Ben Wallace for MVP
Alas, I cast my official ballot for Shaq. But shortly thereafter I realized that my conception of “valuable” was outdated. My new MVP formula starts from this premise: If Player A is exactly as great as Player B but makes half as much money, Player A is twice as valuable as Player B.
Because the vast majority of NBA clubs operate on tight, nearly identical budgets (Dallas, New York, Portland and occasionally L.A. are big-spending exceptions), the less a star player makes, the greater value he is to the franchise. “Valuable” is a combo word, blending “able” and “value.” For a player to be considered for my MVP, he must be “able” – that is, be an outstanding player, not a solid player who happens to be a great bargain – and be a good value relative to the MVP competition. My award goes to the superstar who provides the most bang for the buck.
Ben Wallace, who’s making six measly million this season, has been demonstrating his greatness for four underpaid years – particularly the last two under Larry Brown, where he’s been integrated into the offense, thus forcing the opposition to guard all five Pistons. Ben will again play for peanuts next season, after which he’ll start earning money commensurate with his contribution. One can call him a hero or a sap for honoring what turned out to be a really bad contract, but his decision to do so is why he, rather than a Shaq or Nash (among other worthy contenders) is my runaway choice for MVP.
Ben’s ethics (or sapitude) has left Joe Dumars more money to fill out the roster than other GMs whose stud makes 12, 14 or 28 million. That partly explains why Ben is surrounded by four terrific, well-rounded starters who help him get the most out of his limited, still-developing offensive skills.
The award is for this season, but it’s worth remembering that the Pistons won the 2004 title because Ben was able to do in the Finals what no one else can: an acceptable job on Shaq while never getting in foul trouble and always putting in an active 40 minutes. My belief in Ben’s ability to do just that is why I predicted the Pistons would beat the Lakers. Granted, Ben would swing over to the 4 spot when Elden Campbell came off the bench, and Rasheed Wallace and Mehmet Okur also guarded Shaq for a minute or two here and there. But it was mostly Ben, and mostly by his lonesome.
Ben is the poor man’s Bill Russell, and his ability to hang in there with Shaq recalls the Celtics’ system for defeating Wilt Chamberlain. Russell’s Celtics faced off with Wilt’s various teams eight times in the playoffs, winning seven series, including all four that went to a seventh game. Wilt put up huge numbers. Against Russell in regular-season and playoff games, Wilt averaged a double 29! But Russell’s ability to defend Wilt for the full 48 minutes with only a little help from his friends meant that the Celtics could play their game; they weren’t crippled because their great help defender and rebounder had to spend half the night on the bench in foul trouble. Granted, Russell usually had a stronger supporting cast than Wilt, but Russell was the perfect complement to his teammates, just as Ben is to his.
Russell won five MVPs despite averaging a meager 15 points for his career in a high-scoring era. Much of his contribution didn’t show up in the boxscore, and the same is true of Ben’s today. The “efficiency” formulas that are all the rage simply don’t do him justice. The sharp hoop nerds, including John Hollinger of ESPN.com, point out that ratings systems are not the last word, and that some deserving players fall through the cracks. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) doesn’t even rank Ben in the Top 50) and has him trailing the likes of Drew Gooden, Sam Cassell, Memo Okur, Chris Webber and Chris Andersen!
Hollinger’s PER leader and MVP is Kevin Garnett. Although KG puts up numbers and busts his butt, in my view his style of play at both ends prevents him from having an impact equal to his abilities. My unsolicited advice to KG appears here.
The NBA.com formula produces a bogus runaway win for KG; Ben ranks 33rd.
Stats capture Ben’s blocks and steals, but not his deflections and disruptions. They don’t show that Ben has the strength to guard big centers in the post, the quickness to be the best center at pick-and-roll defense, and the energy to play hard all night long. While MVP rival Shaq is exposed in pick-and-roll situations, Ben can switch out on a guard or forward and hound him in the manner of Bruce Bowen. Never in NBA history has it been more difficult for a center to avoid foul trouble, yet Ben does. That’s an enormous asset for the Pistons. His buddy Rasheed frequently gets two early fouls and sits (this was particularly troublesome during the 2004 playoffs), but the Pistons can stick somewhat close to their preferred frontcourt rotation because Ben’s superior judgment and quickness keep him on the court.
Sure, it would be nice if Ben could shoot like Dirk Nowitzki, or Russell like Jerry Lucas, but neither man’s shooting shortcomings prevented him from being the best player on a championship team. That’s why Ben loses far fewer points from me than from other evaluators.
THREE STEPS TO AN MVP
My formula for selecting the MVP is a three-step process:
(1) Select the leading contenders.
If a player competes in 65 games, he’s eligible. If he’s on a lousy team, that’s not necessarily a problem. We don’t hold a great player responsible for a rash of injuries to teammates or dumb moves by the GM. What matters is the tangible and intangible contributions to making his team the best it can be under the circumstances.
To get a score in the 95 to 100 range, you have to be an all-time great (i.e., among the 10 or 12 greatest ever, such as Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Magic Johnon, Wilt, Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) having one of your best years. No one in the 2004-05 season met both criteria. I also deduct points from a player if part of his contribution is based on what I regard as non-basketball skills (e.g., flopping or dislodging) that have no place in the game. Here are the ratings for the Top 25 candidates, prior to deductions:
85: Shaquille O'Neal
Now for the penalties: Minus five for volume floppers Iverson and Manu; minus two for occasional floppers Ben and Wade. Minus 10 for Shaq’s volume dislodging, but we return five points to Shaq because his ability to contribute to the Heat cause has been significantly undermined by foul trouble brought on by floppers.
So our revised rankings, with deductions (but prior to factoring in salary), look like this:
80: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan
Why the dramatic dislodging reduction for Shaq? In recent years, the Diesel’s go-to move is what I call the “double dislodge from the left block.” This is an illegal move, but David Stern’s NBA decided some years ago that displays of brute force, if perpetrated at a slow speed, deserve to be rewarded. Shaq gets low and, with his left shoulder leading the way, bumps the defender into the lane and closer to the basket, usually twice. With the defender out of the way or off balance, Shaq then spins toward the baseline for a layup or a dunk. I recall an incident in the 2002 playoffs when, after doing this to Scott Pollard, an exasperated Rick Adelman said to the ref something like, “If Shaq is allowed to do that, he can’t be guarded.” Adelman was right. I’m a fan of shake-and-bake Shaq, but I can’t say the same for bump-and-grind Shaq. Shaq would get fewer easier baskets and draw far fewer double teams if the “double dislodge” were treated as the illegal move that the rulebook and common sense says it is.
SALARY ADJUSTMENTS AND MARKET VALUE
To prevent my MVP from going every year to a young superstar playing on his original contract, which is for a set amount determined by the league and which dramatically underpays him – I will assign such a superstar a market-value salary as if he had signed a new long-term deal before the start of the season under consideration. My guess is that LeBron’s new deal (signed, in my formula, after his strong rookie campaign) would have started at 12 million, Wade’s at 10 and Amare’s at 9. Amare, sad to say, is out of the running because he just missed finishing in the Top Ten.
We’re now ready to determine our MVP. We take the Top Ten players ratings (deductions included), then divide by the number of millions in salary he makes this season (with adjustments, as noted, for LeBron and Wade).
Thus, according to our definition of “valuable,” the MVP by a landslide is Ben Wallace. Nash takes second and Wade third. It’s the same order of finish whether we use the ratings with deductions for flopping and dislodging, as in the list above, or without deductions.
Congratulations to all, and for you superstars who are serious about winning my MVP, my advice is to demand to renegotiate your contract downward. I feel quite confident that management will be open to an accommodation.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
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