Posted by Neil Paine on November 18, 2009
According to ESPN's MVP Watch, Steve Nash is currently your frontrunner in the race for the NBA's most prestigious individual award, and our own MVP tracker doesn't disagree much -- it lists Nash second behind the incumbent, LeBron James. Could it be that Nash is on track to capture his the third MVP of his career, giving him the same number of trophies as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, & Moses Malone (and more than Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, & Bob Pettit)?
Well, Nash is the ringleader of the team with the best record in basketball right now, the 10-2 Phoenix Suns. And, yes, these are the same Suns who had been left for dead by fans and the media after breaking up their popular Seven Seconds or Less core, adding Shaquille O'Neal in a move that failed pretty glaringly, and burning through 3 coaches in 8 months. The fact that they're on top of the league has to be one of the feel-good stories of the year, and Nash is inarguably their catalyst, leading the team in Win Shares, PER, Assist Rate, TS% (with Jason Richardson), and Possession % (if you ignore Alando Tucker, who has played all of 24 minutes). Statheads decried his back-to-back selections in 2005 & '06, but the resume I laid out above sounds like something they could get behind, right?
Maybe. But there are, as always, issues with Nash's candidacy. First, there's the fact that, despite their gaudy record, the Suns aren't really the best team in the league. By SRS, which takes into account their point differential and strength of schedule, Phoenix ranks just 12th in the NBA, behind Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Portland, Dallas, the Lakers, Oklahoma City, Houston, Miami, San Antonio, and Cleveland. Now, Phoenix has beaten three of those teams, all on the road, but they were also blown out by 20+ points against both Orlando and the Lakers, and their biggest wins margin-wise have come against Golden State, Washington, and New Orleans, teams that are a combined 9-22 on the year. The Suns' performance so far has been both surprising and commendable, but the jury is still out on whether they can maintain it, because the best predictor of future results says they're not quite as good as their record says they are.
There's also the matter of defense, Nash's familiar bête noire from his earlier MVP seasons. Remember the old way to assassinate the basketball character of the Mike D'Antoni Suns, to point out that they were bad defensively because of how many points they allowed per game? And remember how that claim was largely bunk, since when you removed the illusions of pace, the Suns were essentially an average defensive team? Well, that cliche may have been off-base during the D'Antoni era, but under Alvin Gentry it's a very legitimate criticism. After giving up 1.09 pts/possession to the Rockets last night, the Suns now rank 21st out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency; they're also the second-worst team in the NBA at forcing turnovers. And unfortunately, Nash has been one of the major culprits -- he has nabbed just 1 steal all season, and the Suns have an abominable 111.2 defensive rating when he's on the floor, compared to a (still terrible, but less-bad) 109.2 rating when he sits. And if you think this is a one-year occurence, think again: Nash has made the Suns defense worse when on the floor in 5 of his 6 seasons since coming to Phoenix. Compare it to other recent MVP winners, and you'll find that Dirk Nowitzki is the only other MVP in the 82games era whose team was better on D when he gathered bench splinters.
Of course, it's still ridiculously early in the season to discuss anyone's MVP bid, and Nash could certainly bolster his candidacy between now and April. But, that said, I don't think we should get too carried away with the idea of Nash hoisting a Podoloff he actually deserved, because the same complaints about Nash's first two MVPs still largely ring true today. Nash has been masterful at leading the Suns offense back to prominence in '09-10, but his defensive performance is still holding him back from getting the full APBRmetric endorsement as league MVP.