NBA's think, know and prove: Part 1
This year's NBA Most Valuable Player news conference should have been the least suspenseful announcement of 2010, but Ricky Martin already snared the honors by coming out of the closet last month. LeBron James' second straight trophy will have to settle for No. 2. It's such a foregone conclusion that I scrapped my annual MVP column for the first time in six years. In fact, let's add that to LeBron's historical résumé:
"So fantastic in 2009-10 that a sportswriter scrapped one of his five favorite columns to write every year because it just seemed pointless."
LeBron submitted the most convincing MVP campaign in 10 years. Maybe his numbers didn't differ dramatically from those in his previous two seasons -- although he nearly broke John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating record, shot 50.3 percent from the field, and averaged 29.7 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 5.4 holy-s----did-he-just-do-that's per game -- but these 2009-10 games felt more like performances. We always wondered whether he would become a supernatural cross between Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Bo Jackson some day. Well, it happened. His command of every game, and every arena, was unlike anything we have seen since Jordan's heyday. He put a complete stamp on his team (both its style of play and its personality) like nobody since Larry Bird and Magic. His joy for every game was contagious. He brought it every night. He always gave a crap. Even last season, you couldn't totally say that.
BILL SIMMONS' MVP BALLOT
1. LeBron James
2. Kevin Durant
3. Dwight Howard
4. Steve Nash
5. Dwyane Wade
6. Kobe Bryant
7. Deron Williams
8. Dirk Nowitzki
9. Carmelo Anthony
10. Greg Oden's Cell Phone Camera
That's what made it so funny when LeBron took heat for resting before the playoffs. Are you kidding? Did you WATCH this season? Did you watch everything he did for the Cavaliers? Did you see the pounding he took? I don't care if he's a 6-foot-9, 280-pound behemoth who might have been created in a laboratory by scientists during the Reagan administration. A beating is a beating. For 76 games, he took one. You have two goals: clinch home-court advantage, and win the title. Once you accomplish one, you start focusing on the other.
Will that stop some media jackass from climbing on his high horse and robbing LeBron of a unanimous vote for MVP? Of course not. Media members live to screw this stuff up. Ten years ago, Shaquille O'Neal broke a sweat from beginning to end, averaging about 30 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocks, and shooting 57 percent for a Lakers team that won 67 games (and eventually the title). That will always be remembered as The Shaq Season, at least by me. He should have won unanimously, but Fred Hickman decided to vote for Allen Iverson ... who finished sixth overall. That's right, Fred. It's been 10 full years, and I still remember how moronic that was. You're my go-to guy whenever I find myself in a "Who made the dumbest MVP vote ever?" conversation. Congratulations.
There is definitely another Fred Hickman out there. I would bet anything. Just know that LeBron was the best player on the best team. He had the best stats. He was the most dominant from night to night. His best game was better than anyone else's best game. He meant the most to his team. He owned the 2009-10 season. I could prove these things to you with 6,000 words or 500, but that's the point: I shouldn't have to. In this case, any dissenting opinion is just wrong.
That brings me to the "What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?" exercise used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the movie "And the Band Played On." (I first wrote about it in 2005, when I became the first writer to lead an NFL gambling column with a relevant story about AIDS and the CDC.) I can prove LeBron should be the unanimous MVP. But what about everything else that happened this season? And what about the playoffs?
What do we think, what do we know and what can we prove? Let's break it down into three categories ...
WHAT DO WE THINK?
I think I want to know what life would have been like if Oklahoma City had taken Stephen Curry or Tyreke Evans over James Harden.
Sam Presti probably made the right choice. Repeat: probably. When you have someone like Kevin Durant (the best younger-than-25 scorer since Jordan), you borrow the Pippen-Grant-Cartwright recipe, surround that guy with flexible role players, and worry about chemistry and defense before anything else. I get it.
But just for fun ... I mean ... don't you wonder how the Curry/Evans directions would have turned out? I wish we could play them out in an alternate universe "Lost"-style just to see what would happen. My best guesses:
The Evans Universe: Makes the Zombie Sonics better on paper, screws them up in real life. Russell Westbrook would be threatened as the primary playmaker/distributor; Durant would be threatened as the alpha dog. From a chemistry standpoint, I'm dubious. I just don't think you need him. Think of it this way: I'm already making you dinner with Durant as my main course. He's the $200 slab of filet mignon on the bone. We're at a table with 10 other people. We're chowing down. We already have a Caesar salad (Westbrook), cream of mushroom soup (Serge Ibaka), potatoes au gratin (Jeff Green), asparagus (Thabo Sefolosha), sweet potatoes (Eric Maynor) and the filet (Durant). Harden is delicious corn bread done southwestern-style; Evans is a $150 rack of lamb. Do I really need the lamb? If I brought that out, wouldn't you say, "Good God, this is too much food; I'm gonna have a heart attack!" It might be delicious, but I don't need it. I need the corn bread.
The Curry Universe: Much more intriguing. Fits in from a chemistry standpoint. Hurts them defensively, but you can always get away with one squeaky wheel if the other four wheels are humming. (See: Parker, Tony.) Doesn't totally threaten Westbrook; as we saw with the Curry-Monta Ellis experiment this season, Curry floats between both guard spots effortlessly. And the shooting ... I mean ... good God. Nobody could ever double Durant with Curry's guy. Beyond that, alt-OKC would have two younger-than-22 shooters with 28-foot range and two 50-40-90 (field goal-3 point-free throw) percentage threats year after year. Could it find another Harden-like talent through the draft or free agency? Yes. Could it find another Curry-like talent? No. He's an original prototype. I like this universe more than Harden World. Sorry. Speaking of Curry ...
I think Curry was the 2009-10 Rookie of the Year.
Look, I wanted to pick Brandon Jennings because he started for a playoff team, but you can't miss 65 percent of your shots for the last four months of the regular season and be my rookie of the year. Sorry. That leaves two guards (Curry and Evans) who put up gaudy stats on terrible teams. I just thought Curry had a higher degree of difficulty: crazy coaching situation, crazy ownership/front-office situation, super-crazy roster. He played with Ellis and Corey Maggette (two of the ultimate me-first guys), and a rotating cast of promoted D-Leaguers and bench guys. He didn't have a decent low-post player or rebounder; you knew things were bad when someone said the words, "We really miss Ronny Turiaf right now." And yet, he got better every month (check out his splits), and became the first rookie ever to average 17 points and two 3s per game and top 85 percent free throw shooting and 40 percent 3-point shooting (nobody even came close before).
Evans made history as well, joining the 20-5-5 Rookie Club along with MJ, Oscar Robertson and LeBron. Pretty good company. But he had better teammates, and if you want to get technical, I never watched a Warriors game without thinking, "Curry would be fun to play with" at least once. I can't say the same about Evans. Curry gets my vote. By the way, I still want to know how Minnesota's David Kahn had the fifth and sixth picks in the draft, took two point guards, and somehow missed Curry AND Jennings. He was like the kid with the gun in the Big Kahuna Burger apartment who fired 25 bullets at Jules and Vincent Vega, and somehow didn't hit either of them.
I think this spring could be the last stand for the Rejuvenated Atlanta Hawks.
And here's why: Joe Johnson is getting max money this summer to play in Chicago, New Jersey, New York, Clipperland or wherever. He's irreplaceable for Atlanta obviously. Assuming Josh Childress returns from his Greek exile, that gives the Hawks Childress, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Jamal Crawford, Marvin "I Look Worse As A No. 2 Pick Each Season" Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Zaza Pachulia's bacne and Mike Bibby's chalk outline next season. That's a 42-win team. The window is right now. They can absolutely make the 2010 Eastern finals ... and then get swept, but still. The Eastern finals!
I think Larry Brown could absolutely outcoach his first- and second-round opponents this spring.
Stan Van Gundy in Round 1, Mike Woodson in Round 2 ... and Mike Brown looming in Round 3. I'm just sayin'.
I think Ernie Grunfeld should be the 2009-10 Anti-Executive of the Year.
He turned Dallas into a contender and made Cleveland the overwhelming favorite. His failure to grab J.J. Hickson in the Antawn Jamison trade was the biggest front-office boner of the season by someone not named "David Kahn" and, if you want to dig deeper, an important chess piece in this summer's "Will LeBron stay or go?" drama. Without Hickson, Cleveland wouldn't have a young player to include in a summer sign-and-trade if, say, LeBron stays and Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson wants to join him. Keeping Hickson allows the Cavs to say to Toronto/Atlanta, "Bosh/Johnson is leaving anyway -- give him the max and flip him to us, and we'll give you Hickson, two future No. 1s and $3 million, and sign Shaq for one year and $10 million to make the swap of contracts work ... do we have a deal?" Thanks again, Ernie. You just opened the window for Cleveland to win five straight titles.
(The Exec of the Year: Milwaukee's John Hammond. Dumped Richard Jefferson's contract, picked Jennings, stole John Salmons from Chicago, nailed the Carlos Delfino signing, maintained his cap flexibility going forward, allowed the "Fear the Deer" era to unfold. That was a clinic on how to keep a small-market team relevant. Had Andrew Bogut not Theismann'ed his elbow, the Bucks absolutely would have beaten Boston in Round 1, and my mom would have been saying to me, "What's up with this Fear the Deer thing?" Alas. By the way, Scott Skiles being the 2009-10 Coach of the Year goes without saying. So I don't know why I said it.)
I think Portland had the best home crowd this season.
The perfect blend of creepy intensity, genuine devotion and a massive inferiority complex. I never stumbled across a Blazers game in which their fans weren't totally bringing it. Two great examples from Monday's Oklahoma City game: First, OKC had such a severe free throw advantage, and Portland fans were so furious about it that it seemed like we were headed for the first triple ref homicide. (I tweeted that the whole situation reminded me of Chris Rock's old joke, "I haven't seen white people that mad since they canceled 'M.A.S.H.'") Only Portland fans and Utah fans can make a casual observer feel like the officials are in actual danger. That's a good thing. In the old days, every crowd did that.
Second example: Because news broke of Brandon Roy's soul-crushing knee injury that same night, there was particular meaning to Marcus Camby's get-on-my-back performance (30 points, 13 rebounds) ... which the Blazers' fans recognized by passionately chanting, "Mar-cus Cam-bee!" when he finally left the game. Just a great moment. Only Knicks fans (if they had a good team and were presented with a similar situation) would have seized it with the same gusto. Made me remember the days when NBA crowds knew what the hell they were doing. Gotta love Rip City.
(Best NBA crowd rankings for 2009-10: 1. Portland, 2. Utah, 3. Golden State, 4. New York ... then a big drop-off to the next group of cities. Biggest drop-off: Boston, a team that won 50 games but had a better road record than home record. In the defense of Boston fans, they spent the first half of the season waiting for Kevin Garnett to stop limping, then the second half arguing about who should charge the court, pull a Shane Stant on Rasheed Wallace and serve the mandatory prison sentence. They were distracted.)
I think Cleveland will win the 2010 title.
Best team, best player, best season. Of course, we could have said that last year. But Jamison and Shaq give the Cavs a flexibility last season's team just didn't have. They can go small, big, medium ... doesn't matter. The only concern if you're picking nits: LeBron still gets a little overeager during big moments, like how his bizarre pull-up 3-pointer derailed what would have been an incredible comeback in Boston on Easter Sunday. Kobe Bryant battled with the Hero Complex for years and years, finally settling into an icy assassin these past two seasons. But it took forever. LeBron isn't there yet. I still think he can be had in a tight game by the right team -- like how Boston exposed Kobe in the 2008 Finals -- but he gets credit for being a vicious closer with a lead (nobody's better up five with two minutes to go).
You know how we will know when LeBron is ready? When, after big shots, he doesn't run over to his bench and hop onto teammates like an overgrown spaz anymore. Maybe Dan Gilbert needs to buy MJ's game-worn, "I knew it was going in" fist pump off eBay.)
WHAT DO WE KNOW?
I know Hedo Turkoglu was the 2009-10 LVP (Least Valuable Player).
We knew it was a desperation move to give Hedo $50 million, and it didn't seem far-fetched at all that someone who peaked two years ago would struggle in a new city in a new offense for a new coach without Dwight Howard protecting him defensively. But I never thought he'd become Enemy No. 1 in Toronto. Hedo fell off a basketball cliff; he's almost unrecognizable. It's like seeing Garry Shandling in the new "Iron Man 2" trailer: Wait a second, I recognize that voice. Is that ... no! It can't be! Poor Hedo might want to give up the cigarettes and cheeseburgers this summer. As for some LVP runners-up: Rasheed Wallace (No. 4), and Philly (No. 3) would have stunk with or without Elton Brand.
Emeka Okafor (No. 2) deserves his own paragraph. His career arc looks like something you'd see from a guy in his mid-30s. His contract ($10.6 million this year, $38 million over the next three) is a salary cap tsunami for a small-market team. He's a horrible match for a Hornets team that once loved having its big guys set picks for its point guards, then roll to the hoop for alley-oops. (Okafor can't do it. Not in his skill set.) Since he can't post up or shoot free throws, he's useless for the Hornets offensively. (According to hoopdata.com, he was a 38 percent shooter inside 10 feet.) Defensively, his shot-blocking and rebounding numbers dipped, and his athleticism made you think, "Wait, is that Theo Ratliff?" Maybe Okafor hasn't been a bust on the Pervis/Darko/Bowie/LaRue/Kwame/Oden (sorry, he has to be thrown in at least for now) level, but at the very least, he's been profoundly disappointing. I'm just glad I never wrote that Orlando should have taken him over Dwight Howard.
(Expunge that from my archives, ESPN.com editors! DO IT RIGHT NOW! I MEAN IT!)
I know "Deron Williams or Chris Paul?" is a legitimate debate.
A big concession from the guy who once wrote that Williams was the Stone Temple Pilots to Paul's Pearl Jam. But Paul's knee injury combined with another stellar Williams season ... I mean, if you were picking one of them for the next 12 years and your life depended on it, which one would you pick? Doesn't Williams seem like a safer bet to stay healthy and have Jason Kidd-like longevity? Why does Paul's missing meniscus worry me so much? (Same for you, Brandon Roy. You already had bad knees.) In February's trade-value column, I ranked Williams 10th, Derrick Rose ninth, Roy eighth and Paul seventh. Now? I think I'd go Roy 10th, then Paul, then Williams, then Rose (who's been playing out of his mind lately). Either way, R.I.P. for the Stone Temple Pilots joke. And for Paul's sake, let's hope this didn't turn into The Police (Paul) and U2 (Williams).
(Important note: If Utah makes another conference finals this year, the debate swings in Williams' favor. I think it could have happened had the Jazz not lost the quietly rejuvenated Andrei Kirilenko down the stretch, which ended up costing them a No. 2 seed. Where does a Kirilenko injury swinging a conference finals prediction rank among the craziest things that happened this season? Above or below Kenyon Martin threatening everyone in Denver's locker room because J.R. Smith's chauffeur filled his Range Rover with buttered popcorn as an April Fool's prank? "I swear to God, man, when I find out who did this, I'm gonna put my mothaf---in' hands on y'all!" You're right; K-Mart was higher.)
I know Chauncey Billups needs to make the Hall of Fame Pyramid in the paperback edition of my basketball book.
Just the facts: 2004 Finals MVP ... seven straight conference finals appearances ... nine straight 50-win seasons (and counting) ... five straight All-Star appearances ... one second-team All-NBA, two third-team All-NBAs (and probably a third one coming) ... two-year peak: 18 points, three rebounds and seven assists per game, 43 percent 3-point shooting, 90 percent free throw shooting ... second-best player on a champ, best player on a Finals runner-up ... career: 39 percent 3-point shooting, 89 percent free throw shooting (seventh all-time) ... career playoff numbers: 18-4-6, 41 percent field goal shooting, 37 percent on 3s, 88 percent on free throws (133 games, not including this spring). At the very least, that's as good as Jo-Jo White. Speaking of the Pyramid ...
I know Kevin Durant should finish second in the MVP voting.
Only 21 years old, best player on a 50-win team, youngest scoring champ ever, clearly headed for phenomenal things ... I mean, shouldn't we just get it over with and sneak him into the Pyramid now? Won't the book look dumb in five years if he's missing? Before the 2007 draft, I wrote that Durant had "a legitimate chance to go down with Bird, Magic, MJ, Baylor, Oscar, West, Duncan, Pettit, Havlicek and every other great non-center who ever played in the National Basketball Association." It can no longer be called "a chance." It's going to happen unless he gets injured.
What we still can't figure out: his offensive ceiling. Of other modern players who averaged 30-plus points a game, LeBron's scoring average peaked in Year 3 (also at age 21), MJ peaked in Year 3 (age 24), Iverson peaked in Year 6 (age 26), Tracy McGrady peaked in Year 6 (age 24), Dominique Wilkins peaked in Year 7 (age 27), Bernard peaked in Year 8 (age 29), Ice peaked in Year 10 (age 28) and Kobe peaked in Year 10 (age 28). So we're all over the map. But unlike everyone we just mentioned, Durant makes a high percentage of 3s, gets to the line and makes a high percentage of free throws. Great white sharks are eating machines; Durant is a scoring machine. He was put on earth to score in basketball games. When Phoenix's Jared Dudley said on my podcast that Durant was the single toughest cover in the league, it didn't even seem outlandish. With LeBron, you can at least play off him and beg him to take dumb 3s. There are no outs with defending Durant. Play him tight, deny him the ball and hope for the best.
So his ceiling becomes a question of simple math. Here were Durant's first three seasons:
2008: 20.3 PPG, 43.0% FG, 28.8% 3FG, 87.3% FT, 17.1 FGA, 2.6 3PA, 5.6 FTA.
2009: 25.3 PPG, 47.6% FG, 42.2% 3FG, 86.3% FT, 18.8 FGA, 3.1 3PA, 7.1 FTA.
2010: 30.1 PPG, 47.6% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 90.0% FT, 20.3 FGA, 4.3 3PA, 10.2 FTA.
NBA PLAYOFF PICKS
Cavs over Bulls in 4
Magic over Bobcats in 7
Hawks over Bucks in 5
Heat over Celtics in 7
Lakers over OKC in 6
Mavs over Spurs in 6
Suns over Blazers in 5
Jazz over Nuggets in 7
Cavs over Heat in 5
Magic over Hawks in 6
Jazz over Lakers in 6
Mavs over Suns in 7
Cavs over Magic in 5
Mavs over Jazz in 6
Cavs over Mavs in 6
Let's improve his 2009-10 season with five simple/realistic tweaks: three more shots, one more free throw, better 3-point shooting (up to 44 percent), more 3s and a better overall field goal percentage (up to 50 percent). Something like this:
52.0% FG, 44% 3FG, 92% FT, 23.5 FGA, 5.9 3PA, 11.2 FTA.
According to those (realistic and not entirely far-fetched) numbers, Durant would make 2.7 3s (8.1 points), 10.3 free throws (10.3 points) and 9.3 2-pointers (18.6 points) per game.
That's 37 points a game. Jordan-Wilt Chamberlain territory. Without totally hogging the ball like 1987 Jordan (27.8 FGA, 11.9 FTA) or 2006 Kobe (27.2 FGA, 10.2 FGA).
If Durant HOGGED the ball, got to the line and made his 3s? Forty a game. You heard me. He isn't wired that way and would never go there ... but let's just say that, when LeBron boasted he could win the scoring title every season if he wanted, he forgot about someone. Durant needs to be snuck into the Pyramid with an "assuming he doesn't get injured" caveat. There's just no other way.
I know Manu Ginobili's recent scoring explosion and a few big-time victories roped people into thinking the Spurs might not be done ... .
But I'm not buying it. Too old, too creaky, too many dumb injuries. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker haven't looked good in three months. I don't see it.
I know Denver hasn't been the same since George Karl got sick.
And with reason. In the movies, Karl gets sick, the team rallies around him, he vows to come back for Round 2, he does and the team ends up winning the title. In real life, he gets sick, he vows to come back for Round 2, but the Nuggets can't make it out of Round 1 because Utah has a better team. I hate real life.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller "The Book of Basketball." For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.