Tony Parker goes around and over Eric Bledsoe en route to another layup. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)
After a sensational nationally televised performance in a beat-'em-down win over the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night — an outing in which he not only scored a game-high 31 points on 12 for 16 shooting and dished seven assists without a turnover in just 28 minutes, but also did all that while completely outshining All-Star Game MVP and "best point guard in the world" title-holder Chris Paul — a lot of people are talking quite a bit about San Antonio Spurs triggerman Tony Parker. And they're saying a mouthful.
During halftime of Thursday's Spurs/Clippers game, TNT analyst (and "The Price is Right" enthusiast) Charles Barkley called Parker, not Paul, the "best point guard in the NBA," and his colleague Kenny Smith agreed. Barkley then, as he so often does, took things one step further.
"This guy — first of all, he should be the MVP," Barkley said. "Listen, LeBron [James] is the best player. Kevin Durant's probably a better player. But when we've been voting on the MVP the last 25 years, we gave it to the guy who had the best record on the best team. Tony Parker should be the MVP. [...] If they finish with the best record — because you think of all the time that [Tim] Duncan and my man [Manu] Ginobili have missed — this guy's unbelievable. And just because he's down in San Antonio with all those big old women, he don't get the credit and respect he deserves."
Setting aside Charles' estimation of the women of San Antonio — I've never been, I wouldn't know — his evaluation of Parker's performance for the Spurs, whose league-leading mark now sits at 44-12, four games clear of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the top spot in the Western Conference, is pretty remarkable. I mean, All-Star selections aside, Tony Parker never gets this kind of national pub. There's got to be something to this, right?
There's definitely something to it — I mean, Parker has been absolutely sensational this season, as The Point Forward's Rob Mahoney wrote three weeks ago. He's on track for the second-highest field-goal and 3-point percentages, and the best free-throw percentage, of his 12-year NBA career. He's taken on a more significant role in the Spurs' offense, posting his highest usage rate (percentage of his team's possessions ending him taking a shot or free throw, or turning it over) since 2008-09, while also turning the ball over on a smaller number of possessions than he has since that same year, meaning he's ending more possessions with field-goal or freebie attempts, which, as we just covered, he's converting as well as he ever has.
He's produced a career-high Player Efficiency Rating of 25, which ranks fourth in the NBA behind only James, Durant and Paul, and just ahead of bookend Duncan. He's on pace for the best True Shooting (which takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) and Effective Field Goal (which adjusts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers) percentages of his career, and he's assisting on a larger share of Spurs possessions while he's on the floor than ever before.
He's making just under two-thirds of his tries in the restricted area, his best mark since '05-'06; he's hitting nearly 48 percent from midrange, by far a career-best; and he's stroking it at a 44.2 percent clip on corner 3s, so crucial in the Spurs' offense, which is the best mark of his NBA life save for a 5-for-10 performance during the '05-'06 season. And while he's no great shakes as a defender, he's even improved in guarding isolation, post-up and spot-up situations over the past two seasons, and has earned his best ranking as an overall defender in years, according to play-charting data tracked by Synergy Sports Technology.
What I'm saying is, dude's amazing, and has consistently been so, night in and night out, throughout the season. For the past several seasons, Parker has been the engine that makes the Spurs go; this year, he's been even better, a supercharged three-liter DOHC V-6, pacing the Spurs to the NBA's fourth-most-efficient offensive attack, averaging 107.6 points per 100 possessions. (Of course, as the great Britt Robson of the Minnesota Post notes, the real story with the Spurs is their clamp-tightening on D, rising from 11th in points allowed per possession last season to third this year, according to NBA.com's stat tool. But still.) He is a brilliant talent about whom we do not speak enough; this is 100 percent accurate, can be proven using stats or eyeballs, and is not in dispute.
But he's not the 2012-13 Most Valuable Player.
You can't hang on the "he's not the best, but he means the most" argument when both James and Durant are using a larger share of their team's possessions and doing so more efficiently/productively; they are playing on an all-time great/seasons-for-the-ages-level, and Parker just isn't. There's no shame in that. It's a simple fact of the matter.
You also have an especially hard time arguing for Parker's absolutely essential, can't-live-without-him brilliance when we've seen, time and again, the Spurs succeed beautifully without their top-tier stars thanks to the near-peerless depth of their roster, the strength of Gregg Popovich's coaching and the implementation of a smooth, seamless offensive system that gets everybody involved and makes everybody dangerous.
That said, as Spurs blogger Jesse Blanchard notes at 48 Minutes of Hell, that system doesn't come into being if not for Parker:
The argument persists that Parker is a system point guard, and if there remains some truth to that, it fails to acknowledge that it is a system now built primarily around the constant pressure Parker places on a defense.
No longer just a talented scorer at the point guard position, Parker is a true point guard in every sense of the word. He probes for weaknesses, manipulating defenses like chess pieces with a look here or step there, creating open passing lanes for teammates to step into.
On their first two possessions of the game the Spurs ran some action to get Parker the ball near the top of the key, where Parker was enough of a threat to draw the entire defense’s attention while Duncan and Tiago Splitter cut in along the baseline for easy passes at the rim.
Parker was able to draw that attention because he has transformed himself into a reliable scoring threat from anywhere inside the 3-point line and extending beyond it in the corners, as he proved time and time again, hitting 5-of-7 from outside the paint.
Still in all, the larger argument — that people just sort of always choose the best player on the team with the best record — doesn't necessarily hold water. It didn't happen last year, when San Antonio finished on top, but LeBron won it. It did in 2010-11, when Derrick Rose bested Dwight Howard and LeBron, which is an argument I do not wish to revisit, but there are reasonable positions to be had on both sides. It did in 2008-09 and 2009-10, when LeBron won, but it should have, because he was the best player. It didn't in 2007-08, when Kobe Bryant won over Kevin Garnett, who won 66 games in his first season in Boston. The point being: It does happen, but it doesn't always happen. Excellence, especially when it's transcendent, should be rewarded, and to suggest that James and Durant aren't head-and-shoulders above the rest of the MVP crop, Parker and Paul included, suggests a level of argument-seeking and crap-stirring that doesn't really jive with actual analysis of who the most valuable player has been this season.
And here's the thing — that's OK. You can say that someone has been flat-out sensational, ridiculous and wonderful, and remarkably valuable to his team, without saying he has been the Most Valuable Player. You can appreciate a player's skills, contributions and leadership without saying he is the best and most primary force in the league. And saying that another player is that force doesn't mean that everyone else is a schlub by comparison. There's room for reason and nuance here. There's room for considering that all-time greats are greater than this-time greats, and not believing that means the latter is, like, crappy. If we open our minds and hearts enough, we can find room for all of the amazing talents performing on our chosen stage without denigrating the part played by those on a lower order of the firmament. It's OK. It really, really is.
Tony Parker isn't the 2012-13 NBA Most Valuable Player. That's a two-person race, and really, barring an injury or a catastrophic meltdown, it's a one-person race being run at remarkable speed and with remarkable grace by LeBron James. But Tony Parker is the heart and soul of arguably the best team in the league, and arguably its most breathtaking team to watch, and today — thanks to some overstepping comments made by some very influential talking heads — we're actually realizing it. I think that's a pretty good consolation prize, don't you?