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.