Fixing the NBA’s MVP Award

In football, a team has 11 on the field. In baseball, nine players occupy the field. Even hockey has six per side on the ice. But a basketball team needs just five players on the court. By sheer numbers alone, one player has the ability to impact a basketball game more than any other major team sport.

That fact alone makes the MVP of the NBA one of the most prestigious awards in sports. Yet year after year it seems like more people are left complaining that the recipient of the award wasn’t deserving or, more likely, that the most deserving recipient was not awarded.

The problem is that there is no clear definition of MVP. Yes, the acronym stands for Most Valuable Player, but those three words conjure dozens of connotations. And each variation may render a different player most deserving of the award, especially during a year like the 2007-08 season when so many players are playing at an elite level.

The issue of MVP ambiguity is not new. In fact, I heard ESPN’s Ric Bucher raise the issue when he was recently the guest on the BS Report with Bill Simmons. He said the problem is that the league doesn’t want a clear-cut definition for MVP because they think all the arguing about whom is most deserving is good for the league.

OK NBA, I can understand that you enjoy being talked about, but this is the league MVP we’re talking about here. There should be some sort of general consensus. Save the debates for subjects like the dress code, expansion into Europe, changing All-Star Saturday night or playoff realignment.

I understand that there is no foolproof formula to determine an MVP. But when Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitski have three times as many MVP awards as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, you have to wonder if there might be a system better than the one we’ve got, which consists of votes cast by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters who basically determine their own criteria for what makes an MVP.

The blog Basketbawful wrote an entry about the MVP issue last year, noting a historical precedent (with a few exceptions) for the MVP to be a player from one of the best two or three teams in the league. Valuing winning seems to make sense, but perhaps they’re overvaluing it when it comes to this most individualistic of awards. That brings me to three important rules that should be mandated for MVP voting.

Rule #1: Do not limit the field of MVP candidates to players from the top two or three teams in the league.
There’s already an award that goes to the player on the best team. It’s called an NBA Championship. Yes, one player in basketball can have more impact on the outcome of a game than in any major team sport. But a very good team is likely still a good team minus one player. (For example, the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls won 55 regular season games and made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs following the retirement of Michael Jordan.) An individual award cannot be based upon a team record. It’s simply illogical.

Rule #2: Do not hand out MVPs as lifetime achievement awards.
I’m talking to you, Karl Malone. Just because a player has had a great career, that does not entitle him to an MVP award. Conversely, you can’t refuse to vote for a player just because he’s already won multiple MVP awards. This award isn’t about change for change sake. This is the NBA MVP we’re talking about.

Rule #3: Do not project MVPs into the future.
A few years ago, I’m sure a number of voters cast their ballots for Steve Nash while in the back of their minds thinking, Kobe had a great year, but he’ll have many more seasons just like this year when he can win MVP whereas Nash is like lightning in a bottle. I need to capture this moment. Now fast forward three years. Nash has two MVPs, Bryant has none and LeBron James is in the same position as 2004-05 Kobe. Don’t worry about what a player will or will not do in the future. Worry about naming the MVP of this season only.

Now that voters know what not to do, the next question is, what should voters look for when naming their MVP?

We’re back to the issue of defining our term. What should an NBA MVP be? And of course, therein lies the challenge because very little can be determined objectively.

Imagine you have the list of top 10 MVP candidates in front of you. Now answer the following questions:

  • The candidates are playing a game against one another. Who’s your first pick?
  • Which player causes the most matchup problems?
  • Which player’s NBA team would suffer the most in his absence?
  • Who is the best all-around player?
  • Who would you want taking the last shot down by one point? Down by two points? Down by three points? At the free throw line?

If you answered the same name for every question, you’re either extremely biased lying to yourself, or there is a clear cut MVP. But most years, many different names serve as answers to that or any comparable set of MVP questions.

The problem is that so much of what makes a great player great is subjective. Does he make his teammates better? How does he perform in the clutch? How well does he play defense? Is he as a leader on and off the court?

Statistics and standings are simply unable to answer these questions. That, of course, is why the MVP is determined by a vote – not a formula – in the first place.

Unless the NBA decides to issue a decree making any one of those questions the focal point of NBA voting, voters will continue to be skewed by their own preferences and beliefs about which of those questions matter most in an MVP candidate. So perhaps we can’t logistically alter the voting. However, we can alter the voters.

Why should the media alone determine the MVP? They only see things from a media perspective, which certainly does not tell the whole story. If the MVP is going to be such a subjective award, why not at least allow it to come from a more representative sampling of voters?

My proposal is simple. Give players and coaches a vote, each worth a third of the total vote. And give the media the other third of the total vote. Players can’t vote for themselves or for teammates, and coaches can’t vote for their players. How is that not a better system?

Isn’t Detroit Piston Tayshaun Prince at least equally – if not more – qualified to tell you if Kobe or LeBron is more deserving of the MVP than a Detroit Free Press writer?

If there’s anyone suited to judge the various subjective qualities that make an MVP, it’s the players that have to go head-to-head with the prospective MVPs and the coaches that have to try to scheme against the prospective MVPs.

In a democratic society, we’re taught that every vote counts. So let’s extend that right to vote in the MVP race to players and coaches in addition to the media. It may not be the perfect solution to naming the most deserving MVP each year, but it’s an improvement that gets my vote. And as for my MVP vote, check back at the end of the season. As of now it’s still too close to call.

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