Yglesias and the Least Valuable MVP

Posted on June 11, 2006 by


On June 7 Matthew Yglesias wrote a column for Slate.com, boldly entitled “Least Valuable MVP” where he made the following argument: “The conventional wisdom says that great players in general, and Nash in particular, make their teammates better. But in the case of the Mavericks, Nash made Nowitzki—the team's best player and his best friend—distinctly worse.”

The evidence Yglesias offers in support of this contention focused on scoring and rebounding.  Again, in his words, “…Dirk's scoring average has gone up five points since Nash left. Playing closer to the basket has also made him a better rebounder. A strong case can be made that Nowitzki, not the MVP Nash, has now emerged as the best player in the NBA.”

Let’s look a bit deeper at those numbers.  In 2003-04, the last year Nowitzki and Nash played together in Dallas, Nowitzki averaged per game, 21.8 points and 8.7 rebounds.  In 2004-05 those numbers for Nowitski improved to 26.1 and 9.7.  And this past season, the scoring rose to 26.6 while Nowitzki’s 9.0 rebounds per game, while a bit off from 2004-05, still surpassed what he did his last season playing with Nash. Just looking at these numbers it certainly looks like Nowitzki is better off without Nash. 

If we look at Wins Produced we see a similar story.  In 2003-04 Nowitzki produced 9.2 wins.  The next season, 2004-05, his production nearly doubled, rising to 17.2 Wins Produced.  This past season he was even better with 18.0 Wins Produced.  So again, Nash appears to make Nowitzki worse off.

The only problem with the argument is that Nash and Nowitzki weren’t a team for just one season.  Nash and Nowitzki became a full time duo in 2000-01.  In 1999-00, with Nash only playing 59 games and averaging less than thirty minutes per contest, Nowitzki produced a meager 4.1 wins.  The next season, despite playing only a handful of additional minutes, Nowitzki produced – with Nash by his side – 16 wins.  The next two seasons saw Nowitzki’s improvement continue.  In 2001-02 Nowitzki offered 16.5 wins.  In 2002-03, Nowitzki actually had his most productive season to date.  With Nash as a teammate, Nowitzki produced 19 wins. 

So when we look at all the stats and all the years, it does not look like Nash truly made Nowitzki worse.  Yes, 2003-04 was not a great year for Nowitzki.  And yes, he was able to play about as well without Nash as he did with him.  Still, it doesn't look like Nowitzki couldn’t play well with Nash in the same uniform.

What if we flip the story around and look at how Nash plays without Nowitzki?  From 2000-01 to 2003-04 Nash posted above average levels of productivity.  His wins production in these four seasons was 9.7, 11.0, 12.1, and 11.1 respectively.  On a per-minute basis Nash was consistently above average for his position.  With the Suns the past two seasons, though, Nash’s wins production improved to 16.1 wins in 2004-05 and 18.6 wins in 2005-06. In sum, it looks like one could make the argument that Nowitzki made Nash worse.

Well, these numbers don’t actually say that.  All we can see is that Nash is more productive with the Suns these past two seasons than he was with the Mavs the previous four campaigns.  Is his improvement caused by not playing with Nowitzki?  Is it because he likes playing with Shawn Marion?  Does Nash respond best to the dry desert heat of Arizona? 

One can tell any number of stories for why Nash is more productive in Phoenix.   As I have noted before, Wins Produced is about how productive a player has been, not about why a player was or was not productive.  Although we offer insights into the why question in The Wages of Wins, there is more to be done with respect to that question.

For today, here is what we can say about Nash and Nowitzki.  The data tells us that Nash is more productive in Phoenix.  The data also says that Nowitzki shouldn’t look back with regret on the days he played with his best friend. When we look at all the stats and all the years, one can't say that Nowitzki was worse off playing along side the player the media has named “Most Valuable Player.”

— DJ