Saturday, May 13, 2006

Steve Nash: Great White Hope?

Canadian Steve Nash is a white guy a little over 6 feet tall who makes full on magic with the basketball. He's the most creative point guard in the NBA.

His stringy long hair also makes him look like a drowned gym rat :^)

He just took home his second consecutive MVP trophy.

Dirk Nowitzki, a 7 foot German, finished third in the voting. Two of the top three MVP vote getters this year were foreign white guys.

The silence from the African-American community is deafening.

Kobe Bryant just won the league scoring title and finished on the 1st Team All NBA defensive team for the 6th time in his career. He'll be a unanimous 1st Team All NBA pick. And he led what was an expansion team into the playoffs. He finished fourth in the voting. Lebron James finished 2nd.

I'm on record re race here and elsewhere. The concept of race is all about biological inferiority and superiority. I don't think most of the injustice going on right now in the US is about race. I think we're dealing with cultural and class prejudice. I don't think the majority of people in the US right now really believe some ethnic groups are "genetically inferior."

But hoops may be the exception that proves the rule.

When most every player in the NBA is African-American it may be hard to avoid concluding that whites or Asians or Latin Americans can't cut it genetically.

The vast majority of corporate executives and politicians in positions of power are white men.

Are there really "genetic" differences that account for the predominance of African-Americans in basketball and Euro-Ams in politics and business?

Or is it about culture and class?

Is Nash's second consecutive MVP award a racial breakthrough? A cultural breakthrough? Or is it really about marketing?


Blogger jon said...

This one's a really hard one. Nash got huge props last year because he turned a 29 win team into a 62 win team, and did it with a style unlike anyone else in the league. And his MVP was still a surprise - he baaaarely beat out Shaq.

I think that this year's award is sort of a carry-over from last year. Everyone started respecting him last year, then he took Phoenix to 54 wins even though they lost two starters before the season started (JJ and Amare) and a third during the season (Kurt Thomas). It's sorta amazing that a team can lose half its starting lineup, including a player like Amare, and still pull out the #2 seed. And Nash always did what he needed to - his scoring averaged jumped up this year with all the help gone, he shot the lights out from every distance, and he'll do crazy things (like drop 40 a game for the last three against Dallas last year, or pull a 32-13 in the critical game against the lakers this year) right when his team needs him.

That being said, I preferred Lebron as an MVP choice because I think he truly does everything (31.4-7-6.6, while taking major ball-handling responsibilities and all of every opponent's defensive energy), and because he's worth about 35 wins to them (they only won 17 the year before he came, with a lineup that is about even with their current one). When he turned it on like mad during that 12-1 stretch and finally started hitting game-winners, it clinched it for me.

I understand the arguments for Kobe, but I think they're weak. His regular season play just wasn't the best to help his team win, as evidenced by the marked improvement when he held back on shooting, got more assists, and gave his teammates more opportunities. If he had gone through the season averaging 28-7-7 and had shot around 50%, I think that the Lakers would have won more games and he would have had a better MVP case.

You can make a small case for Dirk based on his efficiency and the fact that he's the only star on a 60-win team, which is impressive when you think about it. But I think that good coaching had as much to do with their success as Dirk did.

So what do I make of all that? Even though I think Lebron could have won it, I can see the Nash case. Did the marketing of a White player affect anyone's vote? I think it's possible, but I'd be shocked if that was true for more than 10% of the voters. And he won pretty solidly this year. So I'm not feeling a conspiracy at all

2:29 AM  
Blogger 3wishes said...

The difference is his lack of arrogance. I started as a Mavs fan but now Im just a Nash fan.

12:52 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yeah, I really like the way he handles himself too, 3. Very classy. Though I've noticed that a lot of the best of the younger players (James, Wade, etc.) are throw backs to the pre-hip hop NBA. Class may be making a comeback. Now if they can just get rid of those ridiculous Glad Hefti Bag shorts and start looking like athletes again :^)

Good points Jon. Especially about Nash making a huge difference in wins and losses especially with depleted talent. And I don't see a conspiracy either. But I don't think his award this year made nearly as much sense.

Of course, the MVP voting often doesn't make sense. All the players and coaches in the NBA (who don't have a vote for MVP) have always said that during the late 90's and early 00's Shaq probably should have been the MVP every year but I think he won it only once.

Lebron's excellent but he doesn't play defense. He's so athletic that I think he'll eventually become a great defender but he isn't right now. And as far as Cleveland having the same lineup, I think you're forgetting that they added Larry Hughes in the offseason who is an all star in his own right. Lebron isn't responsible by himself for the 35 win swing. Without Hughes they're a lottery team just like they were before they got him.

That's my problem with Nash too. I love the guy and enjoy watching him play as much as anybody. But the next time Nash plays good defense will be the first. Defense wins championships. He's the kind of player that makes bad teams very competitive but not the kind of player that can take a team to the championship level.

Look at Dallas right now. Avery Johnson has finally gotten 'em to buy into playing defense. Even Nowitzki, who was one of the worst defenders in the NBA, has become mediocre. That's a big step up for him :^). Dallas is a serious contender now because they play D. The Suns are just the old Don Nelson Mavs relocated to the desert.

I think a great case can be made for Dwayne Wade or Chauncey Billups. Both of em play defense and make huge contributions to their championship level teams. I was very surprised Nowitzki finished ahead of either of them. If there is evidence of a 'white marketing' strategy to distance the league from the worst of the hip hop era when the NBA has lost a big part of its fan base, Nowitzki's strong showing may be it.

Now to Kobe. He's playing on a team with expansion level talent unlike any of the other candidates. I agree the way he played at season's end and in the playoffs was more balanced offensively and that he involved his team mates more. I just don't think he could have afforded to do that earlier in the season--his team mates stunk throughout most of the year but I think they developed and gained confidence as time went on. They needed him to score a ton to have any chance to win games through most of the season. It's not like he hasn't subordinated his scoring to be part of winning teams before. He has three rings.

He scored over 35 points a game and was voted onto the 1st team All NBA defensive team. No other player than Michael Jordan--as far as I know--has accomplished that feat. I think he's arguably the best all around basketball player in the game today--he can light it up offensively, make the big shot, and he's a great defender in the class of Jordan.

So basically, he accomplished something historic and led a team that would have won about 15 games without him into the playoffs and almost led them to an upset of a much better team.

You think the case for him is weak? :^) Hmmmm.....

8:39 PM  
Anonymous John Teter said...

Wordcat, good description about the race-culture horizon, and it is an interesting case study with Nash and the MVP.

I do feel there are genetic and cultural realities when it comes to race and occupations. There have to be genetics involved when you consider the vast number of people all over the world who compete for the NBA (450 jobs)and the great majority of African-Americans who gain this coveted employment.

As far as Nash, he has done wonders for the Suns and the point guard position. I have love for him, even with the Kelly Leak harido. But to put him in the same class of back-to-back winners as Johnson, Bird and Jordan is ludicrous. Nash has won nothing. He has not even been to the NBA finals. I do think marketing is involved. It brings a sense of diveristy to the NBA community and is a launching pad for more global marketing. But I don't think Nash was even the best white player in the mvp voting. That is Dirk.

As for Kobe, I am growing weary of hearing how great players make their teammates better. Nash is blessed with a talented roster. Jordan never made Wennington, Cartwright or Stacey King better. He dominated with Pippen, Rodman, Kerr and Scott Williams. Today they all have rings. If Kobe had Jordan's supporting cast, he would still be playing today. My mvp vote is Kobe. He is the best player in the L.

12:16 AM  
Blogger jon said...

Wrote huge post again, so I'll put my two biggest points on top:

The Sporting News released their MVP. This one is voted on by the teams - each team gets one ballot, which must be filled out by the coach, GM, or assistant GM. Lebron/Nash were co-MVPs with 8 votes each, Kobe/Dirk tied for third with 6 votes each. Billups and Wade each recieved no votes at all. So the coaches/GMs themselves liked Lebron and the white guys as much or more than Kobe this year.

And the Cavs went 28-19 this year without Hughes, which, extrapolated over the season, would have given them the exact same playoff seed they got anyway. So they're certainly not a lottery team without him. Even if he hadn't played a game, its hard to see how you can make any factual argument that they wouldn't be in the exact same place they are right now.

On other things...

I agree with the class thing. New players are learning to come into the league with a more mature attitude. I like it. And I like their style too. Perhaps this is an age thing, but I like playing bball in baggy shorts a heck of a lot better than small ones.

I reluctantly agree with the Shaq statement. I was rooting against any MVP's for him because I thought that the way they called the game for him was unfair (watch Mutumbo bounce backwards 2 feet at a time as he takes 189 offensive fouls in 2001). But you can't base the award off of how you think the officials should call the games. On actual impact, he should have won a handful of them. MJ should have won more as well (even though I rooted as strongly against him as I could every season).

I agree that Lebron needs major work on defense (you can't quite say he has no defense when he makes 2.5 steals and blocks combined a game, and has made some real timely defensive plays). But his all-around offensive game is unparalled, and his effect on wins and losses shows that his defensive defiencies are far less important than his offensive prowess.

heh - other things I disagree with:

1) Larry Hughes didn't significantly impact the Cavs this year because he only played 36 games in the regular season (and wasn't even healthy for all of those). When he was playing he didn't play particularly great: about 15-4-4 on 41% shooting. And he's been terrible in the playoffs (11-2.5-4, 31% shooting), yet the Cavs still succeed, and they had their toughest win without him on the court at all.

2) I don't see Wade or Billups as the same level of MVP candidates because I feel like their teams' play depends too much on other players. Wade has been impressive in the playoffs, but during the regular season he had more poor weak outings than he should and depended on too many other guys to carry the weight of the team. And I don't see Billups as most valuable when he's just contributing about 25-30% of the good of a very good starting lineup (all of those guys except Prince were already stars in the NBA without Billups).

3) I disagree strongly with the "Kobe's teammates stunk" evaluation of their team. All though the season (and I know this because I made the argument all season long), the majority of Kobe's teammates were shooting better than him. Kwame shot 53% on the season, Mihm shot 50%, Cook shot 51%, Odom shot 48%, even Parker shot 45% (the same as Kobe). Those guys needed more shot attempts all season long. Lamar had no problem getting assists all season - I think that Kobe could have managed a lot more.

4) Anyone who thinks Kobe played great defense this year has not paid enough attention to this season's Laker games. Kobe has great defensive ability - but he stunk it up most of the year. Here in LakerLand that fact was pretty readily admitted all season long - they said that he had to "conserve his energy to carry the offense" and "play free safety for his teammates". His effort was awful in all but a handful of games where he stepped it up. He got 1st team defense on rep alone - notice that half the coaches left him off the ballot completely. He was as out of place on that team as Jason Kidd.

(finally, going with historic, Lebron's already broken 20 team records in his first 9 playoff games. 32ppg on 51% shooting with two triple-doubles and two game-winning shots, in his first playoffs ever. And can you name one other player on his entire team who's contributed significantly in more than 2 of those games? What he's doing is pretty crazy historic. Not to mention going over 30-7-6 in the regular season - I think Oscar and MJ were the only two to do that before.)

12:58 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I don't want the skin tight shorts of certain periods of the 70's, but gimme something that makes 'em look like athletes again instead of looking like the flapping flags of some banana republic :^)

That was my first comment post with a summary statement at the beginning. I apprecicate the thoughtfulness!

Good on ya John for taking the race and culture bait. Didn't think anybody was going to touch that.

I agree that genetics plays a role in some differences and that its silly to deny that as many liberals tend to. The question is which differences.

But you can't talk about that issue in polite company, and in many ways for good reason. After centuries of prejudice based primarily on racial (genetic, physical) distinctions most people are gun shy of the topic.

And the larger question, as I've said, is how many Americans now believe that others 'races' are genetically inferior, and by extension, how much of the injustice we deal with right now is really about culture and class instead of genetic and physical categories (race).

3:08 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"And the larger question, as I've said, is how many Americans now believe that others 'races' are genetically inferior, and by extension, how much of the injustice we deal with right now is really about culture and class instead of genetic and physical categories (race). "

The first point I always want to make in these discussions are that the major racial groups are not genetically definable. They're social constructs. Two people who society might both consider to be "Black" could easily be more genetically different than John Travolta and Michael Jordan. So whenever there's a discussion about genetic differences, I don't like to promote the idea that "Blacks" or "Whites" have any specific characteristics at all as a group, other than superficial similarities that cause them to be ascribed with the tags in the first place.

That being said, there are smaller, genetically significant population groups that certainly show certain genetic traits that help them in certain endeavors. Ethiopians and a specific tribe of Kenyans (of which my good friend George is a descendent) appear to be specifically atuned to distance running. West Africans appear to have fast-twitch muscles that predispose them to being better sprinters and jumpers. Because of this, I do believe that certain molds of NBA players (the most explosive playing styles) are much more likely to be filled by men of West African descent than other racial backgrounds. Of course, "more likely" does not mean "exclusively". And other molds (the active swingman, the shooter, the court-vision point guard, the agile center) can be filled equally well by people of any genetic background. So while the differences are there and can be advantageous, they don't determine much in and of themselves.

Now, I start with that because if physical differences are shown to exist and can be talked about, then that opens the possibility that mental differences exist as well. I think that's what the PC people are afraid of. Are there genetic differences in intelligence? The research I've seen (The Mismeasure of Man is a great summary) suggests that there aren't, at least none that are apparent when you divide people into the large racial groups. But honestly, I'd be shocked if there aren't variations in intelligence that could be seen if you looked at us all on a tribe-by-tribe basis (say, compared people of Irish, Samoan, and Korean descent). There are so many other variables there that the ranges are surely much greater than the differences. But as many genes as we have, I can't imagine there's not a few here and there.

How many Americans think that the major racial groups have genetic differences that make some of them superior to others? I doubt there's many. Even the racists I hear spouting off are talking now about cultural deficiencies rather than genetic deficiencies. Are they just making up whatever sounds right? I doubt it. I think they truly believe that if everyone joined their culture, in a few generations everyone would be raised up to equal performance and status. It may still be racist, but not on a genetic basis. I'd assume that the vast majority of the US population (over 70% for sure, over 85% likely) believe that all races have about the same genetic blueprint for smarts.

So is the injustice we see about culture and class or physical differences? I'd say it's almost entirely culture and class (with culture carrying slightly more weight right now), but that physical differences can play a part in it. If you begin to associate certain racial characteristics with a certain class, then your classist assumptions will carry over into racist ones. And if you feel that your own race is the primary factor in the injustice in your life, it can lead to negative attributions to your problems that will make it less likely for you to grow out of the situation you've been forced into. So race can have an influence, but at the heart of the issue it's not the primary factor.

4:09 PM  
Blogger jon said...

p.s. - on a bball note, I was thinking about something earlier today. In all of this talking, no one's mentioned coaching at all. Kobe, Dirk, and Billups have had the benefit of great coaching, which has improved their own play and made their teams look better. Lebron's had some pretty terrible coaching the last few years, which may have stifled him a little and made his team look worse. Nash's coach is a little debatable, but most would probably say that Nash has benefitted form having D'Antoni in place. How much should the coach factor into the discussion. If the Lakers would be a 35-win team without Jackson, does that diminish Kobe's accomplishments? If the Cavs would be a more cohesive team with competant coaching, does that make what Lebron's done even more impressive? How much should coaching factor into MVP discussions?

4:14 PM  
Blogger jon said...

random stat of the discussion (very random because I'm the first one in basketball to notice this, as far as I can tell):

In 5 of the 6 Cleveland playoff wins, Lebron has either scored or assisted the majority of the Cav's field goals. The only time that he didn't do that was in game 5 against the Wizards, where he only accounted for 20 (14 field goals and 6 assists) of their 44 makes. Even in today's off night, he accounted for 17 of their 29 makes. Wow.

And did I say something earlier about real timely defensive plays?

Now if he can only work on his free throw shooting. That's been the bane of his season - he shot 64% in clutch situations this year, and it directly cost them wins twice. Ouch.

8:00 PM  

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