The NBA MVP is broken.
The NBA MVP award is broken. Or at least partly broken. Thankfully, I have a fix.
This year we are really, REALLY lucky. The 16-17 MVP race is the most exciting, interesting, and debate-inducing MVP race of my lifetime (admittedly not that long). The season-long comparison between James Harden and Russell Westbrook has become exhausting, even for the basketball-obsessed like yours truly. And that's without considering those of us that feel Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James should be in that same conversation.
In short, the 16-17 MVP race is a clusterfuck. But it has also sparked a real debate about the MVP award itself. And whether or not we're even approaching this award the right way.
Let's start with the foundation of the sport.
First, basketball is a team sport. Any true measure of success should take this into account. It doesn't matter how good an individual is if their team isn't able to win games. That doesn't mean individual awards aren't warranted (don't worry, I'm not advocating the MVP get nixed entirely). But it does mean that individual awards should consider an individual's team success, and by extension their contribution to that team's success. Seems obvious, but we'll come back to it later.
Second, basketball is played in two parts: offense and defense. At a team level, most people agree that these two are held in essentially equal standing. At the individual level, there is room for debate. The crux of the argument is the relative value of an individual's contributions to their team's offense and defense (and by extension, their team's success). Yes, a player has more opportunity to contribute on offense, which can diminish their defensive value. And yes, a team's defense typically depends more on the collective team than on any one player. But when it all comes out in the wash, a player's contributions matter on offense and defense, and they matter relatively equally.
MOVING ON TO the MVP award itself.
Each year the NBA awards the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (which desperately needs a name change by the way) to the league's "best performing player of the regular season". But what exactly does "best performing player" even mean? The best player on the best team? Best statistical season? Best player based on the eye test? Most versatility? Most points? First player taken in a playground pick'em?
This is the fundamental flaw of the MVP award: we don't really know what "best performing player" means.
Now, I don't think we need a consensus definition. Part of the beauty of basketball is the variety in players (and styles) we see, and a democratic vote is a better system than some algorithm. This matters because it keeps the sport accessible, letting the average fan join in the conversation an avoiding a higher class fan who understands all the advanced metrics. The more people that can engage, the healthier the sport will be.
And honestly, we'll never agree on a definition of MVP anyways. But that won't stop me from pitching my own!
Here's how we should define MVP.
I love this thought-experiment:
Remove Player X from their team, and replace them with Average Player X at that same position. Is the team better or worse, and by how much? The player who most improves their team is the most valuable. Boom.
There are a ton of other ways to pitch the award, though. And honestly I see merit in most of them.
- "Best player on the best team" is probably the closest thing to a consensus we've ever seen. But if the best team is more than the sum of it's parts (i.e. 2000's era Detroit, or almost any San Antonio team) it kind of throws a wrench in things.
- "Best statistical season" makes sense too. Stats are easy to understand, and there's no room for bullshit - but how do we know which stats matter the most?
- "Who would you pick first on the playground" (or alternatively "Which player would you start a franchise with?") might be the most fun way to think about it. But there's just too much flexibility here.
It's not our fault we can't agree on what MVP really means though. The system is broken, we never stood a chance. But I have a fix. It is both painfully obvious and painfully simple. It is the whole point of this piece. Which is why I'm needlessly building up the anticipation.
We need an NBA Offensive Player of the Year.
WHY DOES THIS NOT EXIST? We have a Defensive Player of the Year - why wouldn't we have an offensive counterpart? Isn't this a huge oversight? This really does seem like day one shit.
Let's say you started a basketball league tomorrow. A professional league. And you name yourself commissioner - cause you can do that. And as commissioner you need to draft a list of end-of-season awards. Wouldn't Offensive Player of the Year be at least in your top three?
The NFL has an MVP award, and an Offensive Player of the Year and a Defensive Player of the Year. Seems reasonable. Granted the MVP is basically the most handsome quarterback every year, but that's a different conversation.
The NHL really breaks things up with an award for most valuable player (Hart Memorial Trophy), best offensive defenseman (James Norris Memorial Trophy), best defensive offenseman (Frank J Selke Trophy), top points getter (Art Ross Trophy), and top goalie (Vezina Trophy). Again, pretty balanced.
The MLB goes a similar route with two league MVPs, two best pitchers (Cy Young Award), two best fielders (Gold Glove Award), two best hitters (Hank Aaron Award), and a best offensive player at each position (Silver Slugger Awards). Definitely too many awards (two leagues is just nonsense) but at least they value both offense and defense.
The NBA? Not so much. We get an MVP and a Defensive Player of the Year. Then it drops off into feel-good awards like Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player, and really feel-good awards like Teammate of the Year and the Sportsmanship Award.
WHAT GIVES, NBA?
It's no wonder our MVP discussion devolves into "who is having the best offensive season?" This year it's Harden and Westbrook, breaking statistical records at a rate we've never seen before. So many highlights. So many stat lines. So many scowls. It really is incredible.
But let's revisit the foundation we laid earlier. The ideas that a) individual awards should consider their team's success (and their contribution to that success), and b) basketball requires both offense and defense, and a performance should be measured by both.
Should Harden and Westbrook EVEN be MVP front-runners?
I'm not so sure. Here's my reasoning.
Westbrook's case is a little dicey, resting on the first point: are we sure he makes OKC better? He basically does everything for the team and is on pace for the highest usage rate in history (41%). But does that not limit his teammates? And the team itself? Is a team with five contributors not better than a team with one super contributor? And it doesn't help that they're a 6-seed, with less than 50 wins. And no, triple-doubles don't actually matter.
Harden's case is pretty cut-and-dry, resting on the second point: he doesn't really play defense. Yes, he is an offensive magician. A bigger, better, blacker, beadier Steve Nash. And yes, he is playing better defense than last year. The Kardiashian Curse is real, folks. But does that mean good? No. Definitely not a good defender.
What's really interesting is our Harden/Westbrook debate is actually the peak of a bigger trend that has framed the MVP race. I'll explain.
The "offense over everything" trend.
Moving backwards. In the last two years Steph Curry has all but redefined offense with his threes. Before that it was Kevin Durant, the best offensive Swiss Army knife of his generation. And before that it was back-to-back years of LeBron, setting a new standard of offensive efficiency. Then Derrick Rose (briefly unguardable), two more LeBron years (establishing himself as unguardable), Kobe Bryant (unguradable), Dirk Nowitzki (unguardable), and two years of Nash (an offensive magician, and a defensive liability).
There's an interesting case to be made that Nash (one of my favorite players of all time) actually sparked this MVP trend of "offense over everything". It was mesmerizing to watch him play with those Phoenix teams. He was just so good at creating points, everyone was willing to overlook his defensive shortcomings. And that's putting it lightly.
You really have to back to Kevin Garnett (03-04) and Tim Duncan (01-02 and 02-03) before you can make a real case that a MVP was genuinely a top two-way player in the league.
That's almost 15-years of offensive fetishism. And hey, I get it. I understand the appeal. We all love to score once in a while. Points are sexy. Threes get us excited. Dunks might even make us scream. Is it getting hot in here?
But I digress.
Why do we need an OPOY?
First, it would require the MVP discussion to consider both offensive and defensive performance. Second, it would encourage the MVP discussion to more consciously consider team success, and that player's contributions to that team success.
The third reason is just as important: we could still indulge in these staggering offensive performances without having to whine about defensive flaws!
Think how freeing this would be. There is always someone, whether it's Harden, or Curry, or Nash, who's defensive liabilities put their MVP candidacy into question. Wouldn't it be nice to have those same conversations under a different category, so we can award these players and all their offensive production guilt free? We deserve this!
Finally, I'll say it again: I think the real MVP race is between Kawhi and LeBron.
They just do SO MUCH MORE for their teams than run the offense. Kawhi has become a top-tier scorer leading a 60+ win offense AND is arguably the best defender in the league, tasked with match-ups like James, Durant, Harden, Westbrook, Paul George, DeMar DeRozan, etc. Meanwhile James plays maestro for Cleveland, leads the league in minutes per game, orchestrates play on both ends, and wields as much team influence as both Head Coach Ty Lue and GM David Griffin. Both pretty valuable, I'd say.
End of rant.