This Week's Reader Mailbag: NBA MVP Race, Shane Mosley, & Pac 10 Freshmen

January 24, 2009

Our readers always provide us with good comments and questions. Here is a recent sample:

1. Mike,

I know it's still early, but who do you think has been the Pac-10's best freshman thus far?

Jeff B.
Portland, Oregon

My top three would be: 1) Jrue Holiday, UCLA; 2) Isaiah Thomas, Washington; and 3) DeMar DeRozan, USC.

DeRozan has displayed some tremendous athleticism, and seems to get better each week. However, he also has had his struggles, especially when play slows down in the half court. It is during these times that his inconsistent jump shot makes him more of an ordinary player. Still, DeRozan has the most upside of the three, and should likely improve on this deficiency over time.

As for Thomas, the little playmaker has stepped right in and ran the Washington offense since day one. He has been an invaluable contributor to the Huskies 4-1 start in conference play, and he has been averaging nearly 16 PPG.

Holiday, however, gets the nod as the best freshman thus far. He is more polished, skill-wise, than DeRozan, since he has a better outside stroke. He also is more versatile because he has the ability to play either guard spot.

Unlike Thomas, Holiday had to beat back a much deeper roster to earn his starter's minutes, as he competed with both returnee Michael Roll and frosh Malcolm Lee for the starting 2 guard spot.

But, what stands out most about Holiday are his intangibles. He is a poised, cerebral, decision-maker, and willingly takes on the tough defensive assignments. Because of that poise, he has been able to acclimate quickly to the level of play in Division I basketball, with only a minimal adjustment period.

2. Mike,

When I watched Shane Mosley fight Miguel Cotto, I thought he was the better man down the stretch. He looked like an elite fighter. When I later saw him fight against Ricardo Mayorga he looked mediocre. Do you think the BALCO issue is starting to become a distraction for Shane? Which version of Shane will we see against Antonio Margarito on January 24?

Abdul H.
Manchester, UK

I think the BALCO issue is more of a minor irritant for Shane, than a bona fide distraction. Given Shane's dedication to staying in shape, and his longevity in the game, he seems to be too much of a professional to let the BALCO talk affect his preparation. When he steps through the ropes this Saturday, he will be mentally and physically primed to perform to his maximum ability.

The real question is, just what is that maximum?

Various explanations have been given for his so-so performance against Mayorga. Shane said that Mayorga's awkward style made it difficult for him to get in a rhythm. Jack Mosley said Shane had decreased oxygen intake due to a nasal blockage, that now has been corrected. And then there is a third possibility: age.

When Oscar De La Hoya fought pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather, they essentially battled on even terms for the first two-thirds of that fight. Oscar looked like an elite fighter that night.

Oscar then faced unheralded Stevie Forbes in a projected tune-up, but ended up taking a lot of shots to the head. Overall, he gave a decent, but not great, performance.

Similar to Mosley, Oscar's camp also explained away that ordinary performance, maintaining that he was still the Golden Boy.

However, his trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr., seemed to know better, and left Oscar to train Ricky Hatton. Floyd's hunch proved to be prophetic, as Oscar reached a state of true physical decline when he fought Manny Pacquiao in a lopsided loss.

We could be seeing the same aging process with Mosley, and in roughly the same short time span. In other words, first Mosley had a solid performance in a respectable loss to Cotto, then he took an unusual amount of punishment in his tune-up with Mayorga, and now he might complete the cycle with a horrific loss to an elite fighter in Margarito.

So, yes, we could see the more feeble Shane Mosley from the Mayorga fight.

However, I think Shane still has something left. We know he will be well-conditioned, and we know he will have the heart to stand and trade. In addition, he now could bring more to the table than just the flicking jab and right hand we have seen from him lately because he has traded in his father for a real trainer.

Ultimately, the Shane Mosley we see Saturday will be closer to the one we saw in the Cotto fight. Nevertheless, even that version of Shane could end up losing the fight.

3. Mike,

Who do you think has been the NBA's MVP so far? Last year CP3 was considered a top candidate, but this year nobody is mentioning the man. Shouldn't he be in the discussion again?

Jerome J.
New Orleans, Louisiana

In my view, the MVP should go to the best player, period. Value to one's team is secondary. That's why CP3 should remain out of the discussion.

Lately, the award has been going to the top player on an elite team, rather than simply the best overall player. The byproduct of such reasoning is that undeserving players get the MVP. Exhibit A would be Dirk Nowitzki. Exhibit B would be Steve Nash, the first year he won the award (Shaq was by far the better choice).

And then sometimes the voters are just flat-out incorrect, as when they chose David Robinson, and Hakeem "The Dream" later proved to be the superior player in the playoffs.

Therefore, any serious discussion of the 2009 MVP award should center on three names only: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade.

Last season, you could not find a player or coach willing to publicly state that LeBron deserved to be MVP. Now, last year’s MVP himself, Kobe Bryant, has stated that James deserves the award.

To his credit, James has taken his squad to a new level this year. No longer a mere up-and-coming squad, the Cavs are now a legitimate title contender. And they have continued to win despite injuries to two core players – Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

A huge factor in the team’s improvement has been James’ growth on defense, as he has ratcheted up his effort on that end of the floor. Offensively, he is a force of nature onto himself, as no other 3 in the game can match his blend of strength and athleticism.

Despite all of this success, there remain reasons why James should NOT get the MVP.

First, part of the team’s success can be traced to factors other James, such as the improved talent on the squad. That new talent is found in an improved West, as well as in the acquisition of Mo Williams. While it is true that both players get open looks strictly because of LeBron, James nevertheless should be judged according to the same standard as other prior MVP candidates.

In other words, in the past, the knock on many candidates has been that they have a strong supporting cast around them providing help, and thus, are somehow less deserving of the award. Well, if other players have had this reasoning imposed on them, then James should not be treated any differently.

Second, the defensive improvement is a little overhyped. Although James certainly has increased his effort and focus on D, most of the growth has been in his “help” D. His new efforts have come in the form of spectacular weak-side blocks, solid rotations, and other team-oriented improvements. But, he is not yet a lockdown, one-on-one, on-ball defender yet.

Yes, James has improved his one-on-one D, and is willing to battle other stars, but what separates him from other on-ball defensive greats is what he fails to do prior to the catch. In order to truly reach that next level, he must focus more on ball denial, rather than simply waiting for his opponent to get a touch, and then making his stand.

Third, there is a glaring hole in his offensive skill set – the lack of a low post game. In the history of the NBA, no team has won a title without having at least one player who could command a double-team in the low post.

Currently, James’ entire offensive game is essentially face-up. A big part of that face-up attack is a propensity to take unnecessarily difficult fadeaway and step-back J’s. That type of shot selection tends to lower his overall shooting percentage. In fairness, however, with his offseason essentially occupied by USA Basketball, James had very little time to add a low-post dimension to his game.

Unless the Cavs give big Z more low-post touches when he gets back, this will be one of the team’s biggest roadblocks to a title. Ultimately, it will be difficult for Cleveland to merely pick-and-roll or iso there way to a championship.

Fourth, we have not seen enough great clutch play from this guy to warrant the award. Setting aside the 16 bad quarters he had in the 2007 Finals, and his mediocrity in the FIBA World Championships, in the last calendar year alone James has had some forgettable moments in crunch time: 1) missing last-minute, in-the-paint looks in his series against Washington; 2) getting outhustled by Paul Pierce in a jump-ball scenario in Game 7; and 3) disappearing in the second half of the Gold Medal game against Spain.

It is only a matter of time before he turns this flaw around, but until then, it’s an open race.

And then there’s Kobe.

Remember not too long ago when people called Yao Ming the game’s “best regular season center.” Translated, that meant Yao gave the most effort during the season, but in any Game 7 or one-on-one scenario, Shaq was truly the better, more dominant 5.

We now may have reached that point with Kobe and James.

Kobe has clearly paced himself much more this year. He is far more deferential on offense, as he is much more willing to take possessions off and let the offense be run through others. Ironically, the same guy who used to accuse a 30-something Shaq of coasting during the season, is now doing the same thing, albeit to a far lesser degree.

Because of this conscious decision to pace himself more after the Olympics, Kobe should not get the MVP.

Nevertheless, it is he, rather than James, who is the best player in the league in any one-game situation.

Last week, when both went head-to-head, we saw that a qualitative separation still exists between the two. At this point, Kobe is the superior defender. Although his defensive rep is overrated somewhat because he doesn’t lock in every night, when he does bring it, he is a premiere defender.

In the recent Cavs-Lakers clash, Kobe took on the onus of guarding James, and forced him into a poor shooting night. When James wanted to run screen-roll, Kobe often took that first option away by forcing him away from the pick and into help. On several possessions in the third quarter, Kobe had such effective ball denial on James, that LeBron did not get a touch once he crossed half-court.

Moreover, Kobe is the better skilled guy offensively. He does indeed have a post game, and has a more fundamental stroke from the perimeter. Because of this he is by far a better closer down the stretch.

He also is the best "bad-shot maker" in the NBA, as seen by the drifting to his left, fourth-quarter heave against the Cavs. At this point in his career, one almost expects his circus shots to be good.

But what really makes him the best, is his improved thought process.

In the clash with Cleveland, Kobe refused to enter into a scoring duel with James, and instead got the whole team involved. It made a huge difference, and allowed the Lakers to prevail.

His new team approach has become all-encompassing. Kobe is not merely dribbling the ball around for 20-plus seconds, getting double-teamed, and then finding an open teammate. He also is being truly deferential by giving up the rock early in the shot clock, and letting the offense be run through others.

This type of play was observed by Washington Coach Ed Tapscott, as the Los Angeles Times reported him saying, “I watched the way he made sure that every guy on the floor got shots. He shared the ball, he made sure Gasol got the ball in his spots. When Vujacic came in, he made sure he got corner jump shots. He made sure Fisher curled and got his shots.”

“[H]e could’ve taken shots at any time [but] made sure his teammates got quality shots so that they were into the game.”

“That makes everybody on the team participate with greater zeal when you have that type of unselfishness.”

So, if Kobe is the league’s best player, but coasting too much to be the MVP, then who should get the award?

Dwayne Wade.

Starting with his summer when he was undoubtedly the best and most consistent player for USA Basketball, Wade has enjoyed a career revival. That revival can be traced to one reason – good health.

This year Wade has led a minimally-talented Miami team to a winning record. Were the season to end today, Miami would be playoff-bound, a major accomplishment in and of itself.

Wade has matched LeBron’s on-court energy and physicality, while also bringing an improved skill-set to the table this season. That improvement has been seen in the increased range on his J, as he no longer is just an 18-foot-and-in shooter.

And Wade has had this success despite a weak supporting cast.

Miami features a rookie second-round pick at point guard, a couple of decent spot-up three point shooters, an undersized unknown named Joel Anthony at center, and has received below-than-expected production from Shawn Marion and rookie Michael Beasley. While waiting for Beasley to develop, and after realizing the limitations in Marion’s game, Wade has had to shoulder the load essentially by himself. To his credit, Wade has thrived in the role.

So will Wade be penalized by the fact that he is part of an elite team? History might have the answer.

In 2005-2006, Kobe Bryant led a team that STARTED Smush Parker, Luke Walton, and Kwame Brown, into the playoffs as a lower seed. Once in the postseason, that team nearly defeated the favored Suns in a highly competitive 7 game series. Given the pathetic talent on the roster, his success that season was incredible. He was the game’s toughest cover and best player, but still did not get the MVP.

The same stigma that affected Kobe, might also hurt Wade. Let’s hope the voters this year avoid their robotic tendencies and vote for the most deserving player. Thus far, that man is D-Wade.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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