, and treating it as a foregone conclusion, whether pro or con, isn’t fair to anyone involved.


I owe a massive debt of gratitude to Basketball-Reference.com, without which this column would have been impossible to research.

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