I’ll Be Your Mirror

Triple Self-Portrait, Norman Rockwell (1960)

Today marks the beginning of the NBA playoffs, a most glorious time of the year when the basketball is noticeably better. In a season full of downright certainty underpinned by complete uncertainty, these playoffs are going to shock and surprise us in ways we can’t even imagine, because they almost universally do. Can’t hold anything back now, and all that.

For just a brief moment, however, it seems fitting to gaze back with awe on one of the more improbable regular seasons we are ever likely to see, one full of jaw-dropping individual performances. Specifically, and with the utmost respect, it is my duty to inform you that, unless you are one of the members of the media yet to reveal their MVP vote via a longform column explaining why you didn’t pick any of the other candidates instead, nobody cares about your choice for this year’s NBA MVP.

Here’s the extremely abridged, unfairly reduced case for each of the top four MVP candidates this season, because we all love a good TL;DR:

-Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double over the course of an entire 82-game season, something done only once before, and that was 55 years ago

-James Harden nearly did the same as Westbrook, going 29.1/11.2/8.1 and leading the league in assists with that middle number while being the focal point a team better than the Oklahoma City Thunder with an historically-great offense

-Kawhi Leonard is the best wing defender in the game and made noticeable strides on offense this year, filling in wherever the Spurs needed him to and assuming his place on San Antonio’s throne in a post-Normcore Tim Duncan world

-LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world and may very well be the best player, pound-for-pound, in the history of the game, and he had an age-32 season as good as, if not better than, any of his previous four MVP campaigns

The complexities of each player’s season, the hows and whys of what he achieved, are largely lost to an overarching, overbearing narrative that, at times, ceases to make a convincing case for anyone, instead creating an alienating atmosphere in which you either are, or you aren’t. The idea that supporting any of these players automatically means undercutting the rest has been covered elsewhere in more thorough detail, but again, leaving nuance to the birds is what this whole thing has become about.

What this MVP race has afforded basketball fans is a chance to reflect on what they see in the game itself, and what their ideal player given the context of 2017 looks like. Your preferred MVP is a reflection of you, your values and what you ideally represent, via a convenient proxy. Whereas in past years making the decision to back anyone other than the clear-cut MVP – think James Harden in 2015, Dwight Howard in 2011, literally anyone other than Steph Curry last year, etc. – was looked at as nothing more than contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake, this year provides an ostensible platform for dialogue.

If you support Russell Westbrook[1], you appreciate a traditional destruction of the game as, perhaps, a very (or not-so-) subtle backlash against advanced statistics. Westbrook is the closest approximation to a player you’ll encounter on blacktop, except that he actually can do everything that player attempts at a world-class level. If you enjoy watching Russell Westbrook dismantle defenses who know exactly what he’s going to do but are powerless to stop him anyway, you appreciate chaos creating magic. In the face of the Kevin Durant departure, Westbrook has responded with one of the greatest individual seasons ever[2]. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, Westbrook is your hero. You ever hear that Frank Sinatra quote, “The best revenge is massive success”? That’s Russell Westbrook.

A vote for James Harden is a vote for the present-as-future of basketball. Harden has revolutionized and already-revolutionary offensive style, prodded along by Mike D’Antoni, shapeshifting and stutter-stepping his way to open jumpers and buckets at the rim. You believe that the base-10 numerical system is hogwash, an arbitrary way of delineating between pretty numbers and not-pretty numbers. If you want Harden to win MVP, you preorder Apple products, wear Sketchers lace-ups for style and take TED talks seriously. Human emotion is futile because time spent wallowing is better spent innovating. You know, to the hundredth decimal place, your own net worth.

Similarly to Harden support, a vote for Leonard speaks to your understanding of efficiency, although yours is more well-rounded. Perhaps you studied Aristotelian ethics and appreciate well-rounded sensibilities. That Kawhi Leonard is consistently the best defender by an exceptionally wide margin means something to you, although you likely understand that being humble means accepting offense as more than half the game[3]. Not winning the MVP is a morality play, because you don’t care for public adulation in the name of your greatness. You don’t believe that you wear nearly enough black, despite what your friends say. You have a top-five favorite operas.

Finally, the LeBron James camp is characterized by two groups of people: either you haven’t watched basketball in half a decade and assume the game hasn’t changed much, or you watch it so intently to know that picking anybody other than LeBron is simply an attempt to fool yourself. LeBron can do anything at any time; the mere belief in this keeps defenses at bay and is the reason why he is the Eastern Conference’s final boss. You acknowledge Casablanca as a great film, even if you’ve never actually seen it. You get into four-star restaurants without a reservation.

We know by now that talking about the MVP race is, like everything else, an excuse to talk about yourself. Just be wary of what it is that you’re saying, lest your mirror unwittingly get shattered.

*     *     *

[1] As, if you couldn’t already tell, I wholeheartedly do, so take what follows this phrase with a mine-sized grain of salt. Again – not that you asked.

[2] You also likely don’t care much about the trail you leave behind as you sort through this particular bender and your feelings, perhaps disregarding advice from your friends, but you believe in yourself; Westbrook cuts into his teammates’ stats, surely, but his rebounds create fast break opportunities better than, say, Enes Kanter’s could.

[3] Shouts to Zach Lowe for having the courage to make this point publicly first, but it’s not like we didn’t know that already. If defense really was half the game, Bruce Bowen and four-time (!) Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace would be in the Hall of Fame right now.

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