With Suns' Nash resting, his MVP case gets stronger

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

April 18, 2006|By J. A. ADANDE | J. A. ADANDE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES — This falls under the category of unintended consequences. In the process of clinching a playoff berth for themselves sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers strengthened the case for Steve Nash as the NBA'S Most Valuable Player.

With Nash sitting on the Phoenix Suns' bench wearing a jeans-and-sports-coat combo, the Suns were a mess. The Lakers made them look like a lottery-bound squad instead of the Pacific Division champions. Phoenix played without a sense of purpose, had no team identity. It was like watching The Sopranos crew while Tony was laid up in the hospital.

Nash's impact is so big that his absence because of a thigh injury hurt Kobe Bryant's MVP candidacy. Since the Steve-less Suns couldn't keep the game close, Bryant (43 points) sat out the final six minutes and didn't get the chance to post another, potentially influential, 50-point performance. Instead of hearing chants of "M-V-P" in the waning moments, any voting media member who tuned in heard "We want tacos."

Because the Lakers held the Suns below 90 points in the 109-89 victory, public announcer Lawrence Tanter told the fans they'd receive two free tacos at a fast-food restaurant.

That took priority over the fact the Lakers had just secured a spot in the playoffs. Maybe it's because the opening round feels like it will be a quick drive-through instead of the first course of the lavish postseason meals we used to feast on here. There wasn't too much exuberance in the Lakers' locker room. This is a franchise that doesn't celebrate the ordinary.

"It's a step in the right direction," Bryant said.

And Bryant made a leap back into the good side of the sporting public's opinion. However, good first steps are not the stuff of MVP awards. Best player? Bryant established himself as that. But in the history of the league there have probably been as many times when the best player did not win the MVP as when he did.

What's the difference? How should we define an MVP? I liked Phil Jackson's take.

"I think the Most Valuable Player has to bring his team to a certain sense of excellence," the Lakers coach said.

And it usually involves bringing a team a division championship, at the very least.

At its simplest, basketball is about creating better shot opportunities for yourself than your opponents, which gives your team a better chance to win. That's reflected in field-goal percentage and victories. The magic number for MVPs is 50. Fifty victories, 50 percent shooting.

Since the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era began in 1979-80 (which I mark as the start of the superstar-oriented NBA) the past 26 MVPs have reached at least one of those numbers. Seventeen of them have hit both.

Bryant is shooting 45 percent, and the Lakers can get 45 wins if they beat the New Orleans Hornets tomorrow night. For all that he's done, it's not enough to overcome a quarter-century of history.

Bryant's 35-points-per-game season, in which he has six 50-point games, evokes comparisons to Michael Jordan's 1986-87 season, when Jordan hit the 50 mark eight times and averaged 37.1 points. But the Bulls had a 40-42 record that season and Johnson won the MVP award by averaging 23.9 points, 12.2 assists and 6.3 rebounds while leading the Lakers to a 65-17 record.

After Sunday's game, I asked Hubie Brown to recap the MVP analysis he did for ABC's broadcast.

"I'm picking Steve Nash," Brown said. "The reason, I said, they have seven new guys, six of them in their top eight scoring, seven guys have had career years. I said he's answered the bell.

"He shot 50 percent [from the field], 40 percent [on three-pointers] and 92 percent [from the free-throw line]. Only three other guys in the history of the game have done that: Bird, Reggie Miller and Mark Price. So I said: You have to understand what he's doing. The team won 62 games last year, they won 52 already this year and they still have not had Kurt Thomas [for 27 games] or [Amare] Stoudemire [for 77 games]."

I spent Sunday morning going over this confusing race and arrived at Nash as well.

While Bryant has the advantage of willpower, he also has the luxury of volume; he has taken almost 300 more shots this season compared to runner-up Allen Iverson. (Iverson's 42 percent shooting in 2000-01 is the only MVP winner since 1980 to shoot lower than Bryant's number this season.) Nash won the MVP with averages of 15.5 points and 11.5 assists last year. This season he's at 19 points and 10.5 assists.

You'd have to go back a few years to find an MVP from a team that won fewer than 50 games and lost in the first round of the playoffs: the Houston Rockets' Moses Malone in 1981-82.

If I felt better about the Lakers' chances in the first round, I'd feel better about naming Bryant the MVP.

It's possible that an extraordinary effort by Bryant could lift his inexperienced squad past the Suns. That's what this season has been about for him: stretching the imagination, bringing everything in play. A hundred points? Outscoring an opponent single-handedly? It could happen.

But the MVP isn't about possibility. It's about production and results over the course of the season. Even on a day when the Lakers achieved an important milestone, it made you realize what they haven't done.

J.A. Adande writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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