NBA's MVP Should Be Relabeled Offensive Player of the Year
The NBA season has resumed after an exciting all-star break, and the MVP race enters its competitive final stretch.
Front runners Russell Westbrook, with his historic season of triple doubles, and James Harden, who has elevated his game to new heights, lead a crop of talented superstars vying for the award.
While one of these two will most likely take home the top prize, the question remains, what truly makes a player a league-wide MVP.
At the most basic level, a basketball player’s impact can be assessed based on his offensive and defensive talents. If you assume that a basket prevented is equal to a basket earned, both of these elements of the game should factor into the criteria for an MVP.
However, the MVP race seems to be singularly focused on players’ offensive production. Westbrook and Harden display singular offensive talents but aren’t known for their defensive capabilities. Stephen Curry won the past two years despite a lack of great defensive play, and Isaiah Thomas’ name is being thrown about even though he ranks as one of the league’s worst defenders.
Other notable figures, such as two time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard and perennial MVP candidate Lebron James act as the exception to the rule with their stellar play on both sides of the court.
Indeed, the DPOY award sheds light on the explicit offensive bias which factors into the voters’ choice of MVP. The lack of corresponding Offensive Player of the Year award strongly suggests that, for all intents and purposes, this may be what the MVP award truly represents.
Taking this stance obscures some of the story. If one takes a look at this year’s scoring leaders, it’s clear that notable figures such as Demar Derozan, Anthony Davis, and Demarcus Cousins are putting up numbers in the same range as the aforementioned talents without garnering nearly as much attention.
Clearly, there is another factor at work here which guides the discussion and limits who is considered for this prestigious award. Wins.
Traditionally, the award has gone to the best player from one of the top two seeded teams in either conference. In fact, Michael Jordan (3rd seed in 1988) and Karl Malone (3rd seed and tied for best record in 1999) were the last players to defy this trend.
The assumption behind this tendency seemingly being that the greater a team’s success, the more relative credit must be attributed to its best player. Although Stephen Curry’s individual effort last season was certainly spectacular, his team’s breaking the regular season record for wins definitely played a role in his being the first unanimous MVP.
However, how fair is it to correlate a player’s worth with wins without considering his supporting cast.
Despite Westbrook’s extraordinary numbers, the largest impediment to his taking home the award seems to be his team’s relatively subpar record compared to the other contenders. No matter how incredibly he plays, if his team doesn’t win, people may question his fitness for being declared the 2016-2017 MVP.
Similarly, other superstars such as Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins are putting up staggering numbers as well, but no one mentions their names in the MVP discussion due to their teams’ underperformance.
Granted, some may argue that playing on a lesser team provides a lone superstar talent with more chances to score and singlehandedly dominate the game.
But if these players were given a reliable supporting cast, they very likely could be achieving similar, if slightly reduced, stat lines in addition to achieving winning records.
How, then, do we evaluate the relative merit of players who are putting up similar numbers? Perhaps the title MVP signifies little more than being the most dominant offensive force in the league.
Lacking any other definitive data, a team’s success may be the final arbiter of a player’s “value”. If Harden and Westbrook swapped teams, their squads’ resulting success could be used to gauge which is the superior player.
Unfortunately, we don’t possess any way of reliably recreating that what if scenario. In lieu of such a method, maybe the MVP debate assumes a relative parity between all teams wherein each team’s performance serves as the tiebreaker between equally talented superstars.
With so many gifted scorers in today’s league, perhaps the number in the w/l column acts as the final item on the MVP checklist.