I know it's hard, but try to enjoy this...Note:
Last night at my pickup league, I suffered my 278th busted lip and what might have been a mild concussion (which might explain why I spent the next several hours feeling nauseous and woozy). As a result, I couldn't spend my usual three-four hours researching and writing Worst of the Night. Yeah, sorry. So this is what I've got: something I threw together on the way into work.
Have you taken a look at the season standings lately? The Atlanta Hawks (10-2) are the best team in the East. Out West, things are looking a little retro. And I mean retro circa 2005-06. The Phoenix Suns (10-2) have the top spot, and the Dallas Mavericks (9-3) are in second.
It doesnt make any sense. Going into the season, the Suns lineup appeared to be fatally flawed. They had traded away an All-Star center (Shaq) for two Walking Waivers (Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic), signed Steve Nash (35 years old, bad back) to an extension, and re-signed Grant Hill (37 years old, a history of debilitating injuries). Amar''''''''e Stoudemire (multiple knee surgeries, bum eye) was going to be back, but he was an incomplete player to begin with, and now he's slightly damaged goods. Leandro Barbosa's skills aren't a match for his speed. Jason Richardson is a gunner. Robin Lopez isn't half as good as his brother, Brook, and now he's out 6-8 weeks following left foot surgery. Channing Frye is a castoff. The bench -- Alando Tucker, Earl Clark, Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, the immortal Jarron Collins, Louis Amundson, and Taylor Griffin -- probably wouldn't make a very good D-League team. No, seriously. Go back and reread the names of the Phoenix reserves. That's the kind of supporting cast that would make some people demand a trade and then freak out in a parking lot
Meanwhile, the Mavericks looked like a team that could win 50-ish games, but they've been plagued by injuries to Erick Dampier (mystery illness), Josh Howard (out indefinitely with a sore left ankle), Shawn Marion (sprained ankle), and Tim Thomas (knee surgery). Okay, the Thomas injury has really only cost them 3-5 terrible three-point attempts per game. But the other guys...that's three-fifths of the team's projected starting lineup. Imagine if the Lakers were without Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and
Derek Fisher's corpse. Or maybe you switch Ron Artest with Fisher's corpse, but you see where I'm going with this.
And yet, both teams have risen to the top of the league. Why? Because Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash are playing out of their fucking minds. Statistically speaking, they aren't quite matching their best seasons...but they're coming pretty damn close. Captain Canada has had seven double-doubles, including two 20-assist games. He's shooting 50.7 percent from the field, 45 percent from downtown, and 92..5 percent from the line for a True Shooting Percentage of 63 percent. Dirk has had six double-doubles, including two 40-point games. He's not shooting as well as Nash (44/36/90), but he's actually become a clutch player. Suddenly, he's hitting buzzer-beaters (as he did against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday) and dominating overtimes (Dirk scored 11 of the Mavs' 15 OT points against the Spurs last night). Honestly, when I was watching last night's SAS-DAL game, I honestly thought, without a single drip of irony, "Wow, Nowitzki is unstoppable."
As much sense as it's not making that the Mavs and Suns are doing so well, it makes even less sense (to me) that Nash and Nowitzki aren't being overwhelmed in kudos. Nash is getting some recognition, I guess. Both Basketball-Reference
have them at or near the top of their respective MVP trackers. Meanwhile, BBR has Dirk listed third and ESPN has him sixth...three spots behind Dwyane Wade. And I'm sorry, but Nowitzki has been better than Wade this season. I mean, the Mavs are still winning despite starting Drew Gooden (another castoff) at center. Let me repeat for emphasis: Drew Gooden is starting at center for the Mavericks.
Dogs, cats, living together...mass hysteria!
Despite the fact that Phoenix is the feel-good story of the season -- a team left for dead against all odds is playing like the league's best team -- people are still pointing to their blowout losses to the Magic and Lakers as proof that they aren't for real (despite the fact that both games took place on the road on the second night of back-to-backs, and the Lakers game was the Suns' seventh in 10 days). The Lakers recently got their asses whupped in Denver and then lost at home to the star-less Houston Rockets despite having a couple days worth of rest. Last night, the Cavaliers got bitchslapped 108-91 by a rather pathetic Wizards team thanks in part to a LeBron James meltdown
. But, for some reason, losses don't count against the Cavs and Lakers. There are excuses for both teams. The Lakers are without Pau Gasol, and Kobe has a cranky groin. LeBron hurt his left wrist trying to dunk last night, and Cleveland is playing without Shaq and Anderson Varejao.
But I've already listed the handicaps of the Mavs and Suns, so those excuses ring a little hollow. And, frankly, I don't want to hear about Kobe's groin and LeBron's wrist. I mean, Nash has been playing with a congenital back condition for years.
I don't get it. When Mamba or King Crab tweak something, it's Big News. So much was made of Kobe's bum pinky a couple years back even though it never seemed to affect him. (And, honestly, it shouldn't have. As someone who has several mangled digits from years of playing pickup ball, I can tell you that bum fingers are just part of the sport.) But Nash's creaky back is treated rather routinely. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the average NBA fan probably doesn't even know about it. Let me ask you this, though. Have you ever tried to play basketball with a bad back? Or do anything else with a bad back, for that matter? My back goes out periodically, and simple things like breathing and walking become difficult. I can't even imagine playing pro ball, or performing like and MVP under those circumstances.
I can't help but feel as though, if Kobe or LeBron had a congenital back problem, it would be relentlessly crammed down our throats. Seriously, would we ever hear the end of it? Tales of their bravery would be spun into Legend.
Steve and Dirk have more MVPs (three) than Kobe and LeBron (two), and yet, amazingly, that seems to actually count against
them. Nash's MVPs caused a firestorm of controversy that still gets brought up and dissected, mostly because the Suns never could get by the Spurs in the playoffs. Bill Simmons even listed Steve's MVPs in the "Bullshit MVPs" section of his new book. Dirk's MVP raised eyebrows intially and then got ripped to shreds after his Mavericks (who had won 67 games during the regular season) got upended by the eight-seeded Golden State Warriors. Yet Kobe didn't suffer the same scrutiny when, during his MVP season, the Lakers entered the 2008 NBA Finals as the favorites and yet endured what some sports writers called "a six-game sweep."
During LeBron's MVP season, he took less heat for getting eliminated in the Eastern Conference Finals than he did for not shaking hands afterward.
To sum up: playoff failures count against Nash and Nowitzki. They do not
counnt against Kobe and LeBron. Why is that?
It's silly, really. In the last decade, five teams have won NBA titles: the Celtics, Heat, Lakers, Pistons and Spurs. Four teams out of 30. It makes no sense to discredit a player based on whether they won a championship. Championships are team accomplishments, maybe even organizational accomplishments. I mean, do the Celtics win in '08 if Danny Ainge doesn't somehow acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the offseason? Do the Lakers win last year if Mitch Kupchak doesn't fleece the Grizzlies for Pau Gasol? And let's not forget the Shaq deal, which brought in Lamar Odom, who was a key player in L.A.'s playoff run. Oh, and we all know how well the Spurs and Pistons have been managed. (And I mean the Pistons before
the Iverson-for-Billups trade.)
Meanwhile, Robert Sarver has repeatedly cost the Suns quality players by making enemies of guys like Joe Johnson and trading away first-round draft picks for minor cash savings. Seriously, the Suns could have added Luol Deng and Rajon Rondo to a cast that included Nash, Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, Leandro Barbosa, Quentin Richardson (back when he was good), and Paul Shirley. (Okay, I was kidding about Shirley. But still.) And let's not forget Mark Cuban, who spends recklessly but let Nash walk over a few million dollars then broke the bank for Erick Dampier. And remember when Cuban traded for
Some people have claimed that Nash's MVPs were the result of racism
. Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald infamously wrote: "No one who looks or plays like Steve Nash has ever been basketball's MVP. Ever. In the history of the award, a tiny, one-dimensional point guard who plays no defense and averages fewer than 16 points a game never has won it. But Nash just stole Shaquille O'Neal's trophy, even though O'Neal had much better numbers than Nash in just about every individual statistical measurement except assists, so it begs the question: Is this as black and white
as the box scores that usually decide these things?" (Emphasis mine.) There were similar rumblings when Nowitzki's MVP followed up Nash's.
Remember back in 1987 when Isiah Thomas said that if Larry Bird was black, he'd be "just another good guy." And Dennis Rodman -- who's "Bird is overrated because he's white" comment inspired Isiah's faux pas -- wrote in his autobiograpy that: "When you talk about race in basketball, the whole thing is simple: a black player knows he can go out on the court and kick a white player's ass."
It's not just NBA players who think that, you know. Fans and the general public believe it as well. So it's impossible for most people to put Dirk and Steve in a special category right below the Kobes, LeBrons and Dwyane Wades of the league. Even a lot of my knowledgeable, basketball-loving buddies get more excited over a LeBron dunk or a low-percentage two-handed scoop shot by Kobe
. To my knowledge, these friends have never showed up raving about a Steve Nash bounce pass or a Dirk Nowitzki rainbow jumper.
Kobe, LeBron, Wade...they look more impressive than the other two ever could. And there's something about someone looking
physically dominant that's compelling. I see this happen all the time in pickup ball. Most guys would rather play with an athletic-looking black man than a pasty, undefined white guy...even if the white guy is significantly better.
Look, I'm not trying to make any grand statements about race here. Nor am I trying to argue that Dirk and Steve are better individual players than Kobe and LeBron. After all, as the folks at BBR are quick to point out, the Nash and Nowitzki have their issues on the defensive end
. But they are unquestionably great. All they do -- night in, night out -- is give their absolute all and win. They've won a lot
in the 2000s. No, they haven't won a championship, but that's not all their fault.
My point is: let's appreciate these guys. It's dangerous to take players for granted. Let me put it this way. I'm a Colts fan. Therefore, I hate the Patriots, and I really, really hate Tom Brady. But some time last year, Evil Ted -- who's a Patriots fan and, believe it, somewhat more level-headed than I am about the Colts-Pats rivalry -- said: "I know you don't like Brady and the Patriots, but the Colts-Patriots games are the best football you're going to see. We get to watch living legends duke it out. We get to spend the rest of our lives knowing we got to watch two of the greatest quarterbacks ever in their prime. Try to enjoy it, or you'll regret it 10 years from now."
Much as I hate to admit it, he was right. Last weekend's game between those two teams was a prime example of what he was talking about. I'm not asking you to switch allegiances or write "I Heart Steve Nash" on your Trapper Keeper. But maybe we can all stop shooting holes in what they've accomplished and pointing fingers at what they haven't...and just enjoy what they're giving us. It'll be worth remembering 10 years from now.
Labels: Dirk Nowitzki, my semi-annual Steve Nash lovefest post, Steve Nash