Real MVP isn’t playing in this series
Like a good jewel inspector, the NBA playoffs indicate true value.
Value is the most elusive quantity to measure in the league. Just try to find a group of three who will give identical answers on who the most valuable player is, or even what constitutes value.
Well, in this Lakers-Phoenix Suns series we’ve learned why the league MVP wasn’t Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash.
Value is best measured in victories, and Bryant’s skills and scoring ability were barely enough to win 42 games in the regular season, and so far they’ve translated into losses in two postseason games.
This isn’t a matter of Bryant versus Raja Bell or even the multiple defenders the Suns send his way. These past couple of months have been a test of Bryant versus the game of basketball itself. He put a theory to the test, pushed the sport to its limits. The game shoved back and reasserted itself. Five, not one. The most telling stat in Game 2 could be found in the assists column: Suns 30, Lakers 16.
When Bryant is on it’s something to behold. No one else can make a 40- or 50-point night look as easy as ordering a movie on demand.
You’d have a much easier time reaching a consensus on who’s the best player in the league -- Bryant -- than who is the most valuable. Because what good are all of those points when they can’t get you to the second round of the playoffs?
Meanwhile, every time Leandro Barbosa blows by a Laker for a layup it takes a little bit away from Nash’s candidacy. Even though Nash has put up better numbers than he did while winning the MVP the last two years, the Suns are not as reliant upon him as they were before. In previous seasons, removing Nash from the lineup was the equivalent of pulling off the freeway onto a congested surface street.
Now, with Barbosa emerging as the league’s best sixth man, the Suns keep right on rolling even when Nash is doing his lying-on-the-sidelines-with-the-towel-pillows thing. Nash is still the guy who makes the Suns the Suns, but Barbosa has been the MVP of this series.
The playoffs reveal everything. The real stars, the pretenders, the fatal mismatches.
(Sometimes the playoffs can be a little too revealing. Did we really need to see a shirtless Reggie Evans counting the six-pack on his abdomen on TNT while George Karl addressed the Denver Nuggets in the pregame locker room Wednesday night?)
Hopefully, these playoffs will also reveal the full value of Shawn Marion. One of the reasons I’d like to see Phoenix advance to the NBA Finals (even though I don’t think it will happen) is that Marion will get some of his due. He’s a guy with superstar talent who does so many of the role player things for the Suns. He’s always lurking as a secondary defender on Bryant, ready to force Bryant into a tougher shot or a pass to a less-threatening teammate. Marion keeps rebounds alive with his long arms. He also doesn’t get enough credit for knowing how to play alongside Nash. Sometimes Marion even makes the guy who makes everybody else look good look good.
Take Phoenix’s first basket in Game 2. Nash got to the lane and spun. As Nash started to turn, Marion was beyond the three-point arc, but he sprinted toward the basket. Nash completed his revolution and jumped up. This summer, coaches at clinics across the country will admonish kids for leaving their feet without a clear goal in mind. But in this case, while Nash was up in the air, he spotted Marion rushing to the hoop past two defenders, and he left Marion a bounce pass right in front of the basket. Marion got a layup and a foul for a free throw.
Part of Bryant’s problem is his teammates still don’t know quite how to play with him. Jordan Farmar has started all of four games this season, after Phil Jackson finally had enough of Smush Parker. Because of injuries, Bryant and the rest of the guys in the current starting lineup -- Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and Kwame Brown -- played only 16 regular-season games together.
Before the series started Bryant said his scoring success would depend on his teammates, how well they set screens to get him loose or ran plays correctly to divert defenders or find open spaces. Wednesday, he said the Lakers never established a rhythm because of the constant lineup changes in the second half of the season, something that’s still being felt.
Bryant’s individual brilliance was enough for the Lakers to scrape together enough victories to make the playoffs, but now they look like “fodder,” as Phil Jackson feared.
What version of Bryant will we see in Game 3 tonight, the scorer or the facilitator?
“He just has to play the game and read what goes on in the ballgame,” Jackson said.
“I may just have to run him 48 minutes tomorrow. He may have to find his spots [to rest] on the floor rather than pick times to take him off the court.”
So it looks like the game plan calls for another round of Kobe or bust. That could mean plenty of entertainment value, but little of real worth.
J.A. Adande can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.