“Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 6: Durant is MVP Already

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a weekly HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.


Beckley: This week’s meme makes me wonder if we’re breaking our own rule against player hating. Why can’t we just root for a quiet kid with a great jumper and a smile that makes you want to invite him over for dinner with your grandma?

Well, here’s the rub: I don’t think a single analyst would pick Durant as the best Small Forward in the league, yet 15 out of 25 ESPN experts picked him to win this year’s MVP. Eerily, nearly the same percentage of GM’s (66%) predicted that Durant will hoist the Maurice Podoloff trophy at year’s end. Is it this a dastardly conspiracy bred in the bowels of NBA headquarters to anoint Durant the league’s most shining, unsullied star?! Meh…maybe it just makes sense to pick Durant.

Perhaps more than any player besides Chris Paul or Steve Nash, KD’s team’s fortunes will rest on his jagged shoulders. Without him, do the Thunder even win 30 games? Meanwhile Kobe and LeBron/Wade’s teams look like locks for 55+, and many believe it will take 65+ wins, injury to a key teammate or face-melting stats for either player to win another.

Anyways, what kind of logic can be applied when predicting such an inherently subjective, vague, screaming-match-inducing award? You think it’s Paul’s year, even though we both believe he’s the league’s second best player behind LeBron. In your prediction you mix in a variety of factors external to on court performance, is it possible that ESPN’s experts and NBA GMs are doing the same? Or is it a heaping, steaming pile of Timberwolf that anyone other than LBJ is favored to win?

Ethan: Love Durant, hate the media narrative game. Check that, love to hate the narrative game–it’s manna fodder for this clucking, tutting hen of a meme-parse. Braaaack…I mean, yes Beckely, it just makes sense to pick Durant. And since few sense makers would choose Kevin as the league’s best player, the sentient may figure that MVP makes less sense than roosters laying golden legs. Or, there is logic to the award, and we’ve increasingly layered MVP voting mores so much that it rivals human language in intricacies, inefficiencies, and ability to produce curse words.

Future example: Nash wins 2011 MVP, nun swears

I’d say there’s a formula to the voting, and we can extract it from Durant’s anointment oils. Check the Trapezoid of MVP Success:

A) Likable
B) Scores a lot
C) Nearly won it once
D) Team exceeds expectations
E) Unquestioned team Alpha Wolf

KD has all these qualities, plus his squad gets latent buzz for wood-chipping last year’s predictions. And he’s the default choice for those offended by LeBron’s snub of the strangers who fetishized him–not to mention how Bron crumbled NBA power structures like Rapunzel’s locks were on Sampson–leaving his MVP stock buried beneath the rubble.

To counter LeBron’s intransigence, the hoop intelligentsia yearns for advertised humility. As in: We all need to purify in the Kevin Duranges River till time warps back to the halcyon era when people didn’t care about the NBA. We all need Kevin Durant to make my heart grow three sizes that day–the day when I stop writing sarcastic paragraphs about how Durant’s MVP will parent a new generation of immortal, well-adjusted orphans.

But I want to hear more about your “without him” MVP rationale. Is Durant more important because the Wade-LeBron venn diagram has a slight overlap of diminishing returns?

Beckley: Your highly scientific Venn diagram and his whimpering performance against Garnett make it clear that Bosh is to be ridiculed at every opportunity, while suggesting that a player does not become less talented or important when joining forces with another super hooper. Maybe I should sharpen my word choice– “important” doesn’t quite capture everything. Firstly, going by the Win Share statistic alone, Durant just barely fell short of being the NBA’s “most important player to his team” last season. His 16.1 WS were 30.45% of the Thunder’s total WS (52.8) while LeBron (18.5 WS) accounted for 30.57% of the Cavs 60.5 WS. It’s worth noting your dark horse MVP candidate, CP3 accounted for a herculean 37.8% of the Hornets’ total WS in his most recent full season. Perhaps the different between Cleveland’s 2011 and 2010 win totals will be a more representative metric of LeBron’s worth. Chris Paul only played in half of the Hornets’ games last year and the Hornets won 12 fewer games than in the previous season. Peja had calcified into an lifelike statue, but the point remains, Paul is an engine that drives his entire team to greater performance.

Either way, the eyeball test doesn’t convince me that Durant does as much as James or Paul to create for others, though his mere scoring presence, energy, and efficiency buoys Jeff Green’s leaky play. Then again, the well documented fallibility of the eyeball test is why we use statistics.

Who am I kidding? If you know anything about MVP races, you know that advanced statistics will not be referenced once (beyond PER, thanks to “Doc” Hollinger) when comparing leading candidates. And candidates is the perfect word because, in may ways, these races resemble political contests. Character, charisma and aesthetics count for nearly as much as results. When you’ve got a kid like Durant who combines transcendent skill with a Washington outsider’s charm, you’ve got a public perception juggernaut.

Think this analogy is ridiculous? consider this: when I was in middle school I lived next to a guy with an NBA Rookie of the Year vote. Elton Brand was having a great year and while hanging out at their house, I saw a cool piece of swag that Brand’s agent had sent my friend’s dad: an orange box of “Elton” Brand Cleaner, designed to look like a Tide packaging. On the sides was emblazoned, “Cleans glass with 10 Reb/gm!”, “Finishes better than ever at 20 Pts/gm!” and so on. Getting votes requires a bit of marketing and a bit of packaging–intentional or otherwise–because the MVP is not just about who you think is best for the job, but who you want to have a beer with (which explains Barkley’s MVP).


Ethan: Your elucidation of importance vs. relative importance makes me wonder if there’s need for a “Jenga Piece” award to compliment the MVP. LeBron James may have been the 08-09 Most Valuable Player, but Chris Paul snagged the Jenga with a mighty Sisyphus effort on a squalid squad. Per that, Kevin Garnett’s run with the Timbers may have been the biggest Jenga stretch of them all–short of whatever Wilt did.

Sometimes JP value can’t be quantified through sheer WS%. For example, I submit Stephen Curry as this year’s Warriors JP. While David Lee is the likely Wins Shares leader, the Dubs can spell him with Brandan Wright and eventually, Louis Amundson. That’s poor depth, but it’s nothing compared to Curry’s invisible acrobat net. Take Stephen out, and it’s either Monta Ellis, dribbling till the floor gets floor-burn, or Charlie Bell, dribbling out of the league, till some D-Leaguer takes the floor (burn!).

Upcoming Wolves Season

Back to Durant, the clear MVP and Jenga Piece of our meme. Now back to your man. Now back to me(me). You spoke of the MVP popularity contest and good “candidate” qualities. Apparently, the MVP race has become a full-blown election cycle–replete with breathless “horserace journalism.”

(Can Durant still win Most Valuable Player after his “France is a good country” gaffe? The polls say “YES!!”)

It is not enough for us to watch basketball and chronicle winners vs. losers. We need speculation, argument, and above all, stories. This is how Kevin Durant can be declared “the presumptive MVP” before anything actually happens.

Sportswriters probe the night for a story, the way you’d desperately, blindly, snatch nightstand glasses. They obsess over savvy, and “savvy” means penning the future, months before a Spring deadline. Soon, the prediction has traction, so much so that it’s an article of sports pundit faith. Of course Kevin Durant’s the MVP, the warm storyline already feels like a comfortable old shoe.

Until Kevin struggles. Then, some bored sportswriter will concoct the next savvy storyline. Remember when Giuliani was the obvious 2008 Republican Presidential candidate? Remember when Hillary Clinton filled that role for the Democrats?

And, I’m wagging my finger at those who want to Wag the Dog on Durant. A preseason prediction is one thing, but it shouldn’t inform your take on the past season. Don’t vote for Durant because it’s validating, savvy, hopeful, or even contrarian. Vote for him because he gave you the coolest piece of laundry swag.

Related posts:

  1. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 5: The Kobe-Jordan Conversation
  2. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 3: B-A-N-A-N-A-S!
  3. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 2: Beat those Heat!
  4. “Mama there goes that meme!” Ep. 1: Carmelo Anthony wants to be traded
  5. “Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 4: The Preseason Analyst Blues


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