The beauty of our annual MVP Concern and Wish is that it is an award without a defined definition, allowing for a wide and fascinating range of viewpoints, philosophies and options, each valid in their own right.
However, I regret to inform you that all of your MVP posts are wrong.
I don’t mean your actual Option Error. If you’re a defender of Nikola Jokic, that’s great. His biography is strong. Joel Embiid? Very important. Giannis Antikonmo? Qualified with difficulty.
Names are not problematic – they are arguments. They are the cliched rationales, the half-baked axioms, the dying certainty. I’ve covered the NBA for 25 years, won awards for the most part, and I still can’t say with absolute certainty who is the best player he is (Although I have my own definition). But I can tell you what it is not.
An MVP is not simply the player with the highest PER, nor the one with the most shares earned, nor the most awesome EPM, BPM, PIE or VORP – nor any all-in-one alphabet soup stats.
All advanced statistics are useful, but they are neither reliable nor definitive. Each has its drawbacks and quirks, and prefers certain factors over others. They are guidelines to help shape our assessments, not an objective “answer” found in Appendix 3 of your Beginning Algebra book. They did not prove the condition of any player on their own. They can’t account for human traits like leadership or inspiration, or their impact on chemistry and camaraderie, or factor in the ups and downs of an NBA season.
There is no mathematical equation to determine the MVP. If so, we can just run ol’ algorithm and ask Alexa for the answer – no discussion, no ballots needed. Where would the fun be in that?
The same, by the way, applies to all traditional stats. Nobody wins this prize with points, rebounds and assists alone.
Which brings us to this: MVP is not the player with the most outstanding, the best player, the player who has had the best season, or the player who has had the most historic season.
If the goal was to be named the “best” player in the NBA, LeBron James would have won the Player of the Year award every year from 2005 to 2020. (He won four.)
If the goal was to name the most outstanding player in a given year, Shaquille O’Neal would have dominated the award from 1998 until 2003. (Win once).
If the goal were to reward historic performance, Kobe Bryant would have earned it in 2006, averaging 35.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists — marks that only Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have previously reached. (Bryant finished fourth.)
Being the best, the most special, or the most history-making is commendable, but not automatically MVP-worthy.
The thing that makes history is also becoming tense. In today’s NBA – with its frenetic cadence, increased possessions, massive triple-pointers, superior skills and super-used stars – we see at least one player collecting a “historic” stat every season. (Also, through the magic of Stathead.com, you can almost always create a statistical combination that leads to something unique.)
But back to the deconstruction of definitions.
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No, the best player on the team is not the best player on the best team, although he is a good idealist. O’Neal was the Lakers’ MVP in 2000 when he won the MVP award. Same for Steph Curry in 2015 and 2016. But it wasn’t when Allen Iverson won in 2001, or when Bryant won in 2008, and it certainly wasn’t when Russell Westbrook won in 2017, to 47 wins.
Sometimes the best regular season record is simply the result of a great team, not just a super player. Consider the 2001-02 Kings, who won 61 league games. Chris Webber was their founding star, but their success was part Webber, part Vlade Divac, part Mike Bibby, part Peja Stojakovic. Webber finished 8th in the MVP vote. current analog? The Suns, who have the best record to date, but no final MVP candidate. Devin Booker is their drive – just as Webber was to the Kings – but the Suns’ dominance is part Booker, part Chris Paul, part Dender Eaton, and part Michael Bridges.
Booker has put in an excellent season, sure, not at the level of Joki, Antetokounmpo or Embiid.
Speaking of that group: If Joki wins MVP, it will be his second in a row. If Antetokounmpo wins, it will be his third in four years. So while we roll out stupid metaphors, let’s dispense with this: MVP voters frequently are “tired” or “bored” and are looking for shiny new candidates. In the past 20 years, five best players have won in a row, including James, who has done so twice in a five-year period. The others: Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Carrie, and Antetokonmo. That’s a lot of top repeat players for a supposedly bored voting committee.
When an MVP fails to replicate, it is usually because his team falters the following season, or because a player fails to match his lofty output from his MVP year. It’s hard to maintain this level of individual and team excellence!
Speaking of team superiority: the best player is not the player who has done the most with the least help. Nor is MVP the answer to the proposition, “If you take Player X out of Team A…” These combinations raise burdened stars with weak support staff and lower-ranked stars who are lucky enough to have co-stars.
By this definition, Magic Johnson couldn’t have won because he had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Michael Jordan wouldn’t have won because he had Scottie Pippen. O’Neal could not win while playing with Bryant; And James can’t win while Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh surround him.
Plus, the “Take Player X off Team A” device is inherently silly. Every team with a star would be worse off without him – it’s just a matter of degree. A team without other stars may fall from the top four to the lottery. A super team may simply slip from 60 wins to 45 wins, but it remains in the playoffs. This does not make one player better than another. It just means that one bears a heavier burden.
Corollary: Let’s take it easy with all quotes plus minus / off. Yes, some teams struggle more than others when their star is sitting or injured. Yes, this confirms the star’s value to his team. But he often talks more about the team’s roster building (and possibly their injury issues) than about the star’s merit.
If you’re raising Joki because he kept the Nuggets afloat without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., you’re downgrading Antetokounmpo and Embiid for having talented (and healthier) teammates.
Additional Corollary: A team winning many matches without the best player does not negate that player’s eligibility as the best player. Getting the Grizzlies to 20-4 without Ja Morant this season is weird, amazing, and impressive as hell. But it’s a testament to their depth, chemistry, how hard they play, and maybe some good luck. It is almost certain that it will not hold more than 82 matches. And he doesn’t underestimate Morant, as the Grizzlies’ final ceiling will still be what defines him.
See, that’s the thing about this whole debate: individual excellence and team success are inextricably intertwined. and you need Both To be an MVP. The history of the award underscores the following point: Of the last 40 players, there have been 38 established teams who have won more than 50 games (or equivalent in a short season). The The overwhelming majority MVPs since 1981 have come from elite teams or, at least, reasonable contenders.
That historical precedent means something. Rather than an actual definition, it tells us how we came to understand the award. Simply put: In this league, we don’t generally award the best player from just a good team, a mediocre team, or a brave superior. No, being the best player in the NBA means solidifying a competitor (or at least a reasonable competitor).
The truth is that this is not a purely individual award. If so, we would have the best player from 0.500 teams. But winning is important in this debate. that it Always Important. It’s just a matter of where do you think the chops should be: 50 wins? 47? 44?
There’s an unspoken sliding scale at work in every MVP conversation, weighing all the stats, all the fancy analytics, supporting cast, and yes, the season’s creepy “narratives.” It’s just that everyone’s scale is calibrated slightly differently. Voting for awards is an art, not a science, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise (or, you know, try to make it a science).
Everything you get from MVP is wrong, because MVP is not determined by any single formula, any specific publication, or any single definition. It is not any of these combinations; All of them combined. It’s 100 individual voters, each sorted through data, narrative, and context, balancing player stats with team success and coming to their own conclusions.
I’m just one of those 100 people. Well, I could be wrong.
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