Kurt —  April 17, 2006

I’m not normally not someone who spends a lot of time on the debate-at-the-bar nature of the MVP voting discussion, because it’s usually about splitting hairs between two guys who both had great seasons. However this year, with several potentials bunched closely together, who someone votes for ends up really being about how the voter views the award. Is it just the best player? Does the player have to come from one of the best teams in the league? There are plenty of questions.

Here are my top 5, which is really more of a jumping off point for the debate.

5. Steve Nash:
He is certainly one of the top 12 players in the league, a point guard who can shoot the three and drive the lane, plus is the perfect fit for the unscripted, fast pace style the Suns play. Frankly, he’s fun to watch.

But I was in the “how can you give it to Nash?” camp last year for two reasons: 1) I would like the MVP to play better defense; 2) Giving it to Nash was a way for a lot of sportswriters who long for the “good old days” to voice their displeasure with the “hip-hop” style of basketball and player the NBA. The dress code issue and debate tapped into the same thing — I’ve written about the NBA image issue before so I won’t get into it too much. His backers said Nash “played the right way” because he set up teammates, something Nash does well, but so did John Stockton, who never got a sniff of the MVP. The Nash candidacy is more a backlash against clearing out to go 1-on-1, playground dunks, cornrows and tats, all that more urban, playground style that some see as destroying the game. I guess those “purists” don’t like defense, but whatever, they love the short white guy.

Of course, there are some, like J.A. Adande in the LA Times today, who suggests Nash should get it because of how poorly the team does without him, as in the loss to the Lakers on Sunday. I think choosing an MVP by finding out which star player has the worst backup is an odd way to go about it. Plus, how do the Lakers look without Kobe? The Cavs without LeBron? It’s just not a good way to make an argument.

My two reasons for not voting for him last season still apply. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d put him in my top 5 (Brand would replace him) but he shouldn’t be ignored.

Now on to the most deserving four, in my book.

4. Dwyane Wade: We Laker fans should have a soft spot for this pick. For years we watched as there were stretches of the season where Kobe had to carry the load while Shaq was injured or indifferent, and each year those stretches have grown (save last season, when he showed up in shape but still faded by the end). Wade carried the aging Shaq (and Walker and the rest of the Heat) as far as he could this season. The guy has a true shooting percentage of 58% and 20% of his possessions end up in an assist? That’s crazy good. A late fade and injury hurt him, but he is still a solid choice.

3. LeBron James: LeBron, at the age of 21, is third in the league in usage rate — meaning only Kobe and Allan Iverson handle more of their team’s offense than LeBron. His true shooting percentage is 56.8%, plus he’s grabbing 9.8% of the available rebounds on the floor. For fun, let’s compare LeBron’s season at 21 to Kobe’s at the same age — which was Kobe’s fourth year, the 2000 championship Lakers: Kobe’s PER, 21.7, LeBron’s 28.2; Kobe’s FG% 46.7%, LeBron 48%; Assist ratio, Kobe 17.3%, LeBron 17.6%; percentage of rebounds grabbed, Kobe 8.8%, LeBron 9.8%.

And he’s getting better, look how well he’s started to play at the end of games. He’ll have multiple MVP’s down the road.

2. Dirk Nowitzki: Dirk is having a career year (somehow, he and the Mavs got better without Steve Nash around) with his best offensive numbers ever. He has a true shooting percentage of 58.9%, a career-best rebound rate of 14.2%, a career-best PER of 28.16, all while having to take on a higher percentage of the offense than he ever has before. But what has impressed me most is that Nowitzki’s defense has gotten better — he’s not Bruce Bowen but he’s also no longer a pylon to dribble around on the way to the hoop. He’s a solid defender, because that’s what his team needed. That is the kind of improvement you see from MVPs.

1. Kobe Bryant: The bottom line is, right now he is the best player in the game. It’s not that on any night he’s likely to score 50 points (or 62 or 81), it’s that he’s doing it efficiently and playing good defense at the same time. He’s taking on a crazy percentage of the offense — and, counter to what some want to think, the blame for this falls more on the other Lakers who don’t step up — while shooting 55.8% true shooting percentage. He has a career high PER (27.96).

For those that say the problem is Kobe doesn’t make his teammates better, you need to check your facts. I can’t say it better than Kevin Pelton — when Kobe is on the floor every other Lakers’ offensive numbers improve. And while Kobe’s efficiency has gone up since that piece was penned, the rest of the team’s has improved along with him (look at Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom at the end of the year).

Plus, a few times a game (at least), he makes you shake your head in disbelief. Maybe it’s splitting the double-team then a twisting drive to the hoop for a lay-up, or maybe it’s just a fade-away deuce as the clock runs out. And he makes it look effortless. He reminds you just how fun, athletic and graceful the sport can be.

Love him or hate him, he is the best in the game right now. And that, in my book, is how you determine the MVP.