As we come to the end of the Greatest NBA Regular Season Ever™, I think we all have to admit that we're a little disappointed with the wind-down. All the playoff berths were decided before the season's final day, and, though the standings ended very close, there wasn't a seven-way tie for first place in the Western Conference, the winner determined by some obscure tiebreaker like second-half free-throw percentage. Those of you seeking some sort of transcendent season-end thrill need not worry, though. I've been informed repeatedly, by dozens of near-literate people, that this was all just the first act for the most thrilling race of all. No, not the NBA Playoffs. The MVP race.
All season long, this "race" for MVP has dominated the basketball conversation. LeBron James, whose ticket is punched for the next decade of MVP speculation, was, of course, part of it. Kobe Bryant, some argued, deserved consideration for finally recognizing that basketball is a team game. The Celtics would have been nothing without Kevin Garnett, and who could really dispute the contention that Chris Paul has overtaken Steve Nash as the game's best point guard?
Within the last week, this glorified bar argument has gone from an inevitable, annoying story line to the only story anyone deigns to write about. Mark Kriegel of Fox Sports thinks Paul is the MVP because a 50-plus win team in New Orleans is "not supposed to happen." Important outlets like the Canadian Press, which favors LeBron James because no one is more important to his team than LeBron James, have also made their opinions known. Even Henry Abbott, ESPN.com's generally excellent basketball blogger, caught a virulent strain of the disease. Abbott called last weekend's Hornets-Lakers game "The World's Most Unlikely MVP Showdown." "Chris Paul is the insurgent," he wrote. "The new kid. The future that may or may not be here yet. And Kobe Bryant? He's the people's champ. …"
Never mind the fact that I am, technically, a person, and Kobe Bryant will never be my champ of anything. Please consider that last Saturday's Hornets-Lakers game was for the top seed in the West. This was an important game, played in real life, on a basketball court. Does anyone else think it's strange that so few cared to opine on how that game, won by the Lakers 107-104, might influence or help predict what happens in the playoffs? Meanwhile, 8,000 sportswriters, bloggers, and talking heads chimed in on the huge consequences MVP-wise. In the next day's Los Angeles Times: "Competition appears to lean toward Bryant, who hasn't been MVP yet, although Paul makes his case too in a game of wild swings."
Perhaps this is too obvious to say, but what the hell: The MVP race isn't real. Stephen A. Smith may think that if Kevin Garnett pulls a triple-double against the Sixers, it will suddenly become clear that he's more valuable than Chris Paul, but I can pretty much guarantee that K.G. isn't thinking the same thing. Bill Simmons, in his typically entertaining spastic-puppy hyper-referential novella-length style, recently ranked the four greatest MVP races ever. I wonder whether Bob Pettit, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain knew that they were in an MVP race in 1961. Somehow, I think that the three guys who covered the NBA back then may have been concentrating on reporting on the actual games, or race-baiting, or both.
Tim O'Sullivan of the Concord Monitor may have unwittingly summed up the situation's gross absurdity in his April 13 column. "Presenting the winner with his trophy isn't the pinnacle of the MVP matter," O'Sullivan wrote. "We're living the pinnacle right now. It's all about the race, just like it is for any MVP in any sport. And the current race is, well, MVP-worthy." I shouldn't really fault a guy for enjoying his job and all, but is deciding whether Kobe is more MVP-worthy than LeBron really "living the pinnacle"? Well, maybe if you can't get a press pass to the NBA Finals.
If stupid arguments were outlawed, then nobody would ever talk about sports, and we don't want that to happen because then we'd have to think about our actual problems. Still, this MVP race talk is far more annoying than the typical pointless sports discussion. For one thing, few fans actually care. Sure, people chant "MVP" whenever a worthy candidate plays an outstanding game, but that's only because "we think you're a great player who wears our favorite uniform" doesn't have the same lilt. We all remember the great playoff games, and most of us can recite the last 30 years of NBA champions from memory with reasonable accuracy. I know that Michael Jordan won six titles with the Bulls, but I'd have to look up how many MVP trophies he won. Three? Four? Five? Two, God forbid?
Sportswriters and pundits, on the other hand, are treating the MVP race with the gravitas of a presidential election. That's because they make up the Electoral College. When they're debating who's going to win the award, they're not really talking about who they think the best player is; they're talking about whom they should pick as the best player. It's the ultimate circle-jerk of sports-guy self-regard. Sportswriters can't affect the outcome of the games—only David Stern can do that—but the MVP race is theirs to decide, and it's the most thrilling part of their season. "In the 23 years I've been an MVP voter," writes Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News, "there never has been a more difficult choice than that faced by this year's selection panel." Fascinating, but I'd prefer to read about a basketball game.
All of this blather would probably be less irksome if it were confined to the end of the season. But NBA.com, among many, many others, has been updating the "Race to the MVP" every week, all season long. (Your Week 1 "leader": Tracy McGrady.) ESPN.com spent all season ranking the NBA's Top 50 rookies, about 10 of whom have ever seen significant playing time. It's not just pro basketball that's become the Golden Globes with cheerleaders and T-shirt cannons. This is the year that our national obsession with pointless sports rankings reached its absurd zenith. On television, Fox ranks the "50 Best Damn Sports Blowups" and ESPN has sunk so far as to rank the "greatest highlight." The Web is loaded down with Heisman watch lists, draft rankings, and power polls. If you look around, you can find the "Ten Phoniest Baseball Injuries," America's "Top Sports Cities," "Most Desperate Sports Cities," and "Most Fan-Friendly Franchises." The day the 2008 NFL schedule came out, ESPN.com listed the "top 40 games," including the Sept. 21 Texans-Titans match-up. "Matt Schaub, Albert Haynesworth square off," was the reasoning.
The "power rankings" phenomenon isn't new, but the Web has put it into hyperdrive. The Internet demands frequently updated content, and lists and rankings are incredibly easy to put together and require no original thought. There's no need to come up with a new idea every week: Just shuffle a few teams or players around, write a one-sentence caption, and you're ready to publish. Maybe people really care about this stuff, and sports sites are simply fulfilling our desire to assign rankings to "Baseball's Top 20 Young Pitchers." I'd prefer to think we're getting our sports fix from these columns because nobody bothers to writes about anything else.
This is all but a symptom of our rank-happy world. We're determined to manufacture competitions between things even if they don't exist. 21 "beat" Leatherheads at the box office to become the "No. 1 movie," and then they both "lost" to a remake of Prom Night. Meanwhile, the richest of the rich NBA stars, who smoke cigars rolled with our hard-earned money in fraternal ignorance of our opinions, "compete" for the NBA trophy. It's a shameful waste in which we're all complicit. Besides, everyone knows that Amare Stoudemire has got next year's MVP trophy in the bag.