NBA Insider: MVP Debate Forcing Voters to Examine What Matters Most to ThemApril 15, 2015
In simpler times—before Twitter, before blogs and before the analytics revolution—the debate over the NBA's most valuable player was, well, simpler.
Players played, voters voted, results were announced. There wasn't much energy spent deliberating and rationalizing. Nor did the debate start in December. (Remember when John Wall and Marc Gasol were MVP candidates? Good times!)
It's more complicated now, and mostly for the better. Blogging and social media have broadened the discussion. Advanced statistics have deepened it. There are more opinions and interpretations than ever. No stance goes unchallenged. (Again, a good thing.)
And, thanks to some strange and wonderful happenstance, this season has produced the deepest field of MVP candidates in modern history. Stephen Curry and James Harden may be the consensus favorites, but LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis are all legitimately in the mix. You could justify a first-place vote for any of them.
Yet in a field this crowded, the debate is not even about the players anymore. It's about the award itself and, frankly, it's about us, the media and fans. To wit: What do we mean by "most valuable player"?
Is it the best player on the best team? The player with the gaudiest stats? The player who did the most to elevate his teammates? The most indispensable player? The most outstanding? The player who, by some measure, "defined" the season? (This is the dreaded "narrative" that some folks rail against.)
Do missed games matter? What's the minimum requirement?
Does team record matter? How much?
The last 32 MVPs have come from teams that won at least 50 games (or the equivalent in a lockout-shortened season). Does precedent matter?
On every count, it depends on whom you ask.
I'll have Curry in the top slot when I send in my ballot Thursday, for reasons I'll explain below. But my criteria might differ from yours, or from the other 129 voters.
And hey, that's OK! The MVP ballot offers no guidelines, leaving it to the imagination of each individual. So, yes, there are going to be clashes of philosophy, now and forever.
If you subscribe to the "best player on best team" model, the choice is probably Curry.
Most indispensable? That could be Harden or Westbrook or James.
Best stats? Davis has produced a historic combination, by both traditional and advanced measures. Westbrook has been on a box-score rampage for the last two months.
With all of that in mind, I asked several of my peers (some with ballots, some without) to weigh in with their definitions, via email.
Sam Smith—who has covered the Chicago Bulls since the Michael Jordan era and voted on the MVP award about 30 times—said there is indeed "a distinct formula, without there being one."
"The general formula for the award is the best player for the best team having the best season," Smith said. "It's why Curry will win."
In Smith's view, the MVP is not purely about stats, as demonstrated by Steve Nash and Bill Russell, each of whom won multiple awards without gaudy scoring numbers. Their teams' success held sway.
"It is definitely not a statistical/analytical award and never had been," Smith said, "unless someone does something historic, like MJ's season in '88, when he averaged 37 (points) and did stuff no one has seen since Wilt."
Speaking of which: "If anyone thinks Davis or Westbrook is MVP-worthy, they're not paying attention to the history of the award," Smith said. "It's always been about success."
Zach Harper, who writes for CBSSports.com, said the historical precedent "should matter, but I don't think we should tie ourselves to it and make it the deciding factor."
"The league and culture are always evolving," Harper said, adding, "You can't even compare what a player does today to what a player did 15 years ago, because the rules are completely different. It's why I'm not crazy about just saying the best player on the best team should win it, because the context of the league varies from year to year too much to use that line of thinking."
And yet, Harper added, "The team record does matter, because that's where the value comes back into play."
Ah yes, the "V" word. It's the most fraught part of this discussion.
If value is measured in wins, Curry has the best claim, based on individual excellence and the Warriors' superior record. But then comes the counter-argument: Where would the depleted Rockets be without Harden? The Cavaliers without James? The Thunder without Westbrook?
KC Johnson, the longtime Bulls beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, defined value as "statistical prowess on a heavy-victory team" and listed his top five, in order, as Curry, James, Harden, Westbrook, Davis.
Why LeBron James over James Harden for No. 2?
"The Cavaliers going from the lottery to championship contender," combined with the Miami Heat's collapse without James, "was too much to ignore," Johnson said.
As for ranking Curry first, the calculation was simple, Johnson said. "They might win 67 freaking games!"
Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News, who has covered the NBA for 30 years, said candidates should indeed "come from the best teams," but added, "there are exceptions"—notably Westbrook, who has kept the Thunder in playoff contention despite the losses of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka.
USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt said he weighs team and individual success, and weighs both traditional stats and advanced metrics such as Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares.
"It is not strictly the best player on the best team," Zillgitt said, "though this year, it looks like it will end up that way in my vote."
For SB Nation's Paul Flannery, the decision boils down to, simply "Who was the best player in the league?"—admittedly an easier question to answer in some years than others. As for record, Flannery said, "I would have no problem saying the MVP came from a 40-win team, if that player had the best season."
And some folks measure value without invoking statistics at all.
Consider the thoughtful case made by Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal, who gave his top vote to LeBron James.
"[James] lifted an entire franchise and region with his return," Lloyd wrote in a recent column. "He took a team going on its third coach in as many years, with the worst overall record the past four years, a dysfunctional locker room and a hands-on owner and (eventually) steadied it all."
Lloyd added, "No other player in the league could've convinced Kevin Love to agree to a trade to Cleveland. No other player in the league could've pulled the Cavs from where they were to where they are. He is truly the league's most valuable player."
Even players do not agree on the definitions. On Monday, I put the question to two Hall of Famers, Gary Payton and Alonzo Mourning. Payton said the MVP is about individual greatness, listing Westbrook and Davis as his top choices. Mourning said it's about winning.
My view? You can't consider any factor in a vacuum. The stats matter. Team record matters. History matters, to an extent. Availability matters, too: If you miss a month of games, as Westbrook did, you're not as valuable, by definition.
It's a mental sliding scale, and everyone's scale is calibrated a little differently.
I'm in awe of Westbrook's drive and Davis' production, and appreciative of what James has done for Cleveland. Harden is a scoring machine, a wrecking ball on skates.
But I do think value is ultimately measured in wins. No, it's not Westbrook's fault that the Thunder might miss the playoffs. But we also can't punish Curry or James for having better supporting casts. The "Take Player X off of Team Y" argument is nonsensical; all of these guys are essential, and all of their teams would suffer greatly without them.
I'm giving Curry the top spot, just ahead of Harden, in part because of the Warriors' dominance, but also on Curry's own merits. Curry is a far more efficient scorer than Harden, a better defender and a superior playmaker. Harden scores more, but that's only because he plays more minutes and takes more shots, while Curry sits out fourth quarters after blowing out teams in the first three.
And as great as James has been, let's not forget that both he and his team struggled in the first two months of the season, until James took his two-week break in January. Curry has been excellent from start to finish, and that matters, too.
It's a unique year, making for a uniquely feisty debate—and some righteous indignation in some quarters of the Twitterverse. But there are no right or wrong answers here. This is semantics, not science. The debate is what makes it interesting.
Somewhere, in the thicket of conflicting ideas, we get something that approaches a consensus choice. Even still, the debate will rage on. And there's nothing wrong with that, either.
Thanks to a late surge by Milwaukee, the Eastern Conference will send only two losing teams to the playoffs, instead of three. Thanks to a late collapse by Phoenix, only one winning team will miss the playoffs in the West. But there are still legitimate concerns over the NBA's playoff format, and league owners will begin pondering potential solutions this week, at their annual spring meeting.
Owners will be presented a "range of options," commissioner Adam Silver told Bleacher Report. But the discussion is only in its "early stages," Silver noted, and no action is expected for a while.
"There are no quick fixes," Silver said. "Frankly, if there were quick fixes, we would have already made them."
The competitive imbalance between East and West is well-documented. The East has sent at least one losing team to the playoffs in nine of the last 12 years. A winning team in the West has missed the playoffs in 10 of those years, including the last eight in a row.
Proposals to seed teams one through 16, without respect to conference, raise concerns over travel, rest and scheduling, issues the league is now grappling with.
Yet it's hard to dismiss the cringe-worthy sight of losing teams making the playoffs in one conference, while a stronger team in a superior conference is shut out—and even more so when that happens eight years in a row.
"I don't want to overreact to any particular set of circumstances," Silver said, urging caution.
Also causing consternation: the rule that grants a top-four seeding to every division winner, irrespective of record.
To wit: The Northwest-leading Portland Trail Blazers are locked into the fourth seed in the West, while two teams with superior records (Houston and Memphis heading into Wednesday night's games) will be slotted below them in the playoff bracket.
The goal is to make division titles meaningful, but the outcome in this case seems perverse.
"Not necessarily," Silver responded, "if you believe in the division system. And the goal of the division system is to create fan interest and rivalries."
The East race poses a different concern.
Chicago and Toronto are wrestling for the third and fourth seeds, separated by one game heading into the final night of the regular season. But Toronto has had the easier schedule, by virtue of playing in the hapless Atlantic Division, where the other four teams are a combined 110-213 (.341). Chicago plays in the more rugged Central, where the other four teams are a combined 161-162 (.498).
In general, an NBA team plays its divisional rivals four times each, plays six other in-conference foes four times each, and plays the remaining four in-conference teams just three times each.
So the Raptors had 16 games against the Knicks, 76ers, Nets and Celtics. The Bulls did play Boston and Brooklyn—the two stronger Atlantic teams—four times each, but played the Knicks and 76ers just three times each.
It's not an insignificant item of concern. The third seed will face a young and inexperienced Bucks team (41-40). The fourth seed draws the much stronger Washington Wizards (46-34).
It's also worth pointing out a contradiction here. NBA officials are hesitant to adopt a 16-team seeding structure because East and West teams do not play the same schedule, and therefore their records are not truly comparable. But the current division-based scheduling creates the same problem on a smaller scale, when seeding teams within a conference.
"We're fully committed to taking a fresh look and a full examination of the issues," Silver said of the entire menu of concerns. "But it's going to be a process; it's going to take some time."
Around The League
• The 2015 draft is still two months away, but scouts and executives are already abuzz over 2016—specifically over Australian Ben Simmons, projected by many as the top pick. Simmons, a 6'10" forward with point-guard skills, dazzled everyone at the recent Nike Hoop Summit. One executive called Simmons the best 18-year old he's seen since LeBron James in 2003 and "a no-brainer" to be taken No. 1 next year. "He's worth tanking for," the executive said. Simmons has signed to play at LSU next season.
• It's understandable that the NBA players union wants to create its own postseason awards (as USA Today reported last week). Players sometimes chafe at the media's choices, and they surely consider themselves better qualified to judge one another. That's fine. But it will be interesting to see how happy they are with their own version.
After 18 years on the NBA beat, I can tell you this: Players are not exactly objective observers. There are loyalties based on friendship, or AAU ball, or a shared shoe sponsor, or a shared agent. And there are grudges, over any number of on- and off-court issues. As Wizards star John Wall admitted last week, "Us as basketball players, we know who players are, but sometimes your pride and ego come in—you don't want to see that person get awards."
The media isn't perfect, but reporters and broadcasters generally have no personal stake in the outcome. Also worth noting: Writers and broadcasters spend a lot of time analyzing and deliberating postseason honors. It's part of the job. Last week, I watched Wizards players receive, fill out and turn in their ballots in less than five minutes. Wall indicated he would opt out entirely. "It's never going to be a fair race in my opinion," he said.
• Multiple lottery-bound teams have rested players in the final two weeks of the season, raising the usual suspicions over tanking and jockeying for draft positioning. "Nothing new under the sun," Silver said. "No new issues there, only that the science on resting has gotten that much more advanced."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.