Differentiating Between a Team's MVP and Go-to Player
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Go-to players and team MVPs are not synonymous, no matter how often we may be force-fed the notion that they're one and the same. Of course, they're not mutually exclusive either, as a team's MVP can undoubtedly be its top scorer.
I know it's hard to believe, especially given the predominance of dunks and game-winning three-pointers we're shown on SportsCenter every day, but there's far more to basketball than getting the ball to go through the net. That's the ultimate goal, sure, but the logistics behind that goal are just as crucial to the process.
Remember, MVP stands for "Most Valuable Player," not "Maximum Volume Point-Producer."
To set this up, here's a hypothetical player comparison taken to a ridiculous extreme. Call me out on grounds of reductio ad absurdum if you like, but I think you'll see the point I'm making nonetheless.
Which player is more valuable: Player A or Player B?
Player A is his team's go-to scorer, but he averages 30 points per game and does literally nothing else. He doesn't record a rebound, generate an assist or play even borderline competent defense throughout the 82-game campaign. His teammates are also markedly less efficient when he plays.
Additionally, he shoots 40 percent from the field.
Player B isn't allowed to shoot. Literally. His coach tells him he'll be benched even if he takes a wide-open layup.
However, he racks up assists, rebounds, steals and blocks like a kid in a candy store. He plays lockdown defense for all 48 minutes, sets hard screens and is never afraid to step in and take the charge.
Player B seems like much more of an MVP candidate, but he'd certainly never be confused for a go-to scorer.
In the real world, extremes like this don't exist—for the most part at least. I'm sure Scott Brooks would have a conniption if Kendrick Perkins decided he needed to be a scorer, but it's not like there's a strict ban on him ever shooting the ball.
You'll also never find a player who puts up zeros in every column but points and field-goal attempts on a nightly basis.
There are, however, plenty of players who function as team MVPs without serving as the go-to player.
Guys Who Make Everything Go
If you aren't particularly confident in shouldering the burden of producing 20-point outings each and every night, there's another great way to generate points.
It's called passing.
*Cut to views of Nick Young and J.R. Smith scratching their heads with confused expressions on their faces.
Assist-men can be some of the most valuable players in the game, although a nice shot certainly complements their offensive arsenal rather nicely.
When you can set up your teammates unselfishly and effectively, you're quite the valuable asset. I'm not talking about guys who can just hit the open man, but rather the ones who can literally create shots with their passes.
Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon are the two players who jump to mind right off the bat.
The point guards for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons, respectively, have the creativity to dream up angles we mere mortals couldn't even think of. Hell, I'm not even sure Euclid could figure out some of the angles that these Spanish floor generals find.
Moreover, they have the passing skills to actually hit those gaps once they've sniffed them out.
Rubio's ability to drive into the lane and wrap the ball around a defender is incredibly valuable to the 'Wolves' cause. The baby-faced passing machine only averages 10.6 points per game, but his team scores an extra two points per 100 possessions when he's on the court (per NBA.com's stats).
For a player without a threatening jumper, that's a pretty big difference. His Maravichian brilliance with the ball trumps even the lack of attention defenders can pay to him as a scoring threat.
Chris Paul is another player who occasionally falls into this category, but only during the early portions of a game before he turns on those scoring instincts and disqualifies himself.
Of course, the best historical example of a secondary scorer who functioned as his team's MVP happens to be a guy who also won a few league MVPs.
That would be Steve Nash, whose passing brilliance—don't interpret that adjective incorrectly—allowed him to hold up the Maurice Podoloff Trophy after both the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons. Nash averaged 15.5 and 18.8 points per game during those two campaigns, but he wasn't the leading scorer on the Phoenix Suns either year.
During the 2004-05 campaign, Amar'e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson all outscored the Canadian floor general throughout the season.
In discussions with my fellow B/R Featured Columnist Kelly Scaletta, a certain cannonball metaphor has come up.
For that cannonball to do damage, two things must happen: It must strike the target, and it must be driven forward with enough force to strike that target. Without one, the other can't happen.
Just so, scoring can't happen without the people who make it easier to put the ball in the hoop. Don't forget about the logistics.
The Tough Guys
Admittedly, I have an agenda with this section. It's not often you get to mention Nick Collison and MVP in the same sentence, but that's exactly what's happening here. Don't worry, though, as some conditional statements are necessary in order to prevent that previous sentence from bordering on absurd.
Collison has been one of my favorite players for a while now, simply because of his desire to maximize his talent by leaving it all out there every single night. Need a player to grit it out and fight for every rebound? Step over and take the charge, no matter how much it's going to hurt? Set that hard screen?
Fear not, because Collison is your guy.
I've been trying to get Nick "Collision" Collison to stick as a nickname for a while now, but it hasn't been a very successful campaign. B/R readers, help me out.
I still think "Collision" is the perfect nickname for Nick Collison.— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) February 1, 2013
Collison is never going to win a league MVP. He's not even going to get mentioned for the unofficial team award at any secret end-of-season luncheon the Oklahoma City Thunder hold.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Kevin Martin all just blow him away in terms of the actual MVP competition. Durant in particular.
However, when Collison is at his best, he can be the MVP of a run. His energy can be infectious, sparking a quick comeback or a dominant quarter for his squad.
If you're a 4/5 in high school that isn't featured, watch Nick Collison and learn how you can really help your team win. Just so solid.— Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) March 24, 2013
And, as is the case with all the players discussed in this article, he doesn't need to score to be valuable.
Players who are willing to do the little things tend to fall into this category. I'm thinking about guys like Shane Battier (more the temporally older version than the current one) and Matt Barnes.
If you religiously root for a specific basketball team, you know which players on that squad fall into this category. They're the ones that the fans stand up and cheer for, even if they aren't putting up gaudy point totals.
In Atlanta, for example, you'll rarely hear someone speak poorly of Zaza Pachulia. He'll never compete for a scoring title, win an NBA Player of the Week award or anything like that. Quite frankly, he'll never be a household name.
But you can be sure that Zaza's interminable enthusiasm, hustle and toughness have resulted in quite a few game balls being thrown in his direction after victories. His efforts won't show up in a box score, but it's internally recognized and valued.
Let's call Zaza another potential momentary MVP. You'd be laughed out of the room if you suggested he was more valuable over a prolonged period of time than Al Horford, Josh Smith (when Smoove strays away from the three-point area) or Jeff Teague, and deservedly so.
In terms of momentary value, though, Pachulia can push and bully his way to the top of the pile without functioning as a go-to offensive player.
Such is the case for all the guys who fall into this category.
Defense Wins Championships
If you really simplify the game of basketball, there are two ways to win. You can either score more points than your opponent, or you can hold them to a lower total than your own.
Technically, those concepts are one and the same, but the semantical difference is a crucial one.
Up until this point, I've focus largely on offense, referring to defense only sparingly. Preventing points, though, is half the game. Some even say that defense wins championships, although that's more of a myth than anything else.
The easiest way to be a team MVP without being a go-to player on offense is simply to play terrific defense. If you can guard your position fantastically, it almost doesn't matter what your scoring output looks like.
Fortunately, the 2012-13 campaign has provided us with two terrific examples.
Joakim Noah has been the defensive anchor for the Chicago Bulls, and while he's a versatile contributor on offense, he isn't exactly a go-to scorer. If Tom Thibodeau is diagramming a play in a crucial end-game situation, the former Gators' sidespin-generating mitts likely aren't going to end up cradling the rock.
Likewise, Marc Gasol has spearheaded a suffocating team defense while helping the Memphis Grizzlies assert their name among the Western Conference elites. In the same vein as Noah, Gasol can contribute in a variety of ways on the other end of the court, but he's not going to be the one taking the last shot on a consistent basis.
Both are candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, and both should be strongly considered for those unofficial team MVPs.
According to NBA.com, when Gasol is on the court, the Grizzlies allow 95.8 points per 100 possessions. That number skyrockets to 102.4 when the seven-footer takes a seat. Similarly, the Bulls' points per 100 possessions jump from 98.2 to 103.7 when Noah rests.
If that's not value, then what is?
The ability of defensive players may not be readily seen by the average fan, but these lockdown specialists can still have monumental impacts on the game. So too can the momentary MVPs, although they certainly have about the same shot as me at holding up that coveted trophy following the conclusion of an 82-game campaign.
Offensive stalwarts who can be impactful without needing to score fall into the category as well.
Points may be the most glamorous stat out there in the world of basketball, but they're by no means the only way for a player to have value. There's a tremendous level of separation between the acronym MVP—in its traditional, literal meaning—and the phrase "go-to player."
It's a difference we ought to start recognizing.
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