I just spent two solid weeks figuring out where Jeremy Lin should be ranked in the annual "Who has the highest NBA trade value?" column. I asked my friends, coworkers and bosses. I asked NBA employees. I asked Knicks fans. I asked my Asian American friends, people dating Asian Americans, and anyone I knew named Jeremy. Heck, I even asked Jeremy Lin himself. Here was Jeremy's actual take.
"I'm hoping that I'm more valuable than the 467th best player in the league, and thankful if it happens because my trainer kept yelling '467!' every time I got tired during workouts!"
See? Even Jeremy doesn't really know. How can you assess the trade value of a rising star/walking sports movie/nine-figure cash cow/cultural icon? How can you ask, "What would it take for the Knicks to trade Jeremy Lin?" when the answer is, "Sorry, there's no f-ing way the Knicks would trade Jeremy Lin." And even then … would they ever in a million years trade Jeremy Lin? Would Jimmy Chitwood get traded? Would Rudy Ruettinger get traded? Would Roy Hobbs get traded? When you catch lightning in a bottle, you don't shake the bottle, take the cap off and hope it happens again.
NBA TRADE VALUE RULES
1. Salaries matter. Would you rather pay Kyrie Irving $5.1 million a year or Tony Parker $12.5 million?
2. Age matters. Would you rather have Dirk Nowitzki for the next five seasons or Blake Griffin for the next 15?
3. Pretend the league passed the following rule: For 24 hours, any player can be traded without cap ramifications but with luxury-tax and next-day-cap ramifications. If Team A tells Team B, "We'll trade you Player X for Player Y," would Team B make the deal?
4. Concentrate on degrees. I don't think the Bulls or Heat would make a Wade-Rose swap, but Miami would at least say, "Rose's available?" while Chicago would say, "There's no way we're trading Derrick for someone seven years older." That counts in the big scheme of things.
5. The list runs in reverse order. So if Rajon Rondo comes in at no. 15, players 1 through 14 are all players about whom Boston would say, "We hate giving up Rondo, but we definitely have to at least have a meeting and discuss this deal." And the Celtics wouldn't trade him straight-up for any player listed between nos. 16 and 50.
And so Jeremy Lin became the first player to defy the spirit of this column. I wrote it, anyway, only needing 12 viewings of John Tesh's "Roundball Rock" (the official Trade Value anthem) to get my confidence back. You rattled me, Jeremy Lin, but you didn't break me. As always, I spent three weeks crafting dozens of different lists, getting input from The Committee Who Shall Not Be Named, repeatedly getting into e-mail fights about things like, "You can't tell me that the Lakers wouldn't trade Andrew Bynum for Marc Gasol, you just can't!!!!!!!!" and "I would rather marinate my testicles in sulfuric acid than put Tyreke Evans on this list."
Here's who got bumped from last year's top 50 list: DeJuan Blair (no. 50 last year) had a spirited "who knows, maybe he can play 15 years with no ACLs!" campaign lose luster when Brandon Roy's no-cartilege bid disintegrated … Danny Granger (44) is the captain of the "Guys Paid Like Franchise Players Who Aren't Franchise Players" All-Stars … Kevin Martin (43) is like a bottle of scotch: It's more fun to regift him than to keep him … there are 65 million reasons why Nene (42) didn't make it … Luis Scola (41) hasn't been the same post-Veto (couldn't you say that about all of us?) … we might need to introduce Andrew Bogut (40) to Phoenix's training staff soon … David West (33) lost an ACL and Chris Paul … Lamar Odom (31) proved he wasn't kidding when he turned down Portland's lucrative free agent offer in 2010 by saying, "You don't understand, I need to live near the beach" … Carlos Boozer (29) spray-paints his own hairline … Kevin Garnett (28) looks like "The Ageless KG" some nights and "The Washed-Up KG" other nights … and Amar'e Stoudemire (20) is 27 months away from legally changing his name to "Amar'e's Expiring Contract."
One note before we get to this year's toughest omissions:1 Once upon a time, I could barely scrape together 40 good players for this column, as we found out when the 2006 edition pegged Shawn Livingston at no. 27. This year? I easily could have slapped together a top 60. The league hasn't been this loaded for 19 solid years. We're in a good place. Here are my toughest omissions from "least tough" to "toughest":
Taj Gibson: Making one-seventh as much as Boozer, only every time he comes in for Boozer, it's like subbing an ISDN line for a dial-up. How would Gibson fare playing 35 minutes a night? It's unclear. Stay tuned for "More Things That Will Be Answered When Chicago Amnesthizes Boozer This Summer" right after this.
Trevor Booker: Sorry, I have a weakness for him.
Kenneth Faried: My favorite sneaky-good rookie from a likably eclectic rookie class, narrowly edging Enes Kanter, Jan Vesely, Nik Vucevic and Isaiah "Jimmer This!" Thomas.2 Remember when Faried was advertised pre-draft as an energy rebounder/defender who gave you young legs off the bench, nothing more, nothing less? That's EXACTLY what he is. He's like Safe House — you saw the trailer, you knew what to expect, then you saw the movie and came out of it thinking, That's exactly 100 percent what I expected!
Brook Lopez: His rebounds-per-game dwindled from 8.7 (2010) to 5.9 (last year) to 3.6 (this year). I wouldn't care except for the part that, you know, he plays center. Dwight Howard averages more rebounds per quarter. Let's all stop pretending those two names can exist in the same trade. Thanks.3
JaVale McGee: My wife rescued a sweet (and historically ugly) dog named Olivia who always slinks around our house like she did something wrong. If you say her name in a mean way, she'll immediately collapse to the ground in a puddle. There's just too much residual damage from her pre-rescue days. I feel like we're getting close to that point with JaVale: He's been stuck on a rudderless lottery team for years, with damaging results — a shame because the league isn't exactly overflowing with big guys who protect the rim. JaVale could have easily been "The Rich Man's DeAndre Jordan" on the right team. Instead, he's destined to be "The Underappreciated Leaper With Raw Tools Who Can't Help Doing Two Supernaturally Dumb Things Per Month and Has Been a Godsend for Sports Blogs." Too bad.4
Nicolas Batum: The geek-friendly teams (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, etc.) have circled him for years, fully expecting him to become Battier 2.0 on the right contender. He's getting an offer sheet next July that will make you say, "Wait … WHAT?????" Be prepared.
Monta Ellis: He's underqualified to be one of the best two guys on a contender and overqualified to become a more polished version of Jason Terry in Dallas (an Irrational Confidence Guy Deluxe). Where does that leave us for someone making $11 million a year? I don't know.5
Tyreke Evans: When somebody makes a documentary about the 2011-12 Kings, it's either going to be called The Sacramento Black Holes, Tyreke Takes It Himself or Wide Open: The Chuck Hayes Story. And the trailer is definitely going to have Paul Westphal or Keith Smart screaming Norman Dale-style, "What did I tell you guys? I want no passes before every shot! You hear me? NO PASSES!"
Al Jefferson: Can't decide if Al's recent revelation, "Hey, it's taken me eight years to realize that if I pass the ball outside and guys hit open shots, it helps free me up, I guess better late than never" should move him higher or lower.
Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Rudy Gay: Quality starters getting paid like franchise guys. Deng was the toughest omission — not only is he playing splendidly, I can't remember the last time a radical haircut transformed my opinion of someone this dramatically. You might have to go back to Demi Moore in Ghost.
Joakim Noah: The bad news: Making $60 million through 2016 … and we have no idea if the Bulls can survive offensively playing Noah in crunch time in June. The good news: He's played better after a botched attempt to sabotage his own trade value in the Dwight Howard talks. The great news: It's really fun to Photoshop his hair on other NBA players. As we're going to prove in Part 2 of this column.
Ersan Ilyasova: We're omitting this kooky DNA hybrid of Ivan Drago, James Franco, Josh Hartnett, Kevin McHale, Lurch and That Guy From Boardwalk Empire only because he's an unrestricted free agent this summer, making him impossible to assess for trade value purposes (especially when he's making just $2.541 million this year). Ilsh6 will have to settle for running away with 2012's "Random Free Agent Pickup Who Single-handedly Swung Your Fantasy League's Title," "What the Hell Just Happened in This Box Score????" and "Seriously, WHAT THE $%#@ IS GOING ON HERE!!!!!!!!!" awards.
Tony Allen: The league's best perimeter defender (it's true) and contract bargain (two years, $6.3 million), as well as someone who improbably shed "Trick or Treat Tony" status (he's just Tony now) and made Celtics fans say things like, "I wish we had Tony Allen" (also true). Why I love the conceit of this column — there's no way Memphis would rather pay Iguodala or Deng $14 million a year than Tony Allen $3 million a year. None.
Nikola Pekovic: This year's toughest omission. I didn't want to go overboard about six legitimately inspired weeks … but jeez, when he's giving us 17 points, 10 rebounds every night, thriving on high screens and banging bodies while carrying himself with the same nasty, Eastern Euro intensity of one of the bad guys in Taken, and he's doing it for just $4.5 million this year and $4.8 million next year, what more do you need?7
On to the top 50 …
GROUP N: "I Wouldn't Take This Call If I Knew He Was Definitely Sticking Around"
50. Ryan Anderson
Remember my December column about the Salary Cap Fantasy League? Would you enjoy paying $2.24 million this season for a guy who plays 31 minutes a game, averages 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, makes 43 percent of his 3s (and takes 6.7 per game!) and 86 percent of his free throws and plays with the effectiveness of an obscenely rich man's Steve Novak? I thought so.8
49. Roy Hibbert
Like Anderson, a restricted free agent next summer. I love paying Roy Hibbert $2.59 million this year. I would not love paying Roy Hibbert $13 million next year.
48. Josh Smith
The original JWOWW needs a new team, new fans and a creative point guard who understands his fundamental need to slam home alley-oops with the sustained fury of a pregnant Jessica Simpson housing a box of doughnuts. Did you know the Hawks are paying $46 million to three guys next year (Smith, Al Horford and Joe Johnson)? See where I'm going with this? TRADE!!!!!!!!!
Only one problem: Josh Smith trades never seem to work. Who says no to Smith for Brook Lopez and Memo Okur's Expiring Deal? (Answer: The Hawks.) Who says no to Pau Gasol for Josh Smith, Tracy McGrady and Kirk Hinrich? (Answer: The Lakers.) Who says no to Atlanta saving $20 million next season by dealing Smith and Marvin Williams to Cleveland for Antawn Jamison's expiring contract? (Answer: The Hawks. But they definitely had a two-hour meeting about it.) What about the same Smith/Williams package for KG's expiring deal? (Answer: Probably Boston … if only because Danny Ainge took a designer drug that makes him think he can sign Dwight Howard this summer.) Who says no to a "Derrick Williams and the Anthony Randolph/Anthony Tolliver expirings for Josh Smith" swap? (Answer: Minnesota. But you know who says yes? YouTube!!! Rubio teamed up with Josh Smith????) There's never been a player thrown into more failed Trade Machine deals than Josh Smith.
GROUP M: "Sorry We're Being Irrational, It's Just That We Don't Want Him to Come Back and Haunt Us"
47. Derrick Favors
46. Evan Turner
Let's see … Philly needs to get bigger … Utah needs to get better on the perimeter … both teams have talented no. 2 overall picks who aren't playing enough … both teams are a little too attached to those guys … the Trade Machine approves … (can't we just call this one in????)
45. Eric Gordon
Would you trade Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Lamar Odom and New York's 2012 no. 1 pick (probably 21st overall) for Gordon, Al Farouq Aminu and Minnesota's 2012 no. 1 pick (probably 19th overall)? Sure … if you were intentionally trying to suck all kinds of suck. Stay classy, David Stern.9
GROUP L: "Unsung Heroes With Favorable Contracts"
44. Ty Lawson
43. Paul Millsap
Everyone pounded the "Lawson is underrated!!!!" angle so violently that he became slightly overrated for someone who gives a fringe playoff team a 16-7 with 47/32/81 shooting splits and a couple of look-how-freaking-fast-he-is highlights per game. Just don't expect Millsap to give up that "So Underrated He's Slightly Overrated" belt anytime soon — not when he's averaging a 15-9 every game, making big shots for an overachieving team, and wielding a favorable contract ($16.4 million total through next season) and even more favorable PER ranking (this year: 16th overall). He's called "The Underrated Paul Millsap" pretty much as a rule at this point. All of this worries me — once you become overrated for being underrated, bad things ensue. Just ask Ben Wallace (overpaid by Chicago, never the same) and David West (blew out his knee). Tread carefully, Paul Millsap.
42. Danilo Gallinari
Every Knicks fan just grunted out loud, stared sadly at the screen for a few seconds, then thought back fondly to the MSG announcer yelling "Danilo Gallinarrrrrrrrrri!" with his fake Italian accent after a Gallinari 3. They had a weakness for Gallo, the same way I have a weakness for any news stories about serial killers or point shaving scandals. If a serial killer ever shaved points, it would be all over — I wouldn't be able to function. Wait, where were we?
41. Tyson Chandler10
40. Anderson Varejao
I'd rather have Chandler, but his contract (four years, $55.4 million) and facial hair (that goofy Fidel Castro look) isn't nearly as favorable as Varejao's contract (four years, $34.8 million) and haircut (the throwback Sideshow Bob look). Of course …
39. Marcin Gortat
Paying just $21.7 million through 2014 for a true center averaging a 16-11 with 56 percent shooting? Sign me up.11 This had a chance to become Otis Smith's shrewdest signing ever, only he messed it up by flipping Gortat into $58.8 million of Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson. Otis Smith, everybody! He's the Reverse Black Friday — instead of everything being 50 percent off, it's 220 percent on.
38. Kyle Lowry
Killer value ($17.5 million total through 2014) for a quality point guard (16-7-5, 39 percent 3FG, elite defense). Let's have a round of applause for Dork Elvis — he basically traded Carl Landry, Rafer Alston, Aaron Brooks, a washed-up Tracy McGrady and Vassilis Spanoulis12 for Lowry, Martin, Scola, Dragic, Jordan Hill, the no. 23 pick in 2011 and New York's 2012 no. 1 pick. Also, did you know Houston is the only above-.500 team without a lottery pick in its nine-man rotation (much less starting for it)?
Bill lemme know what else you need or if this paragraph will suffice. Good seeing you in Boston. Thanks, Daryl.
(Whoops, I forgot to take that last part out. Sorry about that.)
GROUP K: "Sorry, It's Been Crazy Around Here … Actually, Can I Call You Back?"
37. Zach Randolph
Let's go inside the Grizzlies' war room …
Chris Wallace: "Should we quietly shop Z-Bo when he comes back from his knee injury?"
Assistant GM no. 1 [nodding]: "We're 22-12 without him."
Wallace: "And we don't want to pay Z-Bo, Gay, Conley and Gasol a combined $224.2 million through 2015 — "
Assistant GM no. 2: "Hold on, hold on … are you crazy? The five best players in last year's playoffs were LeBron, Dirk, Wade, Durant and Z-Bo! If he's even 80 percent back this spring, we can beat anyone in the West. We're a matchup nightmare! NOBODY WANTS TO PLAY US!13
[Everyone falls silent.]
Wallace: "You're right, let's ride him this spring, make a run at the title and shop him this summer. Anything else?"
Assistant GM no. 2: "Yeah, the league office called — they said that, no matter what happens this season, you're still ineligible to win 'Executive of the Year' because you picked Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden and Ricky Rubio."
36. Steve Nash
I don't blame the Suns anymore. I blame Nash. I think he's afraid to get traded. I think he likes toiling away on mediocre teams, playing that martyr role and having everyone feel sorry for him. Poor Steve Nash! Look what the Suns did to him! We have to get Nash out of there! #freestevenash Maybe he doesn't want the pressure of playing in the playoffs anymore. Maybe he'd rather bang out meaningless regular seasons, go traveling during the playoffs and save himself two months of wear and tear. Maybe he's hiding behind this whole "leaders don't sell out their teammates by asking for a trade" thing. Maybe he's just being a coward.
(By the way, I don't believe any of this — I just wanted to use a little reverse psychology to get Nash to ask for a trade because Phoenix is obviously too cowardly to accommodate him. I'm at wit's end. Don't you want him in the playoffs?)
35. Stephen Curry
Fell 15 spots from last year's list purely for "All right, what's really going on with Curry's right ankle?" reasons. That's one of the top-five conversation topics in NBA circles right now, along with "Why do the players hate Rondo so much?," "What are you hearing about Dwight?," "What are the Lakers going to do?" and "Did we ever figure out why Al Jefferson has a 38-year-old girlfriend????" So what's the answer? Is this a potential Grant Hill situation? Do the Warriors have the worst trainer/medical situation on the planet? Is Nike slipping? Are Curry's ankles made of papier-mâché? If there was a pay-per-view special of Curry getting an MRI on his right ankle, followed by Phoenix's medical staff breaking down the results, I think I'd pay $49.99 to watch it.
The good news for Warriors fans: Their team made a $500 million mistake by choosing Charles Jenkins over Jeremy Lin on December 8 (it's true, look it up), then wasted its amnesty on $4 million of Charlie Bell so they could overpay DeAndre Jordan with an offer sheet (didn't work), leaving them stuck with Andris "Why Didn't You Amnesthize and Put Me Out of My Own Misery????" Biedrins (owed $9 million each of the next two years) and little cap flexibility this summer. Oh, wait, that's horrible news. Speaking of Linsanity …
GROUP J: "We'll Consider It If You Throw in 500 Million Dollars"
34. Jeremy Lin
This feels about right. It's certainly better than being ranked between Sean Marks and Zabian Dowdell.
GROUP I: "The Young Guns"
33. James Harden
Even if it's about eight spots too high, I'm using this year's "I Know This Is Weird, I Just Like Him" immunity idol on him.14 Just know that, as a Celtics fan, it's hard to watch Harden without thinking of the days before the Perkins/Green trade, when Sam Presti sucked Danny Ainge in with the old, "I know we were talking about Harden for Perkins all week, and I know you were banking on the deal happening, and I know you already cleared the deal from your end with Doc and everyone else, but the more I'm thinking about it, I just can't do it … what about Jeff Green?" move. A Boston buddy of mine described it perfectly: It was like Costco drawing you to the store with a "50 Percent Off All Televisions!" sign, then picking out a state-of-the-art TV and going to pay, only to have them tell you, "No, no, that deal only counts for last year's models." Only at that point, you're already in the store and ready to buy something. Only bad things can happen after that.
(One silver lining: I pull this move on my wife all the time. Honey, I know we said we were getting dressed up and going to dinner on Sunday night, and I know you were banking on it, but I just can't do it … what about going to the Clippers-Warriors instead?")
32. Mystery Player A
Hold this thought until Part Two.
The 12 most cap-appealing NBA contracts that aren't rookie deals or expiring deals:
1. Tony Allen: 2 years, $6.45 million
2. Paul Millsap: 2 years, $16.7 million
3. Marcin Gortat: 3 years, $21.8 million
4. Kyle Lowry: 3 years, $17.5 million
5. Nikola Pekovic: 2 years, $9.3 million
6. Rajon Rondo: 4 years, $45 million
7. Tony Parker: 4 years, $50 million
8. Anderson Varejao: 4 years, $34.8 million
9. Josh Smith: 2 years, $25.6 million
10. Sam Dalembert: 2 years, $13.6 million
11. Udonis Haslem: 4 years, $16.8 million
12. Brandon Bass: 2 years, $8.5 million
31. Derrick Williams
Remember when the Celtics panic-traded rookies Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson for immediate help, then everyone collectively realized you shouldn't trade lottery picks after slow starts? That mind-set wavered when struggling top-six picks like Darko Milicic, Jonny Flynn, Wesley Johnson and Thabeet weren't traded in time and lost their value, causing some teams to simultaneously think last month, Maybe the Timberwolves will be dumb enough to give up on Derrick Williams! and KAHHHHHHHHHHHHHN!!!!!!! Nope. Not after this box score happened.15
30. Hasheem Thabeet
30. John Wall
As you know, I'm the longtime chairman of the "Is He a Point Guard or Not?" committee. (It's kind of like how Tip O'Neill was the Speaker of the House for all those years — you never knew how it happened, just that it was.) My verdict on Wall: He's a breathtaking athlete who has little to no idea how to run a team, lead his guys, make teammates better, ride hot hands, control the tempo of a game or do anything else that, say, Chris Paul does on a nightly basis. It's also a terrible sign that, for two straight years, Wall hasn't affected Washington's win-loss record really at all.16 Then again, could there have been a worse situation for a young point guard than the post-Arenas Blatche/McGee/Saunders Wizards? I wouldn't trade him … but I wouldn't trade for him, either. To be continued.
Hold on, it's time for a tangent: During Dorkapalooza 2012 in Boston last weekend, Seattle Sounders owner Drew Carey mentioned his favorite brainstorm, followed by me being practically paralyzed with idea envy. The idea? Carey wants to have Sounders fans vote for his team's president every four years. You know, like a presidential election. Is that brilliant or what? If there hadn't been 2,000 witnesses, I would have Zuckerberged the idea for myself. I just love it.
Anyway, we know the Wizards are hiring a new GM this summer; we know owner Ted Leonsis loves thinking outside the box; and we know the Wizards have no chance of being relevant in a "getting Kornheiser and Wilbon talking about them in the first five minutes of 'PTI'" kind of way unless they have another gun incident or JaVale McGee enters a game without shorts (which might happen, don't rule it out). Can you think of a better NBA team to say, "Screw it, let's have our fans vote for our team's GM every four years"? Why not? How would this NOT become one of the biggest sports stories of the year? And should I hire a campaign manager right now to be safe?
29. Paul George
28. Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka
The best stage for a rising young star: That "new car smell" phase when you haven't been paid big money yet (but it's coming), you go for too much in every fantasy auction, your rookie cards are worth twice as much as they should be, you're measured by your potential (not the actual results), everyone remembers your good games/moments (and not your bad games/moments), you're playing in the right situation for the right team, you're undeniably overvalued … only nobody cares, because you'll have these moments/sequences/games that make people say, "That dude is GOING places."
27. Al Horford
[Cut to Al Horford nodding wistfully.]
GROUP H: "Thanks Anyway, But He Should Probably Retire With Us (and It Would Be Bad Karma If He Didn't)"
26. Tim Duncan
25. Manu Ginobili
24. Paul Pierce
The inherent flaw of this column: Some guys aren't getting traded for the same reason that you wouldn't trade your kids, your dog or your spouse. [Thinking.] You're right, some people would trade their kids, dog or spouse.1 But once you win a title with someone, you can't just callously cut ties with them. Here's a good example of why I'm right …
Let's say Indiana offered Paul George straight up for Pierce — something that's actually conceivable because Indiana is $14 million under the cap right now (and could contend this spring with a short-term Pierce/George upgrade). You're running the Celtics. That trade saves you $12.9 million plus another $8.9 million in luxury tax money in 2012, then puts you $38 million under the cap heading into the 2012-13 season. It doesn't totally ruin this year's season and makes you better defensively. It gives you two-thirds of a pretty sweet under-27 core: Rondo and George. Really, it's a logical deal except you'd be crapping on a future Hall of Famer who just gave you 13 great years, wanted to retire with Boston and planned on going down as one of the six or seven best Celtics ever. That's why Boston would say no, just like the Colts would say no if they had a chance to release Peyton Manning and build around Andrew Luck.
(Hey, wait a second … )
GROUP G: "Too Young, Too Cheap, Too Good … Stop Calling Me"
23. Ricky Rubio
Poor Ricky played himself out of the top 15 with a ghastly shooting slump (he's down to 35.5 percent shooting for the season) that mushroomed these past eight games (17-for-69), a swoon that would feel like a bigger deal if Jason Kidd didn't shoot 38 percent for his first three seasons. Special players figure it out. Rubio sees the floor differently. He's always a half-step ahead of everyone else, especially defensively. His unselfishness is genuinely infectious in a Bird/Magic kind of way; along with Rick Adelman (it's 1999 Sacramento all over again for him), that's the biggest reason why the Timberwolves have morphed into the league's best passing team. And you can't deny his effect on Nikola Pekovic (a stiff last season) and Kevin Love (now a franchise guy). Watch the Wolves every week and you can't help but mutter, "Those guys look like they're having fun." Yeah, because it's fun to play basketball with Rubio and Love when Adelman is coaching you.
Of course, you can pick apart Rubio's "impact" pretty easily with advanced stats, which actually makes me feel better about basketball as a whole. I'm glad Ricky Rubio can be picked apart. I'm glad he's the 33rd best point guard in PER right now. That reinforces everything I believed about those numbers in the first place. Sometimes, they're going to be a little … off. They should be used to accentuate what we're watching, not to single-handedly shape opinions or beliefs. You can't fully measure how teammates relate to one another and fit in with each other; even the five-man plus/minus stat (which I like) only goes so far. We'll always have players and teams defying their metrics. Kyrie Irving is better than Ricky Rubio — we can all agree, right? — but I'm not sure this particular Timberwolves team would be better with Kyrie Irving. That's why I love basketball. It doesn't always make sense. And by the way …
A. Minnesota is going to make the playoffs unless somebody gets hurt.
B. Rubio could shoot 30 percent the rest of the way and still be the second-biggest reason it happened. So there.2
22. Mystery Player B
All right, release that thought (from Mystery Player A, ranked no. 32 in Part 1). Contrast these 2011-12 numbers …
Mystery Player A: 29.4 MPG, 16.2 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.2 BPG, 43% FG, 73% FT, 21 PER
Mystery Player B: 32.7 MPG, 16.4 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.6 BPG, 50% FG, 79% FT, 23 PER
Slight edge to Player B, right?
OK, so let's say Player B is a normal guy … and Player A is an unpredictable loose cannon who may or may not have just gotten his first coach fired a few weeks ago. Now which guy are you taking?
Here's the point: Boogie Cousins gets more hype than Greg Monroe; he got drafted two picks ahead of him; his upside seems like it should be higher; he's more fun to follow; he has a better nickname; and he's always going to seem a little more overpowering when he has it going. In the Grantland headquarters, we've probably had 20 Boogie Cousins conversations and 135 moments where Jay Kang cackled, "I LOVE BOOGIE!!!!" I don't remember anyone discussing Greg Monroe even once. I'm not even sure half our staff knows what he looks like. Just know that Sacramento would flip Boogie for Monroe in a cocaine heartbeat … and if the roles were reversed, Detroit would hang up.
GROUP F: "I'm Hanging Up and Calling You Back From a Pay Phone"
21. Andrew Bynum
Has there ever been a better "We'd be selling high if we traded him right now" example? From 2007 through 2011, Bynum played 35, 50, 65 and 54 games. Miraculously, he's played 35 consecutive games this season … in a lockout-shortened season, no less! We keep hearing that Jimmy Dolan 2.0 (a.k.a. Jimmy Buss)3 won't trade Bynum because that's his guy, but man, wouldn't it make sense to flip a healthy-right-now-at-this-moment Bynum for a point guard and/or multiple pieces for one last three-year run behind Kobe and Gasol? What am I missing? Could you get Lowry, Chase Budinger and Luis Scola for him? What about Nash and Gortat? What about Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert? What about Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Jeff Teague? What about Elton Brand, Nik Vucevic and Evan Turner for Bynum and cap fodder? What about … ?
20. Deron Williams
Yeah, what about Deron Williams??? Isn't "Bynum and Steve Blake for Deron and Johan Petro" the single most logical basketball trade any two teams could make right now? Why aren't the Nets frantically trying to trade Williams for a proven name instead of crossing their fingers for the Dwight/Deron era? Why does Williams seem so content to waste his prime running plays for Lakers castoffs and Kardashian castoffs? Why would he ever in a million years re-sign with the Nets unless he thought someone else was coming? Is someone else coming? Why are NBA insiders equally adamant that (a) Dwight and Deron are going to Dallas, and (b) Dwight and Deron are going to Brooklyn? Why does Jay-Z hold so much sway over this situation when he owns 1 percent more of the Nets than you do? Who's going to root for the Brooklyn Nets when we just proved with Linsanity yet again that everyone in New York loves the Knicks? What's going on here? Seriously, what's going on here? Why can't I stop asking questions? Could someone slap me in the back of the head like a wonky TV screen?
19. Carmelo Anthony
Dear New York Knicks fans,
I know you're a little testy right now because Linsanity was so much fun, and now it's not as much fun. I know it's easy to redirect your anger and angst at someone whose name rhymes with "Bardello." Just remember …
A. Your team is struggling because its schedule got tougher post-Linsanity, and because you have a floating bull's-eye on you right now (not because 'Melo came back).
B. You might want to give one of the best pure scorers of the last 20 years a couple more weeks adjusting to TWO new point guards without any real practice time before deciding this situation can't be redeemed (especially when those two point guards are a de facto rookie and someone coming off back surgery who hasn't been relevant in three years).
C. Ask Portland fans what they think of Ray Felton. Ask Denver fans what they think of Timofey Mozgov. You basically acquired Carmelo and the cap space to sign Tyson Chandler for Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.4 I'm pretty sure ANYONE ON THE F-ING PLANET would make that trade again.
D. You're focusing your frustrations on 'Melo because it allows you to avoid the elephant in the room … you know, Amar'e's uninsured/un-amnesty-able/cap-killing contract ($83 million through 2015), his general doughiness, his egregiously awful defense and the fact that he seems a half-step slow permanently. None of this is Carmelo's fault.
E. I went to Sunday's nationally televised Knicks-Celtics game in Boston. Carmelo made what seemed to be the clinching basket; Pierce made a 3 to tie; then Carmelo had a chance to win the game in regulation. As 'Melo was getting off the shot, everyone in the building had a collective slow-motion heart attack. Noooooooooooooooooo! We all thought that shot was going in. In my opinion, seven 2012 players make opposing fans crap their pants in a big moment: Kobe, Wade, Durant, Rose, Dirk, Carmelo … and just on reputation alone, Ray Allen. If you employ one of those players, you have a better chance of winning the title than everyone else. That's the way basketball works. Everything slows down, the pressure turns suffocating, games swing on one or two possessions, and playoff series hinge on two questions: "Can you get a stop when it matters?" and "Can you get two points when it matters?" You have the second question covered thanks to Carmelo. You need to work on the first question. In short, I think you should give this a few more weeks. You go 10-deep. Your team is scary. Take a deep breath and enjoy the ride … and remember, five years ago, the most riveting Knicks-related story you were following was a sexual-harrassment suit.
President of the "I Still Think Carmelo Can Work in New York" Club5
GROUP E: "You Realize We Could Make the Finals With Him, Right?"
18. Chris Bosh
Someone Who Knows Things told me that — dating back to last summer — Miami's Micky Arison wouldn't even discuss a Howard/Bosh trade with Orlando, which is why you never hear Miami's name mentioned as a possible Dwight destination (and why Dwight conspicuously left them off his trade list). I thought that was interesting. Of course, Chris Bosh isn't THAT good … and you know how much I love conspiracies … and you know I'll always believe to my dying day that LeBron/Wade/Bosh to Miami was decided weeks and maybe even months before The Decision happened (which certainly explains why the 2010 Heat threw away their season for cap space under the "wishful" thinking that Wade would "hopefully" come back and "maybe" recruit some help) … and if that's true, and Bosh was in on it all along and knew where the bodies were buried, wouldn't you be afraid to trade that guy?
(Just nod "yes" so we can move on. Thanks.)6
17. Pau Gasol
This is weird, so bear with me. Somehow, Pau's trade value has become underrated. After the Lakers nearly flipped him for Chris Paul in December, the "they'd never trade Pau" seal was broken and Pau became fair game for any and every trade rumor. Just because they tried to swap him for one of the league's 10 best players — smartly, by the way — doesn't mean they stuck him on Craigslist for the rest of the season. He's still the most skilled offensive big man in basketball and he's only 31. You know you can win a title if he's your second-best player. You know he's one of the few elite guys who can coexist with Kobe. Why trade someone like that? And also, why do I keep giving the Lakers advice? The more I'm thinking about it, trade Pau and keep Bynum — he's made of solid oak!
16. Tony Parker
That whole week of talking heads saying, "I'll tell you who the MVP is right now, it's Tony Parker!" was patently absurd and I'm not dignifying it. If you don't think LeBron is the league's MVP and best regular-season player, I don't know what to tell you — apparently your League Pass is broken. A more interesting angle: Do the Spurs have a Hall of Fame backcourt right now?
You could make a solid case that — factoring in rings (six total for Ginobili and Parker), winning percentage (in the .600s every year), playoff moments (plentiful), All-Star Games (six combined), the international thing (Parker is the best European guard ever; Ginobili is the best South American guard ever),7 styles (each has a couldn't-possibly-be-replicated offensive game), and the fact that both guys aren't close to being done yet (especially Parker) — both guys are headed for Springfield someday. Current backcourts in the Hall of Fame: Cousy/Sharman, Wanzer/Davies, the Jones boys, West/Goodrich, Monroe/Frazier, Isiah/Dumars … and we're done.
Group D: "Jeez, I Don't Know … We Have Him at Such a Good Price Right Now … "
15. Rajon Rondo
Hold on, I have to climb to the highest building in Los Angeles so I can scream this as loudly as I can in all caps: "THE CELTICS AREN'T PANIC-TRADING RAJON RONDO!!!!!!! IT'S NOT HAPPENING!!!! THEY HAVE ONLY TRIED TO TRADE HIM ONE TIME — FOR CHRIS PAUL, ONE OF THE BEST 10 PLAYERS IN THE LEAGUE!!!!! THEY HAVE NO INTEREST IN TRADING A DOLLAR FOR TWO 50-CENT PIECES!!! STOP SAYING OTHERWISE, PEOPLE WHO WRITE/SAY THINGS ABOUT BASKETBALL FOR A LIVING! IF THEY CAN'T GET A BLUE-CHIPPER FOR HIM, THEY ARE KEEPING HIM! MARK MY WORDS!!!!"
The biggest reason why Boston won't trade Rondo: his contract. Four years remaining, $45 million? That's highway robbery.
The second-biggest reason: On TV a few weeks ago, Chris Webber said something that made me say, "I wish I had thought of that first."8 They were talking about trades, and C-Webb pointed out that championship teams are always stubborn. In other words, instead of caving to the whims of their fans, the pressure of the media, the ebbs and flows of a season (or even someone's career) or especially conventional wisdom, they say to themselves, "Screw this, I know what I have, I'm sticking with it."
That's an awesome point. MJ's Bulls always resisted the urge to trade Pippen. Same for the Mavericks (Dirk), Lakers (Kobe), the Celtics (Pierce), Rockets (Hakeem), Lakers (Kareem)9 and even some lesser examples (the Spurs and Tony Parker circa 2010, the Sixers and Allen Iverson circa 2000, etc.). On the flip side, think of the teams who caved and dealt a signature player: Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Charles Barkley, Elvin Hayes, Jason Kidd, Pau Gasol, Dennis Johnson, Moses Malone, Alonzo Mourning, even C-Webb … for every Stephon Marbury or Bob McAdoo who doesn't haunt their old team, there are many more Barkley-like examples when the team wasn't stubborn enough to say, "No!!!!!" If we've learned anything from NBA history, it's that you should always be extremely wary about trading a blue-chipper without getting a blue-chipper back.
In Rondo's case, he's been playing in Boston just long enough that every Celtics fan can't help but pick apart his game … and yes, I include myself. I have flip-flopped on Rondo more than any sports issue maybe ever. Shit, I might change my mind again before the end of this paragraph. He can't shoot. He's terrified to get fouled — repeat: terrified — which changes how he plays in crunch time (he contorts his body as he's shooting layups to avoid contact). He's been described as "mercurial," "moody," and "an outright dick" behind the scenes. He's also been described as incredibly smart/astute, to the point that nobody would be surprised if he ran his own NBA team someday. He's also mired in a fairly thankless situation, playing on an aging contender with veterans who can't keep up with him; if they kept a statistic for "one-man fast breaks," he'd lead the league.
Don't underestimate the whole Theo Epstein/Larry Lucchino dynamic here; for years and years, Rondo was the "kid," the little brother, the one Pierce, Allen and Garnett teased and bossed around. Remember in Goodfellas when Tommy (Joe Pesci's character) snapped because his former boss kept telling him to go get his shinebox? It wasn't just the comment, it was the lack of respect festering behind it. Tommy knew that, to his old boss, he'd always be the loser who shined his shoes. It bugged him. That's why he flipped out. That's also why Theo left the Red Sox in 2005, and that's the biggest reason why Rondo has such a prickly relationship with Pierce, Allen and Garnett. They knew him when he was 20 years old, when he was holding that shinebox for them. You don't just flip a switch and stop thinking about someone that way.
There's just a lot going on. It's complicated. That's why "Should we trade Rondo?" dominated 70 percent of my conversations in Orlando (All-Star) and Boston (Sloan); I couldn't hash out my own feelings until stumbling across that C-Webb comment. Who knew Chris Webber (traded three times) would emerge as the Yoda of this situation? He's right. It's in Boston's best interests to be stubborn here … and I think Danny Ainge knows that better than anyone. With trade rumors swirling before a nationally televised game last Sunday, Rondo unleashed the "full car wash" package: an 18-17-20 box score that only J-Kidd and Oscar in their primes could have replicated, along with just enough contorting-his-body-to-avoid-contact missed layups to make us shake our heads and say, "Damn, he could have had a 30-20-20." Just know that everyone walked out of that building saying, "We are NOT trading Rondo." Which is exactly where we should have been all along.
(Well, unless you could get one of these next 14 guys.)
14. LaMarcus Aldridge
Here's what you're getting: 21 points and eight rebounds a night, decent defense, and someone who needs to be double-teamed (when he's feeling it) at an extremely fair price. You argue he's the most properly paid player in the league: $12.87 million this year; then $14 million, $15.1 million and $16.26 million. And on that note, I'm mailing in the rest of this paragraph just like the Blazers mailed in the 2011-12 season.
13. Marc Gasol
The reason why I stuck him higher than Aldridge, Gasol and Bosh: defense. He's the best all-around player of the four. Always in the right spot, fun to play with, doesn't need the ball too much … I mean, Memphis just rolled off a 22-12 stretch in a brutal conference with Gasol as their only reliable rebounder/defender. And he's only 27. And he's properly paid with a contract that seems semi-preposterous on paper (four years, $57 million) unless you're watching what he does every night. I am a fan.10
That reminds me: We'll remember 2012 as the year Eli Manning became the best QB in football, two Clippers started in the NBA All-Star Game, Jeremy Lin saved the Knicks, Tim Tebow won an NFL playoff game with an 80-yard touchdown pass, Marc Gasol passed Pau Gasol in the Trade Value column, and David Kahn got a contract extension … and it's not even April yet. The Mayans are having the best "Nobody believed in us!" season ever.
GROUP C: "Lemme Save You Some Time: N-O."
12. Russell Westbrook
11. Kyrie Irving11
A pure financial decision: I'd rather pay Irving $16.1 million from 2012 through 2014 than Westbrook twice as much. Also, if you're scoring at home, I moved past the "deeply regretting ever writing that Cleveland would regret passing on Derrick Williams for Irving" stage and entered the "Maybe I didn't go far enough when I said Kyrie was Kevin Johnson 2.0" stage about three weeks ago. What a gem. Could Cleveland really end up with Kyrie Irving AND Robert Griffin III?
(Add this to the list of kooky things happening in 2012: God no longer hates Cleveland.)
GROUP B: "Only If They Asked to Leave"
10. Dirk Nowitzki
When we taped the B.S. Report with him in Orlando, a beaming Dirk showed up and — as my Grantland colleague Dave Jacoby described it — sat down and basically threw his dick on the table. That "I'm the Finals MVP, we won the title, I came through, I don't have to spend the rest of my life wondering about what-ifs and having everyone pick my career apart" mind-set was practically oozing from his pores.
I can't remember another NBA superstar having his personality transformed by an NBA title; if it happened with, say, Hakeem Olajuwon, I don't remember reading about it. Dirk's next few years will be interesting for historical purposes: In my basketball book, I ranked Bird, Duncan, Havlicek, Baylor, Erving, Pettit, Malone and Barkley as the greatest forwards of all time (in that order). Dirk already leapfrogged the last three; he's about to jump the next three; and if that happens, suddenly he's one of the best 12 or 13 players of all time by any calculation. He's also the greatest international basketball player ever — and actually, you could argue that the distance between Dirk and the next best foreign guy (Gasol, Ginobili) is more like a chasm.12
(Well, unless you count Steve Nash. And I don't. In my opinion, Canada is no less of a foreign country than Texas is. Seriously, who do you have more in common with — Canadians or Texans? I'd trade Texas for Canada in a heartbeat even if the Intercontinental Trade Machine keeps rejecting it.)
9. Kobe Bryant
Pretty interesting career transformation going on here: Kobe slowly morphing into the anti-LeBron, an end-of-the-game killer and basketball-only machine, a man's man who has no problem baiting LeBron during the All-Star Game and derisively telling him, "Shoot the ball" (and threatening LeBron's manhood to some degree). He's done such a savvy job of positioning himself as "The Guy Who Is SO Not Afraid of Big Moments" that it's easy to forget that he's been lousy in big moments (at least this season, as 82games.com tells us). Beyond that, his durability is starting to feel superhuman — you could almost throw "Kobe Bryant injuries" into the Tyson Zone.
Kobe has a concussion and a broken nose? Just give him a mask and some Advil. Kobe broke his left arm in three places? He's listed as "probable" for tonight. Kobe's left leg was severed in a car accident and reattached in a nine-hour surgery? I guess that means he can only play 35 minutes a game instead of 40.
Look, he will never be Jordan. I was there for both. It's not close. But the way Kobe carries himself — at least this season — is starting to feel a little Jordan-esque, especially when you remember that Jordan's greatest feat ever was playing 310 out of 310 games (including playoffs) in a 31-month stretch from November '95 through June '98 (an insanely durable accomplishment that only Kobe could consider pulling off). You know what really impressed me after Kobe's buzzer-beater in Detroit this week? He didn't react even a little. Just walked back to his bench like he knew it was going in. That's the final stage of playing basketball: We watched Bird and Magic get there, and Jordan, and now Kobe. Shaking off a made buzzer-beater? That's when you know you're great. We're watching one of the best basketball careers of all time. Maybe you wouldn't have wanted to play with Kobe Bryant, but you'll always remember him.
8. Chris Paul
7. Dwyane Wade
The dumbest part of the Trade Value column every year: ranking the trade value of guys who will never, ever be traded. By the way, these guys are coming off the bench for the 2012 Olympic basketball team.
6. Dwight Howard
Am I the only one watching Orlando these last few weeks thinking, Wait, with the shooters they have surrounding Dwight right now, couldn't they do a pretty good impersonation of that 2009 Magic team that snuck into the finals? This goes back to the whole "stubborn" point from earlier: Since Orlando doesn't have a killer offer for the league's only overpowering center (and by all accounts, they don't), why not get a little stubborn here, hope you catch fire in the playoffs, then hope your significant financial advantages (thanks to the new lockout agreement) will be enough to sway Dwight to stay? Or does that make too much sense?
Before we get to the Untouchable Five, as promised (from Part 1) here's a link to our blog post of Joakim Noah's hair Photoshopped onto other NBA players. Thanks to Friend of Grantland Neil for the help.
Without further ado …
GROUP A: "Completely and Utterly Untouchable"
5. Blake Griffin
4. Kevin Love
One of the best random Trade Value battles I can remember. Let's break it down:
SALARIES: Blake is still playing under his rookie deal (two years, $12.95 million); Love just signed a lucrative extension (four years, $65 million with an out after Year 3). ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN
NUMBERS: Blake is averaging 21-11 with 53/20/56 shooting splits and a 23.5 PER; Love is averaging 25.5-14 with 45-37-83 shooting splits and a 25.02 PER … on pace to surpass Duncan's best statistical season ever, by the way.13 ADVANTAGE: LOVE
BIGGEST WEAKNESS: For Griffin, his piss-poor free throw shooting (a real issue that's starting to affect his career). For Love, gravity. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
MEDIA SAVVY: Nobody works Twitter/blogs/ESPN/radio shows better than Love, but Blake's marketing plays (especially his Kia campaign) might be the shrewdest in years. Did anyone even know what the hell Kia was 18 months ago? ADVANTAGE: TIE
"SEEING THEM IN PERSON" FACTOR: This hurts because I love watching Love chase down boards with the sonar rebound chip that's implanted in his head. But this is 100 percent true … there's a rule at Clippers games (at least in my section) that goes, "Don't leave your seat to pee, eat or drink when Blake is on the court." ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN
DEFENSE: Both guys try their hardest; both guys will never be McHale in his prime (or anywhere close). Love is a little further along only because he always seems to be in the right place; you can't say that about Blake. At least not yet. In Blake's defense, his coach is Vinny Del Negro. If I were Blake, I'd use that defense for anything and everything. Even speeding tickets. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
DURABILITY: Not a problem for either … but man, Griffin needs to start picking his spots better. When you're trying to win a title, you don't need to go for the Greatest YouTube Highlight Ever every time (especially in blowouts, and especially in traffic). Against Miami, Blake made the mistake of trying to dunk over Joel Anthony from eight feet away — just foolish for about 10 different reasons — and nearly ended up breaking his hip. Law of averages says he's going to get hurt one of these times. (Frantically knocking on wood.) Unless he slows down. Then again, that's my favorite thing about Blake: He goes 110 percent every play. He can't help himself.14 ADVANTAGE: LOVE
FACIAL HAIR: Huge win for Love here. A runaway. I don't think Blake can even grow one of those wispy 20-hair Larry Bird mustaches. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
CRUNCH-TIME CHOPS: A work in progress for Griffin, who can be handled by smarter teams who either swarm him with doubles or dare him to shoot 20-footers (and if he gets into the paint, they just foul him). But here's where Love has been a revelation — he's turned himself into a late-game assassin with his ability to shoot 3s, run high screens with Rubio and even post up with his back to the basket (he killed Kenyon Martin late on Wednesday night). ADVANTAGE: LOVE
NICKNAMES: Blake doesn't really need one; he's just "Blake." (Although "The Blake Show" isn't terrible.) Kevin Love's nickname is his full name said together — he's never called "Kevin" or "Love," just "Kevinlove." Boring category. ADVANTAGE: NEITHER
INTANGIBLES: Has there ever been a better in-game dunker than Blake? I saw MJ, 'Nique, Vince and Kemp in their primes — they never dunked on people as relentlessly and violently as Blake does. Meanwhile, Love has locked up the Mokeski Award15 (see the trophy below) for the second straight year. And, probably, for the rest of the decade. I love this category as much as I hated the last category. ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN
FINAL VERDICT: Blake is going to keep getting better and better if only because he wants to get better. But Love transformed himself into the league's best power forward and (in my opinion, anyway) the no. 2 MVP candidate behind LeBron. Nobody does more for his team night after night after night. It's true. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
3. Derrick Rose
2. Kevin Durant
Damn, if we weren't edging toward 10,000 words for Parts 1 and 2, I would have broken this one down, too. Allow me a couple of quick thoughts …
• Over the next few years, we're going to make a big fuss about Kobe becoming the first player to pass 40,000 career points. Just remember, Kevin Durant is closing in on 10,000 points (he'll get there by mid-April) … and he's only 23 years old.
• This is a weird comment that can't be backed up but I'm making it anyway: I don't think any NBA fan base loves a player more than Bulls fans love Derrick Rose. If you went into a Chicago sports bar and started trashing Rose during a Bulls game, you'd get beaten up and left for dead in an alley.
• You'd never think of these guys as our next Bird-Magic rivalry … but when you remember their ages (23), mind-sets (basketball-only, all the time, nothing else matters), positions (one's a guard, the other's a forward), conferences (one East, one West), situations (contenders for each), characters (everything they do is about their team), styles (balls-to-the-wall all the time), crunch-time chops (significant) and humility (you never hear either of these guys talk about himself as a brand, just a basketball player), suddenly that Bird-Magic tag isn't so farfetched. Kobe mentioned recently that he never had a "rival," which was technically true (although I blame Vince and T-Mac for not holding up their ends of the bargain). Rose and Durant have each other. Maybe. Regardless, whenever I think to myself, I love this season, I love the league and I love where we're headed, I think of these two guys first. A good sign for the future.
1. LeBron James16
Stick a fork in the 2012 MVP race. A 28-8-7 with 55/39/79 splits, world-class defense and a staggering 33 PER? Child, please. We spend so much time picking the Regular-Season King apart that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture — only Bird, Magic, Kareem, Russell and Wilt ever won three MVP awards in four years. I find it interesting that …
A. If you're starting a "Which Players Peaked With the Best Four-Year Runs?" discussion, you'd have to include 1984-87 Bird (3 MVPs, 2 titles); 1987-90 Magic (3 MVPs, 2 titles); 1990-93 Jordan (2 MVPs, 3 titles);17 1961-64 Russell (3 straight MVPs, 4 titles); 1965-1968 Wilt (3 straight MVPs, 1 title); and 1971-74 Kareem (3 MVPs, 1 title).
B. LeBron would have a chance for four straight MVPs if The Decision didn't unleash last spring's "I just don't feel right about voting for him, I'm picking Derrick Rose" backlash that eventually corrupted too many voters and media people. Including me. Nobody has ever won four straight MVP awards. 2009-12 LeBron and 1990-93 Jordan probably came the closest. And Russell was the only one who won four MVPs in five years.
C. You may have noticed that everyone else on that "three MVPs in four years" list won at least one title. So if Miami blows the title this spring, LeBron really will be making history. No pressure or anything.