In case you haven’t heard, the MVP race is over.
Derrick Rose has won it.
Of course, Van Grumpy harrumphed this conclusion as supposedly irrefutable fact even as he was stumping for his own player, Dwight Howard, which makes his claim a bit disingenuous. It’s probably more honest to say that Stan believes Rose is the front-runner but hopes making bold public proclamations will inspire the MVP voters to reconsider the ballot they haven’t actually cast yet.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who feel strongly against Rose for MVP.
Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference compares Rose’s presumed MVP award to the one Allen Iverson won in 2000-01 — in an unfavorable way — stating that snubbing LeBron is “borderline indefensible.”
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop writes “LeBron James is a better player, playing just as he did when he ran away with this award the past two seasons. Beyond bitterness, is there a reason to disqualify him so early?”
Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk says Rose will probably win but wants you to know there are better candidates (Helin is with Van Gundy in the Howard camp).
Tom Ziller of SBNation absolutely hates the idea of Rose winning the MVP: “If you’re handing your support to Rose without considering [Russell] Westbrook and the others strongly, know that you’re not awarding the Most Valuable Player trophy, you’re awarding a kindergarten gold star for a totally awesome story or the Man Booker prize or something. Awarding MVP trophies based on warm fuzzies should be reserved for youth soccer, not the highest levels of sport.”
Ziller goes on to write the following faux future letter from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: “Dear basketball fans. No, we don’t know why Steve Nash won two MVP awards as the 20th or so best player of his generation while monsters like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal only won one each, and Tim Duncan only won two, and Dwyane Wade never won one. Our forensic research suggests that voters became enamored with the entertaining and surprising Phoenix Suns and, worried that their pea-sized brains would forget all about Nash and the Seven Seconds Or Less offense, decided to memorialize the era with not one but two giant bronze trophies. We regret the voters’ lack of reason, and as penance present this oversized mural depicting a bayonet-wielding Shaq chasing Mitch Albom through the Fourth Circle of Hell.”
Wow. And people think I’m bitter and sarcastic at Basketbawful.
What seems to be rubbing Ziller and others the wrong way is that the MVP isn’t treated as some hallowed “Best Player Based on Advanced Metrics” award. And who knows? Maybe the NBA should create a BPBoAM award. Or maybe the NBA should provide a clearly defined set of criteria for MVP voting…
…only that’s never going to happen.
Why would the NBA do something as stupid as that? The MVP debate creates buzz and makes headlines. It gets people talking. It’s free publicity year after year after year. If the NBA instituted rigid criteria for the MVP award, much of that free publicity would be lost. And Skip Bayless wouldn’t have nearly as much to scream about.
If Rose does indeed win the MVP, it will likely be because the Bulls win the East (and finish second or third in the league in terms of wins), he’s the team’s best player, and he has a better storyline than anybody else.
As Kevin Arnovitz of the Heat Index put it: “The media and fans like novelty because it keeps the narrative interesting. That means that whenever there’s a legitimate candidate for MVP who hasn’t previously been in the conversation, we tend to gravitate toward him. And when that candidate’s team loses only three times in six weeks, the momentum builds. This is true in basketball or baseball.”
Here’s the question: Don’t you think the NBA wants it that way?
Think about it. The NBA is a business. Fun, positive, feel-good stories are great for any business. Human beings love novelty. NBA fans are no different. Most of the anti-Rose hand-wringing is coming from the advanced stats community. But if stats are the only thing that matter, why don’t they just watch game simulations on NBA 2K11? Wouldn’t that be a dream world? Where every action and reaction was governed by hard data…where the only storylines were cranked out on a calculator or inside a computer…
Thanks. But no thanks.
This NBA fan enjoys the world as it is. And not because I’m blogging about a team whose best player may benefit from the “best storyline wins” concept.
And do me a favor: Let’s stop pretending the “storyline” thing is some gross miscarriage of justice. It’s not a new concept. Storyline has trumped statistical output repeatedly throughout NBA history. People like Ziller would have you believe it began with Nash’s MVPs in 2005 and 2006, or maybe, as Paine suggested, Iverson’s MVP in 2001.
It didn’t. Let’s hop into the WABAC machine, Sherman.
In 1961-62, Wilt Chamberlain led the league in scoring (an insane 50.4 PPG), rebounding (25.7), minutes per game (an absurd 48.5 thanks to overtime sessions), Player Efficiency Rating (31.8), Offensive Win Shares (17.1), Win Shares (23.1) and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (0.286). Do you know who won the MVP award? Bill Russell. Because, see, Bill was a winner (the Celtics went 60-20 and captured yet another title) and Wilt was a loser (his Philadelphia Warriors went 49-31 and lost a tough seven game series to the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals).
Chamberlain was — by leaps and bounds — the better player. Every statistic you could possibly ask for, advanced or otherwise, bears this out. But Russell had the better storyline. David versus Goliath. Champion versus Loser.
The 1962-63 season was more of the same. Wilt once again led the league in points (44.8), rebounding (24.3), PER (31.8), Win Shares (20.9), etc. Once again, Russell, the champion, was given the MVP award.
In 1972-73, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 30.2 PPG and 16.2 RPG. He led the league in Player Efficiency Rating (28.5), Offensive Win Shares (14.4), Win Shares (21.9) and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (0.323). And his Milwaukee Bucks had a pretty decent season (60-22). However, Kareem wasn’t particularly well-liked and had won the award the previous season. Dave Cowens, on the other hand, was leading a revival in Boston, where the Celtics won a league-best 68 games.
A scrappy, white, undersized center going toe-to-toe with titans like Kareem and Wilt while helping the league’s most storied franchise return to its former glory? Now that, my friends, is a narrative worthy of the MVP.
In 1977-78, Bill Walton was unquestionably awesome — 18.9 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 5.0 APG, 24.8 PER — but he also played only 58 games while George Gervin led the league in scoring (27.2), Kareem led the league in PER (29.2) and David Thompson led the league in Win Shares (12.7).
Walton, however, had become a folk hero, and his Trail Blazers were the league’s best (58-24) and most-beloved team. I’m pretty sure that helped Big Bill win the MVP.
Flash forward to 1980-81 when Adrian Dantley led the league in PPG (30.7), Larry Bird’s Celtics led the league in won-loss record (62-20), and Kareem led the league in PER (25.5) and Win Shares (14.3). But the Philadelphia 76ers held the league’s best record for most of the year before losing a tiebreaker game to Boston on the final day of the regular season. And hey: Doctor J was excellent (24.6/8.0/4.4) and had never won an MVP award. It was his time. And he won it.
Better story than anybody else.
Consider the 1986-87 season. Larry Bird was still his usual amazing self — 28 PPG, 9 RPG, 7 APG, a PER of 26.4 — but he’d won the last three MVP awards. Michael Jordan led the league in PPG by a country mile (37.1) and also took top honors in Usage Percentage (an incredible 38.3), PER (29.8) and Win Shares (16.9). But the Bulls went 40-42. Meanwhile, in L.A., Kareem finally passed the torch to Magic Johnson, who set career high in scoring (23.9 PPG) and led the Lakers to the league’s best record (65-17).
And it’s best story.
Or how about 1989-90, when Jordan, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley finished first, second and third in PER (31.2, 27.2 and 27.1, respectively). Barkley led the league in True Shooting Percentage (66.1) and Offensive Rating (an unreal 127.9), while MJ was the top dog in Win Shares (19.0) and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (0.285). Sir Charles ended up with the most first place votes…but lost the MVP award to Magic Johnson, who had once again led the Lakers to the league’s best record (63-19) in the first year of Kareem’s retirement.
Best story wins out.
Let’s not forget about 1992-93, when Jordan again led the league in scoring (32.6), Usage Percentage (34.7), PER (29.7), Win Shares (17.2) and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (0.270). But Barkley had been traded to the Phoenix Suns, had himself a career year (25.6/12.2/5.1) and led the Suns to the league’s best record (62-20).
Chuck was the MVP. Better story.
Now, 1996-97 is an interesting case. Many people feel that The Mailman “stole” the MVP award from MJ. Yet Malone’s Jazz won 64 games while Karl led the league in PER (28.9 to Jordan’s 27.8) and finished second (to Mike) in both Win Shares and Win Shares Per 48 minutes. Not really the heist some people have made it out to be.
But that doesn’t change the fact that Malone won the award, in large part, out of sympathy for a long career of (relatively) unrewarded brilliance.
Let’s not leave out Kobe Bryant’s MVP award in 2008. Bryant didn’t lead the league in any major statistical category. He finished fourth in Win Shares (13.8), fifth in Offensive Win Shares (9.5) eighth in PER (behind even Manu Ginobili), 8th in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (0.208), 14th in Defensive Win Shares (4.3), and he wasn’t even in the top 20 in either Offensive or Defensive Rating. Statistically speaking, there was nothing whatsoever to suggest that Kobe was the best or most valuable player in the league. LeBron led the league in PER (29.1) while Chris Paul was first in Win Shares (17.8) and a close second in PER (28.3).
But the Lakers (barely) won the West and Kobe was given a Lifetime Achievement Award MVP because the Lakers had returned to prominence post-Shaq under his watch.
I could go on. But you get my point.
Derrick shouldn’t have to apologize if he wins the MVP. And I’m not going to apologize for him. Nor will I feel sorry for poor LeBron James, who has an MVP-caliber teammate (D-Wade is third in the league in PER) and another All-Star (in Chris Bosh) as sidekicks but whose team is currently sixth-best in the league in terms of wins and losses. That’s most important stat…right?
Henry Abbott noted that winning seems to be the most important factor in MVP voting. Well, the Bulls have the league’s second-best record and currently lead John Hollinger’s Power Rankings by more than two points over the…Denver Nuggets. LeBron’s Heat are fourth in Hollinger’s rankings. Critics will say that this success is due to coaching or defense. Others will say Rose is just the lucky beneficiary of an irresistable story.
The great and terrible thing about the MVP is that there are no true constants…just trends and generalities. This allows fans, experts and MVP voters to decide what’s most important to them. People get way too caught up in what they believe the MVP award should be. Should it be advanced stats? Or stories? Or wins?
Maybe it should be all three. Maybe it always has been.