By: Dan Grant
Kyle Lowry won’t win the NBA MVP award this season.
‘Well, why the hell not?!’ you ask angrily, throwing your Fuzzy Navel in my face. ‘Dan, don’t you know that he just won the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month award? Without running mate DeMar DeRozan? He threw up a December stat line that included per game averages of 22.3 points, 8.9 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals, while shooting 45% from the floor and 40% from downtown! In the misappropriated words of the Backstreet Boys, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you did –
as long as you love me that’s lights out!’
You’re right. He did do that, and Nick Carter is proud of you. (Though I know you were always more of a Brian Littrell guy.) ANYWAY, does this mean more hardware is on the horizon for Lowry? Could he join Magic Johnson (3), Steve Nash (2), Derrick Rose and Bob Cousy as the only point guards to nail down the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award? He certainly has to be in the conversation at this point – Jimmy Butler, Steph Curry and James Harden are the only other NBA players to win Player of the Month awards so far this season.
Unfortunately for Raptors fans, history says that’s where he’s likely to remain.
Don’t get me wrong, I want him to win. It would be the first Toronto sporting MVP since George Bell for the Jays in 1987. (An aside: 2003 Carlos Delgado and 1992-93 Doug Gilmour were robbed!) So let me explain myself.
In March of 1997, Hall of Fame Boston sportswriter Jackie MacMullan wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated entitled ‘The Jazz Master’. It had a subheading reading:
“Karl Malone is playing like an MVP – not that anyone has noticed”.
It was a lament that was meant to garner support for Malone’s shot at the MVP, as a kind of lifetime achievement award. He had been so consistent for so long, but because he was in a league with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Hakeem Olajuwon for most of his prime, MacMullan felt the contributions of the Mailman were being overlooked.
Malone wound up winning the MVP in that 1996-97 season. This enraged Michael Jordan to the point that he had the state of Utah forcibly removed from the Union and legally made a part of Kyrgyzstan for ten years as punishment. Malone won the award again in 1998-99, stating ‘This is a win for the good people of Kyrgyzstan, who love basketball and would like to buy a vowel!’
A precedent has been set here. Hence my opening line.
Now, Lowry and Malone couldn’t be more different. When Malone won his first MVP, he was 12 seasons into a no doubt Hall of Fame career. Michael Jordan was also still in the NBA and was the undisputed best player alive, a sure deterrent to Malone’s chances each and every season.
We all know Lowry’s story. He began his career by bouncing around the league, from Memphis to Houston, finally landing in Toronto. The Raptors nearly dealt him to the Knicks halfway through last season, when the magical Rudy Gay trade fell out of the sky and turned the Raps into the cream of the Eastern Conference, to the surprise of pretty much everyone involved. And Lowry has been the centerpiece of it all, far surpassing any expectations fans could have had when he was acquired in 2012.
In fact, in my very first piece for the Same Page, I wrote of Lowry:
“The Toronto Raptors continued their pursuit of… something recently, as they landed hard-nosed point guard Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets, giving up what really amounts to a fart in the wind. Forgive me for being so candid (a fart joke in my first paragraph!), but Gary Forbes? A protected 1st rounder? Depending on the protection (yet to be announced) these are acceptable losses for a consistent starting point guard.
If that’s what Lowry amounts to being.”
Well, the verdict has been in for awhile and – surprise! – that’s exactly what he’s amounted to, and then some. His snub from the Eastern Conference All-Star team last year was the worst in recent memory and he seems destined to make his first All-NBA team this year. All-Star voting shows that the public still prefer Kyrie Irving and John Wall, but that’s asinine, particularly in Irving’s case; Lowry has been the best point guard in the East this season, bar none. If there was any doubt, his recent award confirms as much. So why can’t he win?
The problems are three fold.
1. HE COMES FROM ‘LOW-STOCK’
Let’s say Lowry goes out of his mind over the next three months and thrusts himself onto the All-NBA first team. Just in theory. If he won the MVP, he would be the lowest ever draft pick to do so. No, really!
Lowry was a first round pick, but he was taken 24th overall by the Grizzlies. The only other MVP winners taken outside the top 10 – ever – were Kobe Bryant (13th), Steve Nash (15th) and… DUN DUN DUN! Karl Malone (13th).
In fact, other than Dirk Nowitzki (9th), Moses Malone (signed from high school directly) and Julius Erving (undrafted because of the ABA merger), every other MVP winner was a top 5 draft pick. No, you tell teams not to tank.
James Harden was a 3rd pick. Steph Curry went 7th. In terms of pedigree, they have an inside track over Lowry as well. Irrelevant? Maybe! Interesting? Definitely, unless you suck. You don’t suck do you? Moving on.
2. HE PLAYS IN THE EASTERN CONFERENCE
Now this matters. When it comes to evaluating the best of the best, every minute factor is going to be weighed. Sadly for Lowry, a huge strike against him will be the fact that he gets to pad his stats against the dregs of the East, particularly in his own division. Having watched the majority of Raps game this season, I can say that competition doesn’t seem to matter; he lit up Chris Paul and the Clippers, went off in a loss against Damian Lillard and the Blazers and often looked like the only evenly-matched player on the floor in two losses to the Bulls this year. It’s not like Lowry is throwing up 40 point games against the 76ers and disappearing elsewhere. Still, it has to count against him and it will. Mainly because…
3. HIS MAIN COMPETITION ARE ALSO GUARDS – AND THEY PLAY IN THE WEST
It’s a weird NBA season, in terms of the MVP award. Unlike when Malone committed highway robbery of Jordan’s MVP award in 1996-97, LeBron James isn’t in the running this year, for the first time since he jumped ship to Miami. Kevin Durant, the reigning winner of the award, has missed too many games with injury to really be in consideration. So the two most transcendent players in the world are out of the running; not a common occurrence. Who does that leave? Well usually when you eliminate the league alpha dogs, it leaves the best players on the best teams in the league. Right now those teams are the Bulls, Raptors, Hawks and Wizards in the East and a host of teams in a tightly packed Western Conference. Lowry and John Wall are the only clear candidates from the East – but in the West, Steph Curry and James Harden are the clear front runners for the award (with sincere apologies to Marc Gasol).
In the eyes of many, it’s really a Curry vs. Harden duel at this point. Both have strong supporting casts but both are clearly the best players on their respective teams. Curry and Lowry have nearly identical counting stats but Curry has the star power. He’s transformed himself on the defensive end this season from pylon to… non-pylon? Which is something at least. His play-making is at an all-time high and he torched Lowry last week. He’s also the best player on the best team in the meat-grinder Western Conference.
Harden is a different animal. His defense has also improved from last seasons ‘ole’-fest, but he generally looks like the most lethal offensive player in the league on a given night. Just genuinely terrifying, at all times. He’s the leagues leading scorer in volume and in per game average and put the Rockets on his back when Dwight Howard missed extended time. The additions of Josh Smith and Corey Brewer appear to be costing him touches though, and if Houston (now fifth) continues to fall towards the back end of the playoffs, Curry might have the inside track here.
And that’s the thing. To bring things full circle, when it comes time to pick your All-NBA first team, Curry and Harden are getting the guard spots. It’s not even a debate. If Lowry can’t crack that team, how can he possibly win the MVP?
But that doesn’t mean we don’t love him for trying.