The MVP Debate: Settled

By Jerold Wells Jr.
Updated: April 19, 2005

MINNESOTA—The real MVP of the 2004/2005 NBA season is Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns and it is not even close. Before anyone asks for my resignation from Black, please read on and you might join the “Nash for MVP campaign.” There is a consensus among those who follow the NBA that the leading candidates for the brilliant merit of MVP are Nash and Miami Heat Center Shaquille O’Neal. The MVP debate is concentrated on those two individuals and deservingly so. When looking at the two leading contenders head to head the numbers do not produce a favorite. O’Neal leads the league in field goal percentage, shooting 60% from the field, and posts solid averages of 23 PPG, 10 RPG, and 2.3 BPG. Nash leads the league in assists, handing out 11 per game, and contributes a healthy 50 percent field goal percentage, which translates into 15 PPG for the season. While the numbers show outstanding season long performances from two outstanding players, deeper exploration into the effect of each player on his team shows that one player had a much more drastic impact than the other and thus deserves the title of most valuable.

Last season the Miami Heat were a playoff team. Then rookie Dwyane Wade led the squad to the postseason after starting the season 1-10. Not only did they make the playoffs, the Heat defeated the New Orleans Hornets in the first round before succumbing to the Indiana Pacers in a grand conference semi-final match-up. This year’s team will also be a playoff team, although they improved their seed among the eight teams from 4th to 1st overall. As far as the team goes, the Heat play the same type of basketball that made them a very dangerous team last year. Coach Stan Van Gundy is still a defensive minded coach and prefers to shorten the game by limiting and maximizing possessions. The most notable change would have to be the upgrade at center. Instead of Samaki Walker or Loren Woods, the Heat now a force known as “the Diesel” roaming the lane and causing problems offensively as well as defensively in the 3 second area. The addition of O’Neal to the Heat definitely took them to the next level of NBA competition and it is not hard to see why. O’Neal completely changes the dynamics of a game. Most coaches choose not to have their center embarrassed and battered while attempting to guard Shaq one-on-one so they double-team. Once the double team comes, Shaq deftly passes to open teammates who shoot, drive, or find an unguarded teammate in the event that an opponent closes on them in time. The resulting open shots and open lanes to the basket are doing wonders for the shooting percentages of Damon Jones, Eddie Jones, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem. Rebounds are much easier to come by for forwards Haslem, Shandon Anderson and Christian Laettner. It is no secret that playing alongside Shaq improves his teammates; that is the case with all great players. What gets lost in that idea is that the Heat were a good team last year. It is not as if Shaq chose to go to the Bobcats, the Hawks, the Clippers, or the Warriors. If he would have, there would be no debate as to whether he was MVP. Shaq leaving the penthouse for the outhouse and bringing a playoff atmosphere, as well as the possibility of a championship, with him would be the greatest professional basketball accomplishment since Magic Johnson winning Finals MVP as a Rookie. Instead, he went from the penthouse down a few floors, and that is not much to fuss about.

For the sake of comparison, let us consider Miami’s playoff seed from last year to that of the Phoenix Suns as a way to measure each team’s respective improvement. It might be hard to do because the Suns did not make the playoffs last year. Phoenix finished 29-53 and eliminated themselves from playoff contention shortly after the All Star break. The acronym MVP stands for Most Valuable Player. I would say that a player who changes the entire complexion and style of a team and leads the team to more wins than losses in the previous year defines the word value. Steve Nash has single handedly lifted a team from cellar dweller to a possible #1 seed in the playoffs (#2 at worst) and gives hope to a franchise that, just last year, was hopeless. Steve Nash leads a group of young, uniquely talented, players who follow his lead perfectly. Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, and Amare Stoudamire are having excellent seasons and that is due, in large part, to the ball sharing expertise of Nash. Marion, Johnson and Stoudamire were members of last year’s awful squad. Critics say that the current Suns defensive ineptitude will ultimately keep them from winning the title. To that, I say that every aspect of last year’s team was a weakness. They were horrible in transition, in the half court and on defense. In short, they were not a good team. The addition of one player has changed that completely. Watch a Suns game and you will see that Nash influences every aspect of the game. Nash precipitates all of the offensive flow as well as the unselfishness that makes them so hard to defend. As a guard, Nash rarely sees double-teams because it is awfully rare to double a guard; especially a point guard. Because of that fact Nash is one of the few players who has legitimately dominated games this year. Every other night seems to bring a double figure assist performance from him and it is a given that at least one of the Suns periphery players will erupt for 25+ each game. The fact that a player has the opportunity to turn in a game winning performance every game speaks volumes about the effectiveness of Steve Nash. Nash’s Suns are just as impressive in road games (31-9) as they are at home (30-10). Nash is the consummate leader; he provides a positive example for the Suns players to follow and he leads them effectively as their nearly identical road and home records suggest.

It would be unfair to make such a serious argument without addressing my candidate’s weakness. Nash is not a good man-to-man defender. For all of the amazing things that he can do on the court, staying in front of his man defensively is not one of them. Nash will have to address this issue because as the point guard, he sets the tone for the entire team. They follow his lead for better or for worse and that include playing high-quality defense. While I am sure that no Suns opponent includes instructions for how to deal with Nash’s defensive prowess, Nash is not the only MVP candidate with a glaring weakness. Because the comparison here is between Nash and O’Neal let us now examine Shaq’s glaring deficiency. On the season, O’Neal is a shooting 46% from the free throw line. That is right ladies and gentlemen 46%. (Steve Nash shoots a similar percentage from the 3 POINT LINE!!!! 43%) On more than one occurrence this year, Mr. O’Neal’s ineptitude at the charity stripe has cost the Miami Heat a victory. To me the most valuable player of the NBA should not be a player with a proclivity to cost his team wins due to his glaring weakness. Missing free throws in crunch time is just as costly as a turnover or an ill-advised shot. Most importantly, while Shaq is still a dominant force he is no longer the 30-point 15-rebound performer he was during the Lakers dynasty. In the past his dominance could cover up his ineptitude at the free throw line. Age withers away at the dominance of all great players and Shaq is not exception. In short, if he shot 60% from the free throw line, he would be unstoppable. He would be the MVP. He does not and therefore he is not.

Lastly, let us compare the positions that the respective MVP candidates play. Shaquille O’Neal plays center in the era of the non-center. There is no other center in the league that compares to him as an NBA pivot. While some possess the size (Yao, Erick Dampier, Eddy Curry, Brad Miller, Brendan Haywood) they do not possess the back to the basket skills, brute strength or heart to dominate around the basket like O’Neal does. He is a man among boys and he dominates them just as he should. Now consider Steve Nash. He is a small player in a league dominated by big men and remains a formidable force. In addition to his size, Nash plays a position crowded with other formidable players. In the Western Conference alone, Nash competes against Baron Davis, Andre Miller, Mike Bibby and Tony Parker. All of those players present formidable match-ups both offensively and defensively and in spite of that, Nash still puts up MVP numbers.

Steve Nash has taken a team from the brink of oblivion to the cusp of a #1 seed and is now prepping them for a playoff run. Shaquille O’Neal took a team of good players and meshed them, around his dominance, into the best team in the East. In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, the lead character viewed the existence his loved ones would lead if he were not there to affect their lives as only he could. After realizing the depth of such an idea, he became conscious of the true value his life held. Take Shaq away from the Heat and they are fighting for the 4th spot in the playoffs, and home court advantage in the first round, behind the superb play of Dwyane Wade. Take Nash away from the Suns and they are lottery bound, hoping that Jarrett Jack or Chris Paul is available when their draft pick comes around during next year’s draft. When asking who the most valuable player in the league is, it is easy to look at the obvious domination of Shaquille O’Neal. This year, look at the supremacy of Steve Nash.