Giving the Selection Some Value

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Too often now sports arguments involve not just stating the case on behalf of one candidate but trashing the other, as if it's national politics. This is particularly disappointing in Shaquille O'Neal vs. Steve Nash for MVP of the NBA because there's no sensible case to be made against Nash and no sensible case to be made against Shaq.

If I had a vote, and I don't, I'd have cast it for Nash, who after leaving Dallas and signing with Phoenix as a free agent took the Suns from the draft lottery to the best record in basketball. This doesn't mean I don't think Shaq is the most dominant player in the game, because he is, or that Shaq isn't often taken for granted in these MVP votes, because he is. Not only that, but there's no doubt Shaq is the No. 1 draw in the league and probably, given his sense of entertainment, the single most important person in team sports today. That he has won three NBA championships and only one MVP is, as Coach Stan Van Gundy suggests, ludicrous. But it is beside the point, as is the increasing discussion on race and whether Nash was favored by voters because he's white, which we'll return to in a minute.

The MVP award isn't for lifetime achievement.

I'd have voted for Nash because the Suns started 31-5 with him and when he missed most or all of the next five games, they lost all five. The Suns wound up being 2-5 in games he missed. Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson should tithe to Steve Nash. He throws the best pass since Joe Montana.

Miami was in the second round of the playoffs last year without Shaq, and Miami was 6-3 in the nine games he missed because of injury. Phoenix won 29 games last year without Nash, 62 games this season.

That's as much an argument against Shaq as I'm going to make because Shaq's league-leading 60.1 shooting percentage was the highest in the NBA since the 1996-97 season, when Washington's Gheorghe Muresan shot a league-leading 60.4.

You want more team-related evidence? Miami is the only playoff team from a year ago that improved its win total by double-digits -- in this case 17. And here's the little nugget that really works in Shaq's favor: While his team increased its win total by 17, his previous team -- that would be Kobe Bryant's Lakers -- watched its win total decrease by 22. Ouch!

Some of the Miami players benefit by playing with Shaq to an extent that borders on the absurd. Each of Miami's four other starters shot a higher field goal percentage than last season, and three of the four also averaged more points. Udonis Haslem went from 46 percent shooting to 54 percent shooting. Damon Jones went from 40 percent to 46 percent. Miami, as a team, went from 42.5 percent to 48.6 percent and increased its points per game as a team from 90.3 to 101.5.

So, once again, there's no arguing against Shaq. I would hope Shaq's silence here Sunday and Monday isn't an indication that he's upset with the vote of media members. In fact, Shaq is the person who acted with complete class earlier this week when told Nash was going to win the award. He mocked crying on camera, then said: "Steve's a good guy, a great guy. It's been a great year for Steve. He got married, had twins."

Shaq isn't much on hyping other guys. But he clearly respects Nash's game. In November, when Shaq visited Washington to play the Wizards, he said of an NBA preview I had given that left the Suns out of the playoff picture, "Bro, don't forget about Nash." When I asked him why he was pointing out to me a team that was in the lottery the previous season, Shaq said, "Did they have Nash last year?"

Shaq had a sense of the impact Nash would have on the Suns before almost anybody.

And he turned out to be dead-on.

I don't want to hear about Stoudemire's increased scoring and rebounding and what a great target he is. He scores at such a rate and gets such easy shots -- basically, dunks -- because Nash hits him going to the basket the way Montana hit Jerry Rice with slant passes. Without Nash, Stoudemire's a very nice player, not a monster. Same for Marion. They certainly weren't so devastating this summer on the U.S. Olympic team. Nash makes them, like Magic made James Worthy, not the other way around. If Nash gets in foul trouble in one of these playoff games, the Suns are dead.

And please, get out of here with the argument that Nash doesn't play defense. So what? What's the net effect of his presence in Phoenix? I believe it's 33 games of improvement in one season and the No. 1 seed. Does the surprise effect of the Suns coming out of nowhere work in Nash's favor and against Shaq, of whom we always expect greatness? Yes, of course. People picked the Heat to be the best or second-best team in the Eastern Conference from the time Shaq's trade to Miami was announced.

But the notion that Nash rode some wave of racial prejudice and is overrated is nonsense. If you don't think Nash makes the Suns go, you're working from an ugly and stupid agenda. My dear friend Dan LeBatard raised the question of race the other day in his column in the Miami Herald. While LeBatard concluded there's no way to tell whether race factored in a lot, a little, a negligible amount or none at all, more than a few people down here, of various races, apparently believe Nash got the sympathetic votes of a lot of white voters.

Whether he did or not, Nash is absolutely deserving because he had the same kind of impact on his teammates as Shaq. Nash's 11.5 assists per game is tops in the league. His 43.1 percent shooting on three-pointers is sixth in the league. His 50.2 percent shooting overall is astonishing at a time when good players, like Chicago's Kirk Hinrich, are lucky to flirt with 40 percent shooting. Nash's teammates love playing with him because they know they're going to get the ball where they can do something with it, which is also a lost art when you watch a league full of players who have trouble throwing an entry pass at a proper angle.

The league is moving increasingly away from the John Stockton-Jason Kidd kind of point guard to a Gilbert Arenas-Hinrich model, where the set-up man is as likely to shoot first as pass first. (Nash averaged 15.5 points per game, which is plenty on that team.) And while there's nothing wrong with scoring point guards, the Suns are the most aesthetically pleasing running team since the Showtime Lakers because they have one guard, Nash, who is willing to sacrifice his own shot to get taller, faster, more athletic players a better shot.

This would have been a wonderful time to have a split vote, co-MVPs, Nash and Shaq. But in the absence of that, perhaps we'll just have to wait and see if we're lucky enough to get Suns vs. Heat in the NBA Finals, and watch the matter be settled over a best-of-seven series. Though it is a regular season award, that is certainly the way both players would want the matter decided.

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