Friday, May 11, 2007

Podoloff's Box? Part I.

val·u·a·ble [val-yoo-uh-buhl]–adjective
1. having considerable monetary worth; costing or bringing a high price: a valuable painting; a valuable crop.
2. having qualities worthy of respect, admiration, or esteem: a valuable friend.
3. of considerable use, service, or importance: a valuable player.
4. apparently not Jerry West. (But he got the logo, so it's all good.)

NBA greats are a unique breed in the sporting pantheon. No athlete can impose pure will on his respective sport like a basketball player. There’s no disconnect between offense and defense, which gives a player more influence over his teammates on both sides of the ball. They’re the only athletes who can make a play for the crucial score and inasplitsecond make a stop that seals the win. In fact, most times they are expected to. Basketball players carry a heavier burden than their contemporaries. This is what makes the NBA’s Most Valuable Player so special. A Podoloff Trophy is the mark of greatness.

How is greatness measured? By the media. Every year, 125 pen, pad and agenda carrying sportswriters and broadcasters-with legends to build and stories to sell-decide upon whom to bestow the game’s crowning individual achievement. Truth is, if you locked those guys in a room a until they could decide upon a criterion for the award, they’d die in there. The MVP is a popularity contest, an award for modern marvels and sentimental favorites. Analysis of voting totals over the past twenty plus years reveal neither rhyme nor reason. There are numerous instances of both personal and team improvement having been in vain, while post and perimeter players are alternately fawned over and ignored. Players in contention are expected to take their teams to the postseason, yet postseason play doesn’t factor in the award? Practically every year reflects a different rhetoric.

So what is the formula? Carpe diem. Since 1984 there have been a dozen different Podoloff winners. Three men laced ‘em up and forged their own destines. Others labored to receive their due recognition. There were a couple guys you couldn’t help but love, and a few just got fucked over. Using the playoffs as a litmus test, let’s reminisce...

Before him, when a player was trapped in the post by an aggressive double team, he either passed the ball into a corner, called a timeout, or forced a shot. He didn’t throw it blindly over his head and through the outstretched arms of the defense directly to a teammate under the basket for an easy bucket. Before Earvin Johnson the game had flair, but no Magic.

His lengthy 6′9″ frame inhaled rebounds, his vision and dexterity maneuvered the court in bullet time, and his immaculate touch blessed those passes which always found a teammates hands in the shooting position. But it was his smile that explained it all. It was that smile that said, “I didn’t go behind my back for a lookaway pass to show off, I did it cause the defender in front of the hoop was trying to deny me the left, and it was the best way for me to hit my streaking teammate on the right without the D being the wiser.”

Before him, when a 6′10″ forward attacked the baseline only to be met midair by the extended arms of the opposing center, he either got blocked or traveled. He didn’t toss the ball overhead off the backboard, box out the center during his landing, catch the pass-to himself-and finish off the play with an easy lay in. Larry Bird was pretty good his damn self.

His size made him a post presence and he only needed the smallest window of space to get his shot off thanks to those thick, strong, wrists but other than that, he played a game of athleticism with no physical gifts. Regardless, he dominated with an ease and confidence of men with twice his ability. Actually, calling it confidence is an understatement. “In your fucking face” might have been his middle name. Bird’s perpetual swagger was that of a man who had immersed himself in the game, a man who had seen and done it all. So whether he was tiptoeing the baseline-behind the backboard-or was trapped in a corner behind a double team, when he shot it over them, he knew it was going in. And he’d let you know too, before, and after it happened.

Their impact was immediate and widespread. They not only improved their respective teams, together they changed the game and saved the league.

It was almost cruel to choose between them, but from the beginning, to the powers that be Bird was the word. French Lick’s finest had bested Buck to capture Rookie of the Year in 1980, and finished fourth in that years MVP balloting. The winner? Magic’s supposed benefactor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose scoring went up a point (23.8 to 24.8), but averaged two less boards and one less assist per game than the previous year (12.8 & 5.4 to 10.8 & 4.5). After replacing his injured center in an unforgettable Game 6, Johnson won his first Finals MVP, but wouldn’t crack the top five on the regular season ballot until 1983.

He was sidelined by an injured knee in ‘81 resulting in only 37 games, and was besmirched by scandal in ‘82 after demanding a trade. Instead, Jerry Buss fired coach Paul Westhead, who favored a more conservative offense over Magic’s freewheeling play, and entrusted another visionary in Pat Riley. The Lakers regrouped and won 57 games in(50-21 w/ Riley) ‘82, best in the West, but the damage to Magic’s image had been done. He missed a triple double average by fractions (18.6, 9.6, 9.5), jacked a lig leading 2.7 steals, and it didn’t matter at all. The man finished eighth. He’d have to settle for another chip, and another Finals MVP.

Since the addition of Robert Parish & Kevin McHale in ‘81 (Championship year), Larry Bird was the MVP runner-up for three straight years. He claimed his first Podoloff in ‘84 and promptly propelled the Celtics into the Finals for the second time. Magic Johnson had three Finals appearances, two rings and two Finals MVP awards when he collided with his nemesis in the 1984 NBA Finals, but Bird was still seen as the better-and more valuable-player.

1984 NBA Finals, Game 7, Lakers @ Celtics

Magic didn’t do enough to change that perception.

1984-85-The Celtics (63-19) and Lakers (62-20) marched through the regular season towards the inevitable Finals rematch. Haunted by the mistakes of last year’s Finals, Magic answered critics questions about his leadership with a healthier season of increased scoring(18.3,6.2,12.6) as the Lakers took the West for the fourth straight year. Bird responded with career highs in points and assists, (28.7,10.5,6.6) including a 60 point masterpiece-only the 10th player in league history to do so.

Terry Cummings (23.6,9.1,2.9), Moses Malone (24.6,13.1,1.6), and Alex English (27.9,5.7,4.2) led the Bucks (59-23,+9 games), Sixers (58-24,+6 games) and Nuggets (52-30,+14 games) respectively as the league’s only other 50+ win teams. What could have been a close race turned out to be a landslide for Bird.

  • Four of the league’s top five clubs had teammates that received votes. Even the 24-58 Knicks squeezed two guys in. How is Bird the only Celtic? McHale (19.9,9.0,1.8) and Parish (17.6,10.6,1.6) were hardly slacking.

  • Why wasn’t Magic similarly recognized as the de facto leader of the Lakers? Was it Bird’s scoring?

  • English & Natt combined to make the Nuggets the league’s most improved team and won their division. Where’s the love? Especially when there’s two Bucks in the top ten?

  • Bird probably should have won, but by so much? Magic gets only one first place vote? Even the rookie got two!

What happened when the immovable object met the irresistible force? Magic Johnson earned the first Honorary T.R.O.Y. Retroactive M.V.P.

1985 NBA Finals, Game 6, Lakers @ Celtics

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have been the MVP of this series, but he was also 37 years old at the time. His performance was certainly worthy, but primarily ceremonial. He became the playoffs all time leading scorer during the series and the cognoscenti were feeling nostalgic. The man was past his prime and everyone knew it. Magic was the driving force behind that team, he was Showtime. He was the one who had improved his already exceptional game, resulting in an eight game improvement in the win column. He was the one with demons to face. Who would’ve shouldered the blame if the Lakers lost again? So let him reap the benefits. The Memorial Day Massacre should have crippled their confidence. Instead they became the first-and only-visiting team to celebrate a chip in Boston Garden. Kareem was a workhorse, no doubt, but Magic (15 APG in the Finals!) was the glue that held the team together.

1985-86-Not much of a contest. Widely considered to be one of history’s ten best teams, the Celtics went 67-15 and after some minor hiccups…

1986 Eastern Conference Playoffs First Round, Game 1, Bulls @ Celtics

1986 Eastern Conference Playoffs First Round, Game 2, Bulls @ Celtics

…they cruised to their second title in three years.

Bird’s third consecutive MVP was legit, but there’s still a few lingering questions.

  • Showtime went 62-20 and Magic comes in third? Not one first place vote?

  • Dominique Wilkins (30.3, 7.9, 2.6) carried the Hawks to 50 wins and finished in front of Johnson wiht five first place votes. Granted, there was a sixteen game progression, but still a dozen wins less than Los Angele, a perennial contender. Are the voters saying ‘Nique did more with less?

  • Again, why were Magic (18.8,5.9,12.6) and Cap (23.4,6.1,3.5) sharing votes when Bird (25.8,9.8,6.8) and McHale (21.3,8.1,2.7) weren’t? Because Cap was a legend and McHale was in his fourth year? They were both All Stars that year. Because Cap finished the plays and Magic only passed it to him? Despite all of his brilliance, Magic was a guard. Guards didn’t win MVP. Right?

1986-87-The takeover. This season was the first time in the history of the MVP award that the winner and the runner-up were both guards. It just didn’t happen. Since the game’s inception, big men-particularly centers-were deemed higher in the game’s pecking order than their counterparts. The big man’s ability to score from the interior with a high field goal percentage, in addition to an imposing defensive presence and steady rebounding was crucial to team success. Their overall impact on a game was greater than that of smaller players dependent on their jumpshots and ill equipped to battle in the paint. The name of the game was to put the ball in the basket, and the man at the basket controlled the game. From Russell to Moses, post players won championships, so they were inherently more valuable. Right?

The efficiency of the game was with the big men, but they had their limitations. They couldn’t handle the ball as well and their decision making in the open court was generally suspect. They were considerably slower than guards and more predictable due to their limited range and movement. Post players were chained to the basket and needed the ball fed to them.

The soul, the creativity, the artistry, the future of the game was with the guard.

Magic Johnson (23.9,6.3,12.2) had a statistical buffet, gorging on the competition in 65 Laker victories. Only the fourth guard to win the Podoloff in it’s 31 years, he certified his value in another iconic postseason.

1987 NBA Finals, Game 4, Lakers @ Celtics

Then there was Michael Jordan (37.1,5.2,4.6). A streaking explosion of coiled muscles. A barrage of pivots, pump fakes, reverse pivots, jab steps, pull ups and fallaways. A cavalcade of double clutches, up and unders, baby hooks, runners, reverses, teardrops and bankshots. Then there were the dunks. It was endless.

February 26, Nets @ Bulls

March 4, Bulls @ Pistons

March 24, 76ers @ Bulls

He only stopped because the schedule did. Jordan had torched the NBA for it’s first 3,000 point season in 24 years-from the two spot. Finishing second, he would have joined Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bob Petit as the only players from losing teams (40-42) declared MVP. That year’s ballot indicated a changing of the guard.

  • Dominique Wilkins (29.0) was the L’s second leading scorer and the Hawks (57-25) conquered a Central Division with two other 50+win teams and the Bulls. Atlanta had the third best record in the league and the next highest scorer on that team was Kevin Willis (16.1). He was supported by Doc Rivers (12.8), Randy Wittman (12.7) and Mike McGee (10.4). He took less shots (24.3 to 22.6), had less turnovers (3.2 to 2.7) and more assists (2.6 to 3.3) Drowned out by cheers for Jordan, he didnt get one first place vote, and even Kevin McHale finished with twice as many points as him (254/128). So was Nique rewarded for lifting his team the previous year, or just reaping the benefits of Jordan’s absence?

  • Speaking of McHale, he did improve that year, but shouldn’t that be a testament to Bird’s influence as it was in the past? He only had three points last year, having played only nine less games. Did this mean the voters suddenly couldn’t tell who was responsible for the Celtics success?

  • Bird (28.1, +2.3 on ‘86) was the Lig’s fourth leading scorer, and averaged a career high in assists (7.6). The Celtics (59-23) held down the Atlantic-and the East-again. How does anyone from a sub.500 team finish with twice as many points and a ten to one first place vote ratio? Isn’t this the reigning three time MVP?

  • Isiah Thomas (20.6,3.9 & 10.0)? 52 wins? Anyone? Only 17 total points? Anyone? Anyone?

“It would have been tough, if not impossible to keep scoring like I did during the 86-87 season. I attacked from he opening tip until the last whistle for 82 games. That was my mentality. In terms of physical talent we probably has less on that team than any other Bulls team I played on. I knew I needed to score if we were going to be successful. I’m pretty sure Doug Collins felt the same way. I had one streak of nine straight games with 40 or more points. You have no idea how much energy it takes to score 40 points one night. The difference between averaging 32 PPG over an entire season versus a little over 37 is significant. Think of it this way: If I scored 32 one night then I had to score 42 the next night to get even. But that was a different era. Very few teams were as sophisticated defensively as they are today. And no team, with the exception of Detroit the next season, geared its entire defensive gameplan to shutting down one player…

In the early years I compared myself to Magic and Larry. What could I do to elevate my game past theirs?”

1987-88-The blueprint. He already left defenders helpless. But it was his defense that terrorized opponents for the breadth of the court. He was a one man press. His strength, quickness, leaping, anticipation and recognition made him a more intimidating defender than men twice his size. He filled passing lanes, blocked shots from the weakside, stripped penetrating dribbles, skied for rebounds and started countless fastbreaks-which he emphatically finished.

Michael Jordan recorded more than 200 steals and 100 blocks for the second year in a row, a feat never acheived by any other guard even once (236 & 125 in ‘87 to 259 & 131 in ‘88. ). This garnished him the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year Award. Silencing critics who claimed that he was a one man show, Money made a concerted effort to involve his teammates which resulted in a scoring dip (37.1 on 27.8 SPG to 35.0 on 24.4SPG), but also an increase in assists (4.6 to 5.9) and shooting % (48.2 to 53.5). Aside from a paltry 3P % (13.2), his game was utterly flawless.

The Bulls (Seriously, look at that roster. Now.) somehow went 50-32 only to be matched up against a talented Cleveland squad, far better than their 42-40 record after the addition of veteran Larry Nance in a midseason trade. Outmatched and unfazed, Jordan opened the playoffs with consecutive 50 point games against the Cavs, another first in NBA history.

1988 Eastern Conference First Round, Game 1, Cavs @ Bulls

1988 Eastern Conference First Round, Game 2, Cavs @ Bulls

He would go on to average a record 45.2 PPG in the five games and win his first playoff series before falling to the Pistons (4-1) in the next round.

His performance in ‘88 was valuable not only to Chicago, but to the entire league. It was transcendent.

“…They were great all-around players, but they were never known as great defenders. I realized defense could be my way of seperating myself from them. I decided I wanted to be recognized as a player who could inflence the game at either end of the floor. The one thing people saw in me that they didn’t see in Magic or Larry was the athletic ability. They had great talent, but in terms of raw athletic ability I think I had a little more. To some extent I think it was hard for people to believe anyone eho jumped and dunked could also be a complete player. But that’s what I did at North Carolina and that’s what I was trying to do in the NBA. After the 1987-88 season the critics had to say, ‘This kid can have an influence at both ends of the court. He’s not just a scorer.’ Now when they talked about Magic and Larry they also had to talk about defense. I felt like I made the seperation, at least individually, to some extent that season. But I knew I’d never completely be recognized as their equal until we won championships.”-For the Love Of the Game, by Michael Jordan

  • Kevin McHale played in 13 less games, and saw a decrease in his averages (26.1, 9.9 & 2.6 to 22.6, 8.4 & 2.7) . Bird took two more shots a game that year, and all of McHales MVP votes?
  • Once again, Dominique Wilkins (30.7, 6.4 & 2.9) is a complete afterthought. Sixth place, huh?

1988-89- The Lakers had become the lig’s first back to back champions in twenty years and despite the reduced minutes and production of Cap’s farewell tour (10.1, 4.5 & 1.0 in 22.9 MPG), Magic considered that year’s team to be the deepest and most talented of his career. Assuming more of a scoring role in the offense, he also increased his assists and rebounds (22.5, 7.9 & 12.8), leading Los Angeles on a collision course with friend and rival, Isiah Thomas.

Magic Johnson broke the mold of the traditional point guard with a size and versatility that impacted the game more than his smaller contemporaries, but Isiah Thomas more than matched his adversary in skill and will. Zeke valiantly fought off a severely sprained ankle with a historic 25 points in the third quarter of the previous years Game 6, bringing Detroit within arms length of a championship, only to succumb to Showtime in seven games. The memory of such a narrow defeat drove Thomas and the Bad Boys to a franchise best 63-19 record in ‘89, securing the all important home court advantage for their Finals rematch.

In an anticlimactic twist of fate, both Magic and Byron Scott would injure their hamstrings, clearing the way for a Pistons sweep. Though Johnson had captured the season’s MVP, the vindication of a title helped Thomas forget that he only received one vote and one point on that years ballot.

But Michael Jordan (32.5, 8.0, 8.0 & 2.9) was more valuable than both of them.

Jordan spent a significant portion of the season at the point dominating smaller guards and during a three week span (3/28-4/14) recorded a triple double in ten of eleven games. However trading away their rebounding enforcer in Charles Oakley caused the Bulls to take a step backwards as a team during the ‘89 regular season. Chicago struggled to stay competitve while incorporating the awkward low post game of Bill Cartwright and developing second year talents Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Their modest record of 47-35 was buried in the Central Division and as they stumbled into the playoffs losing eight of ten, playoff expectations were nil.

The Cavaliers (57-25) had taken all five games of the season series and were hungry for playoff revenge. Jordan opened a can of whoop-ass instead, stuffing Cleveland with 39.8, 5.8 & 8.2 before putting them to bed with “The Shot”.

The Bulls won their semi-final matchup with New York (52-30) and handed the Pistons what would ultimately be their only two losses of the postseason in a suprsingly tight six game series.

If the objective of the game is to win a championship, then shouldn’t the most valuable player be the one who gives his respective team the best chance to win? Magic and Zeke steered their talented squads towards June, while Jordan maximized the potential of a team that shouldn’t have lasted past April. An elite player on a mediocre team is needed more, expected to do more, and the fact that the opposition knows this only increases the burden. Off nights aren’t allowed. There is a distinct difference between leading a team and being the team.

With that, I present Money with the second Honorary T.R.O.Y. Retroactive M.V.P.

Stay tuned for part two.