Duncan Out Of MVP Race As Well?

On Monday Knick fans rejoiced upon hearing of Tim Duncan’s injury, but the missed time could knock the Spurs power forward out of the running for the most valuable player award. The early reports have Duncan out from 2 weeks to the rest of the regular the season. Even though San Antonio’s pitiful performance against New York underscores Tim-may’s importance to the team, if Duncan doesn’t suit up before the playoffs, 62 games on the season won’t be enough to make him a legitimate candidate. Since Duncan was my favorite to win the most valuable player award, it might be a good time to revisit the rest of the field.

In The Paint
Dirk Nowtizki
PPG: 26.7 (3rd)
PER: 25.9 (5th)
PTS/40: 26.8
RPG: 10.1
No one else gains more from Duncan’s demise than Dirk. The Wurzburg sharpshooter can’t seem to get out of the Big Fundamental’s shadow. Of all the places Nowiztki had to settle, he picked the one state where the other foreign born 7-foot power forward resides with his two rings and two MVPs. The easiest way for Dirk to get some recognition is for the Mavericks to overtake the Spurs in Duncan’s absence. If Dallas wins the Southwest, Dirk would be a prime MVP candidate.

Steve Nash
PPG: 16.0
PER: 22.8 (12th)
PTS/40: 18.5
APG: 11.5
When Nash missed 3 games in January and the Suns lost all of them, everyone jumped on the Steve Nash for MVP bandwagon. However when he missed three more a month later, it did more to hurt his status than help. The Suns went 2-1 including a victory in Dallas, and the second injury brought up questions about Nash’s durability. While there are intelligent arguments that support Nash’s MVP credentials, the more popular argument is that the Suns miraculous improvement is solely due to Steve Nash’s greatness. Nash could win the award by staying healthy and the Suns winning home field in the West.

Driving Towards the Lane
PPG: 22.7 (12th)
PER 27.3 (3rd)
PTS/40: 26.5
RPG: 10.4
If Dirk or Nash falters down the stretch, the default vote may go to the big guy. Shaq’s health is usually a concern, but the Diesel has only missed 4 games on the season. The Heat resurgence is largely credited to O’Neal and that they have the NBA’s top record is the icing on the cake. Even though he’s not the dominating force he was once, Shaq is still one of the league’s best players. One question that could make the Big Aristotle a better candidate is if voters ask themselves “if Nash and Dirk are both leading MVP candidates, then why didn’t they accomplish more when they were together in Dallas?”

Eighteen Footer
LeBron James
PPG: 26.3 (4th)
PER: 26.5 (5th)
PTS/40: 25.2
RPG: 7.1
APG: 7.4
Just look at those numbers, and then remember to drink legally James has to fly to Mexico. Voters tend to remember the latter part of the season more than the earlier, which is unfortunate for LeBron. If Mt. Mutombo’s judo chop/rebound landed this month instead of earlier in the year, LeBron’s Phantom of the Opera performance would be fresh enough in people’s mind to move him up a few spots. While voters might hold Cleveland’s recent slide and the coaching fiasco against him, ‘Bron really didn’t have much to do with either. The Boy King has upped his scoring in March (32 PPG) including 56 in a losing effort versus Toronto, and can he be blamed for Paul Silas not being able to keep straight which of Jeff McInnis or Eric Snow is the one he can’t stand?

Beyond the Arc
Amare Stoudemire
PPG: 26.1 (5th)
PER: 26.9 (4th)
PTS/40: 28.7 (1st)
RPG: 8.5
Dwayne Wade
PPG: 23.9
PER: 24.2 (7th)
PTS/40: 24.7
RPG: 7.0
APG: 5.2
Personally I’d put Amare the Great ahead of Wade. He’s hasn’t missed any games, has a higher PER, and leads the league in scoring per minute. Each player is the high scorer on an elite team, but both are being overshadowed by teammates. With all the hype surrounding Shaq and Nash reviving their respective franchises, neither will be able to win the award without a miracle.

Heave From MidCourt
Allen Iverson
PPG: 30.3 (1st)
PER: 23.3 (9th)
PTS/40: 28.6 (2nd)
APG: 7.7
Wasn’t getting Webber suppose to make Philadelphia a contender? A.I. might be in the top 4 if the Sixers were atop the Atlantic. Not being able to win the worst division in the league doesn’t earn him many votes, leading per game scorer or not.

Kevin Garnett
PPG: 22.5
PER: 28.5 (1st)
PTS/40: 23.2
RPG: 13.9
K.G. has virtually the same stats this year as last, but the T-Wolves are mired at .500. What does that say about the MVP being an individual award?

Zeke’s Eye For The Draftee Guy

Being maxxed out on cap space and having little left in trade bait, the Knicks future is directly tied to the draft. If New York is this bad next year, they’ll have two mid/high lottery picks and two very late first rounders in which to improve their team. Although the Knicks have had recent success in the draft with Sweetney and Ariza, their history has been more Jerrod Mustaf than Charlie Ward. A few infamous moments in New York draft history over the last decade:

2002 – Knicks trade the #7 pick, Nene Hilario, for Antonio McDyess, and then select Milos Vujanic in the second round. McDyess plays 18 games total in a Knick uniform, exactly 18 more than Vujanic plays in the NBA.
1999 – Knicks select Frederick Weis with the 15th pick while New York City born Ron Artest from St. John’s University, who lives 7 subway stops away from MSG, is still avilable. Artest wins defensive player of the year then goes crazy pondering why the Knicks selected Weis.
1996 – New York has three picks from 19-22. Those three players selected play a total of 103 games for New York. The person selected in between those three: 2-time All Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

While Isiah didn’t commit these atrocities, and with the Knicks’ future directly tied into his ability to draft, we should take a look at Zeke’s track record. When Thomas was the expansion Raptors GM, he participated in three drafts. In 1995 Isiah had the 7th spot. During the draft Toronto fans were cheering for Ed O’Bannon, who led the UCLA Bruins to the national championship. O’Bannon was awarded the NCAA tournament MVP & was the National Player of the Year. Instead Isiah drafted Damon Stoudamire from Arizona. The next year, the Raptors GM opted for the Unanimous Player of the Year and selected Marcus Camby with the #2 overall pick. In 1997, Thomas’ last year as Toronto GM, he took a chance on a high school player named Tracy McGrady at #9.

To take an objective look at these picks, let’s take the career PER of the players surrounding Isiah’s picks.

No Player Career PER
1 Joe Smith 15.7
2 Antonio McDyess 18.7
3 J. Stackhouse 17.4
4 Rasheed Wallace 17.7
5 Kevin Garnett 23.0
6 Bryant Reeves 13.8
7 D. Stoudamire 17.4
8 Shawn Respert 11.6
9 Ed O'Bannon 9.1
10 Kurt Thomas 14.9
11 Gary Trent 15.9
12 Cherokee Parks 12.0
13 C. Williamson 15.3

Although the draft had some great players early on, by the time Toronto’s turn had arrived the pickins were slim. With the 7th pick, Isiah got the best person available, Damon Stoudamire. “Mighty Mouse” played well for the Raptors as a young point guard, but his career tailed off after he was traded to Portland. Selecting Respert or O’Bannon would have been a mistake. Kurt Thomas was still a risky pick, considering he missed a whole year at TCU due to an injury, and would miss serious time his first three years in the NBA as well.

No Player Career PER
1 Allen Iverson 20.9
2 Marcus Camby 17.9
3 S. Abdur-Rahim 19.8
4 Stephon Marbury 19.4
5 Ray Allen 19.7
6 Antoine Walker 16.9
7 Lorenzen Wright 14.2

Not listed here are three excellent guys that went 13-15: Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic, and Steve Nash. If the draft were held with today’s knowledge, those three middle picks along with Iverson and Ray Allen would comprise the top 5. Clearly there were better players available in the draft than Camby, however getting someone that put up a 17.9 career PER isn’t a total disaster. Camby never fulfilled his potential in Toronto, but in New York he replaced the injured Patrick Ewing and was a large contributor in the 8th seed Knicks getting to the NBA Finals. In hindsight, with such a deep draft getting Marcus Camby with the #2 pick was a sub-par selection.

No Player Career PER
1 Tim Duncan 25.1
2 Keith Van Horn 17.1
3 C. Billups 16.7
4 A. Daniels 14.4
5 Tony Battie 14.3
6 Ron Mercer 12.6
7 Tim Thomas 14.8
8 Adonal Foyle 12.8
9 Tracy McGrady 24.4
10 Danny Fortson 16.6
11 T. Abdul-Wahad 11.4
12 Austin Croshere 14.8
13 Derek Anderson 16.3
14 Maurice Taylor 14.1

Even Isiah’s biggest nemesis has to admit that Toronto had the steal of the 1997 draft. Despite only playing 18 minutes a game, McGrady had a PER of 17.4 his first year. By his second season, he still didn’t see much time (23 min/g) despite seeing a marked improvement in his production (20.6). Obviously, the young McGrady was just oozing with talent.

Not listed above are any of second round selections. To round out Isiah’s career, we can add: Jimmy King (1995 #35) and Trevor Ariza (2004 #43). While we can throw King in the bust pile, Ariza was certainly the best player available at #43, and maybe the best second rounder taken (or at least the best not named Anderson Varej?o).

So Isiah’s draft report card looks like this:

1 player who was the steal of the draft (McGrady)
2 players that were the best picks available (Ariza & Stoudamire)
1 second round bust (Jimmy King)
1 overall #2 bust, yet serviceable player (Marcus Camby)

While Thomas’s track record is favorable, his past is a small sample size which may not indicate future successes. Knowing Isiah’s method, whether it be scientific, scouting, or dart board, would make it easier to judge his ability. However, the Knicks President’s draft history makes me more comfortable with the Knicks’ future than if Pete Babcock, John Gabriel, or Garry St. Jean were the man in charge.

“So when can I expect your post evaluating the Sonics’ title chances?”

That was the question asked of me in the middle of February by Kevin Pelton. You might remember Mr. Pelton from such KnickerBlogger guest posts as “Steve Nash For MVP?” and a 6 part “Knicks Roster Analysis” during last summer. Two weeks prior, I named 5 teams I thought could win the championship: the Spurs, Heat, Suns, Mavericks, and Pistons. Despite their record, Seattle didn’t make the cut. So I guess I owe my guest blogger and the rest of Sonic-nation a little explanation.

Admittedly, Seattle has a lot going for it this year. They hold the 4th best record in the league, are second in the NBA on offense, and have more depth than the Suns or Heat. Since they hired the premier mind in the basketball statistical community, you’d think a APBRmetric blogger would take to them like Michael Jackson to a lollipop convention (and that’s the last one of those jokes, ever). However the “APBRSonics” have one big weakness, their defense.

Currently Seattle’s defense is a pitiful 25th, allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions. To put that in context, they rank just above the Lakers, Hornets and Knicks, which is not exactly championship territory. The Sonics have success with shutting down guards, but visiting big men are lighting up the Northwestern sky. Just take a look at the shooting percentage by position:

PG .453
SG .468
SF .499
PF .513
C .545

It’s certainly obvious that the Sonics have trouble handling taller players. Radmanovic, Fortson, and Evans have unique skills on the offensive end, but none are good defenders. Seattle’s other frontcourt players, Collision and James, are foul prone as both average more than 8.5 infractions per 40 minutes. Seattle’s front office should be commended for having such depth at the 4 & 5, but so far they haven’t been able to put forth a good defensive effort.

Which brings us back to the point at hand: can the Sonics win the championship with their defense? To answer the question, we should take a look at what kinds of teams take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Scanning over the last 20 years, only one champion has had a sub par defense. If we broaden our scope to include runner-ups, 2 more teams emerge.

The 1986 Rockets lost in 6 to the Celtics, but with their 15th ranked defense (out of 23 teams) they were lucky to make it that far. While the Rockets had to beat a superior team in the Lakers that year (.756 win%), no other West team had better than a .600 winning percentage. Having a dominant East and a weak West gave Houston an easier path to the Finals. This year’s Sonics isn’t comparable to those Rockets, because Seattle faces a tougher road to the finals, since they will likely have to beat two top teams (the Spurs and Suns).

One more difference between the 1986 Rockets and the 2005 Sonics is that Houston made a late season change which radically altered their defensive outlook. Point guard Allen Leavell broke his wrist midseason, and Coach Bill Fitch turned to 6’8 Robert Reid, where his obvious size advantage helped solidify the defense. While smaller guards might have been able to drive past Reid, twin towers Olajuwon and Sampson were behind him to deal with such matters. Unlike this Houston team, Seattle is strong in the backcourt and weak in the frontcourt.

It would be 12 years before another mediocre defensive team would make a Finals appearance. The 1998 Jazz, like the 2005 Sonics, had tough division rivals. Five Western teams finished with a winning percentage of .680 or better. Utah did have two advantages the Sonics won’t. First and most importantly, they had home court advantage throughout the playoffs. Secondly Stockton, Malone, and company had the league’s best offense. In fact the team that most resembles this Utah club is not the Sonics, but rather the Suns. Currently Phoenix is neck & neck with San Antonio for the #1 spot in the West, they have the NBA’s #1 offense, and their defense is closer to the median. If the Suns can get home field throughout the playoffs, they can look back at this Jazz team for inspiration.

The most recent team in this micro-study is the 2001 Lakers. The middle of the threepeat dynasty’s defense was a pitiful 19th during the regular season. This seems to be a bit of an outlier, because the year before Los Angeles had the NBA’s best defense, and the year after ranked a respectable 7th. Like the 1986 Rockets, the team was reconstructed as the season wore on. For the playoffs, the Zen Master sat guys like Isiah Rider, Ron Harper, and Horace Grant in favor of better defenders Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Robert Horry.

During the playoffs, the Lakers defense stepped up to the task enabling them to sweep a statistically superior team. In the 2001 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs scored 90 once, and didn’t break 83 in any of the other games. While Duncan had a 40 point outburst in the second game, Los Angeles allowed only one other player to score more than 8 points. In the final two games, they held the Big Fundamental to an average of 12 points. It appears that the Lakers played better in the playoffs, whether by better effort or by personnel changes. Of these three historical teams, the 2001 Lakers team most resembles today’s Sonics. That Seattle has so much depth means they could do the same, based on opponent.

That only 3 teams out of 40 have gone to the Finals doesn’t speak extraordinarily well of the Sonics chances. However, it also means that a flawed team can make it to the ultimate round if they receive a good defensive effort in the playoffs. Seattle’s one hope is that they have matched up well against the best teams in the league. Against my top 5 the Sonics are an impressive 7-4, and consider that they have gone 4-0 with Ray Allen in the lineup against the NBA’s two favorites (Miami & San Antonio). To do that with a statistically inferior team means you’re either lucky, or you’re doing a phenomenal job in matching up against great teams. Although it’s the players that earn the victory on the court, if the Seattle SuperSonics prosper in the playoffs it will be a credit to their coaching staff and scouts.

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.

Knicks Improvement From An Unlikely Source

Whether or not you cared for Isiah’s trade deadline moves, there is one thing that everyone agreed on. Trading Nazr Mohammed for two undersized forwards would make the Knicks worse down the stretch. It was the equivalent of running up the white flag on the 2005 season. However, a funny thing happened as teams made their way to the Garden. The Knicks have sent three straight opponents home with losses.

While all three of their opponents are still in the playoff hunt, none would be considered great teams. In addition, each team was missing a player due to trade or injury. Indiana was without injured Jamal Tinsley, Philly was without newly acquired Chris Webber, and the Lakers, based on a Jack Haley report, were still waiting for Carlos Boozer to report.

The best player Isiah acquired was Malik Rose, an undersized power forward known for his defense & rebounding. However neither attribute led them to victory in the three games. Other than the Pacer game, the Knicks didn’t hold any of their opponents under the league average shooting percentage nor did they outrebound them. However the Knicks have received a boost on the offensive end, with an effective shooting percentage of 50% or greater in each game. That mark is so good, if they did that on the year the Knicks would rank 5th, just above sharp shooting Sacramento.

OPP     OPP      NYK    OPP      NYK 

PHI 49.4% 56.8% 29.5% 27.8%
IND 44.5% 50.0% 13.9% 30.8%
LAL 51.2% 54.0% 30.4% 21.7%

Instead of getting this resurgence from one of their newcomers, New York’s offense received a shot in the arm from one of their forgotten players: Tim Thomas. Back in November, I wrote an overly exuberant and hasty entry titled “Welcome Back Tim Thomas.” But by January Thomas was still in a funk, only firing at 45.2% (eFG) well below his career mark of 49.5%. During the last three games Thomas has been en fuego, averaging 24.3 points per game. Since January Thomas’ shooting has gone up 2.5% and now stands at 47.7%.

I’ll wait until the offseason before I declare Thomas cured a second time. All year long Thomas has suffered from one malady or another. From the preseason tragedies, including two deaths in the family and a sick mother, to the recent spat of injuries, Thomas has had it rough. Should the Knicks small forward recover his stroke, it would be a bittersweet pill for Knick fans to swallow. While it’s great that Thomas is making himself useful, his revival might mean less minutes for wunderkind and fan favorite Trevor Ariza. With New Yorkers having little to look forward to until the lottery, many will wonder where Tiny Tim was during their 4-18 start to 2005.

It’s certainly possible that the Knicks might show improvement down the stretch. Malik Rose has already made a positive contribution in just a few minutes, and Mike Sweetney unleashed move after move on the helpless Laker frontcourt. (It just wouldn’t be a KnickerBlogger post without a positive line about Sweet-N-Low.) However with only 25 games to go, New York would have to play as good as the Pistons (64%) just to make even. Just because the Knicks playoff hopes has already set sail, it doesn’t mean they can’t improve on a woeful season.

Stay tuned for tomorrow, when Part 2 of Kevin Pelton’s fantastic analysis of Steve Nash’s MVP candidacy will continue.

Steve Nash For MVP? (Part I)

[Today’s column is brought to us from KnickerBlogger Head West Coast Analyst Kevin Pelton, who 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.]

When Steve Nash unofficially ascended to the role of NBA MVP candidate, if not favorite, early this season, the response of the statistical community that follows the league was more indifference than the harsh criticism heaped on Allen Iverson’s 2000-01 selection or Jason Kidd’s candidacy the following season.

Still, you could probably find more APBRmetricians who believe the moon landing wasn’t real than those who will be planting “Nash for MVP” signs in their front yards. About a month ago, my gracious host posted a poll at the APBRmetrics message board querying posters on their first-half MVPs. 20 people voted, and nary a one selected Nash.

Personally, I voted for Tim Duncan, with Kevin Garnett second. Over the last month, however, Nash for MVP has been knawing at me a little bit. Were we all too quick to judge because Nash’s PER isn’t up to snuff, or because we’re tired of the overly simplistic arguments about how Team X was bad before adding Player Y and is now outstanding? If Nash isn’t a serious, serious MVP candidate this year, can any point guard ever be?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how good Nash’s season really is in terms of assists. Nash’s 11.5 assists per game are the best in the NBA since Mark Jackson averaged 11.4 in the 1996-97 season, but he won’t even get the Suns record for assists per game without a remarkable run. (It’s owned by Kevin Johnson, who averaged 12.2 assists in 1988-89, setting up a pair of players who averaged 20 points per game, Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson. KJ himself added 20 ppg as well.)

To level the playing field, I’m going to borrow from baseball analysts. In baseball, two things have to be corrected for: Park effects and league context. In basketball, pace factor replaces park effects. The first step, then, is calculating assists per possession. Nash is averaging assists on 16.2% of the possessions he’s played this season. Johnson, by comparison, had assists on just 13.6% of his possessions in 1988-89.

In 2004-05, the average NBA player gets an assist on 4.5% of his possessions; in 1988-89, that mark was 4.9%. So if we divide Johnson’s rate by the ’89 average and multiply it by the ’05 average, his 2004-05 assist rate is 12.9%. That’s a relatively meaningless stat, so what I’ve done is translate it to assists per game, assuming 96 possessions per game (two for each team every minute) and 32 minutes per game. By this standard, Nash averages 10.4 assists per game. (His average goes down because he plays more minutes and for a team playing at the league’s fastest pace.) Johnson’s average takes a much bigger hit, down to 8.2 assists per game.

If you had more free time than I have (and the length of my columns has in the past drawn suggestions I have too much time on my hands as is), you could with the help of Basketball-Reference.com calculate this equivalent assist average for NBA player dating back to 1973-74. (It would be impossible before that because team turnovers were not tracked, meaning no ability to determine possessions.) I didn’t do that, but I picked out the best 50 or so passing seasons of the past three decades and translated them. Here’s the leaderboard from amongst that group:

Player        Year  Team  05APG
John Stockton 1990 UTA 12.0
John Stockton 1988 UTA 11.5
John Stockton 1991 UTA 10.9
John Stockton 1992 UTA 10.8
John Stockton 1995 UTA 10.6
Steve Nash 2005 PHO 10.4
John Stockton 1994 UTA 10.1
John Stockton 1996 UTA 9.8
Magic Johnson 1991 LAL 9.8
John Stockton 1993 UTA 9.8

I believe the technical term for that list is “select company”. Steve Nash is, at the moment, having the best passing season of the last 30 years put together by a player not named “John Stockton”. When you consider what an efficient scorer Nash is as well, you could drop his line this season into the middle of Stockton’s career, adjust for league and pace, and I doubt anyone would be the wiser.

Using my similarity system, 13 of the top 15 comparable seasons for Nash 04-05 were posted by Stockton, including the top five. It’s worth pointing out that Stockton only topped Nash’s 04-05 PER (23.35) twice during his career.

Check back Wednesday as Part II of this column looks more carefully at Nash’s MVP credentials.

All Star Game MVP Odds

G *Allen Iverson
G *LeBron James
F *Grant Hill
F *Vince Carter
C *Shaquille O’Neal
F Antawn Jamison
F Ben Wallace
G Dwyane Wade
G Gilbert Arenas
F Jermaine O’Neal
F Paul Pierce
C Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Shaq – None of the West’s centers other than Yao matchup physically against the Big Diesel. Working against Shaq is his jovial nature. Usually the Big Diesel works better with a little motivation, but everything is coming up roses for Shaq. His team is thriving after the Laker’s divorce, and he just won his second ASG MVP last year.
MVP Probability: Low

Allen Iverson – The recognition he earned as the 2001 All Star MVP game helped him win the MVP on the season. Iverson’s “street cred” and Mighty Mouse style gives him loads of respect among the players. Remember Shaq saying he was one of the 5 best players of all time? As the starting PG, AI will have the ball in his hands and can control the game.
MVP Probability: High

LeBron James – Twenty years ago Ralph Sampson won the All Star MVP in his second season, so it wouldn’t be surprising if James pulled it off in his sophomore year. LeBron’s affable personality will keep him from a Jordan-esque lock out. However at 19 years, the other players may figure that he’s got plenty of time to get his accolade, and not share the ball with the boy king.
MVP Probability: Medium

Grant Hill – Wouldn’t that be a nice story?
MVP Probability: Low

Dwayne Wade – Similar to LeBron, but James doesn’t have to live under Wade’s shadow. Dwayne has one edge that LeBron doesn’t. If Shaq is in a charitable mood, he might be willing to play the two man game with Wade to aid his teammate win the MVP.
MVP Probability: Medium

Jermaine O’Neal – After a disastrous season, it would be a nice gesture from the rest of the players to feed J.O. the ball. He should get plenty of minutes. The West has 6 power forwards, and other than Ben Wallace, the East doesn’t have another PF to match up against a bigger team. I know the All Star Game is a veritable points orgy, but how long can the East stay with Hill & Carter guarding Duncan and Garnett?
MVP Probability: Low

G *Kobe Bryant
G *Tracy McGrady
F *Kevin Garnett
F *Tim Duncan
C *Yao Ming
F Amar? Stoudemire
F Dirk Nowitzki
F Manu Ginobili
F Rashard Lewis
G Ray Allen
F Shawn Marion
G Steve Nash

Kobe Bryant – After driving Phil & Shaq away and turning the Lakers from championship contenders to a .500 team, no one has more to prove. Other than Nash, there isn’t another PG on the team. Bryant will have the ball enough to be as greedy as he wants.
MVP Probability: Medium

Yao Ming – Even among NBA All Stars, the 7-5 Yao sticks out.
MVP Probability: Medium

Steve Nash & Dirk Nowitzki – Both are MVP candidates, whose teams are performing better than expected. The difference between the two is there are about 5 forward/centers on the West, while Nash is the only true point guard.
Nash: MVP Probability: High
Dirk: MVP Probability: Low

Tracy McGrady & K.G – The anti-Nash & Dirk. Both aren’t MVP candidates, whose teams are worse than expected. However both are too talented to be ignored.
MVP Probability: Low

The MVP is tied to whichever team wins. If the East wins, I think Iverson is most likely to take the award. With little defense being played, AI should have an easier time getting to the hoop. If the West wins, Nash only needs double digit assists to take the award. The way I see it, it’s a point guard’s year.