As the NBA season begins its second half, shit tends to get just a little bit tedious for everyone involved. Fans have more or less figured out which teams are good, bad or plain mediocre. The players on the good teams are just trying to get to the All-Star break uninjured; the players on the bad teams have transitioned from naïve enthusiasm to professional indifference; and the players on the mediocre teams are, well, mediocre. Even the impending trade deadline, which usually delivers a slew of hilarious wishful-thinking-presented-as-rumour articles, has been ruined by the so-called “Melodrama” (in reality a total bore and precisely the opposite of a melodrama).
As such, this little lull in the season seemed like the perfect time to delve into a discussion of this season’s MVP race.
What is the MVP?
Anyone who’s discussed the MVP award in any year will know that if there’s a disagreement, it will inevitably be followed by a lame to-and-fro about what MVP really means. Does it mean most valuable to their team? Best player in the league? Something else? The truth is it’s a lot simpler than that. Unlike a lot of awards in other sports, the MVP does not have any game-by-game voting process, and unlike the Player of the Week/Month it is not awarded by the league. Instead, the MVP award is decided by a vote of 123 media types, each of whom is required to send in their top 5 players at the end of the season (first place is worth 10, second place is 7, then 5, 3 and 1 for fifth place.)
This is the key point to keep in mind: the MVP award is a media award. And the obvious consequence, which history confirms time and again, is that it’s not the best players that win, but the best stories (Rob elaborated on this a few years back). The insistence of the league to keep the meaning of MVP so vague only exacerbates this; it allows writers and broadcasters to frame their definition in any way they like to fit their choice.
Of course, writers and broadcasters can’t just select the best story in the entire league (Earl Boykins for MVP, anyone?) To maintain some credibility, they’re restricted to choosing someone who’s either putting up gaudy numbers or leading a hugely successful team, or both. In terms of numbers, there’d be few who look at advanced stats (like PER or Win Shares). Instead, it seems that points+rebounds+assists (hereon in P+R+A) is more or less what’s used, even if unintentionally.
If we look at the top 3 vote getters in the MVP award from the last 6 years, for example, a pattern emerges. To finish top 3 in the MVP you need to;
- Finish in the Top 5 in P+R+A and win more than half your games, OR:
- Finish Top 10 in P+R+A and win 60+ games, OR:
- Be the best player on a team that wins 65+ games, OR:
- Be Steve Nash.
Applying those restrictions to this season, we get the following list of candidates:
- LeBrone James: 39.9 P+R+A (1st), on pace for 57 wins.
- Amare Stoudemire: 37.7 P+R+A (4th), on pace for 43 wins.
- Derrick Rose: 37.5 P+R+A (5th), on pace for 55 wins.
- Manu Ginobili: Best player on a team on pace for 71 wins.
- Steve Nash.
That’s the list according to the criteria. However, since we’re only just past halfway, I’ll also add two others who aren’t far off:
- Kevin Durant: 37.3 P+R+A (6th), on pace for 53 wins.
- Kobe Bryant: 34.8 P+R+A (12th), on pace for 58 wins.
So we have 6 potential MVPs and Steve Nash. I should note here this is not my personal list of most deserving, but rather the list of those who are most likely to finish top 3 in the MVP based on past results.
Now that the shortlist’s been established, we can try to analyse which player will provide the best fodder for media stories – i.e. who will be the Most Valuable Protagonist. Though the exact stories vary slightly in detail, they mostly fall into four distinct categories:
The Leader: Probably the most common (and idiotic) MVP story, this one is easily identified by terms like “he’s becoming more of a leader”, “this is ____’s team now”, and so on. Usually it’s applied either to young players who’ve finally reached superstar status or former boneheads who’ve supposedly started playing more of a team game.
Eligible: Rose and Stoudemire both easily qualify; Rose as young player becoming superstar, Amare as former bonehead come good. Manu Ginobili also sneaks in now that Duncan is playing fewer minutes and broadcasters/writers look for someone new to anoint the leader of the Spurs. LeBron misses out since apparently it’s still “Dwyane Wade’s team” so LBJ can’t be The Leader. Durant unfortunately went too early on this one (he made the jump to Leader last year) and Kobe’s Lakers are performing under expectations, so it seems he’s not the Leader he once was. [1 point each to Rose, Amare & Manu, 0 points to LBJ, Durant & Kobe]
The Culture Changer: This one is usually reserved for players who have joined a new team, and have improved their new team. Classic examples include Kidd/Nets(’02) and Nash/Suns(’05), amongst others. Usually the stories include clichés like “____’s made such-and-such team relevant again” or “____ put them back on the map” and so on.
Eligible: This year the only potential Culture Changers are Stoudemire and LeBron; and even though Miami have improved more than the Knicks, LeBron doesn’t qualify because Miami’s preseason expectations prevent them from being seen as real improvers. Amare, on the other hand, has apparently single-handedly salvaged the Knicks, even though they’re still a mediocre team barely above .500. [2 points to Amare, 1 point to Rose & Manu, 0 points to LBJ, Durant & Kobe]
The Closer: This one goes a little something like this: “In a close game with time running down, who wants to take the last shot? The Closer, that’s who. Not because he covets the personal glory that comes from a no-lose situation (make it you’re a hero, miss no-one remembers). No, it has nothing to do with that. The Closer wants the last shot because the closer wants to WIN. If you’re not jacking 20-footers as the shot-clock expires, then you’re not really about winning.’
Eligible: Kobe Bryant once again is the King Closer, but Rose (who just runs isos for most 4th quarters) and Durant (especially after his game-winning bomb against the Knicks) qualify too. Manu gets half a point because he’s hit a few game-winners this year, but he drives and passes too much on last possessions to be The Closer. And LeBron has to share crunch-time with Wade, so he’s only half a Closer this year. [2 points to Amare & Rose, 1.5 points to Ginobili, 1 point to Durant & Kobe and 0.5 points to LeBron]
The Momma There Goes That Man: This is all about the ability of a player to capture the imagination of commentators with highlight plays. It’s hugely advantageous to be from a big market and/or a team that regularly gets national coverage, but this can be overcome if you become a YouTube sensation (think Griffin, Blake).
Eligible: Rose and LeBron for obvious reasons. Amare as a big market player who still throws down his fair share of dunks. Kobe, though he’s a lot more grounded these days, still makes it as the original MTGT Man. Durant and Manu both miss out due to being small market players without huge YouTube resumes. [3 points to Amare & Rose, 2 points to Kobe, 1.5 points to LeBron & Ginobili and 1 point to Durant]
After four rounds, we have two clear leaders in Derrick Rose and Amare Stoudemire. Rose’s advantage is being a guard who loves to put up a ton of shots in the 4th quarter; Amare’s advantage is that he’s credited with transforming the franchise with the largest media contingent in the league. In this situation, it is often easier to argue for the player whose team sports the better record, so that probably gives Rose the edge at this point. Really though, both Rose and Amare provide more than enough material for writers/broadcasters to happily vote for either depending on which angle they choose to run with.
P.S. After finishing this, I decided to ask Kenny Smith, an MVP voter himself, what he thought. This is what he had to say: