MVP Showdown: 2006

So we already know who this year’s MVP is? Think again. Harden and Westbrook are squaring off in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, and there is more on the line than simply their playoff dreams. Ask Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.

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“Kobe Bryant, won the game. And the Los Angeles Lakers were up three games to one.” Kevin Harlan tells the television audience during a break in another great playoff series for the ages.

The 7th seeded Los Angeles Lakers were up three games to two against the heavily favored 2nd seeded Phoenix Suns. Kevin is simply describing the last time Kobe was up to his usual heroics, leading his team to another victory. Dragging the lesser sum of his teammates another step further than anyone dared possible. In L.A.’s last home game, Kobe had hit the shot in regulation to send the game to overtime, and then later the overtime game-winner, putting his team in a commanding 3-1 series lead. Before the break, Kobe had just hit a three-pointer, giving his Lakers a 103-102 advantage in the closing seconds of a series clinching Game 6. The Suns gave the Lakers the ball back, this time a wide-open miss by Tim Thomas. With 42 seconds left in the game, the Lakers called timeout.

“This is the biggest possession, of the season, for the Phoenix Suns.” Says Doug Collins.

The Suns are being asked to do something they haven’t been expected to do all season long: Play defense. And not just play any kind of defense, but play excellent defense, against the NBA’s leading scorer Kobe Bryant.

“You got Marion matched up against Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash guarding Smush Parker.” Collins informs the audience.

Lamar Odom inbounds to an unusually urgent Kwame Brown. Kwame immediately dumps the ball to Luke Walton, and turns to set a pick to free Bryant. Walton is eyeing Kobe the entire time, as the team would be lost without him. Walton hands off to a rolling Bryant.

“Shot clock at twelve. Marion is on Kobe Bryant” Reminds Harlan.

Kobe faces up Shawn Marion, an exceptional defender at this particular time in the NBA. No matter, nobody has been able to stop Kobe the entire season, and he’d be damned if someone was going to stop him now. Kobe pulls out to the top of the key, where Marion is left on an island, and to his mercy. Luckily for the Lakers, Kobe has none.

Kobe switches to his left hand, drives hard to the paint, and sends a soft floater towards the basket that banks in. The Staples Center crowd cheers in delight. Lakers up by three.

Boris Diaw grabs the ball as it nestles through the net and hands it to Nash. Head Coach Mike D’Antoni elects to let his team run a play without the need for a timeout. His team has thrived without the hindrance of stoppage in play, and, even as they face elimination, he sticks to his guns and places his trust in them, and their reigning MVP, Steve Nash.

Nash dribbles the ball past the halfcourt line, but Smush Parker is on him like glue. He spins over a Diaw screen, losing Smush and placing only Kwame Brown between him and the basket.

Nash goes left on Kwame, but doesn’t have the foot speed to dribble past him. He goes up with a terrible looking layup attempt, but before the very moment his feet hit the floor, dishes the ball off to a surprised Shawn Marion. Marion, not expecting the pass, fumbles it and clumsily flips it back to Nash, who is still under the basket. Now with the ball back in his hands, Nash pitches it out past the three-point line to Leandro Barbosa.

Barbosa has to put his hand out or the uncharacteristically wild pass from Nash would be delivered to a very wealthy Laker fan. Bryant meets him, and Barbosa dribbles past him right to the paint. Spacing the floor and setting up himself for a better shot, Nash extends out to the corner where Barbosa finds him. Barbosa passes the ball and it’s game altering responsibilities to Nash, who is favored to repeat as league MVP.

“Barbosa… and Nash for the tie…”

Nash’s shot is unusually crooked and bounces off the heel of the rim.

“Marion with the rebound!”

Marion comes down with the rebound, and finds a wide-open Tim Thomas behind the line.

“Tim Thomas, with the fake…”

Thomas fakes Kwame Brown out of his shoes, leaving him with fifteen feet of daylight and nine seconds left in the game. He lifts up for a game tying three-point shot.

“… for the tie… and he misses, another miss for Thomas! Kobe Bryant with the rebound, and the Suns will have to foul. The crowd here is elated, because they know their team has pulled off an upset in what has been a highly competitive six game series!”

“That’s true Kevin, and such unfamiliar territory for the Lakers, who have 14 championships themselves. It’s strange calling a team with such a decorative history like the Lakers an underdog, but that’s exactly what they were in this series.”

“Yes, Doug, and now we’re watching Kobe Bryant at the line, improving upon his 38 point game.”

With a sold out crowd chanting, “MVP! MVP!” Kobe breathes out, and calmly sinks the first of two free throws.

“That free throw gives him 39…”

The ref pitches the ball back out to Bryant, who routinely knocks in the second free throw. Staples Center erupts, and the Suns appear completely deflated.

“… and that one gives him 40 for the contest! 40 points in a series clinching Game 6 victory for the Lakers! Timeout, Suns!”

Kevin Harlan greets us back from the break, with a graphic displaying how both Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant fared in tonight’s contest. As the Suns robotically get ready to set up a well thought out but useless inbound play, Doug remarks to Kevin.

“You know Kev, those free throws might not have just won Kobe the series, but the MVP as well. A lot of folks were saying Nash was more than deserving of his second consecutive MVP title, but, looking at what both players did in the final seconds of such an important game, it was Kobe, not Nash, who played like an MVP”

“Yes, that may have swayed a few more votes in Kobe’s favor, in what has been an already spectacular season in his career.”

“And it keeps getting better, Kev!”

This isn’t what happened back in the first round of the 2006 NBA’s Western Conference Playoffs, but I changed the ending to prove a point: It truly did matter who won this first round series in deciding the league MVP.

I have heard the argument before that, even if Steve Nash had lost this series, Kobe Bryant would not have been voted MVP. When you accept the alternate universe I have created in which Kobe Bryant did win the series, the argument for Nash becomes unfounded.

In this scenario, Kobe Bryant had won his duel with Steve Nash. And, although Kobe Bryant’s best teammate all season was a grown man named Smush, the argument had been made that Nash himself was playing with a depleted Suns roster. The Suns had lost Amare Stoudamire for the entire season, and the team still played admirably with Nash at the helms. But how could you possibly give the NBA MVP to the man sitting at home watching the candidate who vanquished him? I realize this has happened before, in which an MVP was defeated in the first round of the playoffs. His name was Dirk Nowitzki, and even though he did lose to an 8th seeded Golden State Warriors team (marred with the historical footnote that Dirk’s Dallas Mavericks were the first team to allow this since the introduction of the 7 game first round format), he was still (half-heartedly) awarded the 2007 MVP. Why? His Mavericks had just completed a 69-win campaign. And, fortunately for him, he was not playing against his only opposition to the crown, Steve Nash.

In 2006, Nash was a reigning MVP. That year, he had taken the San Antonio Spurs to the brink of the Western Conference Finals. In round one of the 2006 playoffs, his 2nd seeded Suns were matched up against the lesser-seeded one-man team from Los Angeles. And, one round in, had they been bounced out, so too would Nash’s chances of repeating as MVP. This is because the man on the other side of that defeat was having a fantastic season himself.

Kobe Bryant was averaging a league-leading and career high 35.4 points per game, had outscored the entire top seeded Mavericks team through three quarters in a game played in December, and had an 81 point game against the Toronto Raptors in January. Not to mention, he led his team of never-will-be’s to the NBA Playoffs. Once there, he already had a posterizing dunk on Nash, a game winner in OT, adding a potential first round upset to this resume practically guarantees him a Round 2, Game 3 MVP acceptance ceremony on his home floor against the Clippers.

Eleven years later, we are faced with this same duel in the NBA Playoffs. James Harden and his style of “team ball” that his (again) Mike D’Antoni coached Rockets play, are matched up against the lesser seeded one-man team of Russell Westbrook and his OKC Thunder. This year’s MVP race has been tight, even tighter than the race between Kobe and Nash all those years ago. Harden’s high point per game average coupled with his league leading assist total creates a great argument. Yet, Westbrook’s amazing individual season, which includes an NBA record 42 triple doubles, is hard to ignore. This series provides an answer to everyone’s concerns.

Will Harden play defense when it matters? Will Westbrook shoot his team out of contention? Who will rise and who will shrivel with the game on the line?

The real question everyone is asking is will one series really decide who this year’s NBA MVP should be? It is, of course, just one series. But sometimes, a series can have more on the line than just the direction of two teams and their fans. Sometimes entire legacies are in play. This year, we have one of those rare first round matchups in Houston vs. OKC, or Harden vs. Westbrook. The series itself will easily be the most watchable first round matchup available, and I’m sure we’ll all get to see all that makes each candidate special.

And in the end, it pains me to know that it might not even matter who plays best in the series. Sometimes you think the legacies of two players are each going a certain direction, and then freaking Tim Thomas makes the shot. Here’s hoping for no Tim Thomas’ this season, so that the true NBA MVP may be crowned:

Stat referencing Kobe Bryant’s 2006 point per game average was found, as always, at www.basketball-reference.com. This post was written with the assumption all interested parties are either siding with Harden or Westbrook, and have likely forgotten this year’s NBA MVP should be correctly awarded to Kawhi Leonard.

Author: Commissioner Dan

Unofficial-next-commissioner of the NBA. Covering all things pro basketball (mostly Lakers), even if it's not like it was in the '90's.

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