Is The NBA Watered Down?

Tracy McGrady says the NBA is watered down. The Bonus investigates.

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On Tuesday, Golden State’s Steph Curry won his second straight MVP award. He also became the first player in NBA history to win the MVP award with a unanimous vote. Everybody seems pretty happy with this, with the exception of Tracy McGrady, who said that the only reason Curry won unanimously is that the league is watered down. I’d argue that this is false, and that the unanimous vote is more indicative of how great Steph Curry, and the Warriors, season was. The Warriors and Steph did things we’ve never seen before. Winning 73 games, with Curry hitting 402 threes and joining the 50-40-90 club by shooting over 50% overall, 40% on threes and 90% from the line. He’s only the eighth player to do that, joining the likes of Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, and strangely enough, Jose Calderon. That, combined with all of the other wonderful achievements that he and his team reached this year, should be worthy of a unanimous vote, regardless of who else is in the league. Check out the top five vote-getters this year, and ask yourself if this looks like a watered down group…

Steph Curry (30.1 points per game, 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists)
Kawhi Leonard (21.2, 6.8, 2.6)
LeBron James (25.3, 7.4, 6.8)
Russell Westbrook (23.5, 7.8, 10.4)
Kevin Durant (28.2, 8.2, 5.0)

Twenty years from now, people are going to look at that list and be flabbergasted by that legendary top five. Curry was up against the best player on a 67 win team, one of the best all around players ever, and one of the most dominant pair of teammates the league has ever seen. Look at Westbrook’s numbers, for goodness sake. The only other player to put up numbers like that, ever, is Oscar Robertson, the dude that averaged a triple-double over the course of his first five seasons. Anyway, as I said earlier, the unanimous vote that Curry received is more of a testament to how special the Warriors are, and he is individually, rather than a sign of a watered down league.

What McGrady said implies that the overall quality of players in the league is worse now than it once was, and since I’m a sad basketball nerd, I feel like this gives me an excuse to investigate. I’m going through the decades to see if McGrady has a point, or if he’s completely and utterly wrong, and I am going to do it in the most simplistic fashion imaginable: looking up the top vote-getters on Basketball-Reference. I’m going back ten years at a time, because I feel like that will gives us a decent enough idea of each era. Feel free to ride along on this journey through the decades, or bail out now if you want. Don’t let me make your decisions for you.

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2006 MVP 

Steve Nash (18.8 points per game, 4.2 rebounds, 10.5 assists)
LeBron James (31.4, 7.0, 6.6)
Dirk Nowitzki (26.6, 9.0, 2.8)
Kobe Bryant (35.4, 5.3, 4.5)
Chauncey Billups (18.5, 3.1, 8.6)

In 2006, Steve Nash won his second consecutive MVP, as leader of that fast-paced Suns team that everybody remembers fondly. They were the most fun team at the time, leading the league in scoring in a year that only five teams averaged more than 100 points a game. We were desperate for a team like the Suns, as defense was on the rise in those days, leading to an admittedly ugly style of play. We all remember those horrible Pacers/Nets Playoff series, where you were just happy to see either team reach 90 points. I remember people arguing that Nash shouldn’t win MVP, and that it should go to LeBron or Kobe back in those days, and all of the players in the top five received first place votes. LeBron was emerging as the best overall player in the league, and this was the year Kobe scored 81 points and was basically a one man show on a mediocre Lakers team, which he still dragged to the Playoffs. However, much like the Warriors are now, the Suns were changing the way teams approached basketball, and Steve Nash was the engine that was making it run. Rounding out the top five was Dirk Nowitzki, who led the Mavs to the Finals, and Chauncey Billups, who much like Nash was the engine that made his team (the Pistons) run their specific style, which in the Pistons case was a much uglier, slower style, but they were very successful nonetheless.

Looking at that top five, I see three of the top twenty players to set foot in the NBA, possibly four depending on how you feel about Nash. Either way, he’s one of the best point guards that ever played. Then there’s Chauncey Billups, who might not be quite at the same level as some of the all time legends, but he was the perfect leader for his time and team, and does have a Finals MVP under his name. I’m not sure if this group can eclipse 2016’s top five, however.

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1996 MVP

Michael Jordan (30.4 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists)
David Robinson (25.0, 12.2, 3.0)
Penny Hardaway (21.7, 4.3, 7.1)
Hakeem Olajuwon (26.9, 10.9, 3.6)
Scottie Pippen (19.4, 6.4, 5.9)

This works out nicely, because 1996 was the only other time a team won over 70 games in an NBA season. Jordan and Pippen led the Bulls to a 72-10 record that year, with Jordan nearly winning unanimously. Two first place votes went to Penny, one to Hakeem, and one to fucking Karl Malone. This is the sort of stuff that made people think it was impossible for Curry to win unanimously. Historically, there were always a few assholes that threw a first place vote to someone else. The two Penny Hardaway votes are at least defensible, as he led the Magic to a 60-22 record, despite the fact that Shaq missed 28 games. That, and everybody loved those Magic teams, so I can at least understand the argument that Penny deserved some first place votes. I don’t know what the hell was up with the Olajuwon and Malone first place votes, though, and if stray first place votes were being thrown around, how come nobody on the 64-18 Seattle Supersonics got one? It doesn’t matter, because it should have unanimously been Jordan, for the same reasons it should unanimously be Curry. When you make history in an epic and ass-kicking fashion, accept no substitutes.

That top five features four Hall of Famers, including the guy that most everyone agrees is the greatest player of all time. Penny probably would have made the Hall of Fame had he not suffered so many terrible injuries.

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1986 MVP

Larry Bird (25.8 points per game, 9.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists)
Dominique Wilkins (30.3, 7.9, 2.6)
Magic Johnson (18.8, 5.9, 12.6)
Hakeem Olajuwon (23.5, 11.5, 2.0)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (23.4, 6.1, 3.5)

This was right in the middle of what most people agree to be the greatest era in NBA history, and this group of five exemplifies that. There must be something with years ending in “6” because once again, we have a contender for the greatest team of all time, the Boston Celtics, who saw their leader, Larry Bird, win the MVP. This was another nearly unanimous vote, with all but five going to Bird. All of the remaining first place votes went to Dominique Wilkins, the league’s leading scorer, who dragged a not so great Hawks team to a 50-win season. This should have been another unanimous vote, but once again, I can see why some felt that ‘Nique might have deserved some first place votes.

Just look at that group. The Legend, ‘Nique, Magic, The Dream and Kareem. Five Hall of Famers, four top-2o players (sorry ‘Nique). Compared to this crop, any era in NBA history is going to look watered down, although these guys have the benefit of a 30 year historical perspective that, say, the 2016 guys do not.

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1976 MVP

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (27.7 points per game, 16.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists)
Bob McAdoo (31.1, 12.4, 4.0)
Dave Cowens (19.0, 16.0, 4.2)
Rick Barry (21.0, 6.1, 6.1)
George McGinnis (23.0, 12.6, 4.7)

We’ve now gone back far enough that we’re in the days where the players themselves voted for MVP, not the media. Kareem won in his first season with the Lakers, despite the fact that they went 40-42 and missed the Playoffs. He certainly was the most dominant force in the league, and that was apparently good enough for the players. This is not good enough for me, especially when you consider that his former team, the Milwaukee Bucks, won their division and made the Playoffs without him. Though, it should be noted that their division was so horrible, they won it with a record of 38-44, somehow making the Playoffs with a worse record than the Lakers. The best team in the league was the Warriors, led by Rick Barry, who finished fourth, probably because, as legend has it, everyone hated him. The Celtics were the best team in the East, and the eventual champions, which was good enough for Dave Cowens to finish third. Bob McAdoo led the old Buffalo Braves (now the Clippers) to a 46-36 record, and rounding out the top five was George McGinnis who helped the Sixers finish 46-36.

What a mess. The 1970s were a particularly goofy time in NBA history, and one of the few eras where you can actually argue that the league was watered down. This was the last season before the NBA merged with the ABA, which had snagged some talented players away. The next season would see four ABA teams enter the NBA, while the rest of the ABA’s players were selected by the NBA teams in a special dispersal draft. This influx made the NBA a better place, and made the overall talent of the league less watery. This wacky vote kind of reflects that, and it was a close finish between the top three. While the 1970s were an interesting and entertaining time in the NBA (and to be alive, I imagine), I think we can all agree that the league has generally improved from these days.

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1966 MVP

Wilt Chamberlain (33.5 points per game, 24.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists)
Jerry West (31.3, 7.1, 6.1)
Oscar Robertson (31.3, 7.7, 11.1)
Bill Russell (12.9, 22.8, 4.8)
Sam Jones (23.5, 5.2, 3.2) & Jerry Lucas (21.5, 21.1, 2.7)

Not only was there a tie for fifth place, these are the only players to receive any MVP votes! Chamberlain, West, Robertson and Russell are four of the top ten players who ever lived, and Jones and Lucas are Hall of Famers. This was right before the ABA began and started stealing players away, and it’s easy to tell that the league was in great shape as far as talent was concerned, unless you want to argue that since these were the only six players to get MVP votes, they must have been the only good players in the league, which would certainly make for a watered down league. There were also only nine teams back then. To put that in perspective, sixteen teams now make the Playoffs each year. You could say the league was watered down because there was literally less league to go around, but as far as the top five MVP vote getters, I’ll take this group over that motley crew from 1976.

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1956 MVP

Bob Pettit (25.7 points per game, 16.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists)
Paul Arizin (24.2, 7.5, 2.6)
Bob Cousy (18.8, 6.8, 8.9)
Mel Hutchins (12.0, 7.5, 2.7)
Dolph Schayes (20.4, 12.4, 2.8) & Bill Sharman (19.9, 3.6, 4.7)

This was the first year of the NBA MVP award, and holy hell. Bob Pettit won, despite being on the 33-39 St. Louis Hawks. The Hawks (now in Atlanta, of course) still made the Playoffs, because there was a grand total of eight teams, four in each conference, with the top three making the Playoffs. Some people think it’s ridiculous that over half of the teams these days make the Playoffs, well, back then, three-fourths of the teams made the Playoffs. What the hell is Mel Hutchins doing in the top five with underwhelming numbers like that? It was a different era, sure, but 12 points and 7.5 rebounds a game was never impressive to anybody in any era. This was also back in the days when there were very few African-American players, because, well, teams didn’t necessarily want them around. The league wasn’t so much watered down as it was milked down. The only black player to receive a vote was Maurice Stokes, who received a lone vote and a seventh place finish. Somehow, the 1956 NBA MVP voting managed to have one more black person than the 2016 Academy Award acting nominees.

What I’ve been trying to say over the course of the last 2,000 words is that the NBA is not watered down, and in fact, it’s come a long way. Sure, the style of play changes, but the talent is always there. When all is said and done, the top five from the 2016 voting might all be in the Hall of Fame, and might all be considered top 20 players. We just don’t know yet, which is one of the reasons why arguments like this are stupid. Kawhi Leonard might end up being one of the greatest ever, or he might flame out amidst a bunch of injuries like Penny Hardaway (please, don’t let that happen, Basketball Gods). I’d certainly already take the 2016 top five over the groups from 2006, 1976 and 1956. So, yeah, the league’s not watered down, the Warriors just did something incredible, and for once, their best player was rewarded thusly, unlike the non-unanimous votes in 1986 and 1996.

Author: tomeagher

Watching too much basketball.

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