Culture of Hoops

Sonny Says … James Harden is the NBA MVP (For Now)

Alta – “Ok my question is name the top 5 Power Forwards to ever play the game and if Karl Malone isn’t in there I will not make any of your favorite foods for 1 month.” 

Just so everyone is on the same page, this is my Mom, not some random lady sending a question in and holding my favorite foods hostage if I don’t give in to her demands to show an appropriate amount of love for The Mailman.

I don’t feel that I’m in a position to rank players who were before my time, though based on statistics, various opinions I’ve read and listened to, and all of the highlight clips and old games that I’ve been able to get my hands on thanks to YouTube and Hardwood Classics, I’m sure I could come up with something that resembles an all-time ranking of Power Forwards going back to the days of Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes. However, since I was born in 1992 and there isn’t much to view on YouTube earlier than 1984 (the year of the first Bird vs. Magic Finals match-up, and right around the time when the NBA stopped inexplicably tape-delaying Playoff games), I’ll go ahead rank the top five Power Forwards from 1984 and on. Presented in reverse order from No. 5 to No. 1.

5: Charles Barkley

4: Kevin Garnett

3: Karl Malone (wincing and hoping that this is high enough to remain fed for the next month)

2: Dirk Nowitzki

1: Tim Duncan

First, how dare you ask me a question like this for something like a mailbag? My Mother knows as well as anyone that I spent a year researching and writing a list of the Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century, and now she expects me to settle on an all-time Top 5 on a whim? What even is that?

Second, yes, that was just a shameless plug for my Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century List, which y’all definitely need to take some time to read if you haven’t already. I love making up All-Time lists, and I encourage everyone reading to Tweet me, Email me, or Facebook message me any Sports or Pop Culture All-Time Top 5’s you want settled!

Third, once I had the time to consume this idea and let it digest for a while, the order actually wasn’t too hard to settle on. Duncan was an easy No. 1, though some people will dispute Duncan’s inclusion as a Power Forward since the majority of his career minutes were played at Center, per Basketball-Reference. Duncan spent the prime of his career playing Power Forward, and we frequently touted him as the game’s best Power Forward. There’s no reason why we should change our public opinion now (at least until Karl-Anthony Towns gives him a run for his money).

Deciding on Nowitzki over Malone for the No. 2 spot was the toughest decision within the Top 5, but I ultimately gave the edge to Dirk because Malone had two distinct advantages Nowitzki never did:

1: Malone had the luxury of playing with one of the five best Point Guard’s of All-Time for the duration of his career, and for a Hall of Fame coach for nearly that entire time as well. We can’t ignore how greatly Malone benefited from playing alongside John Stockton for nearly two decades. It’s not necessarily fair to the Mailman to dock him points for something like that, but it’s also not fair for Dirk that Mark Cuban low-balled Steve Nash in the Summer of 2004, thus altering Dirk’s ceiling.

2: It can’t be proven that Malone wasn’t chiseled from an Oak Tree, and that makes him the most durable and indestructible Power Forward ever. Now sure, that could be considered something that should give Malone the upper hand over Dirk, but to me it feels more like an unfair competitive advantage. I don’t even think they have Oak Trees in Germany, and if that’s the case then we definitely know Dirk didn’t come from one.

SIDEBAR: No lie, I spent about 25 minutes Googling “What’s the strongest tree” or phrases similar to that. I got plenty of answers for “Tallest,” “Widest,” “Oldest” and “Strongest Roots” but I couldn’t find anything that have me any sort of indication which tree most resembles an absurdly impressive human specimen like Karl Malone. I’m inclined to believe that Karl Malone probably knows the answer to that question.

Barkley had a ridiculous ten year statistical peak (25-12-4-2 with 55% shooting), but he came into multiple seasons out of shape, demanded trades and was far and away the most difficult of the five to deal with on a year-to-year and day-to-day basis. KG’s case is hurt by the fact that he missed the postseason in three of his prime years in Minnesota before having his career saved by a trade to the Celtics. There is more room for nit-picking with Garnett and Barkley’s career resume than there is Duncan, Nowitzki and Malone. But even still, it’s just nit-picking.

Gianni – “Not sure what your list for MVP looks like this year, but if San Antonio is able to finish the year at the top of the West with the best overall record in the league, how could anyone deserve MVP over my man, Kawhi Leonard?  With all due respect to LeBron James, he has a much better supporting cast than Leonard does, and while James Harden and Russell Westbrook are putting up ridiculous numbers, I feel that Kawhi is just as valuable to his team. What are your thoughts?” 

Right off the bat, I’m going to tell you that I’m holding off on making an actual NBA MVP pick until the final regular season game has been played. That’s not me trying to be a dick or dance around the question or eventually get people to read a two-part NBA Awards column (slated to be published right here on Hardwood and Hollywood on April 12th and 13th) … I’m holding off because in the last month I’ve changed my mind between four different candidates numerous times and truly believe that even after the regular season is in the books, we might not have a clear winner. And here’s the crazy thing, the following players haven’t even come close to cracking the top four:

Isaiah Thomas: A 5’9″ crunch-time scoring machine … averaging 29 points per game on 46-38-91 shooting splits … the best player on the second or third best team in the Eastern Conference … the best under 6’0″ scorer ever … Along with Michael Jordan, one of two players in the last forty years to lead their team in scoring in 35+ consecutive games

John Wall: 23 points, 4 rebounds, 11 assists, 2 steals per game with career best shooting percentage from the field … best player on the second or third best team in the Eastern Conference, one that has gone 38-15 since starting the season 7-13

Giannis Antetokounmpo: On track to become the first player in the history of the NBA to end the season in the Top 20 in Points, Rebounds, Assists, Steals and Blocks … Does at least three things every game that makes you say “Holy Shit!” or some familiar phrase right out loud, even if you are watching the game by yourself

Kevin Durant/Stephen Curry: Cancelled each other out this year because it’s unclear who Golden State’s alpha dog is … Durant will end up missing too many games to contend, but was in the midst of probably the best all-around season of his career to date … Curry took a backseat to Durant for too long, saw a noticeable statistical drop off from last season, and lacks the number of “I’m the MVP of this effing league” performances he had last year

Plus, I’d feel awful about myself if I didn’t at least mention the following guys: Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns (evolutionary under-25 bigs playing on underachieving teams) … Paul George and Jimmy Butler (possibly disgruntled wings playing with little help and still contending for Playoff spots) … Mike Conley/Marc Gasol, DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry and Gordon Hayward/Rudy Gobert (co-alpha-dogs on Playoff teams that are/were having career years) … Devin Booker (the homie just scored 70 points in a game, so he’s included) … Draymond Green (one of the three marquee Defensive Player of the Year candidates, and the heart and soul of the Golden State Warriors) … Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving (somehow, none of these three are one of the two best Point Guards in the league)

Amazingly, there are still idiots who say things like “The NBA is going down hill.” Just give me a moment to attempt to contain my laughter at the stupidity of some people.

Now that I’ve composed myself, we arrive at the Mount Rushmore of 2016-17 NBA MVP candidates. In my time as a hardcore, watching-every-night NBA fan, I can’t remember a season where there is a very easy case that can be made for four different players to win MVP. I’m at the point where I wouldn’t even be willing to fight with anyone on their pick, no matter which of the four was their choice.

Right now, with a gun held to my head, my pick would be Harden, who has been engineering an incredible offensive machine in Houston, putting up never before seen numbers while doing it, and winning at a more impressive clip than almost everyone expected they would. But as Gianni said, that’s with all due respect to LeBron, Russ and Kawhi, all of whom would be MVP locks in most of the previous twenty seasons. When I got this question about a week and a half ago, I was leaning towards Westbrook. If I were asked a similar question in my next mailbag, I will probably have an answer other than Harden.

Hailey/Weston – “What is the most a player has paid in fines per season? Any sport, maybe highest per each sport? I got money on TO, Chad Ochocinco for the NFL and Rodman, Artest, and AI for the NBA.” 

So here’s what I did … I did my best to figure out a rough estimate total for each of the five players that were suggested above (based on fines and money lost during suspensions without pay). Then I offered a brief explanation of how they lost their money (some of this stuff will probably make you laugh), and then I came up with some of the other notable offenders that were overlooked.

Chad Johnson – Over $100,000 during his career

-Chad was a knucklehead, but at least he was a knucklehead whose antics were mostly harmless with the exception of the damage that was done to his own bank account and the Johnson family name. But hey, on the bright side, he probably made at least 60 percent of that money back for his participation on the “hit” reality dating show, The Ultimate Catch.

Terrell OwensAt least $1.75 million during his career.

-The largest chunk of this total came in 2005 when Andy Reid suspended T.O. four games without pay after Owens suggested that the Philadelphia Eagles would be undefeated if Brett Favre, not Donovan McNabb, was their Quarterback. That’s a savvy team building maneuver right there.

Dennis RodmanAt least $1 million during his career

-Rodman lost a cool million when he was suspended without pay for nine games for kicking a camera man in the groin, and really, that’s probably the least bizarre thing Rodman caught heat for in his time as a public figure. We’re talking about a guy who was an active member of the nWo, wore a wedding dress in public to promote his autobiography, verbally attacked Mormons while in Salt Lake City, had a friendly relationship with Kim Jong-un, or my personal favorite, won Celebrity Mole in 2004.

Ron Artest – At least $5.5 million during his career

-According to (where I got a great deal of information on this subject), Artest was docked $483,277 during his career, but this doesn’t include the money Artest lost in salary for his involvement in The Malice at the Palace, kicking a TV camera, confronting Pat Riley, elbowing Manu Ginobili in the head in the 2006 Playoffs, missing games because of a Domestic Violence incident in 2007, and getting suspended for asking Rick Carlisle for a month off because he was tired after promoting an R&B album on his Tru Warrier production label. I’m not kidding.

Allen IversonProbably at least $100,000 during his career

-The casinos got way more money out of A.I. than David Stern ever did.

Latrell Sprewell – At least $7 million during his career

-Sprewell’s $24 million contract was nearly voided after he choked and punched his Head Coach P.J. Carlesimo during a December 1997 practice, but in the end Sprewell was suspended for 68 games during the 1997-98 season. Five years later Sprewell would be fined $250,000 by the New York Knicks for failing to report that he broke his right hand on his yacht. Maybe if Spree would have immediately sold the yacht right then and there he would have had a little more money to feed his children.

DeMarcus Cousins – $1,512,960

-Cousins’ total to date, which we can mostly chalk up to fines for technical fouls and fines that came with missing games because of an excessive number of technical fouls in a given season. That’s a lot of money to lose because you were angry.

Rasheed Wallace – 317 technical fouls worth of money

-Yes, Sheed committed 317 technical fouls in 1,109 games during his career, and if 317 technical fouls seems like a large number, that’s because it is. See Cousins’ money total above? He’s been hit with 111 technical fouls during his career. For all of you folks who aren’t math wizards like myself, that’s about one-third as many T’s Sheed got while he was in the league.

Aaron Hernandez$19.3 million

-That’s the amount of money that was left on Aaron Hernandez’s contract that he forfeited because he decided to be a murderer.

Michael VickOver $100 million

-That’s the amount of money that was left on Michael Vick’s contract that he forfeited because he decided to be a dog murder.

Ray Lewis$500,000

-That’s the amount of money the NFL fined Ray Lewis because he might have been a murderer.

Gilbert Arenas/Javaris CrittentonSeveral Millions of Dollars combined

-That’s the amount of money that Arenas and Crittenton lost after they were suspended for the remainder of the 2009-10 season because they almost decided to murder each other in the Washington Wizards locker room.

Jermaine O’NealAt least $4,111,000

-This was the money O’Neal lost due to his involvement in the Malice at the Palace, and let me tell ya, as someone who wrote a retrospective running diary on that particular event, I can tell you that O’Neal is very fortunate there was a wet spot in the floor late in that brawl because he was gearing up to throw a punch at a fan who had wandered onto the court that absolutely, positively would have killed the man. There’s not a doubt in my mind.

Jeremiah – “Should we be more impressed with NBA stars (Harden, Thompson, Lillard, Westbrook, IT) dropping 40 points in a game or is it a legitimate design of an NBA offense and to be somewhat expected?”  

I wouldn’t necessarily say that any elevated individual performance, scoring or all-around, is a legitimate design of an NBA offense, but it’s definitely a product of the changing league-wide style of play, and no, old-timer, that doesn’t mean they don’t play defense … sit back down on your porch. Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that a team like Oklahoma City doesn’t, at least to a degree, need Russell Westbrook to go bananas every night, but it’s not like there’s a particular stat line they’re expecting him to hit. The crazy numbers come with his usage rate (absurd) and his overall command of the game (ridiculous), and Oklahoma City’s need for him to be involved in nearly every single offensive possession. 

But this isn’t something that is applicable to only a handful of guys. You listed five guys above, but there have already by 32 players this season that have scored at least 40 points in a game. Twenty-year-old Devin Booker just scored 70 (SEVENTY) points in a game against a Top 10 defense. Harden and Westbrook are putting up Triple-Doubles every other night. When healthy, the Warriors have three players on their roster who have scored 50+ points in a game in the last two years. This is a league-wide trend, and there are trackable and easy-to-digest factors that one could point at and say “This is why this is happening,” and once you understand why it’s happening, you gain a better perspective on how impressive what they are doing actually is.

Teams are playing at a faster pace than they were ten or twenty years ago (96 possessions per game, compared to 92 possessions per game in 2007 and 90 possessions per game in 1997) AND scoring more efficiently, so naturally, that means league-wide scoring is up (106 points per game compared to 99 ppg in 2007 and 97 ppg in 1997). Pace plays a big part in the scoring increase; the game is trending in a direction where it resembles a game from the mid-eighties, only all of the long two’s we saw teams jacking in the 1987 have turned into three-pointers in 2017, and that’s by design.

Because we’re continuing to gain a better understanding of analytics, teams have become more aware of where the most efficient shots on a basketball floor are, and they are taking more shots from those spots. Makes sense, right? Teams understand that three’s are not only worth more than two’s, but an open or partially-open three-pointer is a more efficient shot than a heavily contested two-point jumper. If you emphasize taking three’s and shots in the paint it puts a serious strain on an opposing defense, and if you can stack your five-man units so you’re always playing four or five guys who can shoot three’s and put the ball on the floor and attack the basket to score, you’re nearly unguardable.

All of these things make it easier for players to have the opportunity to put up bonkers numbers, and since we’re in a full-blown talent Golden Age, it creates the opportunity for some exceptional young players to put up sometimes incomprehensible numbers. So yes, it’s to be expected, but the collective basketball fanbase should probably be more impressed too. Isn’t that always the case with basketball though? Aren’t we always a little late to grasp and comprehend just how great players or teams of the current era are? This has been the case for as long as I’ve been alive, and unfortunately, it won’t change soon.

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  1. Pingback: The State of the NBA, Part 1 - Hardwood and Hollywood

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