It is too early in the season to start ranking the MVP candidates. Or is it?
Hey, how many chances to you get to say the Grizzlies and Raptors are on course to meet in the NBA Finals? It would be like one big Canadian reunion. There will be Vancouver nostalgia columns run amok. (The Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001).
Well, if that is going to be the case, we may as well beat everyone to the punch. My favorite Vancouver story goes all the way back to 2000, early in the summer prior to the Sydney Olympics. I was sent to the far Western coast of Canada to cover the arrival of Yao Ming, who was playing for the Chinese Olympic team, had never been seen by 99 percent of the fans in North America and was scheduled to play the Canadian Olympic team in a friendly.
The Chinese and Canadian federations set up a casual meeting between the teams at a sports bar, and when the players arrived it was like being at a ninth grade dance. The Chinese players stayed on one side of the bar, the Canadians stayed on the other, and no one mingled until Steve Nash grabbed a pool cue and walked over to the Chinese players and made the eye gesture known worldwide to anyone who has spent some time poring over a felt covered table: “Anyone want to play 8-ball?”
Merriment was in short supply that night as the language barrier (and culture barrier) kept the billiard interactions to a minimum. The best moment of mirth that I can recall from that trip took place the next day at a homeless shelter in Vancouver as Nash and national team coach Jay Triano worked the room, introducing themselves to some of Canada’s most down and out citizens.
The men in that shelter may have been down on their luck, but they were not oblivious to the events of the day.
“Hey, Jay,” one toothless man piped up. “How are you going to stop Yao Ming? You’ve got no big guys!”
My last favorite Vancouver story took place in 1998, back when the NBA draft was held in a different city each year. The media corps was preparing for a night of revelry at a casino across the street from GM Place, the arena where the Grizzlies played, when word arrived that the Knicks had traded Charles Oakley to the Toronto Raptors for Marcus Camby.
I can still remember the look on the face of Mike Wise, then with the New York Times (before his career would take him to the Washington Post and now to BSPN, where he will be the token white guy beneath Jason Whitlock on the Black Grantland organizational flow chart.)
“Wait a minute,” Wise said. “The Knicks traded Charles Oakley? He is the heart and soul of the team.”
Wise took then -GM Ernie Grunfeld to task for the move, which would precipitate the eventual trade of Patrick Ewing to Seattle, and the Knicks moved into the Jeff Van Gundy era by trading all the players Van Gundy was most fond of.
Nobody won at blackjack that evening because Scott Soshnick of Bloomberg thought it was cool to continually hit on 15 when the dealer was showing a 6, and the Vancouver chapter of NBA basketball history soon came to a close. The Grizzlies moved to Memphis, the NBA abandoned a city that was on everyone’s top-three list when it came to travel, and the league’s last connection to Vancouver departed when Mike Bibby retired.
If your dad is a basketball fan, ask him about Bryant “Big Country” Reeves. That fellow was every bit as much responsible for the introduction of max contracts as was Kevin Garnett. The league shut down just a week after that 1998 draft and went into a lockout that was not resolved until the following January. When the lockout ended, Big Country was an even bigger country.
Camby ended up reaching the NBA Finals, along with Latrell Sprewell, who was acquired by the Knicks shortly after the lockout was settled. (Gotham favorite John Starks was dealt away in that deal.) Van Gundy brought both Camby and Sprewell off the bench and still made it to the Finals, ruining team president Dave Checketts’ plan to bring in Phil Jackson as the new coach. (Checketts interviewed Jackson as the playoffs were taking place, and Van Gundy learned about it as the Knicks were advancing through the postseason despite being the eighth seed).
So those are my favorite Vancouver stories, and they are relevant today because the Grizzlies are sitting atop the overall NBA standings at 10-1 entering Wednesday night’s games. They are being anchored by the center who will be the No. 1 free agent in the offseason, the guy Jackson will try to lure to New York while his fiancee, Jeanie Buss, tries to lure him to Los Angeles.
Wouldn’t it be something if the No.1 free agent was also the reigning MVP?
And with that, we bring you the first edition of our weekly MVP rankings.
1. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies: He has always been known as the lesser Gasol, sort of like Jeff to Stan in the Van Gundy family pecking order. He is averaging a pedestrian 17.6 points on 46 percent shooting, but more importantly he is anchoring the league’s No. 1 defense; the grit-and-grinders are holding opponents to 91.6 points per game. If Gasol stays with the Grizzlies after this season, he will get a deal better than the six-year, $65 million deal Reeves received before eating himself out of the league. But if Zach Randolph can start scoring (16.5 ppg) and shooting (.465) closer to his career numbers, Gasol could be supplanted as the team’s MVP.
2. Stephen Curry, Warriors: He is the best bargain in the NBA, one of the guys who will look back at themselves in a couple years and ask, “What on earth was I thinking when I signed that contract?” He is making $10.6 million this season, fourth-highest on the team behind David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. Next season, Klay Thompson will bump him to No. 5. Meantime, he is averaging 24.8 ppg, a shade ahead of Thompson, and is fifth in the NBA with 7.7 assists for the 8-2 ‘Dubs, who have the NBA’s second-ranked offense.
3. Anthony Davis, Pelicans: As long as the Pelicans keep themselves above .500 and relevant in the playoff race, he is going to be a fixture on this list. Third in the NBA in scoring (25.5 ppg), fourth in rebounding (11.4), first in blocks (3.9) and second in steals (2.3), he is a fantasy basketball monster who should be scooped up in daily leagues every time he plays. Too bad he is not playing tonight, because DraftKings has a monster contest with $15,000 going to the first-place finisher. Click here to enter. Why isn’t he higher than third? Because we value winning more than being a stat machine.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, Kings: They are the Kings of blowing big leads, as anyone who has followed them closely has seen. You can question the wisdom of locking up Rudy Gay for three more years, but this team has two cornerstones with which to go boldly into the next four seasons, and Cousins is going to be widely acclaimed as the best center in the NBA (yes, ahead of Dwight Howard and Nikola Vucevic) by the time the All-Star break arrives. Will he accomplish his goal of finishing the season with no more than five technical fouls? He has been whistled for two in the first 11 games, but one was rescinded.
5. Jimmy Butler, Bulls. Marquette bias? You could accuse me of that. But if you envisioned this guy being the leading scorer for a very strong Chicago Bulls team – whether or not Derrick Rose is healthy – you should be relocating to Las Vegas as soon as possible to capitalize before your powers of foresight begin to decline. As it stands, the Most Improved Player race is the only runaway as teams begin moving toward the quarter pole (yes, the season is already roughly one-eighth complete).
THE NEXT FIVE: Klay Thompson, Warriors; Kyle Lowry, Raptors; LeBron James, Cavs; James Harden, Rockets; LaMarcus Aldridge, Blazers.
Chris Sheridan, publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com, is an official NBA MVP voter. Follow him on Twitter.