King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Nash vs. Shaq, racism vs. meritocracy, "most valuable" vs. "best": The readers write.

By Salon Staff
Published May 11, 2005 7:00PM (EDT)

They finally played a decent game in the second round of the playoffs Tuesday night. The Wizards gave the Heat a game before falling 108-102, victims to Dwyane Wade's 31 points and 15 assists.

The Spurs pounded the Sonics again, 108-91, to likewise take a 2-0 series lead. Even with that close-ish Wiz-Heat game Tuesday, the average margin of victory in the six games of this round so far has been 17.3 points. Without that game, it's 19.6. The Wiz and Heat broke a string of six straight blowouts in the playoffs, dating back to Saturday's anticlimactic Round 1 Game 7's. The Spurs and Sonics started a new streak.

So let's talk about something else, but first: How about that Dwyane Wade? Here's a list of the other five guys in NBA history who have scored 30 points and dished 15 assists in a playoff game: Walt Frazier, Allen Iverson, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West.

Notice anything about that bunch?

What we're going to talk about instead of Round 2 blowouts is Steve Nash's MVP award, again. You have your thoughts, which are pretty interesting, so let's get to them.

But first -- turning into kind of a bad vaudeville routine, isn't it? -- columnist Bob Young of the Arizona Republic wrote about that paper's beat writer, Paul Coro, polling the MVP voters before the announcement.

Coro found that Nash just edged Shaquille O'Neal among minority voters (black, Asian and Hispanic), just as he did in the overall vote, and that O'Neal won among what Young calls the 10 "old white guys" -- white male writers on the beat for at least 15 years -- who were among the voters.

Interesting stuff, and maybe telling. Maybe even a smackdown of my argument. I wonder what the minority vote looked like if you split the black voters from the other minorities. Young didn't answer an e-mail by posting time, but he didn't have much of a chance. I'll print his reply if he provides one.

So on to your letters. But first -- just kidding.

Thomas Avery: I am writing here from Suns land, Phoenix. Nice try. There is not one shred of evidence that race had anything to do with Steve Nash's MVP award. Nash is not one dimensional, as the Miami guy [Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald] said (sour grapes of course). Nash can score threes, dish to everyone, play defense and can score in the paint too. The defenders simply have no idea how to defend him because of his assist magic.

Shaq is good but he truly is one-dimensional. Hang around the basket and be the big guy. As you said, Miami got better under Shaq but there is no comparison to the turnaround and chemistry that Nash brought to the Suns.

And you mentioned Amare Stoudemire. He will be the next Shaq. He is still a young man but becoming dominant and unafraid. But I guess he will never be MVP because he is not white. What nonsense.

Greg Dodds: Did you watch the Suns last year? All gas pedal and no steering wheel. In Nash they found someone who is top-five in assist-to-turnover ratio while playing frenetic up-tempo Western hoop. Guess who else is in the top five? Dwyane Wade. Did Shaq in the post somehow help Wade with that?

Quick King reply: Hell yes.

So is Nash the best player in the NBA? God, no. He's not even the best white player in the NBA. Is he the most valuable to his team? Absolutely.

As for the question of whiteness: Let's leave the judgments of racism to those who are actually affected by it, not the white guys like you, me or Dan Le Batard. We love sports, but why do we take something that is clearly one of the few meritocracies (on a player-level) and view it through a racist lens?

King replies: MVP voting, which is subjective, is hardly a clear meritocracy. Ask Ted Williams.

Although there's been a lot of defensive shouting in the media in the last three days that Le Batard was off his rocker and race played no part in the MVP vote, I was surprised to find my readers, who often jump on me over this subject, not doing so this time.

I got a higher percentage of letters than I expected agreeing with my take on the racial issue -- I don't like to publish amen letters -- and fewer overall than I expected to get on it. Instead, people wanted to talk about the on-court stuff. Did Nash or O'Neal deserve the MVP award?

Bert Tipton: The best player in a game or league is not always the most valuable to his team. Try watching some hockey, where the goalie wins most valuable with no goals. Baseball, where the player strikes out three times, then hits a grand slam to win the game.

Matthew Roumain: Is it called the Most Valuable Player award or the Best Player Award? Nash brought the greatest amount of value to his team during the regular season, which is what I believe the award is for (although I think the voters cast their ballots for the "best" player).

His presence, attitude and playmaking ability allowed his teammates to all have some of their best seasons to date. Conversely, when he was hurt in January the Suns looked a lot like they did last year: Horrible. Nash is not the best player in the league, he's not in the top 10, but the value that he offers the Suns was unmatched.

King replies: This argument of "most valuable" vs. "best" comes up whenever we talk about MVP awards in this column, which we do a lot because the subject amuses me. I believe "most valuable" equals "best."

First, let's discount what happens to the Suns when Nash is out of the lineup. The point guard is the quarterback. He runs the show. Of course the team is going to be most affected when he's out of the lineup, even if he's not the best player. Any team with a good point guard looks horrible without him.

So let's take Tipton's baseball example. That guy who hit the grand slam -- was his team down by three? What if he'd still hit the homer, but two guys in front of him had made outs instead of getting on base? Would he have been less valuable then? He did the same thing, but his team lost by one.

What this argument says is that the guy gained value because of something his teammates did that had nothing to do with him. I think that's nonsense. He struck out three times and hit a home run. That's how good he is.

Turning to basketball, Nash is valuable to his team to the extent that he's a good player, which is to say very valuable. But he didn't single-handedly win 62 games for the Suns. His teammates played well too. What if they'd only played well enough to win 50 games and earn Phoenix the sixth seed in the West? Would Nash have been less valuable because his teammates weren't as good?

Here's what I mean: Amare Stoudemire went from playing 55 games to playing 80, while improving from a good player to one of the league's very few elite. Part of his improvement can be attributed to having the brilliant Nash as his point guard, but a whole lot of it can be attributed to the fact that he's a tremendous talent who turned 22 during the season and was healthy. He was scheduled to improve a lot with or without Nash.

But if Stoudemire hadn't improved so much, or had gotten injured again, and the Suns had won only 50 games, then Nash wouldn't have been the MVP. Nobody's giving that award to a guy on a team that barely makes the playoffs.

So really what happened was that Stoudemire won the MVP for Nash.

Again, I think that's nonsense. But I think that's where the argument that "most valuable" and "best" are somehow different gets you. The most valuable player is the best one. Players have value to the extent that they're good players. Nash is very valuable because he's a very good player. But he's not the best player, as he admits himself. And therefore he's not the most valuable.

C.R.: There is never, ever, any particular or consistent logic to the selection of a league MVP. Sometimes the voters get it right, but if so it's a lucky guess. Generally the award goes to the person who's made the biggest headlines, regardless of whether the performance was actually all that wonderful.

Remember the idiotic Shannon Stewart candidacy [in baseball] two years ago? It was bizarre, but I don't doubt that Stewart would have won had he been traded to the Twins earlier in the season.

King replies: There does seem to be a meme that arises around a certain player some years in various sports. You look up one day in the second half of the season and everyone's talking about how a certain guy is having an MVP season, even if others are playing better, and even if the player in question has had better years, or will have better years in the future without a whiff of MVP talk. Charles Barkley comes to mind. Miguel Tejada. Ichiro.

Then the season ends and, voilà, your man is a shoo-in.

Kurt Behn: It seems to me that "most valuable player" is an appropriate value-tag for these awards. It's not really any fun to give it to Shaq every year just because he's something this league has never seen before. To me it's an expectations game -- at this point Shaq (and others) is supposed to carry a team on his back, so he might have to do more if he's gonna win an MVP.

Whereas Nash's contribution may have so exceeded what was expected, he was much more valuable (in a dollars and cents kinda way) to the Suns. Who knows, though. Maybe it's because he's white.

King replies: The Suns signed Nash for $66 million over six years. That's not Shaq money but it's good money. Seems to me they were expecting a lot from him, especially when you consider that Nash was 30 when he signed, so the Suns can't realistically expect more than three or four good years out of Nash.

Unless Nash displays John Stocktonesque superhuman longevity, the Suns will be paying serious coin for Nash's big year this season, and the two or three good ones he figures to have left.

Jaemark Tordecilla: What I like most about Nash winning is that this kind of decision by the voters is completely out-of-the-box, and is certainly unconventional. People always bring up the argument that guys like Stockton, Jason Kidd and even Isiah Thomas never won the MVP, so neither should Nash, but then again, maybe those guys should have.

I think it's very encouraging and healthy for the game of basketball that we're able to have this kind of debate, and that the media, the players and the fans alike aren't just going with stats or "star power" or history when picking the MVP, but rather on what they perceive as the impact the player has on the game.

King replies: An excellent point. And I'm glad you mentioned Kidd, who three years ago did something very similar to what Nash did this year. He went to a doormat team, turned them into the best team in the conference -- though it was the weak East -- and did so while playing just about as well as Nash did this year offensively and much, much better defensively, not to mention rebounding like a forward.

Kidd, who is half black, didn't win the MVP. He got some votes and finished second, to be fair, but he didn't win. Isn't it interesting that when someone gets rewarded for such a season, it's a white guy? I just think that's interesting. It's not an accusation that the Klan is running wild in the NBA media. It's just something to think about.

Previous column: Steve Nash, MVP? Come on

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