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We Need to Define the MVP Award

This year is one of the deepest MVP races I can remember. There are five viable MVP candidates (six, really), some more likely to win than others, but all of whom have a valid case for deserving the award. The problem is, disagreeing on who should win usually boils down to disagreeing on what the award means. Is it the best player? Is it the player who’s having the best season? Is it the player who means the most to his team? Each of the definitions will get you a different player deserving the award for different reasons. Two people arguing about the MVP could have identical opinions about all players in the NBA, but have different MVP choices because they see the award differently. Here are a few of the definitions we use most often and my choice for which player best fits that description.

The Best Player. Period. – LeBron James: This is the simplest definition and the hardest to defend as a yearly award. This isn’t “Who had the best year?” It’s “Who would you most want on your team right now?” The year’s performance is less relevant in this discussion; it helps serve as an indicator of the player’s current level of play, but it’s not the end-all-be-all of the discussion. The best player in the world is still LeBron James. As an all-around player, James is still the best, and I don’t think any of the other candidates have shown enough to take that title from him. His per game stats are up there with the other MVP hopefuls, but they don’t set him apart. He also took time off this year to rest and heal some nagging injuries; something many feel should impact his candidacy. This version of the argument would operate as a title belt, only changing hands when someone took the throne from the reigning “Best Player,” somewhat ignoring the MVP as a yearly award.

The Best Player on the Best Team – Stephen Curry: This argument allows for a little more weight to the yearly aspect of the award. Where the “Best Player” argument acted as a title belt that had to be taken away, this manifestation of the award allows for more fluidity year after year. Stephen Curry has been amazing this year, and the stats don’t really do him justice, though they’re impressive. When you watch the games, you see how important he is to their offense. His ball handling and shooting ability opens up the court for his teammates, and his three-point shooting and ability to score on his own add to the arsenal of weapons at his disposal. The problem with this iteration of the MVP argument is that it’s difficult to separate a player’s performance from the rest of the team. It’s possible that a very deep team could be head and shoulders above the rest of the league and not even have a top five player. I don’t think this is the case with Curry and the Warriors, but in many seasons this definition could be problematic, as it ties an individual award to a team’s success.

The WAR argument- James Harden/Russell Westbrook: If you replace the player with an average player at their position, what happens to their team? In the cases of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, their teams get much, much worse. The Rockets’ offense runs primarily through Harden, and he has had a huge responsibility to produce with Dwight Howard and others missing so much time. Harden is leading the league in points per game, minutes played and free throw attempts. It’s hard to see where the Rockets would be without him, but it would certainly be worse than second place in the West.

It’s easier to see where the Thunder would be without Westbrook. The team is 5-10 when Westbrook doesn’t play and 37-26 with him. He also leads the league in usage percentage, by a lot. Kevin Durant has been battling injury all season and was only able to play in 27 games before being forced to sit out the year because of a foot injury. Unfortunately for Westbrook, his efforts haven’t been enough to push his team to the playoffs yet, as they’re currently behind our next candidate’s team in the standings.

The Best Stats – Anthony Davis: He’s leading the league in PER and blocks per game. On a per game basis, he’s averaging 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 shots, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals and shooting 53.5 percent from the field. Davis’s current PER would rank 11th all time, just above James’s 2011-2012 season that earned him an MVP. This formula for determining the MVP may feel cold, and it is, but I just want to mention Davis’s stellar performance this year that likely would have won him an MVP if the other candidates weren’t also playing at such an exceptional level.

I’m not going to pick an MVP, because I still don’t know what it means. I’m partial to the WAR definition, as it’s the closest to the dictionary definition of “Most Valuable Player,” but it also doesn’t seem fair to Stephen Curry or LeBron James to penalize them for having talented teammates. If I had a vote, my ballot would have these five players on it, but I wouldn’t know what order to put them in, and I’d still feel awful for not being able to include Chris Paul.

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