What’s happening to the MVP?
This year’s Most Valuable Player award is one of the more hotly contested in recent memory, and rightly so, but how did we get here?
Sean Carroll illustration
U nfortunately, there is no well-defined voting system for the MVP. Looking through the past award winners, it seems there is a decent split between the winner being the ‘best player in the world’ and the ‘most valuable to their team’.
These two belief systems began to conflict more and more as we progressed into the social media age. I cannot speak on how the award was voted for pre-2010, but it does seem there was a bit more reverence for the award itself in the past.
That is not to say that the past 11 winners are not revered or respected in the same light, but there is a certain level of questioning that impacts some past winners.
It started in 2011 with Derrick Rose winning the award over an earth-shattering LeBron James season, the first acknowledgment of a ‘most valuable to his team over the best overall player’ occurrence.
Rose averaged an impressive 25 points, 7.5 assists and 4 rebounds for the NBA-leading Chicago Bulls compared to James’ 27 points,7.5 assists and 7 rebounds, with LeBron owning most of the shooting splits. We look at these statistics remembering that league-average scoring was a whole ten points per game lower than it is today.
This award marked a very clear line in the sand for the MVP ‘narrative’: the unspoken, unassuming and previously underrated third voting system that can swing an MVP award. As the years have progressed, the impact of the ‘narrative’ has grown stronger and stronger.
The next truly contentious MVP award was in 2016-17. Russell Westbrook carried an underwhelming, albeit healthy, Oklahoma City Thunder team to 47 wins.
He averaged a triple-double, the first player to do so for an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. A fairytale narrative, right?
Over in Houston sat James Harden, averaging a near triple-double and carrying his Rockets to a 55 win season. In hindsight, this was Harden’s award to lose, as I believe he unjustly did.
So only two of the past 11 MVPs are somewhat contentious and were arguably awarded to the wrong player, how does that impact this season?
As each season progresses, and social media and NBA narratives become more and more divisive, we skew further and further from an MVP award, and closer to this ‘narrative’ award.
The NBA cognoscenti have hour-long podcasts and long-form written pieces debating narrative over substance, and stories over statistics. We have managed to avoid the narrative shaping the MVP winner for the most part but year on year it creeps closer and closer to impacting yet another award-winner.
By no means are any of the past winners undeserving, let’s get that straight. Just maybe… less deserving than a counterpart.
History will not show who was in second place, or how the voting splits were shared. History will only show the player who held up the trophy at the end of the year.
I implore any of us having these conversations to avoid the narrative and look at the substance. We have three elite MVP finalists this season, in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, albeit two producing more genuine substance than the third - who has already started to tend to his narrative.
Whether you are team ‘most valuable to his team’, team ‘best player in the world’ or a mixture of both year on year, I hope you can find it in your soul to actually vote for the MVP and not a storyline.