The NBA’s MVP award has been chosen annually by a panel of media members since the 1980-81 season. The discourse among voters, league personnel and fans seems more divergent than ever, and yet no race has been decided by fewer than 39 first-place votes since Steve Nash edged Shaquille O’Neal in 2004-05.
O’Neal will never fly that one goes, but somehow discussions around the award felt more nuanced and less hostile before advanced statistics sent the media down a path players and fans did not follow so willingly. Maybe this was always the end result of the information age, but more and more people seem to believe there is a right or wrong answer, even though the NBA has never outlined any specific criteria for the honor.
Bottom line: The MVP conversation is out of control.
Former players turned ESPN analysts Kendrick Perkins and JJ Redick have spent the last 24 hours publicly debating whether reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is “stat-padding” his 25 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists a game this season. The back-and-forth devolved further, all as Jokic logged another triple-double on 11 shots in 28 minutes of a blowout win. The Denver Nuggets are 24-0 when Jokic has a triple-double.
(Perkins joined the MVP voting panel last season, when he voted for Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, since he was “the first center to lead the league in scoring since Shaq … AND [kept] the 76ers afloat during the Ben Simmons disaster” — two reasons that both cannot be disputed and cannot be applied generally.)
Is it a coincidence that the last six MVPs also led the league in player efficiency rating? That includes Russell Westbrook in 2016-17, by the way, a selection many of the 32 media members who voted for other candidates have since raged harder against, mostly for his weaknesses as a player (high turnover rate, low shooting percentages and porous defense ) and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s sixth-place finish that season.
In six years, a faction of the electorate has gone from adamantly advocating against Westbrook’s MVP — despite him leading OKC to 48 wins in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure, his performance in the clutch and him becoming the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 — to voters questioning whether Jokic should win the award during a season in which he is averaging a triple-double on a first-place team, simply because he has received the last two MVPs without winning a championship.
There are 12 media members who voted against Westbrook in 2017 and for Jokic on a 48-win, sixth-place team last year, when the gap between Westbrook and the next-highest PER in that season was far wider. Now, there is a chance that some of them might vote against Jokic this season, when he and his team are better, either out of fatigue or the belief that past playoff success should factor into a regular season award.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo easily won back-to-back MVPs in 2019 and 2020, before receiving a single first-place vote at the end of his next season. Jokic and Embiid developed into bona fide candidates that year and two-time winner Stephen Curry reentered the fray, but the narrative shifted away from Antetokounmpo primarily because his Bucks underwhelmed in the playoffs after each MVP campaign.
How could Antetokounmpo be the best player in the world when he can’t even get out of his own conference? A month later, after Jokic received his first MVP trophy during a sweeping second-round playoff loss in 2021, Antetokounmpo won the championship and earned Finals MVP, and we all agreed he was the best player alive again. Then, he finished well behind Jokic and Embiid for MVP in 2021-22.
Not only is there no consistent definition of an MVP, some voters apply their definitions inconsistently. People are overthinking this. It is as if the smarter we get about basketball, the dumber the discussion is.
The sense I get is that, because votes are made public, media panelists mostly lean into analytics, since they are the strongest defense. Jokic, who leads the NBA in most all-encompassing statistics, as he has the last two seasons, received 77 first-place votes from 100 media members polled by ESPN last month. Would secret ballots create closer races than the recent run of lopsided decisions? Not by this indication.
Players tend to consider reverence, dominance and brilliance more often. This is why The Athletic’s recent poll of 101 ex-players named LeBron James as the best current player, why Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell both chose Antetokounmpo instead, and why Kyrie Irving’s peers hold him in such high regard. Would diversifying the electorate to include a committee of players, coaches and executives (those who live and breathe the game on a level anyone observing it cannot expect to reach) improve the panel? Sure.
Naturally, fans can gravitate towards emotionality and familiarity, siding with the player they like or know better, whether he plays for their favorite team or is more aesthetically pleasing to watch. The NBA granted fans one collective ballot on the panel until they gave Derrick Rose a first-place vote in 2021, when the one-time MVP averaged 14.9 points a game in 35 appearances, mostly off the bench, for the New York Knicks. I am not sure there is a way to include fans in the voting process without introducing a higher degree of bias.
Each tendency has its flaws. Media members who do not want to appear to be zagging when others are zigging can form a hive-mind mentality that discounts alternative approaches. Many players have relied more on personal experience and observation than extensive research. And it is hard to imagine a series of randomized fan polls ever returning invariable enough answers, unless the votes are tallied from city to city.
This is all fine. If MVP voting were an exact science, there would be no discussion around it. What bothers me are inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Use the same criteria every time, whatever yours may be, and do the homework. You are entitled to your opinion, because that is all the MVP is, but let us be smart about it.
Let us not argue about whether Jokic is even a top-five player in the NBA.
If you think the best player on the best team deserves MVP, give it to him every time. If you think the best player alive is more deserving, regardless of production, keep giving it to him. If you think the most dominant player of the season is the most deserving, regardless of team success, stick with it. If your method weighs team performance, statistics and film, go forth in perpetuity. But don’t decide a player is undeserving of a third consecutive MVP just because he already won two, his team fell short in the past playoffs or you don’t want to place him in the company of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird.
And for goodness’ sake, do not let us live in a world where anyone is simultaneously mad that Westbrook won on a sixth-place team in 2017 and Jokic wins on a first-place team in 2023. If we are being consistent, the guy averaging a triple-double on the runaway best team in the Western Conference, who also has the highest true shooting percentage of anyone ever to score 20 points per game, is the league’s MVP again.
If you disagree, let me know why. The MVP conversation should be as fun as it is informed.