MVP selection to account for fan voting

The NBA’s MVP selection will now be partly selected by the fans. The player who garners the most fan votes will be awarded one vote in the selection process. I must say this is bad for the league.

I know what you’re thinking: it’s only one vote, so how can it make that much of a difference? It’s true that it probably won’t play much of a role in the crowning of an MVP this year, but it opens the door for fan voting to become increasingly integral in deciding the recipient of the league’s awards. And NBA fan voters are probably the most irresponsible of those of any of the other main professional leagues. So irresponsible are they, in fact, that they chose Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady to start in this year’s all-star game in Dallas.

Now, having fan votes determine all-star starters is all well and good — the all-star weekend is for the fans and has no impact on regular season or postseason play (the World Series representative of the league that wins the MLB all-star game is given home-field advantage in that final series). But to allow the fans input into deciding the MVP is a bad idea. If the fan influence expands, you’ll never see an MVP from a small market again, as too many casual fans will just vote for the stars and the headliners.

Honestly, if we’d had fan voting throughout this decade, Steve Nash probably wouldn’t have won either of his MVP awards and Dirk Nowitzki certainly wouldn’t have won his. It would have been a joke of an award going to Shaq, LeBron, or Kobe every year.

If you insist on hearing the fans’ voice, David Stern, please don’t give them any more than the one vote you just did. It’s only fair.

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Game of the Day: March 31

Oklahoma City Thunder at Boston Celtics — 7:30 PM eastern

The Celtics are struggling, and the Thunder are surging in the Western Conference. Coming off an absolute shellacking at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs (who went on to then lose to the New Jersey Nets), Boston looks to bounce back and maintain at least a share of the third-place seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ll have to beat a superbly talented Oklahoma City squad to do so, though.

The West’s young guns beat the Lakers last week and have one of the best scorers in the game in Kevin Durant. Complementing him are standout point guard Russell Westbrook, powerful forward Jeff Green, and rookie James Harden.

The Celtics boast a loaded roster of their own, with the big three and co. I’m excited to see the point-guard matchup in this game, as Westbrook and Rajon Rondo are two indications of the league’s bright, bright future at the 1. I expect Rondo will be able to keep Westbrook in check on the offensive end, but that doesn’t mean he won’t distribute the ball well.

In the end, I give this game to the Thunder. The Celtics are definitely lacking something, and they don’t have the same mystique on the parquet floor of the TD Garden as they have in the past. Kevin Durant should put on a show, and I expect Sefolosha to keep Ray Allen’s offensive production to a minimum. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Kevin Garnett outplays Jeff Green, given his advantages in both height and experience.

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Magic and Bird: who was more key to his team’s success?

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were two of the NBA's finest in the 1980s.

I know it seems somewhat out of place and random for me to be flipping through the history books on a Tuesday afternoon, but my professor brought up the Lakers-Celtics rivalry (and Magic Johnson in particular) in class today. He discussed why Jerry Buss selected Johnson over Bird in the 1979 draft, underscoring how Magic had the ability to both dominate on an individual basis and also make his teammates better, while commanding more star power than Bird did.

So I said, “But Larry Bird was a bigger key to the Celtics’ success than Magic was to the Lakers’.” He responded, “No, he wasn’t.”

Obviously, I couldn’t get in to an argument with him in the middle of his lecture, so I conceded, but what better argument to make today than the very one that came up by accident. Also, it’s somewhat relevant given the documentary HBO recently released on this storied rivalry. So here I go.

I do admit that Magic certainly was more of a “star” than Bird. He played with more flash, more thrill, and he was much more athletic (but Tim Duncan’s lack of star power didn’t stop the Spurs from drafting him first overall in 1997, did it? And how did that turn out for them?). Nevertheless, the star power isn’t what gets Ws up on the board. That comes from basketball production. So in examining who had the greater impact on his team, let’s look first at the pure statistics.

Magic Johnson: 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 3.9 turnovers.

Larry Bird: 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.1 turnovers.

Looking at these stats, it’s safe to say that Bird was the better scorer and rebounder. That said, Magic played (for the most part) point guard, where he has to commit just as much to making his teammates better. As you can see, Magic clearly outdistanced Bird in assists — but you don’t expect your scoring small/power forward to be racking up over six a game either (unless he’s LeBron James), so Bird stood out in that category.

Based on the stats alone, the difference between their respective influences is essentially negligible.

Moving on to the hardware, Magic won five NBA championships with the Lakers, while Bird won only three with the Celtics. Each of them won three MVP awards over the course of their careers. Certainly the higher number of rings reflects well on Magic, but we don’t christen Robert Horry (with seven rings) better than LeBron (with zero), do we? So I still consider them to be basically even with the championships taken into consideration.

The real discrepancy emerges, in my opinion, after an examination of each of the player’s supporting casts during their heydays. Larry Bird and the Celtics had Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Tiny Archibald, but Magic sported such figures as James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, and … Oh, yeah. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My professor asserted that it wasn’t these players that allowed Magic to shine but that it was the other way around. He made them all the great players they were. While point guards certainly can make their players a lot better, he vastly overstated Magic’s, well, magic. To suggest that Johnson made Kareem the best scorer in the history of basketball is just untrue.

Besides the fact that he came into the league about eight years before Magic during which he played, by far, his best ball, Kareem featured a skill set the success of which was not really dependent on a talented point guard. He was so successful because he mastered the most indefensible shot in basketball — the skyhook.

Furthermore, it’s evident that Magic’s game was affected more by his teammates than theirs were by him. When you’re surrounded by fantastic scorers and finishers, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to pick up assists. Take a look at Steve Nash, one of the greatest point guards this decade. He plays a few seasons for the Mavericks and plays respectable basketball. Then he goes to Phoenix and finds Amar’e Stoudemire, and he goes on to win two consecutive MVP awards and narrowly misses out on a third. That’s not to say Amar’e didn’t benefit from Nash’s arrival, but the effect was reciprocal.

My point is that Larry Bird didn’t have the people around him to improve his game as much as Magic did. Robert Parish was more known for his defense (and, incidentally, his inability to successfully defend Kareem — but no one could do that). McHale was a solid player but not on the level of Kareem or Worthy.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will be considered some of the NBA’s finest players for decades to come. They were both immensely talented and basked in their fair shares of NBA championship. And Magic was, and still is, the bigger star. But to say that, withdrawing both those players from their franchises, the Celtics are even close to the level of the Lakers during that decade is just a falsehood. Bird was way more instrumental to his team’s success than Magic.

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NBA Today: March 30

  • Why does the NBA have divisions? I never really understood.
  • The Lakers lose again, this time to the New Orleans Hornets. I bet they can’t wait to get Bynum and Walton back.
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Game of the Day: March 30

Phoenix Suns at Chicago Bulls — 8 PM eastern, telecast on NBA TV

It’s not often that the Bulls are one of the teams playing the NBA’s best game of the night, but this is one of those nights on which the league didn’t really schedule much true entertainment.

That said, the Bulls aren’t that bad to watch anyway. Pair them with the best team to watch in the game, and you’ve got yourself something to watch on TV. This contest pits a waxing star in the league against a waning one, and both those players happen to fill the point-guard role.

Derrick Rose is an electrifying competitor. He’s unstoppable on his way to the rim and has the athleticism to pair the flash with the production. On the other end is Steve Nash, the constantly astounding and reliable distributor with one of the finest shooting strokes ever to grace the Association. When you pair that with the best post finisher in the game in Amar’e Stoudemire, you have quite the problem on your hands as an opponent.

Chicago has been playing well of late thanks to especially strong play by Rose and good work by rookie (and former USC player) Taj Gibson. The Bulls actually managed to top the Suns 115-104 in their January 22 matchup, in which the youngster running the show vastly outplayed the veteran.

But I really doubt the Bulls will take the season sweep. Phoenix is also playing very well of late, and Stoudemire is the hottest of any player league-wide. Averaging 30 points and 10 boards since the all-star break, he’s showing what he can do (even if it only lasts for the remainder of this season, his contract year). So chalk up a win for the Suns, who are still very, very competitive in the West. They’re trying to prove (in perhaps the final year Nashmar’e) that a stellar offense can bring home the hardware in June.

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What’s up with the Bucks?

John Salmons has the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs this season.

The Milwaukee Bucks are going to be in the playoffs this year. The boys from Wisconsin, who haven’t played into May since the 2005-2006 season, are playing better than anyone could have expected them to at the beginning of the year. Currently in fifth place in the East, the Bucks are slated to draw a first-round matchup with either the Boston Celtics or Atlanta Hawks, who are tied for third place.

What has accounted for the Bucks’ surprising and sudden transition to a postseason-caliber team after being assumed lottery players for three years? Well, certainly very few expected rookie Brandon Jennings to play superhuman basketball at the beginning of the season (and still-above-average basketball, especially for a rookie, now). And certainly very few expected former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut to be posting 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks a game for a cool PER of 20.6. But they’re not the true reason for the Bucks’ absurd play.

No, John Salmons is responsible for that.

Since acquiring Salmons prior to the team’s February 19 contest against the Pistons, Milwaukee is a stunning 16-4. During this span, Salmons has averaged slightly over 20 points per contest after putting up about 14 a game with Chicago earlier this season. He showed flashes of this scoring ability in Sacramento and Chicago last season, but after an inauspicious start to the current campaign, I expected it was just a fluke. He can really score the ball, has meshed well with Jennings in the back court, and gives Milwaukee a reliable late-game jumpshooter after Michael Redd went down with a season-ending injury.

Speaking of which, credit the Bucks’ front office for not folding the cards after that and selling away the season. They went out and made a deadline deal to keep themselves competitive, and now they figure to be at least competitive in the playoffs. With six scorers averaging in double figures, they have a balanced offense.

The emerging problem? Are they deep enough up front with Bogut, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, and Kurt Thomas? That will be definitely be problem against every single one of the teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings.

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NBA Today: March 29

  • The day after I write about Vince Carter’s importance to a successful Orlando playoff run, he leaves the team’s game with a sprained toe.
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Game of the Day: March 29

Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks — 8:30 PM eastern, telecast on NBA TV

This should be a good one. The two teams  jockeying for second-place position in the Western conference square off Monday in what could very well be a preview of a postseason series.

Neither team has been playing its best of lately. The Mavs are 6-4 in their last 10 and have been blown out by two lottery teams in the New York Knicks and New Orleans Hornets during that stretch. The Nuggets, 5-5 in their last 10, have also lost to the Knicks. Otherwise, their losses during that stretch have been to playoff teams and Houston, which has a remote shot.

The Mavericks are considered by many to be the only team capable of dethroning the Lakers before the NBA Finals after their deadline trade for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood.

But beating the Nuggets requires stopping Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups.

Shawn Marion will draw the assignment on Melo, who has been held to under 20 points in both games against the Mavericks this season. Billups has played in only one game against Dallas this season, scoring 6 points on 6-of-8 shooting.

Up front, the Mavericks will get a break with Kenyon Martin out injured for Denver, so Dirk Nowitzki will be able to minimize effort on defense against the non-threat Johan Petro.

Off the bench, expect Jason Terry and J.R. Smith to put up a handful of points. Don’t be surprised if Rodrigue Beaubois does, too, coming off a 40-point performance against the Warriors last night.

The teams have split their series thus far, and I think the Mavericks emerge victorious in this one. Nowitzki should play heavy minutes and put up a lot of points, but Dallas’s defense is what should do the trick. Haywood should have handle on Nene at center, and Jason Kidd can still play decent enough defense to prevent Billups from going off.

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Big Z Returns

Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned to the Cavaliers Sunday.

After being traded to the Wizards as part of a deal for Antawn Jamison, and submitting to a 30-day waiting period during which he could play in no NBA games, Zydrunas Ilgauskas returned Sunday to the Cleveland Cavaliers — the only team for which  he has ever played an NBA contest.

The long and thin Ilgauskas is a fan favorite in Cleveland and deservedly so. He endured several years with the team when it had absolutely no chance at contention, and he didn’t even consider other teams’ offers this season; he went right back to the Cavaliers.

Big Z works hard every game, combining rare height (in fact, I think he’s the league’s tallest player in Yao Ming’s absence) with a shooting touch out to the three-point line. While he lacks the strength to adequately defend the heftier and stronger centers in the NBA, his length can easily disrupt attempts at the rim by shorter players.

In 2009-2010, his performance has dropped significantly, as he’s lost five points, two rebounds and half a block off his per-game averages. The arrival of Shaq to start at center combined with the emergence of Anderson Varejao as a solid rotation player (and sixth-man contender) has eaten into Zy’s minutes drastically, but he doesn’t complain. And he gives his best effort when he is on the hardwood.

But in the shadow of Shaq’s thumb injury, which should hold him out for a few more weeks still, Ilgauskas’s return is received just as well from a basketball standpoint as from a loyalty standpoint. The Cavs had been playing without a true center, relying on Varejao and youngster J.J. Hickson to fill in at the 5. Now, those guys can spend more time at the 4 and fill in for Ilgauskas when he needs a rest.

As far as the playoffs go, Zydrunas’s return helps the Cavs immensely. When they face teams like the Celtics, Magic, or Lakers, his outside-shooting ability will require those teams’ primary interior defensive presences to step out, leaving the lane less congested for LeBron and co. to get to the hole. Above all, though, he’s a presence for the players and fans that adds to the team’s camaraderie, which is very crucial to their success.

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