But first, how LeBron James completely and totally exposed the MVP award for the heaping lie it is.
Be A Selfish Jerk, You Jerk!
Over the weekend, LeBron James stated (quite reasonably, I thought) that neither he nor Dwyane Wade had a shot at the MVP this season. This is pretty much consistent with the critique of the Heat: by coming together to form a three-headed monster of superstar-dom, James, Wade and Chris Bosh forfeited their dignity, or at least their individuality. The MVP, while not quite an award about individuals -- it's individuals winning, or making their teammates better -- at least requires they be held up as a single man on a single trophy.
The Heat benefit from the unfair advantage of All-World teammates. In theory, this means there is always less pressure on them than on other candidates for the award, and that in the end, they just don't have to try as hard, or stand as tall. There is no room for ego or the individual will, since on this team, those dark forces would quickly scuttle the entire experiment. As James surmised, the team is MVP-proof -- this despite the fact that, in the preseason, he topped many writers' lists of predictions. A team premised on balance and sharing is not conducive to handing out MVPs, even as the award is not supposed to be about one man's accomplishments.
It brings us back to the perennial question: what exactly is the MVP? And, if the Heat are cowards, are we to understand the individualism of the MVP as somehow more honorable?
That's the line we've been fed: LeBron and Wade lacked the guts to go out on their own. Oh, and they'll be brought down by their need to be "the man." But their inability to do so in this context makes puts them out of the running for the MVP trophy. Forget about destroying the NBA -- the Miami Heat could be the riddle that, once and for all, brings this most august and incoherent of awards down.
Suppose James and Wade put up muted numbers for a Heat team with a good shot at a championship. They will have sublimated their individual talents for the sake of winning, one of the hoariest ideals in the book. This will be seen by many as the spoil of gross indulgence and luxury. Maybe James will yet end up playing a point guard-ish role, the kind of transformation that might get him out of this bind. As long as players are different enough, they don't overlap and can contend separately. Still, though, isn't it axiomatic that MVP candidates on the same team take votes from each other? If the two end up with their usual eye-popping stat-lines for the season, then it's essentially a toss-up, making the vote-splitting predicament even more of a deterrent.
If two great players tone it down -- the narrative, incidentally, that made Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe so legendary -- they cancel each other out. If they differ slightly, the other still provides a distraction. And if they behave as if nothing's changed, it's piling on and no team should have all that power.
For all our attempts to define the MVP as something other than a trophy for the best individual player, we keep running into the notion that the superstar stands alone, or at least on the shoulders of other gifted teammates. This trope was even more pronounced in the case of the Heat, when so much of the outrage, and accusations of copping out, stemmed from the lack of hierarchy. We wanted to know whose team it was; we insisted that everyone would want to be "da man." Whether it involved demanding the Heat show a selfish streak, or clucking that they would resort to one, we the public needed that sense of stability.
It doesn't look like we're going to get it; nor will the Heat resolve into a team where we can weigh the relative value of James' role versus that of Wade. No one will always take the last shot -- a question asked, alternately, as if we really cared, or we knew that they really would, one day. Yup, it's MVP-proof indeed. But in doing so, the Heat have revealed the hypocrisy at the heart of not only one silly award, but the way the modern NBA is perceived. You're supposed to step up and be a man, but not in a way that's perceived as crass, and if it doesn't work -- usually due to inadequate support -- you're a jerk. If everything comes together just right, you may get the MVP. Then again, it's hard to tell if that's even a compliment, or an arbitrary hand-out to whichever player passes the smell test that year. (BS)
Of Ratings and Relevance
Last week, the NBA unveiled its ratings for the Christmas five-game spectacular, and they were mightily impressive. I won't bore you with the official numbers, in part because Nielsen ratings are gobbledygook, but suffice to say that they were some of the best the league has ever seen for regular season games, particularly the marquee Lakers/Heat matchup. In a holiday season usually dominated by college and pro football, the NBA has managed to find a sizable fanbase willing to watch basketball as part of their celebrations.
It is pretty obvious why the NBA wants to make Christmas games a tradition unlike any other. It's a day when most people are together with their families, and that's the case every year, not just for the current season. Over time, the hope is that the Christmas games will become part of a family's holiday plans, much like the NFL has done with Thanksgiving and Major League Baseball has done, with diminishing returns, on July 4. On Thanksgiving, people watch the NFL even if they don't usually like football. It's just What Americans Do, a part of the holiday tradition alongside turkey and stuffing. This year's TV ratings and the increasing fame of the NBA's prime time stars suggest that the NBA is on its way to making Christmas a similar can't-miss event for its product.
However, the situation is a little more complicated than these basic numbers indicate. Next year, Christmas falls on a Sunday, the day of the week hereby reserved for the NFL, the most popular sports league in America by a considerable margin. For the NFL, virtually every week is an event, particularly in late December when a number of games have playoff implications. Even with marquee matchups on the bill, the NBA can't hope to match their market share; for the casual fan of both, the NFL is the obvious choice. (Note: For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that both teams will be playing games next year and not in the midst of lockouts.) For proof, remember that the NFL's October Sunday night contests easily beat MLB playoff games in the ratings ... which is more popular than the NBA in the United States.
This gives the NBA a difficult decision for next Christmas. If the league wants to turn basketball games on the holiday into a legitimate tradition, then they almost have to reach for the stars and challenge the NFL on Christmas Sunday next season. On the other hand, if they're more concerned with staying somewhat relevant and not getting embarrassed in the ratings, the decision should be to avoid Christmas entirely and pick another day of the year -- maybe St. Patrick's Day? -- as a showcase for their product.
Make no mistake, if the NBA goes up against the NFL next Christmas, they will be an afterthought and waste some of their best ratings-grabbers. I don't mean to suggest that the NBA should avoid all serious conflicts -- when you have 82 games for each team to play, you have to schedule some unfortunate times -- but destination football games will trump basketball whenever they want. Again, every NFL game is a must-watch for fans of the league, and that fact makes for an uneasy calculus for David Stern and Co. next season.
Ultimately, Christmas games are a small part of the NBA's success, especially considering its impressive global reach. But the league's decision for next season will tell us a lot about what it hopes to be for its American viewers over the next few years. As a distant third in sports popularity, the NBA has to decide if they want to seriously challenge the NFL for the top spot or stay well behind. The latter option is not a pathetic concession of defeat, particularly if they're able to make greater advances in Europe and Asia while the NFL stays USA-centric. But it would be an admission that, for all the hype about LeBron, Kobe, and Wade, the NBA isn't the marketing behemoth it was during Michael Jordan's heyday.
There's no shame in not being No. 1, even if David Stern would never admit that's not the goal. There is, however, an issue with having a huge Lakers/Heat matchup next season getting mauled in the ratings by a bunch of subpar NFL games. Don't be surprised if the NBA doesn't tout its Christmas bounty quite as much as they have in the past. Making a brash play for new fans isn't always the best option for a third-place league. (EF)
I Am Very Disappointed In You!
John Wall: By all metrics, Wall has had a stellar rookie season, averaging 15.8 ppg and 8.5 apg and altogether looking like the best young point guard to hit the league since Chris Paul five years ago. But while Wall has done nothing to convince the Wizards he shouldn't be their centerpiece moving forward, he hasn't had quite the stylistic impact many predicted for him based on his exploits on the high school All-Star circuit. Wall was to be an unrivaled dynamo in the open court, a player based with Monta Ellis's speed and the decision-making of all top-flight points. Instead, Wall has been merely excellent, not a game-changer. It's tough to be disappointed in someone has done so much, but no one said dealing with huge expectations was easy. (EF)
Tyreke Evans: Last season's Rookie of the Year had a tough act to follow after becoming only the fourth player ever to average 20/5/5 in his first season. He's been quite good so far this year, but he has not achieved the leap into true stardom many had hoped for. That's not to say that Evans has been a failure -- for one thing, he's struggled with plantar fasciitis and will likely have a procedure soon to sideline him for months. But apart from his just-solid season on the court, Evans hasn't yet matured into the leader the Kings wanted him to become. There's still an impressive young core in Sacramento, and perhaps it isn't possible for Evans to take control of things with the combative Paul Westphal as head coach. Nevertheless, Tyreke isn't yet the player his sparkling rookie season suggested he could become. Luckily, he should have plenty of time to get there. (EF)
JaVale McGee: Maybe it's silly to expect much out of a player who only showed flashes in his first two seasons, but McGee promised more this summer with a strong showing in Summer League and came very close to a token backup center spot on Team USA at the World Championships. To be sure, McGee has shown more flashes than usual this season with the Wizards. At heart, though, he's still the same frustrating mess of a player, alternating athletic finishes and blocks with so many boneheaded errors that he seems unlikely to ever turn it around. He can still be a valuable piece on a team that doesn't ask him for too much. Unfortunately, Washington needs a lot of help. And missing dunks from the free-throw line isn't going to get it done. (EF)
Darren Collison: Granted, anyone who goes to the Pacers effectively ceases to exist. Yet how well we all remember Darren Collison, the first-round sleeper who filled in for Chris Paul last season and posted numbers nearly as gaudy. He was the prized trade chip of the summer, and without getting too worked up, what the Hornets did with him might well decide whether Paul would stick around. New Orleans got Trevor Ariza, which has turned out well, but Indiana was seen as having pulled off a coup. Well, it hasn't quite turned out that way. Collison has been perfectly service-able, and had some big games. The Pacers are a decent team. And yet this wasn't the breakout star Indiana was promised -- the PG who would give them a real force at the league's second-most important position. Most strikingly, Collison has struggled to match last year's assists numbers, suggesting that all along, getting a chance to showcase his talents in the Hornets' Paul-centric system was the best thing that ever happened to the second-year UCLA product. Maybe the Pacers could take a cue, or lesson, from this, instead of seeing it as a historical accident. (BS)
O.J. Mayo: Mayo's career, after an initial pleasant surprise, has been one big, long, slow disappointment. In his 2008-09 rookie year, Mayo looked to be real keeper for the Grizzlies, a potent offensive player who could complement Rudy Gay. Last season, it became increasingly clear that Mayo was little more than a scorer, and a very streaky one at that -- and one hesitant to take it inside as much as he could. This season, Mayo's minutes have fluctuated, and Lionel Hollins has tried bringing him off the bench. Now, he's supposedly up on the trading block, and has become one of those tantalizing, but somewhat limited, young players who either needs a change of scenery as a springboard, or just need to find a way to get himself one huge contract before the bloom is off the rose. Luckily, sixth man is trendy these days, and anyone can get invited to Team USA, so if Mayo is ready to start small and forfeit some of his summer vacation, he could find himself with renewed confidence (and others with renewed confidence in him) by the time next season rolls around. (BS)
Devin Harris: Not only did the Nets fail to land any free agents of note, or win the lottery (though Derrick Favors looks like he should be a player) -- their de facto star player has shown that he's just not worthy of top billing. Harris, acquired from the Mavericks, at one point looked like a scoring dynamo with a point guard's touch to boot. But, like Mayo, he's always been prone to streakiness, and what's more, his ability to run the point and score in bunches often seem mutually exclusive. This season, Harris has actually done a better job of balancing the two. Yet, much like Collison, Harris simply hasn't grown as expected. Two years ago, you might have thought Harris had 20/10 potential. Now, he's a 16/7 guy, on a team where big men like Brook Lopez and Favors should make every day Supermarket Sweep for him. Instead of working with the bigs to make plays and up his assists, his scoring has dropped -- showing that he's just not adapting to the New Nets Order. The team had talked about trading him when they anticipated LeBron James or John Wall coming to town. Eventually, they might end up doing so as a way of cutting their losses and moving forward. (BS)
The Devil and Mr. Durant
Bethlehem Shoals: So over the weekend, the Thunder -- the Boy Scouts of the NBA -- tried to pad the stats of one Russell Westbrook. Is this an outrage against civilization?
Eric Freeman: I will answer that question with a series of questions. 1) Did anyone ask Serge Ibaka to dunk at the end of the game, or did he decide it himself? 2) Did Ibaka possibly do it in part to get back at Josh Smith for his unfortunate posterization in the first half? 3) How would this play have been different if someone other than Ibaka had dunked?
BS: Well, what's worse, if Westbrook asked him to, or collectively, they all participate in this evil mindset? Then we'll get to the other two.
EF: I think it's definitely worse if Westbrook asked him to, because then his surge this season can be read as selfish and not an outbreak from a brand new star. Everyone likes to think of the Thunder as some big happy family; their pursuit of individual stats has always seemed incidental to their attempts to win and entertain.
BS: And yes, maybe Ibaka wanted to dunk to get back at Smith. What was your point about it being someone other than him?
EF: I think there's a general impression that Ibaka is the Crazy Thunder, like he's some out-of-control force that Scott Brooks lets loose to block shots. Please apply all possible racial implications as needed.
BS: Oh, I see. Like it would be worse if Jeff Green had done it.
EF: Yes, but obviously Durant would have been the worst, because he's the nicest boy in basketball. So the only official line can be that Ibaka did this of his own accord.
BS: Which is why Josh Smith diplomatically approached Durant to voice his displeasure. It's almost like he's the only sane one. Also it's strange that Smith has become some barometer of sanity. Remember when Vecsey wrote that he tried to beat up Zaza?
EF: At the same time, you could argue that this would be taken more seriously if it were someone other than Smith. Like, when Grant Hill says you're going over the line, you listen. Or, hell, even Joe Johnson or Al Horford. Those guys don't wear headbands.
BS: See, I figure, if Josh Smith says you've crossed a line, you've really screwed up. Grant Hill is always giving people guff for not putting the lid on the ketchup, or burping too loudly on the team plane. Unless, of course, we're seeing Smith turn into a old person before our eyes. Because really, I think we've determined that the Thunder aren't THAT bad for doing this. Unless it's all on Westbrook and he's pure evil.
EF: I definitely agree about the Thunder. If you are complaining about these dunks, then my response is that you shouldn't have allowed Westbrook to get 10 rebounds and nine assists in the first place. Or maybe Smith thinks this is what veterans do and he wants to prove himself. Because wouldn't the real veterans just shake their heads and walk away. Or, even better, knock Ibaka down with a hard foul the next time these teams meet. That makes a real man, right?
BS: Isn't it Smith's job to protect the rim with the blocked shots? I guess that is a very veteran thing to do -- when you can't block the shots anymore, complain about getting banged on.
EF: Are you suggesting that Josh Smith isn't blocking shots so he can pretend he's a veteran? He is 25 years old and one of the most athletic players in league history. I think he can still block shots.
BS: I'm just saying, if he has a problem, then block some shots. Don't cry to Durant about it. You don't see DeAndre Jordan complaining to anyone.
EF: So our resolution here is that the Thunder are only more awesome because they broke an unwritten rule and Josh Smith is a whiner? I could not have predicted this.
BS: Except Durant didn't break any rules. He is holding them back. Or rather, his presence allows them to be somewhat edgy because he always restores sanity. So there's no way that Westbrook and Ibaka are pure evil.
EF: Durant just lets them sow their oats every once in a while. But he knows they'll always come home. Because that is where the heart is.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who also contributes regularly to Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.