Saturday, January 3, 2009

Defending Steve Nash

Bill Simmons' latest magazine column about Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash is a total mess. He contradicts himself several times, and he never really ties his general theories to real-life examples. He thinks that asterisks ought to be applied to Steve Nash's two MVP seasons, because he won them while playing for Mike D'Antoni, the "Coors Field of coaches" - that is, a coach whose up-tempo style tends to improve the statistics of his players. Furthermore, Simmons says that "you're headed for trouble" anytime an NBA award is given out because there are no better candidates around. But isn't every MVP award given out because there are no better candidates? If there were better candidates, wouldn't they get the award?

Its true, as Simmons says, that we might think of Dominique Wilkins differently if he had been drafted by the Lakers (where he could play with Magic Johnson) instead of by the Hawks. We might think of Pippen differently if he hadn't had the good fortune to play with Michael Jordan (and, it must be said, for Phil Jackson). You can play the "what if" game all day. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Tim Duncan all had the good fortune to be drafted by otherwise good teams who secured a top pick because of lop-sided trades or fluke injuries, and ended up in situations conducive to success.

You can play the 'what if' game all day, but the bottom line is that James Worthy, not Dominique Wilkins, put up bit scoring numbers on his way to winning four rings with the Lakers, Pippen put up big numbers and became one of the all-time great defensive forwards on his way to winning six rings with the Bulls, and Tim Duncan became the best all-around power forward on his way to winning four championships with the Spurs. The West Coast offense may help players put up big offensive numbers, but that doesn't change the fact that nobody put up better offensive numbers than Jerry Rice. Steve Nash ran the best offense in basketball for four years, right up until his team gave away all of its depth and traded the most athletic power forward in the league for an aging, 340-pound center. Charles Barkley called Steve Nash "one bad white boy" and he has legions of admirers among the ranks of NBA coaches and players. Every player who he played with saw his scoring efficiency increase dramatically. The New York Knicks under Mike D'Antoni, by comparison, aren't playing much more efficiently than in past seasons, they're just playing at a faster tempo, which means more possessions per game and, therefore, more shots and rebounds to go around. There's a big difference.

Bottom line: Steve Nash was one of the best players in the NBA, and almost definitely the player whose team depended on him the most. If that doesn't qualify him to be an MVP, what does?

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