Category Archives: No Math Required
For the first time in three years, LeBron James did not give an acceptance speech at the Most Valuable Player’s press conference. Now, as he faces his successor at the podium, Derrick Rose, in the Eastern Conference Finals, James is hoping his Heat can do exactly what the Magic and Celtics did to him — prevent the reigning MVP from advancing to the NBA Finals.
In the NBA, the Most Valuable Player carrying his team to the brink of a title is the rule, not the exception. Since the league began handing out the hardware in 1956, the MVP’s team has appeared in the championship round 28 times, good for a 51 percent rate. And during the NBA’s halcyon era of Magic, Larry, and Michael, the clip was even higher: from 1983-2003, the MVP made a Finals appearance in 16 of 21 seasons, more than 75% of the time. In a world where current players are largely measured against those three names alone, it makes headlines when a reigning MVP fails to reach the league’s grandest stage.
Perhaps this is why the drought of recent winners has been met with so much scorn. Since 2004, only one MVP (Kobe Bryant in 2008) has led his club to the Finals. The others — Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, and James — flamed out in the Conference Finals (or in the cases of the latter two, earlier), provoking backlash from the Skip Bayless set and anyone else preoccupied with legacies or comparisons to long-retired legends. That it has been viewed as a blemish on James’ otherwise staggering resume is undeniable.
Yet now he has a chance to inflict the same criticism on Rose, the youngest MVP in league history. It’s strangely fitting, because their paths have run parallel ever since the Rose-for-MVP talk rose from a whisper at the lunatic fringe of Bulls fandom to a din heard across the entire country. In the wake of ‘The Decision’, the media tried to talk itself into casting Kevin Durant as James’ foil, but Rose out-Duranted everyone, ranging from his own sharp improvement to the Bulls’ unexpected #1 seed and the endearingly humble manner in which he carried himself (culminating in a truly beautiful moment at his MVP presser). In the minds of many, he embodied the yin to James’ preening yang.
For these reasons, the media will doubtless go easier on Rose than they did James, should the Bulls’ season end early. And by the same token, the fact that James felt he needed two other big names, one of whom is nearly his equal in the universe of NBA megastars, to reach the Finals again will continue to dog him if the Heat prevail. But even if his legacy cannot be fully repaired through victory, it’s clear that in a twist of fate, the only way James can gain some measure of redemption for his “incomplete” MVPs of 2009 and 2010 is to stamp Rose’s 2011 award with the same stigma.
In the wake of the ongoing Charlie Sheen chaos, I was (of course) racking my brain to find a comparable NBA analogy. Ideally you’d want to find a situation with the following parallels:
- It involves a winning team. Although I have personally never seen an episode, Sheen’s show Two and a Half Men is apparently wildly successful, as Sheen is quick to point out to anyone who will listen. So any NBA equivalent would have to involve a good team, probably one that had been a contender for multiple years.
- It involves that team’s best player. Monetarily speaking, Sheen is the #1 scorer on Two and a Half Men, and in fact the league’s top player — he made $1.8 million/episode in 2010, making him the highest-paid actor on television. The basketball equivalent would have to deal with a similar star in his prime.
- The team releases that player mid-season. Production on Two and a Half Men‘s 8th season was halted midway due to Sheen’s behavioral problems, so an NBA version would have to involve a team waiving their best player in the middle of the season.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single situation in NBA history that meets all of those requirements. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are only a few remotely comparable situations:
Basketball is all about sharing, about unselfishness, about legends like Bill Russell doing whatever it takes to win. But apparently it’s also about who has the bigger… um, contract.
You see, all we heard these past few days was whether LeBron and D-Wade could co-exist as “Alpha Males”, or that LBJ joining Wade in Miami is supposedly something a true “Alpha Male” (ostensibly referring to Kobe or MJ) would never do… It’s curious that this hyper-macho view of basketball first began to emerge less than two decades ago, though. Like a commenter said yesterday, the Michael Jordan era was so transformative that we may very well have have convinced ourselves that the MJ-Pippen formula (and the Alpha-Beta designations contained therein) is the only way to view the game. Heck, Bill Simmons even wrote a 700-page book that revises the entirety of NBA history to match that ultramasculine theory of basketball.
Yet in those same pages Simmons also extolled the virtues of “The Secret”, which is allegedly about sacrificing numbers, money, and individual glory for team success… Well, isn’t what LeBron did last night the living embodiment of The Secret, leaving millions on the table and turning himself into a hometown villain, all for the sake of winning? If Vince Lombardi was right and “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”, then LeBron made the only rational decision last night. But the dirty secret of commentators like Simmons is that winning by itself is not good enough — you apparently also have to win while simultaneously vanquishing the idea of another male rival sharing your spotlight, because god forbid that another Alpha could possibly question your hoops authority when you’re doing all that winning.
Oh, but I forgot, basketball is the ultimate team game, and it’s all about sacrificing stats and glory for championships, right?
I guess this LeBron situation provides the ultimate opportunity for people to put their money where their cliches have been all these years.
In the midst of the current conference expansion insanity, we have a school that’s soon to not be aligned with any major conference. They are the 3rd-winningest program in their sport’s history. They’ve won 5 National Championships. Their first coach was the inventor of the sport itself.
So why doesn’t anyone want Kansas?
Yeah, yeah, I know, football is king. Football makes the most money, has the most support, and consequently dictates every decision made by the major conferences. But how insane is it that Kansas, arguably the most storied program in college basketball history, will be left out in the cold while Nebraska, an irrelevant basketball school for its entire history and barely an above-average football one over the past decade, gets to decide the fate of an entire conference? How does that make any sense?
Over at ESPN, Eamonn Brennan tackled the issue of Kansas’ inexplicable irrelevance in the conference shuffle:
“The Pac-10 doesn’t want Kansas. The Big Ten doesn’t seem wholly interested. The Jayhawks are, for the moment, on the outside of conference expansion looking in. Which says a lot more about conference expansion than it does the Kansas Jayhawks.
What it says is that college basketball doesn’t at all factor into what conference expansion will produce.”
What if the tables were turned? What if, say, Michigan was without an affiliation? Would other major conferences possibly be interested in adding them to their ranks?
Of course they would — they’d kill for Michigan. Because Michigan is the football equivalent of Kansas basketball. Another KU analogue, Notre Dame, has been fending off would-be conference suitors (in football, at least) for decades. That’s the reality of being a college football powerhouse. But when an elite basketball program becomes available, the only question is, “How’s their football team?”
Like Brennan wrote, basketball fans may understand this summer’s conference free-for-all on an intellectual level, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach when one of the prestige programs in the entire country, the place where Dr. James Naismith himself coached, finds itself on the outside looking in while historically lame basketball programs like Colorado and Nebraska dictate its future.
This essay is a rather extreme case of late-night rambling — just warning you ahead of time.
In case you stumbled upon this website and have no understanding of basketball, sports, or American culture in general, let me just say that the players in the NBA are really good at hoops. I mean, ridiculously good: so good that they have been dominant players their entire lives, at virtually every level. I always laugh when some fans are watching a game and say “I could do that!”… Well, no, you couldn’t. The average fan seems to have a shaky grasp at times on the vast, gaping, astronomical chasm that exists between their own abilities (or even the abilities of the best basketball player they’ve ever known/played with) and those of the worst NBA player who ever played. There’s simply no comparison there, as I learned the hard way when future D-Leaguer Patrick Ewing Jr. dunked over me, Freddy Weis style, in a high school AAU game in 2003. I was on a mediocre lower-tier HS team, we were playing the best crop of prospects in the state of Georgia (which at the time included Ewing, Stanford/Washington G Tim Morris, Evansville C Bradley Strickland, & Georgia Tech PG Matt Causey), and they beat us by nearly 100 points. And Ewing is the only player on that team with even a remote shot at the NBA! Talk about a harsh dose of reality.
Sometimes I mark the passage of time in my life by the sporting events that happened in a given year. Is that weird? Maybe so. But still, I’m prone to associating particular years with certain happenings from the world of sports — for instance, I hear 1997, I think of Tiger Woods’ historic victory at Augusta. 1998? Michael Jordan’s “last shot”. 1985? The start of the Celtics’ dominating run to championship #16. Oh, and I was also born that year, can’t forget that. But mostly I think of the Celtics.