As the NBA nears its regular season conclusion, end-of-the-year awards rise to the forefront of conversation, especially the award for Most Valuable Player. In many ways the late-season MVP race parallels the final weeks leading up to the Oscar’s. Pundits tirelessly discuss the hottest candidates, seemingly updating their rankings daily in response to each triple double, flashy ball handling display, or box office result. Inevitably, the campaigning thunders from all corners—players state their teammates’ cases, fans shower their stars with M-V-P chants, writers choose sides, and suddenly ubiquitous G.M.s vouch for their guys. I can just imagine Daryl Morey inviting the voters to a private screening of James Harden’s highlights then sending them home with gift baskets filled with Rockets merchandise, a Fear the Beard t-shirt, and a poster of the new King James.
The importance of campaigning must not be overlooked. The media frenzy that swooned over Derrick Rose during the 2010-2011 season carried him to the award win. The hype storm raged so torrentially that respected sports analysts were openly referring to Rose as the league MVP by January. I’m not saying that Rose didn’t deserve the MVP that season; I think that he did, although it was certainly debatable. In Rose’s MVP year, and virtually every season that features a competitive MVP race, the age-old question resurfaced: what is the actual meaning of “most valuable?”
The answer: not much. It’s simply the name that the NBA chose for its “player of the year” award. Other leagues use different names for the same honor. College football has the Heisman Trophy. College Basketball has the Naismith Award. The PGA Tour simply calls its award the Player of the Year. These are just different titles for the same award.
Would the NBA writers adjust their votes if the league changed the name of the award from MVP to Most Outstanding Player or Player of the Year? Of course not. The presence of the word “valuable” garners far too much attention. It was an arbitrary choice. The NBA execs probably opted to use the word “valuable” because they thought that MVP was the coolest sounding acronym. The bottom line: do not fixate on the word “valuable.”
With that said, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what makes a player the MVP. Since there are no specific criteria outlined by the NBA, I decided to create my own. My criteria consist of questions to ponder, classic pitfalls to avoid, and how to break the tie in an extremely tight race. Let’s begin with the questions.
If the MVP candidate was replaced with a serviceable player at his position for the entire season, what would be the effect on his team’s record?
This is the most important question and the one that determines which way many voters lean. In essence, this is what an MVP is all about. In a league obsessed with winning, the player who is worth the most wins to his team should always be one of the MVP favorites, if not the eventual winner.
If two knowledgeable NBA fans are drafting teams for a giant pickup game and every player in the league is available, who would be taken first?
I borrowed this idea from Bill Simmons. Hopefully he doesn’t mind.
I feel that this question needs to be included because it prevents us from voting each year for the best team’s best player and gives hope to a great player stuck on a bad team like Kobe Bryant was with the Lakers after Shaq left. Kobe carried truly pathetic supporting casts to 45-win seasons. Unfortunately, those are not the type of performances that MVP voters typically favor, which is why Mamba was twice beaten out by a Canadian with feminine hair.
What did the MVP candidate do to distinguish himself from the rest of the league/What stood out about his season?
This can be accomplished via a gaudy stretch of triple doubles (like Russell Westbrook’s recent run), by carrying the team on a historic winning streak (à la LeBron James in 2013), or by becoming so furious about not winning last year’s championship that you mercilessly massacre the rest of the league for an entire season, ultimately winning 72 games (Michael Jordan in ’96).
Upon review, most seasons feature a standout performer. In 2006, Kobe averaged 35 points per game, scored 62 points in 32 minutes, and recorded the second highest scoring game in NBA history with 81. In 1962 Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points per game for the entire season. That same season Oscar Robertson averaged a triple double. In 1987 Michael Jordan averaged 37 points per game and in 1989 he recorded seven consecutive triple doubles en route to averaging 32-8-8. These are some of the most acclaimed and memorable seasons in league history, yet none of them were deemed MVP worthy. I repeat: not one of these seasons resulted in an MVP for these players. (*Note* In 1962 players voted for the MVP, and they selected Bill Russell. Wilt scored 50 points per game, Oscar averaged a triple double, and Bill still won MVP. That’s really one of the greatest testaments to how revered Russell was by opponents. He was the exception to this question, and since he won 11 titles, I’ll give him a pass.)
While it seems impossible that none of these standout performances earned an MVP, there is actually a pretty simple explanation for how this happened: the voters had not yet learned about my criteria for choosing an MVP. It’s a real shame. Sadly, it’s mostly the kids studying old NBA seasons who suffer. They toss and turn all night as they attempt to fathom why Michael Jordan only won five MVPs (I may or may not have done this).
Once voters have contemplated the questions, they should review the common pitfalls to be sure that they are avoiding them. One of the most important things to remember is that the MVP vote should be based solely on the player’s performance this season. These are not lifetime achievement awards.
Additionally, these are not Most Improved Player Awards. That vote is separate. Simply because a player exceeds expectations does not make him the MVP. We are so often wowed by the flashy player who is having a breakout season that we overlook the perennial MVP contenders. This is similar to the most frustrating pitfall of all—voter fatigue. The voters grow tired of selecting the same player year after year so they become tempted to choose a less qualified candidate merely because he is someone different. They must resist this urge.
Voters must also be wary of favoring an MVP candidate based on his team’s improvement. For instance, they should recognize that the Warriors have made a significant leap this season for a litany of reasons, only one of which is Steph Curry’s stellar play. Curry is certainly a viable MVP candidate; voters just need to be careful about showering him with praise because of the team’s win total this year. Many parties are responsible for the team’s progress.
Most voters would agree that this is the tightest race in years. When facing a difficult decision like voters will this season, the questions are pitfalls are not always enough. Then the voters should look to the numbers. First, compare how many games the candidates have played. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to overlook. In a close MVP race, the candidate who played 82 games has made a greater impact than the guy who played 72. This could be the difference maker. Despite how great Russell Westbrook has played lately, he has missed 15 games this season. That will severely inhibit his chance to win MVP.
If the games played numbers are equal or negligibly different, voters should turn to the most common advanced stats such as +/-, PER, and win shares. While it’s best to determine who deserves the MVP through mostly subjectively means (after all, it’s your own personal vote; of course it’s going to be subjective), an objective look at the key stats can be a helpful way to make that final decision.