Making a Point About MVPsNew Orleans point guard Chris Paul has emerged as a serious MVP candidate this season. Since the NBA began honoring a regular season MVP in 1955-56, four point guards have received the award a total of seven times: Bob Cousy (1957), Oscar Robertson (1964), Magic Johnson (1987, 1989, 1990) and Steve Nash (2005, 2006). Allen Iverson (2001) is the shortest MVP ever (generously listed at 6-0) but he led the league in scoring and ranked third on his team in apg so he hardly could be considered a point guard that year; if Paul wins the MVP he will not only join a very exclusive club of point guards but he will also tie Iverson as the shortest MVP in league history.
Point guards are generally responsible for initiating their team’s offensive attack and they also represent the first line of defense. It is very difficult for a team to be successful if it has a point guard who makes poor decisions with the ball on offense and/or is not able to contain the opposing team’s point guard on defense.
Despite the obvious importance of the point guard position, point guards have not received much support in MVP voting throughout most of NBA history—and two of the point guards who won MVPs, Robertson and Johnson, were not prototypical point guards but rather players who were as big as the forwards of their eras but who had the ballhandling skills and court vision necessary to play in the backcourt. Cousy and Nash are really the only "pure" point guards who won MVPs.
When Nash won his pair of MVPs some people acted as if he had revolutionized the point guard position. It is closer to the truth to say that the way that MVP voters perceive the value of certain statistics has changed; other point guards had previously put up numbers that match or surpass Nash’s statistics but they did not win MVPs. For instance, in 1988-89 John Stockton averaged 17.1 ppg, a league-leading 13.6 apg and a league-leading 3.2 spg. He made the All-Defensive Team, something that Magic Johnson, Steve Nash and Allen Iverson have never done (the All-Defensive Team did not exist when Cousy and Robertson won their MVPs). Yet, Stockton only finished seventh in the 1989 MVP voting. I am not suggesting that Stockton was somehow "robbed" of the MVP but merely pointing out that Nash’s averages during his MVP seasons (15.5 ppg/11.1 apg in 2005; 18.8 ppg/10.5 apg in 2006) are neither unprecedented nor were they automatically considered to be MVP quality in previous eras. In fact, Karl Malone received much more credit—at least in terms of MVP votes and All-NBA selections—than Stockton did for their symbiotic on court relationship, while the opposite is true for Nash and Amare Stoudemire.
This season some people are speaking of Paul in similar fashion to the way that Nash was praised the past few years, noting that Paul can set a record if he averages at least 20 ppg, 10 apg and three spg; this disregards the reality that Paul is almost certain to fall short of the spg target and that steals have only been an official NBA statistic since 1973-74. It also ignores the fact that several point guards have put up similar scoring, assists and steals numbers to those that Paul is currently posting. For instance, in 1983-84 Isiah Thomas averaged 21.3 ppg, 11.1 apg and 2.5 spg, numbers that are virtually identical to Paul's. Thomas finished fifth in MVP voting that season. The next season, Thomas scored 21.2 ppg, averaged a single-season record (since broken by Stockton) 13.9 apg, added 2.3 spg—and dropped to ninth in the MVP voting. In 1985-86 Thomas averaged 20.9 ppg, 10.8 apg and 2.2 spg and again finished ninth in MVP voting.
In all, seven point guards have had a combined total of 19 different 20 ppg/10 apg seasons: Oscar Robertson (5), Isiah Thomas (4), Magic Johnson (3), Kevin Johnson (3), Tim Hardaway (2), Nate Archibald (1) and Michael Adams (1). Those seasons account for four of the seven MVPs won by point guards. On three occasions two point guards reached those levels in the same season; each time, Magic Johnson won that season’s MVP while the other point guard finished well out of contention for the award (Isiah Thomas finished eighth in 1987, Kevin Johnson finished eighth in 1989 and Kevin Johnson received no votes in 1990). Each MVP race is different, of course, but it is clear that being a 20/10 player has not previously been an automatic ticket to winning the award.
If you want to talk about revolutionizing the point guard position or putting up unprecedented numbers then the conversation must begin not with Nash or Paul but rather with Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple double overall during the first five seasons of his career. In his second season, 1961-62, he became the first and only player to average a triple double for a whole season: 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg. At that time, league leaders were determined by totals, not averages, and Robertson ranked first in assists, third in scoring and eighth in rebounding—and he finished third in MVP voting, though the competition was admittedly pretty stiff: Bill Russell (18.9 ppg, 23.6 rpg, 4.5 apg) won the award and Wilt Chamberlain (50.4 ppg, 25.7 rpg, 2.4 apg) came in second. What made Robertson’s game revolutionary was not just his amazing statistics but the fact that he was as big as a forward while possessing all the skills (and then some) of the smaller point guards who came before him.
After Robertson, the next point guard who truly put up unprecedented numbers was Nate "Tiny" Archibald. In 1972-73, he became the first and only NBA player to lead the league in scoring (34.0 ppg) and assists (11.4 apg) in the same season. Contrary to those who believe that playing for a winning team has always been an essential prerequisite for receiving MVP votes, Archibald finished third in that year’s MVP race and he actually received the second most first place votes.
Magic Johnson came closer to averaging a triple double for an entire season than anyone other than Oscar Robertson, averaging 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82. His Lakers had the best record in the West by five games and went on to win the championship, with Johnson claiming his second Finals MVP in three seasons with a 13-13-13 line in the decisive game six versus the 76ers. Obviously, the MVP voters had no way of knowing that the Lakers would go on to win the title but they did know that Johnson had already proven that he could lead a team to a championship. Moreover, using the criteria that resulted in Nash winning two MVPs and Paul being seriously considered for this year’s honor—team success, making teammates better, high assist totals--Johnson would seem to have been a slam dunk to win the 1982 MVP; instead he finished eighth in the MVP race and did not receive a single first place vote.
Johnson had more 18 ppg/10 apg seasons (seven) than anyone, with Robertson (five) ranking second and Isiah Thomas and Kevin Johnson tying for third (four each). Robertson would certainly say that scorekeepers hand out assists more liberally now than they did during his era but for this discussion the relevant point is that Johnson not only had three 20/10 seasons but he spent a substantial portion of his career very close to that mark. Johnson won the MVP in three out of those seven seasons.
Stockton was never the scorer that Magic Johnson was but in many ways he was the prototype for Nash, a guard who reliably scored in the mid-teens while shooting a high percentage from the field and leading the league in assists. If you cut the threshold from 18/10 to 15/10 then the all-time leaders are Magic Johnson (nine seasons) and Stockton (six seasons). Nash has done it four times (including this season) and Paul is about to accomplish the feat for the first time. Lowering the requirement to 14/10 lifts Stockton to number one all-time (10 seasons, one better than Magic); if you keep the scoring requirement at 15 ppg but raise the apg level to 12 then Magic and Stockton are tied for first all-time (six seasons each), while Stockton is the all-time leader in 14/12 seasons (eight). For three straight seasons (1989-91) Stockton averaged at least 17.1 ppg and 13.6 apg; the only other player who reached those levels even once in a season is Isiah Thomas in 1984-85. Stockton finished seventh, ninth and 12th in MVP voting during those seasons, while the primary recipient of his passes—Karl Malone—finished third, fourth and fifth. Stockton shot at least .507 from the field in each of those three seasons, though his three point marksmanship varied widely at that point in his career, ranging from .242 to .416 during that period; he later became a very good three point shooter, connecting at a .384 rate overall from that range during his career.
My intention is neither to question the results of MVP races from decades ago nor to disparage what Nash has accomplished recently or what Paul is doing this season; however, anyone who thinks that either Nash or Paul is "revolutionizing" point guard play needs to stop listening to the talking head "experts" and take a good look at the numbers put up by Robertson, Johnson, Archibald, Thomas and Stockton. What has changed recently is not the nature of elite level point guard play but rather what qualities MVP voters deem to be most worthy of recognition.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 PM