An Exhaustive Examination of the Difference Between an MVP and Everyone Else

By Luke Middleton

Preface: I started writing this about three months ago. I wanted to get my statement on the record before we got to the end of the season. I had the groundwork for this post collected and formed and had this just about ready to publish. But I waited. Maybe it was being busy with other things, maybe it was waiting to see what happened so I didn’t look stupid if I was wrong. Either way, it never got posted. Three months later, here we are without the ability to prove a “told you so”, but with a much larger pool of observation that comes with hindsight.

About a quarter of the way through the NBA season, MVP talks start to surface. On January 26, ESPN.com did it’s Midseason Report and writers gave their picks for conference champs, finals champs, rookie of the year, and the MVP, among other things. Dirk Nowitzki got the most out of the five unofficial votes when two writers picked him.

Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade, and Gilbert Arenas all split the remaining three picks.

And the very presence of that last name in the MVP discussion is precisely what I want to focus on.

The intention of this article isn’t to pick on Gilbert Arenas (or Chris Sheridan who said he showed us his “East Coast bias”). The objective here is to really establish the difference between an MVP and everyone else in the league. Even if 23 of those “everyone elses” are All-Stars and do great things on the court. I live in the DC area and Gilbert is the “MVP candidate” I’ve had the most exposure to. So, I will share what I have observed. It’s not Gilbert’s fault I live here (but it is a coin’s fault that Gilbert lives here — or maybe not). We all have the great responsibility of protecting the MVP award and any sense reverence we have for it (basically, the complete opposite of what we do with the All-Star Game MVP). Remember, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It does not make you the NBA’s MVP. And we must learn that it does not put you in the discussion.

And maybe this is a bit about why early predictions lend themselves to statements that can look a bit silly in hindsight. Or maybe it is about how we’ve created a stage where the best way to get noticed is to say something different or new (I really don’t believe Sheridan was saying this just to get noticed – don’t get me wrong, but he was probably just having some fun
with his pick). Our media lends itself to chasing the new and the unique and the novelty (in various ways, all three of those words apply to Arenas). What good is a sports writer or analyst if he says the same thing everyone else says? No one gets a video of them put on YouTube if they say, “Michael Jordan was the best ever” or “The Spurs play good defense.” But, you know, when you’ve got five or ten or a dozen sports writers giving their picks, why not take a chance and make things interesting and add some variety to the selections? Sometimes people stretch for things just to make a minor point (like picking the Cavs to win it all just to prove that they could – even when you know they won’t). And sometimes people really believe what they say. So, who knows. (I should point out that the reader may be victim of that same sensationalism by reading this.)

So, let me beat this horse dead before continuing: my end is not to focus on Gilbert as an MVP candidate. That is my means. That’s the avenue I want to take to get where I want to take you. My end is to contend for the level of MVP play to be reserved for the highest standard of play — a standard that is not relative to the current competition. There is no such thing as a necessary number of MVP candidates. There are one, two, three, or four guys who play like an MVP in a given year. Maybe more. Heck, maybe none. If it’s only one, then he should be the only candidate. If it’s two or three or four (like this year), then they should be the candidates. None of this, “But he’s right up here after the top three” stuff. Either he’s playing like an MVP or not. The MVP is not determined by everyone else’s level of play (I know, I know — 2005). The MVP should have its own unwavering standard. The All-Star game consists of the top 12 players from each conference, no matter how good or bad the league (or the Eastern Conference) is at the time. It is completely relative (see: Jamaal Magloire, 2004).

The MVP is not this way. It’s like being seven feet tall. If you’re looking for people seven feet tall, you don’t grab Shawn Bradley, Dikembe Mutombo, and Yao Ming … and then toss in Marcus Camby and Alonzo Mourning and call them “Seven foot candidates.” You’re either seven feet tall or you’re not. You’re either an MVP or you’re not. It’s not unlike being pregnant.

Hold on, so what do you say an MVP is?

Now, this part is inevitable and necessary. What exactly is an MVP? Ask 10 people, you’ll probably get a handful of varying answers. Usually, this is the pool of things we end up ultimately pulling from when considering a player:

  • Is he the best player in the league?
  • How many of his team’s wins are directly linked to him?
  • If you had to pick a player to build your team around for this
    one season, would you pick this player?
  • If you had to pick one player to build your team around for a
    seven-game series right here and now, would you pick him?
  • Does he make others better through his play?
  • Do his presence and leadership raise the effort, production, and
    focus of his teammates? (Do they stay in line when he’s around?)
  • Do you want the ball in his hands in crunch time? And if you
    played against him, would you fear a situation where he’d have the ball with
    the ability to put the game away with one shot?
  • How much does he alter or dictate the opposition’s strategy?
    Does he require a lot of planning for?
  • What does he bring that is unique? What sets him apart? What
    does he offer that is truly irreplaceable if he were to go down with an
    injury? Even bigger picture: what would the league at large lose if he went
    down with an injury?
  • Is he on a winning team? Or, more aptly, is his team a winning team
    because of him?

Generally speaking, this pool makes up most of our MVP qualifications. It’s not exhaustive, and I’m sure many can think of some other good points to add. But, this is probably a decent core to start with and probably represents most of the market on MVP criteria. Now, I will take a moment to address some ludicrous ideas about evaluating MVPs. Let me submit that the idea that a player must meet a certain level of defensive production is well intentioned, yet misguided. “It’s a 94 foot game” we always hear. “Gotta play both sides of the ball.” While that initially appears to be a more robust view of the MVP, it actually often ends up being very limiting to the qualifications for MVP. What this sometimes does is overcorrect a usually false assumption (that the general masses (and MVP voters) care only about offense and that guys like Nash and Dirk roll around in their millions laughing about how they keep getting away with doggin’ it on defense and caring nothing about championships).

“Basketball is both offense and defense!” we protest.

Then give Ron Artest the award.

That’s great to know there’s more to the game than just shooting a lot, but we can’t stop there. Out of all the MVP candidates this year, Kobe Bryant is the best player on both sides of the ball. Does that make him the MVP? Not in and of itself. When we say “he’s gotta be good on offense and defense”, we often end up limiting the categories. “Well, I give Kobe a 9.9 on offense and an 8.9 on defense. That gives him a total of 18.8. Can anyone beat that?” This isn’t figureskating, folks. Where is leadership, clutch performance, money from the free throw line, being a gamebreaker, always coming up with that important rebound, making your teammates better, etc.? Where is the category for, “Well, if the ship goes down by the end of the third quarter, at least we have [insert name of MVP here]”? If categories and fundamentals are what we want, then take away Shaq’s MVP and three Finals MVP awards. The man cannot shoot free throws. Probably eight out of ten people reading this right now can shoot free throws better than Shaq. Was Shaq the most fundamentally sound player in his prime? No. Was he the most talented? Heavens no. Was he the definition of dominance in the post-Jordan era? Yes.

While desiring all players to play effective defense, one has to ask just how astronomically detrimental to their teams guys like Nash and Dirk really can be on defense if two of the three best teams in the NBA keep playing them and keep winning. Does Shawn Marion ever complain under his breath, “Why doesn’t D’Antoni get Steve the heck out of the game? He is killing us!” Has that ever happened? Is it possible that what guys like Nash and Dirk (whose defense has improved, by the way) bring to the table is so valuable (good word, huh?) that any defensive deficiencies they have are accounted
for by the rest of the team? Dirk and Nash both give their teams a net gain of over 12 points when they are in the game versus when they are not in the game. To be fair, Arenas helps net the Wizards 16 more points (although, I’m not sure this statistic is able to reflect that the Suns and Mavs as a whole are what I would tactfully refer to as “better teams” with “deeper benches” than the Wizards). The reader will notice that I make little effort the rest of the way to address Arenas’ defense (which is not, by any stretch, All-Star caliber. He may get more steals that both Nash and Dirk, but don’t forget that we’re just a few seasons removed from Larry Hughes leading the league in steals in a Wizards uniform when given lots of minutes and the freedom to gamble in passing lanes. Also, look up Bruce Bowen’s steals per game. Little indication on one’s defensive abilities, I dare say. Moving on…).

Let’s be careful that we don’t create crazy boxes for categorizing an MVP that end up limiting where he is able to make an impact. It doesn’t matter how they do it, what matters is identifying who is going to help your team score more points than the other team in 48 minutes. If you’ve played pick-up basketball ever, you know that the most valuable guy (the guy who always wins) isn’t always the most talented. He’s usually the Sam Cassell in the bunch.

So what is an MVP? An MVP is much more obvious than we often confuse ourselves into thinking.

Who says Gilbert is MVP material?

Sheridan is by no means alone in attaching Arenas to the MVP discussion. ESPN.com’ Tim Legler said in a January 24th ‘Daily Dime’ that he has Gilbert as third in line for the MVP this year behind Nash and Dirk. Ivan Carter of the Washington Post attributed the following quote from Michael Redd as indicating that it wasn’t far-fetched to consider Arenas for MVP:

“Who’s playing better than him right now? He’s been unstoppable. He’s been on one of those rolls you dream about and they’re winning.”

Eleven days later, the Post’s Mike Wise quoted Gilbert’s teammate Antonio Daniels:

“In the conversation for MVP? There’s not a guy in this league who’s playing as well as Gilbert right now. Not one.”

Antawn Jamison, the leader of the Wizards (oops, getting ahead of myself), was quoted on January 4th as saying:

“I’ve known Gilbert since he’s been in the league, and he’s definitely been performing beyond what I’ve seen Gilbert perform at, and beyond what I’ve seen some of the all-time greats perform at. I mean, I’ve seen Kobe. I’ve seen the Mitch Richmonds of the league. I played against Jordan. This is up there. I mean, he’s averaging 30 points a game. I love it….As long as he’s performing the way he’s performing and we’re winning, it’s real early, but it’s not too far-fetched to be thinking MVP candidate this season. Look, we’re competing for one of the best records in the Eastern Conference, and he’s a big part of it.”

On December 29th, USA Today’s Oscar Dixon said:

“Milwaukee Bucks coach Terry Stotts said any MVP discussion has to be a combination of individual performance and winning. And those two factors are why he says Arenas should be mentioned.”

Even Charles Barkley, who (believe it or not) is often the sobering voice of
reason said:

“You talk about MVP being Nash, Nowitzki, or Kobe, but the guy who has to be mentioned now is Gilbert Arenas.”

Arenas has the backing of current players and coaches, a Hall of Famer, and
writers who believe he should be an MVP candidate.

Why consider Arenas for MVP?

Sheridan lays out the reasoning quite succinctly:

“…for going 40-plus seven times, including two 50s and a 60 — not to mention his knack for dramatic buzzer beaters.”

In the games where Arenas has scored 40 or more points, the Wizards are 8-1. In the eight wins, Arenas always shot at least 50% from the field in all but one of them (43% in the loss), one time going for almost 64% and another time going for an unbelievable 70%. The more Gilbert has scored this season, the more likely his team is to win.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Arenas got the last three of his 51 points on a buzzer-beater to take out the Jazz (a game whose tickets I was .01 seconds away from clicking the final “Purchase Tickets” prompt from TicketMaster for before realizing I had to work that day). Arenas left the court to the crowd chanting, “M-V-P! M-V-P!” The crowd has done that more than once this season, too. Although, if we’ve learned anything from The Simpsons, it’s that large crowds aren’t prone to objective, sound, longterm, consequence-aware decision making. Especially when it’s the same crowd that was screaming its guts out for a few free Chipotle burritos just fifteen minutes earlier. I wish I was kidding.

I remember reading (but cannot find the citation for it) that Kobe Bryant (no defensive slouch and not one to compliment others, especially Arenas) noted that Gilbert was a very challenging match-up. Kobe has a point. Gilbert has an incredible range and his size and speed allow him to it to the basket with the best of them as only two other players (Wade and Kobe) get to the line more than he does.

And Gilbert is smarter than he sometimes lets on and we given him credit for. There is a rather short list of players better at drawing fouls than Gilbert (sign of a true scorer). In the Wizards’ games I’ve attend this year, the thing I loved seeing the most from Gilbert was watching him bait his defender with an up-fake a good 15-20 feet from the basket, get him to
leave his feet, wait for the contact, take the contact, and then put up a shot (which he occasionally hits – some being really quite impressive). He’s smart like that. He’s also probably the only player this year to draw a shooting foul about 80 feet from the basket (against a good defensive-minded playoff team, at that).

At the writing of this, Arenas is third in the league in scoring. He averages more steals and assists than the league’s other top two scorers (currently Kobe and Carmelo). Not bad, huh? And, you have to admit, if you didn’t surf the internet or check ESPN the night before, and a co-worked walked into your office and said, “Someone scored 70 points last night,”
your second guess would probably be Arenas.

The man is talented.

But does that make him an MVP?

Is all of this sufficient reason to consider Gilbert Arenas for the NBA’s MVP? Maybe for a few moments, as some of the things he does are things MVPs do. But, after a moment, it should be clear and we should move on. Arenas, along with 445 – 447 other players in the league, should not be in the ongoing MVP conversation. Is he a better player than many of those 445 –447? Yes. But the MVP conversation should only include those playing like MVPs (as opposed to the top three – five players in the league). I do not believe that Gilbert Arenas is playing like an MVP. Therefore, he should not be considered. I

Yeah, he scores

A 60-point game is incredible. A couple of 50s isn’t exactly bad, either. But, please remember, we are two seasons removed from Damon Stoudamire (who has battled one Chucky Atkins for playing time in a location I like to call Memphis) going for 54 in a game. I know what you’re thinking: “But Arenas did it quite a few more times than Damon Stoudamire.” Good point. That’s worth considering. But it doesn’t necessitate MVP talk.

The more researched reader is emphatically protesting: “Look at how many of those games they won. You even said yourself that when Gilbert scores a lot, they win.” Great point. I did say that. But I should clarify…

Gilbert shoots a lot no matter what. When Gilbert gets hot, he makes a lot of those shots. Those shots result in a lot of points. And when a lot of the Wizards’ shots are being made, they are much more likely to win.

Is it possible there is a difference between “getting hot” and “taking over”?

Getting hot while shooting a lot vs. taking over (Bonus: U.S. National Team)

This is what Gilbert Arenas is: a volume-shooting combo-guard. He’s the best combo-guard in the game. And isn’t this why he got cut from the U.S. Team last summer?

(And is there any reason in hindsight that the coaches should not have cut him? Would one 54-point game against Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix be enough for the U.S. coaches to regret their decision? They are silly men if it does. Especially when you consider the less publicized rematch later in the season. The Suns’ visit to D.C. in January featured Steve Nash perform a ruthless debilitating surgery on a conscious patient (the Wizards). In a game that featured Amare Stoudemire in foul trouble (finishing with just 15 points), Nash single-handedly tore the Wizards apart and left myself and my two friends in the 400 section seating in absolute awe. The Suns were up by 21 points when the 1st quarter ended. Four teams (including the Wizards) didn’t even score 21 points in their respective first quarters that same night. Gilbert got his points that game, but was futile in producing a win (while Caron Butler lead the comeback charge that wasn’t ultimately successful, but did make a strong statement). If that didn’t convince the U.S. coaches, maybe the two (count them – two) times Gilbert guaranteed 50 points against the Blazers to (stop me if this sounds familiar) prove something about himself to someone (Nate McMillan) did it. First, who feels the need to guarantee a sum of points against the Blazers? In the regular season? And did I mention it was the Blazers? Not MVPs. But, it’s probably the same person who goes out of his way to prove his shooting dominance over teammate DeShawn Stevenson (you know, the guy whose career average in points is 8.2; the same guy who the Orlando Magic didn’t feel the need to re-sign for this season) and Roger Mason (come on, honestly — hands up if you know he is and you don’t live in the DC area). Oh, and that last link mentions Gilbert going at Chucky Atkins, also. You may remember Chucky from a few paragraphs ago where I mentioned him as the guy who battled Damon Stoudamire (who once scored 50 points) for playing time this season in Memphis. In all of this, shouldn’t we feel bad for Chucky Atkins facing obstacles in his career from multiple 50-point scorers? To his credit, though, Arenas fared well in the three-point contest when shooting against more proven foes. Anyway, secondly, Gilbert guaranteed 50 against the Blazers twice. What’d he get? 29 points. In both games. Combined. A total of 7-of-31 from the field. Both were Wizards’ losses. The whole “I was taken in the second round of the draft and need to prove myself” thing should not apply when one is trying to prove himself against role players, other second round picks, and the minding-their-own-business Portland TrailBlazers (who could’ve cared less until Gilbert ran his mouth – then Jarrett Jack took offense and held Arenas to nine points on 3-of-15 from the field and even gave the media some free pointers on guarding Arenas after the game). Isn’t that like the star quarterback of the varsity football team challenging the JV third-stringer to a throwing contest? Gilbert has every right to play around and have fun, but if he wants the MVP, these things might not prove helpful to winning that or a championship. Are these things that mark MVPs? I know Michael Jordan is ultra-competitive, but didn’t his competitiveness lead to championships and maximizing those around him? But Arenas is still young. And I digress.)

If you’ve got a guy knocking down 50%-70% of his shots while putting up as many as 37 shots in one game, your team is going to have a hard time losing. Remember what Michael Redd said? “Who’s playing better than him right now? He’s been unstoppable. He’s been on one of those rolls you dream about and they’re winning.” Gilbert gets the rhythm. To be an MVP, he’ll have to go one step further and dictate the rhythm of entire games (and series) while creating his own flow and still controlling the game when his shot isn’t falling.

Let me submit this before going forward: Gilbert (at the time of this writing) is tied with LeBron James for fourth in the league in field goal attempts. Of the top 40 scorers in the league, only one makes less than 42% of his field goal attempts. I’ll give you one guess who it is (and it’s not Jamal Crawford – he’s #41 in scoring). Gilbert’s streakiness can help you or hurt you. You live by the Gilbert, you die by the Gilbert. That’s why, even if the Wizards had Gilbert (and a healthy Caron Butler) for the playoffs, they’d still not be favored to get out of the first round (at the writing of this article, they’d be playing Toronto. Who would you pick in that one?). In the 31 (count them – thirty-one) games that Arenas has shot under 40% from the field (averaging 6.35 makes in 20.6 attempts, good for 31%), the Wizards are 10 – 21. Arenas averaged 5.45 assists in those 31 (sound that number out again) games. And if you’re paying attention at home, all this means that on days when Gilbert can’t hit the broad side of a barn, he limits his shots by putting up .2 (notice that decimal) fewer a game. His assists also drop by over half an assist. Let me ask you: if Gilbert’s shot is not falling at a great (over 50%) rate, are there any other ways he can take over a game? At this point, I’m hoping that over the next few years, Arenas proves to be more than (roughly speaking) a more healthy, more motivated, more talented, more powerful Steve Francis (in Francis’ prime).

The big picture-oriented reader will want to know that, interestingly, Kobe Bryant has had a similar impact on his team. Kobe (again, at the writing of this article) has shot under 40% in 22 games this season and the Lakers are 8 – 14 during in those contests. Very interestingly, 6 of those losses and none of those wins came in March (near the stretch Kobe scored all those 50 point games) and April (when Kobe is shooting a lot as he tries to get the Lakers into the playoffs). This isn’t to say that Gilbert and Kobe are on the same playing field. Put Kobe Bryant on the Wizards (in Gilbert’s place) and wouldn’t you pick them to make it out of the first round? Put Gilbert on the Lakers (in Kobe’s place) and could you picture Phil Jackson still coaching the team? Now, very interestingly (and with full recognition that he does play on a superior team), Steve Nash has shot under 40% only seven times this season. The Suns are 7 – 0 in those contests. Nash averages just 33% from the field in those games, but his assists jump to 12.4 (including a 21-assist outburst and two 15’s) and he takes two less shots (10.9) in those games when he realizes the shot isn’t falling. Can I reiterate here that Nash just mercilessly obliterates his opponents?

Again, when Gilbert gets hot, he scores a lot and the Wizards are much more likely to win. What I did not say is this: Gilbert Arenas is a bail-your-team-out, carry-a-dead-team-on-his-shoulders, ensure-and-produce-victory-in-the-seventh-game-of-a-series player. Watch Wizards games and I think you’ll see that this is true. Have you ever heard after a game, “We were down for the count, but Gilbert wasn’t going to let us lose. He never says ‘die'”?

Presence and control

Gilbert is one of the most (offensively) talented players in the league. Talent can be quiet, though. And talent doesn’t necessarily dictate the flow, control, and focus of a game (or a series). I don’t know how much more NBA teams have to account for Gilbert as compared to guys like Ray Allen and Michael Redd (if nothing else, probably more just because of how good Arenas is going to the basket), but it’s still not at an MVP level. MVPs do not have quite presences. The presence of an MVP is always felt. The game is his by default and he will do as he pleases with it. When he decides he has had enough of losing, he completely takes over the game by sheer will and annihilates his opponents.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing both the Suns and Mavs play this year (both times against the Wizards). Before I get to them, let me say what really surprised me about watching the Wizards play the teams above as well as the Magic, Celtics, and Soncis (not the deadliest of foes, as you can tell). If you watch a game in person, you miss out on the announcers (not a bad thing 9 times out of 10), the commercials (not a bad thing 9.8 times out of 10) and the media buzz (not a bad thing 11 times out of 10). Heck, just stay at home, watch a the game with the TV muted for the two-and-a-half hours. Unless Gilbert is red smoking hot, you may be surprised to see how quiet his presence is.

Stop. This is not an issue of personality. Tim Duncan, for example, is not the most vividly expressive player on the planet (unless laughing at a referee from the bench), but his presence is felt. You are constantly aware of Duncan. Especially if you are the opposing team. He’s the one guy you just really, really wish wasn’t there. Even if he’s not putting up a lot of points, he’s rebounding, much of the offense is running through him, he’s blocking shots, and his steady demeanor is deafening at times. No one gets out of line on Tim Duncan’s team. It just doesn’t happen. Sure, Gregg Popovich helped create that and veteran players add to that, for sure. But if you went and dropped Tim Duncan on the Magic, Sonics, Bobcats, Hornets, Grizzlies, or Pacers (even swapping him out for Jermaine O’Neal), or any other bottom-tier team, his presence would be sensed. Guys would play harder, sit up straighter, and pass the ball one extra time. This is because Tim Duncan doesn’t play around. Tim Duncan wins.

Continue. When the Suns were running circles around the Wizards in DC, there was one Wizards player who distinctly had a never-say-die approach. First time All-Star Caron Butler. If the Suns could’ve selected one player to remove from the Wizards roster for the second half of play to make their win easier, they would’ve removed Caron Butler. His hustle, heart, assertiveness, defense, aggressiveness, and refusal to die were there. Gilbert scored over 30 points. But, that was it. They were just points (as much as one can say that). Caron Butler displayed the take-over mentality that MVPs (even just of their own team) display. He would go down fighting and he would go down with the ship. Don’t read his blog, don’t read NBA blogs, don’t pay attention to commercials, don’t listen to the media hype. Then watch a handful of Wizards games. How much do you feel Gilbert out there? (Obviously, if he’s scoring 40 or 50, it’s hard to miss. But outside of that?)

Maybe this will come with age for Arenas. I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how Paul Pierce has stepped into that role this season. A handful of years ago, I would not have expected it.

Fear factor

When I saw the Mavs play the Wizards, it was an eye-opening experience for me. The Mavs staged a comeback (a running theme with the Wizards) to pull close after being down by around 20 (sorry for the fuzzy figures). The game started getting close and the clock got to under two minutes. The Mavs were within striking distance and the Wizards were on the verge of blowing it. On a key possession, one of the last of the game, Dirk received a pass at the top of the key and a step or two outside the three-point line. He pivoted to face and size-up his single defender. There is only one term to describe the feeling that came crushing down on the hometown crowd: fear.

As Dirk examined the foe he was about to eat alive, you could feel the crowd tense up. It was astounding to hear multiple people within earshot of me begin to involuntarily speak prayers under their breath. “Don’t let him get around you, don’t let him get around you.” “Don’t give him that first step.” “Don’t let him get the shot off.” It was like everyone in the arena was suddenly a Wizards parent pulling for their son to just not get beaten too badly. It was inevitable, but they hoped and prayed it would be quick and painless.

That concern for the Wizards came out in the stands all around me. People’s eyes got wide. They tensed up. They started breathing out exactly what they did not want to happen. They could see how the next three-and-a-half seconds would play out. Their greatest fear realized. And nothing in their power or the power of anyone on the court could stop it.

I don’t even remember if Dirk made it. Memory says he did. It doesn’t even matter. If you had never been exposed to the NBA before in your life and you walked into that arena for the last three minutes of the game and someone said, “OK, tell us who the best player out there is” whether or not you understood the game, knew a player’s “PER” or his career-high in points, it wouldn’t matter. Your answer would be to point at the tall and awkward blond-haired German and say, “Him.”

Why?

“Because when he got the ball, people were afraid. It just seemed like everyone knew that something big was going to happen.”

Even LeBron, who still has some winning he needs to do, wasn’t afraid of Arenas on the free throw line at the end of a playoff series (to his credit, I believe Arenas did hit a big shot earlier that night).

Being clutch

Gilbert has no doubt made some game-winners (six by my last count — including one against Seattle just one game after he airballed a potential game-winner in the paint against the … Blazers) in his young career. For the bigger picture of crunch time, check out these numbers and draw your own conclusions. Arenas; Nash, Dirk, Duncan, Pierce, LeBron, Carmelo, McGrady, Kobe, Iverson (and then rightfully call me a hypocrite for saying such stats are sometimes limited.)

Making your teammates better

Watching the Mavs play, I was blown away with how good of a passer Dirk is. If there were a category for non-assists that were the right pass at the right time, I believe Dirk would be among the league leaders. He makes everyone better. His passing made Erik Dampier look like an offensive giant in the 1st quarter of the game I saw. Then again, Erik Dampier’s defense made Etan Thomas look like an offensive giant. And as far as Nash goes … well, yeah, he seems to make others better.

Does Gilbert make others better? I haven’t seen an abundance of evidence supporting that. Right now, he may be better suited as a tennis player. He has lots of room to grow, though.

Leadership

On the personality side, Gilbert is unique (to say the least). Washington D.C., the NBA, and basketball fans have embraced Agent Zero as the face of the Wizards franchise. His is otherwordly quirky. But he does not seem dangerous. He is not a cancer to his team’s lockerroom. Teammates seem to enjoy him on various levels. But, on February 12, 2007, Mike Wise of the Washington Post made a comment that puts much of that in perspective when talking about the MVP award:

Gilbert Arenas has played like one of the top five players in the world this season, but his silly-man persona doesn’t translate to leadership among his teammates. He knows that as well as anyone, and was reminded again yesterday when Eddie Jordan verbally traded shots with his star player after the most unsightly game of the year at Verizon Center.

The “trading shots” incident is one that caused my friend (who was unfairly subjected to my unsolicited pessimistic list of Arenas’ shortcomings on a rather regular basis – it’s the contrarian in me that likes to pop people’s balloons) to email me the morning the news was in the paper. All it said was this: “Gilbert does not deserve to be among the elite stars in the NBA…”

It was on February 11, after this game that Ivan Carter shared in the Wizards Insider some quotes of Gilbert
seemingly “throwing his coach under the bus”:

“It’s easy to lose focus when you you’re just drilling us that if we make a mistake we’re going to be coming out. Truthfully, that’s how you lose concentration. You lose focus because you’re scared to actually play basketball. His [Eddie Jordan’s] standpoint is that since we lost Antawn, we have to pick it up somewhere else and that’s
defense.”

Jordan responded with this:

“First of all, we didn’t have the leadership out there that we needed with Antawn out and no one else has stepped up into a leadership role.”

And…

“It’s very special, very special and Antawn has it. That’s why he’s the only captain on the team. I’ve tried to have main guys the last couple of years to be captains and it doesn’t work because they don’t have the qualities.”

And about Gilbert being captain…

“I don’t want him to do it. He’s not a leader right now. He’s a scorer and our best player and you’d like your team to take the personality of your best player in a sense.”

(By the way, this proves my friend right who told me while waiting out a four-and-a-half hour rain delay for a Nationals – Phillies game that Antawn Jamison was really the heart of the Wizards team.)

Did you catch that? You want your team to take the personality of your best player.

Here, I want to state that I seem to remember reading that Antawn Jamison sat and spoke with Gilbert after this and that Gilbert was receptive and I believe apologized and recanted. I cannot find a citation or source for that outside of my memory, though. I also think I read something about Eddie Jordan admitting his defense-focused pep-talk was poorly timed, poorly delivered, and that he should’ve looked at himself first for the change. Hats off to both men, if my memory is correct.

It is clear that Jordan and Arenas are both aware that Arenas is not ready to lead other players. And it’s clear how important that is to a team winning. Leading other players requires a focus on other players, also. $10 bets with fans are fun, but not something that marks a focused leader of teammates.

More recently, ESPN.com’s TrueHoop pointed to this information following Arenas’ season-ending injury. Henry Abbott noted that, “Gilbert Arenas has never done the best job of talking like a teammate. His fascination, at least in interviews, is with proving his own worth to all those who ever doubted him. But that’s a misdemeanor, right? Who cares what motivates him as long as he prepares like a maniac and plays the right way?”

He then quoted straight from Gilbert’s NBA.com blog:

Unfortunately, I’ve been catching glimpses of my team.

I try to watch the good parts … so I won’t watch the last four or five minutes. I’ll watch the good part of the game.

Caron pages me every day.

He has never paged me in the two years he’s been here and then when I get hurt, he pages me every day.

He keeps saying, “I’m going to page you every day.”

I’m like, “Lord have mercy.”

When he says every day, he means every day.

But all my teammates have text or called me. I even got outside messages and calls. Jermaine O’Neal called me. Salim Stoudemire called. Melo sent a text. You know so, that was a joy to see people support me and see how I’m doing.

I’m one of those guys, I can’t watch basketball without wanting to go play. You know, so when I’m watching it, I’m sitting there dribbling the basketball. And then I get all anxious and I’m like, “Man, I think I can just go shoot or something. I think I can shoot … Let’s go in there and shoot…”

And then I’m like, “No, you can’t go in there and shoot…”

So I’m like, “Well, I can’t watch then!”

You see somebody do a move and it’s like, “Man, I remember when my leg was good. I could do that move …”

So I just try to watch movies …

If you have an MVP, you want everyone on your roster to be more like him. If you’re the Wizards, do you want everyone on your roster to be more like Gilbert? In some ways (training being one), yes. But in some other ways, the answer is clearly no.

Henry Abbott finished by noting the following about my favorite (bias alert) Wizard:

Not to make too much of this, but Caron Butler is visibly wrenching his body in misery, courtside, exhorting his teammates on while the Wizards are losing these games, and Gil can’t even bother to watch the end on TV? Because he’s gotta watch another X-Men movie? I’ve supported this goof through virtually everything, on the theory that sports are entertainment and all entertainment is better than no entertainment, but that kinda turns even my stomach.

I’ll go ahead and state the obvious right now: If Arenas’ personality and presence were a football player, you know what position they would be? A wide receiver.

Come on. Chuckle with me. You know it’s true.

Abbott closed with this correct observation: “I’ll tell you what: Caron Butler is looking good throughout this entire process.” And from what I’ve seen from Caron Butler, that statement will probably always be true about most things he does. Some say Arenas is the key part of the Wizards’ “Big Three”. While his talent is above both Butler’s and Jamison’s, it is beginning to become apparent in light of what Butler and Jamison bring to their team that calling him the most important piece could be a stretch.

Abbott pointed out that Arenas’ focus usually seems to be on proving himself. It sure does seem that way, given the information Gilbert gives us to work with. Interestingly, on December 29th, USA Today’s Oscar Dixon said:

“There is no denying that Arenas, 24, plays with a chip on his shoulder, but Wizards coach Eddie Jordan says it’s not about personal vendettas — Arenas’ only motivation is to win. Arenas has scored at least 30 points in 14 games this season, and Washington is 13-1 in those contests.”

If that is indeed true about Arenas’ motivation, then great. But he still has a ways to go. And hey, apparently he is aware. And as we all know, knowing is half the battle.

The future of his leadership?

In the Washington Post Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said about Gilbert:

“He’s got a long way to go before he gets to leading 12 guys and he’d be the first to say it, I think. And when I say a long way, it’s about getting older, experience, maturity. You look at Gary Payton. Over the years, he went from intense to sometimes losing control with the officials. He got into it with his coach. Everybody said, ‘How could he ever be a leader?’ But in his own way, as he got older, he became more of a leader. He gathered his teammates around and told them what they needed to do. After so many years, you want to win and you see younger guys and you realize that’s your role.”

And about Arenas ever being that leader:

“I think by the time he’s 28, 29, 30, he’s going to be twice the leader he is now,” Jordan added. He said he didn’t knock Arenas’s leadership last week. “I complimented Antawn’s. I didn’t say Gilbert is a terrible leader or Gilbert doesn’t have any leadership skills. I said Antawn has all those qualities. Gilbert and I know that he doesn’t have those certain qualities. He comes out and says it.”

Let me remind us of something: this is the second time we’ve heard an observer say that Gilbert knows his shortcomings in this area. That’s a great thing. How many NBA players think they are already franchise players, leaders of the their teams, and don’t need any help from anyone? This is a great sign and this is why, despite the limitations I think his game has, I can’t close the jury on Arenas yet. If he’s teachable as a man – that’s a rare thing. Time will tell all, though.

And until then, “The silly-man persona doesn’t translate to leadership among teammates.” And that is a significant reason Gilbert Arenas isn’t an MVP right now. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ was new, fun, and unique. But it did not win an Oscar.

But, he’s young. In a few years, maybe he will be an MVP (to be honest, I doubt it, but if he is and has truly earned it, I’ll be happy for him and DC and the Wizards). But he’s going to have to lead. He’s going to have to set an example on defense. He’s going to have to make others better. Let’s see Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood sit up straight around Arenas and open the door for each other. Let’s see Arenas act like a coach on the floor. Let’s see them get out of the first round of the playoffs (I was disappointed for him that he won’t be able to play in the 2007 Playoffs). When Gilbert reaches that point, we’ll see free agents wanting to call the Verizon Center home. Currently, I don’t know if the list of players that want to go out of their way to follow Gilbert Arenas is very long.

Is this complicated?

We in America love analysis. We love it. It’s not just sports. We have a Survivor Post-Game type show where the contestants dissect the whole mess they just went through. This is what we do. But sometimes we take that analysis and get a bit crazy with it (much like this article). We become so engulfed in our own abstract thought that we forget to step back and look at the forest. If someone truly is the MVP, chances are it’s going to be plain to see. Choosing between Nash and Dirk: not plain to see. Choosing between Nash and Gilbert or Nash: plain to see. We live in a time where guys get paid to make up the most intricate statistical systems that are used to tell us amazing things we never knew about guys like Chuck Hayes. But for things like the MVP, I fear we often find ways to needlessly complicate this.

What is plain to see?

You know what tells us that someone is an MVP? His coach loves him. His teammates want to play with him. The team suffers when he’s gone. Teammates and coaches want him to have the ball. He calls his teammates to be better, his play forces them to play both harder and smarter, and his ability, decision-making, and presence make them all better. His teammates want his value to be capitalized on because it means they win. They want him to take the last shot (see: Jimmy Chitwood). There are games won where everyone else in the organization simply says, “[Insert name of MVP] saved the day. We wouldn’t be where we are if it weren’t for him.” The team they beat says stuff like, “We just couldn’t stop [Insert name of MVP]. I guess they wanted it more.” If the team had to start making cuts until there was one player left, he’d be the last to go. He is unlike any other player on the floor. The game is his to win or lose the moment he steps on the court. And he wins the games.

This stuff is not rocket science.

Conclusion

To make sure we are clear on this, if someone asked you to summarize this post and you answered with something like, “I don’t know. The dude hates Gilbert and said Brian Scalabrine is better than him because of some statistic” then you got it wrong. Something like this would do fine: “The MVP is reserved for a level of play that most do not reach. Gilbert Arenas, for example, is one of hundreds that did not reach it this year.”

Seeing Gilbert play against Dirk and then against Nash showed me the line of demarcation. It’s there. There are All-Stars and then there are MVPs.

There are guys that can score 50 points in a game and then there are MVPs.

There are guys that are hard to guard and then there are guys that are hard to beat.

The guys who are hard to beat are MVPs.

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14 thoughts on “An Exhaustive Examination of the Difference Between an MVP and Everyone Else

  1. Let the writer be the first to say, despite my best efforts and editing and policing of myself, I am probably guilty at points of overemphasizing something in an attempt to over-correct (like many people do with defense). Interested to hear other’s thoughts on where these observations are correct and where they might not be.

    Also, after submitting this last night, I came across a Sports Guy article” that had some quotes that fit this discussion:

    “We need more Gilberts in sports. Whether he’d be fun to play basketball with … that’s another story.”

    “Anyway, I wish we handled MVP awards, the Oscars and the Emmys the same way — if there’s no deserving candidate in a given year, let’s roll the award over to the following year…”

    “If you asked 100 NBA players who they’d rather play with between Kobe, Vince, Arenas or T-Mac … T-Mac would win the vote in a landslide. You win with Tracy McGrady. Wasn’t always the case, but it’s the case now. He’s a true superstar. Now he needs to prove this in the playoffs. Please.”

    The last quote is an idea that made it into my notes of pages that didn’t make the final cut. Specifically, I was going to ask if you were going to “go to war” in basketball and had to pick between T-Mac, AI, and Arenas, who would you pick? I’d go T-Mac, AI, and Arenas in that order. SG goes well beyond that by throwing Kobe (who he and I both agree is the best player on the planet) and really raising the standard. Carter would fall on my list in the same area Arenas does. Coin flip.

    Also… this just came out today and Sheridan and Legler gave final votes to Dirk.

    Interested to hear thoughts of those who were able to endure the 7,972 words…

  2. No mention of Chris Bosh as MVP? Shame on you Luke!

    Simmons may be onto something with his talk about the Oscars and Emmy’s – why not pick someone who’s the most entertaining? 9 times out of 10 this would be the league’s leading scorer while the MVP would be someone who’s selfless and helps their team accumulate wins.

    You raised a great point when you wrote, “we’ve created a stage where the best way to get noticed is to say something different or new.” What about just flat out winning? I think the MVP should come from one of the teams with the most wins (or possibly the biggest turnaround). Bosh would then qualify because the Raps went from the fifth worst record last season to third best in the East. Dirk and Nash would probably be the front runners because of their respective teams having the two best records in the League.

    Here’s an interesting point for discussion – people claim that Nash shouldn’t win the award because he has an All-Star cast around him. Why do people seem to forget that these players weren’t All-Stars before he came to the desert? Part of what makes an MVP is helping his teammates elevate their games and he’s done that with Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion (the latter two becoming perennial All-Stars). While Dirk’s Mavs have the best record in the League can you say the same thing for him? I’d say no. Josh Howard has become an All-Star but many feel he’d be a superstar without Dirk, Jason Terry’s not as impressive as he was in Atlanta (however he’s more than happy with a fat contract and more wins each season) and Devin Harris hasn’t broken out yet like Leandro Barbosa has (I do have to concede that the Brazilian Blur does have one additional year under his belt).

    I couldn’t help but chuckle when you mentioned Ron Artest for MVP… but if he were to join a title contender like Dallas and put them over the edge would that comment no longer be a joke? While Artest has a couple screws loose I think if he were placed in the right environment (much like Spree in New York) then he could return to prominence in the NBA. The trick is finding a coach that he respects and a franchise that supports him.

    Up until this season Kobe was a player that I loathed but this year as he became the underdog I haven’t been able to help myself from rooting for the guy. How does that most talented and driven player of my generation became such a hated player? Granted he messed up in Colorado but who hasn’t done something stupid in their twenties? I hate to be a Kobe apologists – especially after it was my Raptors that he torched for 81 points – but there’s got to be a time when fans and writers stop railing against him. That time might have to wait until he wins another Championship but I hope that Kobe can retire on a high note – I just don’t see that happening though because of the strong negative public perception surrounding him.

  3. You’re right about Nash making others better. A co-worker argued with me today, “They were winning before he got there.” I called him on it. 29 wins in 2003-2004 vs. 62 wins in 2004-2005 (Nash’s first year). Now, the Suns had Marbury for half of 2003, and his teams have a way of winning more when he leaves (them’s the facts, sorry). And Nash can’t be accounted for all those wins, but he’s still a big part.

    Hey, my favorite ESPN guy, Marc Stein, has Chris Bosh #5 on his MVP list. I wouldn’t fight that one. But I can’t break my own rule — he’s really good (I’d want him over Arenas), but wasn’t an NBA MVP this year.

    But not true about Dirk, huh? Sports Guy agrees. Doesn’t think Dirk makes others better. I think Josh Howard (like Marion, Pippen, etc.) is best utilized not being THE man. Dirk’s a very good passer. I’d love to be coming off a screen as his teammate as opposed to, say, Zach Randolph’s teammate. But, that’s night and day.

    If Artest put a team over the top…? A lot of things would have to be established for me to answer that hypothetical. I honestly can’t see, despite the best situation, him being a true MVP. Not sure he makes others better. The right situation would be good for him. I’d love to see him in one. But, MVPs CREATE the right situation. You’re in good hands with them.

    The Kobe stuff… ha ha. I went through that late last year. He’s got what he wanted, though, his own team. Let’s see them win. That roster can use work, though.

  4. Any PG running a team after Starbury leaves will be seen as a franchise’s saviour…

    Good for Stein! I think #5 is about right for Bosh. He’s not a true MVP yet but he deserves to be thrown around in the conversation (much like Dirk the past few seasons).

    To play devils advocate, say he does make Josh better, who else on the Mavs does he make better? Allowing one player to blossom wouldn’t give him the edge of Nash who makes everyone better AND who has done a great job of mentoring Barbosa (Marcus Banks hasn’t matured this year but I think we can all agree he doesn’t count since you witnessed his ineptitude firsthand when he played for your Celtics).

    Here’s the deal with Kobe – the Lakers WERE winning this fall when everyone was healthy. Three of their top six players missed extended time (Odom, Walton, Radman) and it forced Kobe to get trigger happy again. I think you gotta’ judge him when the team was fifth in the West when everyone was happy… the Lakers team just isn’t deep enough to sustain those injuries. How can you blame injuries on Kobe? Now please excuse me because I need to go and shower to try and wash the dirty feeling off of me for becoming a Kobe apologist.

  5. As a diehard Wizards fan that post was a pill that needed to be swallowed. I’ve thought similar things before but never quite as articulate as all that. Well done Luke.

    I love Gilbert. I love his toughness, I love his drive, I love his talent. The problem is, I also love the Wizards and the more I watch of them, the more I feel the two don’t go together.

    Well, you did a great job of exposing Gil’s faults… now what do we do? Do you seriously seek to trade one of the top players in the NBA? Do you split up the “big three” (the highest scoring trio in the NBA for two straight years)? Do we risk keeping Arenas, praying that he will develop into a leader?

  6. Ah, that is the question (if one accepts what I put forth). The Wizards would have to land someone huge to validate giving up Gilbert as he’s touching the height of his popularity in DC. If they stay with Gilbert, they must get deeper with strong, experienced role players who like to hustle and play defense. If not, the second round of the playoffs is the farthest they will make it.

    Interesting question would be: who would take Gilbert and at what price? Would he (despite his relative youth) get the interest Iverson drew when he was going to be traded?

  7. As follow-up to what I said about “presence” and “fear”, I came across this recap by Marc J. Spears of Game 2 of the San Antonio – Denver series today at ESPN.com. He quotes Bruce Bowen as saying:

    “With Tim it can just be about his presence. If he’s not here, I’m not getting open jump shots and Manu and Tony aren’t getting open lanes to the basket.”

    Spears later says:

    “The only Spur that Denver is really scared of is Duncan. Ginobili and Parker don’t affect Duncan’s game. But Duncan affects Parker’s, Ginobili’s and everyone else’s in silver and black.”

  8. i filled out an entire message and didn’t put name and email so it erased my message…i swear it was the greatest message of all time.

    summary… arenas is WORTHY of candidacy but not MVP. dont trade gilbert or you’ll be sorry in 5 years. great piece very well researched and put together. blog on, more sports!

  9. Thanks, Chris. Good to see you on here.

    Just came across this a day or two ago. Gilbert being interviewed about re-signing with the Wizards (he says there’s a 100% chance he does). When pushed about it, he said to the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg:

    “I mean, if they go backwards then I’ll leave. If they take a big step back. You know, it’s time to win now. I’ve made the playoffs, I went to the first round, I went to the second round, I need to make some progress here.”

    That last sentence had a lot of I in it.

  10. I find it interesting that you guys rank Bosh as highly as #5 on an MVP list (or rather that Simmons does and you don’t disagree).

    The MVP is indeed a regular season award but even with that in mind, the article written is talking about holding the MVP to a higher standard. I agree with that completely and, having done so, cannot in good faith accept Bosh as a #5 player.

    Bosh is a fine player, an All-Star caliber player. But he’s still a weak defender, he is still soft, he still doesn’t fare well against physical defenders (and the Nets, of all teams) and he is still among the most awkward-looking players I’ve ever seen driving to the basket.

    No team properly “fears” Bosh; he doesn’t exhibit the qualities of an MVP. He’s a fantastic 6’11 SF on offense and an acceptable-to-mediocre defender at any position in which the Raptors care to play him. He’s not a dominant scorer, he’s not a dominant defender, he’s not a dominant passer (though he’s improved considerably in everything but defense as his career has progressed)…

    None of this screams MVP to me.

    Bosh is a character guy and an All-Star; he’s a spectacular #2 option on a team and a nice finesse player but he should be 6’8 or something so that he could be a legitimate small forward instead of the wannabe PF/C that we play him as.

    As far as the original article goes, I think it’s great; Arenas is a high-usage volume scorer; sometimes he’s got it and other times… other times I like to watch paint dry because it’s less painful than seeing him hoist another shot. He can play some really great basketball but he’s still a ball-dominant guard scorer and, by and large, you don’t win with those guys as #1 options at those volumes of FGA.

    I think the decision to look at the MVP as more than just a “who’s the best of this year’s crop” is the right way to look at it. A stat like the dusty old “AV” rating from databasebasketball.com is helpful in situations like this: you’re looking at something that comparse against a standard of play, not the competition. Obviously, one block stat alone isn’t sufficient but the concept is there and it is something with which I strongly agree.

    The reason this DOESN’T happen, though, is that if it did, the only guys who would have won the MVP in the last 8 years would have been Shaq, Duncan and Garnett… and the league likes to keep things fresh. This is why there aren’t any 6-consecutive MVP streaks in basketball and, in fact, winning more than 2 in a row is so incredibly rare (Bird, Wilt, Russ).

    A lot of the problem is that the conception of the MVP is so different for every person:

    Is it the best player in the league or the best player on the best team? Or is it just the best player on ONE OF the best teams?

    If it’s the best player, how do you quantify that? The best scorer? The best combination of scoring and defense, or all-around game in general?

    How much does history matter? What does the MVP mean historically? Nash got this a lot when he won his second in a row; 1 MVP was OK but 2? That was starting to get testy as people looked at other consecutive MVP winners (Nash is one of I believe 11 multiple-MVP winners). 3? Impossible, no one was going to let that happen. Nash can’t be as good as Bird, Wilt and Russ, right? Well, avoiding the answer to that question a moment, that’s the kind of mentality that was seen and it means that a lot of people (not everyone, but enough) view historical precedent as meaningful.

    How much does team record factor in? How much does team quality? Do you have to generally be on a 50-win team? Do you have to generally be a big man, a do-it-all forward or the scoring champ?

    The MVP is not an award that is really explained. It’s called the “Most Valuable Player” award but that’s insanely vague. Theoretically, the MVP award should goto the most important player on the regular season’s best team, which means the MVP should come from the team with the best record every year (or one of the teams, if the record is shared). Now you’re looking at Dirk, Duncan, Amare/Nash/Marion, etc instead of Duncan, Shaq and Garnett.

    Is it a combination of these things? That’s what the actual voting seems to mean; it’s some combination of who people think is the best player, who’s having the most notable season, who’s most exciting at the top echelons of NBA talent…

    The criteria for MVP voting need to be made clearer if the MVP is to ever have consistent, legitimate meaning where you can apply the principles outlined in the original article.

  11. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally,
    it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
    You clearly know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence
    on just posting videos to your site when you could be
    giving us something informative to read?

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