By Zach Wilson
I want you to take 30 seconds to close your eyes, and think about the things in life that matter to you. If someone were to pose the question, “What is the best thing in your life right now?” what would you say?
Some of you may say an extremely precious item, or a piece of memorabilia that you own. Others might have a really expensive car, or vacation home. Maybe you went a little more practical, and said your house, access to safe drinking water, your family, or your health.
Now take a step back, and reset. This time I want you to think of the most valuable thing in your life. This is something that you can’t live without, and it is of utmost value to you. For some people, these answers may coincide with one another. Some people may still have said that really expensive Ferrari sitting in their garage, or the beach house in Los Angeles that you visit a few times a year.
However, I’m sure the majority of people came up with a more of a practical answer to this second question. Health, family, food, employment; a lot of answers probably came up.
Why is that? Why can something be the most valuable thing we own, yet still not be considered the best?
We see this argument a lot when it comes to the MVP award, which is given out upon the conclusion of every NBA season. Every year we hear the same thing: “LeBron could win MVP every year he’s been in the league, if the award truly was given to the most valuable player!”
Is this true? Is LeBron truly the most valuable player every season? I’m sure one could argue that he’s been the best player in the league every year for the past 10 years, but has he had the best regular season every single year?
That right there is the first thing to iron out. The MVP award is awarded to a player based solely on the current season. It’s easy to look at a player’s whole body of work throughout their career and express why they’re still the better player than the current MVP. There’s a few guys I would still say are better than reigning two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. We see evidence that there are still a few players who are better than him every year when the pressure of the playoffs brings players to their boiling points.
It’s possible to keep that distinction in mind when discussing the MVP award while at the same time recognizing that Antetokounmpo had, at the very least, one of the two best individual performances of the 2019–2020 regular season.
Now that we have cleared that up, let’s get into what everyone came here for; the main entrée, the main event, the semantic battle of ‘most valuable’ vs. ‘best’ player!
This is a debate which can be fun, yet annoying when taken too far, or had with stubborn individuals. (Realistically, I just described every debate you could have. Nevertheless!)
Even though the ‘best player in the league’ discourse is extremely subjective, everyone is at least generally aware of the criteria used. Some people use the eye test, some use stats, but often the majority of people will use some combination of the two. Either way, the point stands: every basketball fan would be able to tell you who they think the best player in the league is (or best players if there’s a tie) without hesitation.
The true question—and the one that comes into focus every year without fail— is what ‘valuable’ actually means in basketball terms.
I guess the first item to discuss is to figure out what the most ‘valuable’ thing in a basketball game is. If you polled 100 people, I’m sure you would receive at least 20 different answers. However, in its simplest form, the most valuable thing in basketball is winning. It doesn’t matter how well you score, assist, rebound, defend, etc. If you factor into winning games, you are valuable.
Is it just the best player on the team with the most wins then? That would be Giannis Antetokounmpo. That doesn’t necessarily make sense though, because you win games as a team. So the best player on the best team, isn’t always the most valuable player in the league.
Should we just credit the player with the highest win shares? James Harden would take the cake for this season then. However, as much as advanced stats certainly have their place, they need to be taken with context. Sure, the guys at the top of the win share charts would be amongst the league’s most valuable, but it isn’t necessarily the best tool to divide the top from the top.
So then is it the best player on a team with a weak supporting cast that still manages to win a substantial amount of games in comparison to the team this player has around them? (Whew! That was a mouthful.) How do we even begin to determine that?
To me, ‘most valuable’ needs to be decided the same way which we determine the best. Through a mix of statistics, and the eye-test.
Since the most important aspect of basketball is winning, I figured the best way to determine the most valuable player is to ask yourself the following question, and plug in the player and team which you think suits the blanks best. Like so:
The ______ (team) would fall off the hardest, if they were without _______ (player).
Essentially, we’re asking what team would have the biggest gap between a season with a specific player on the court, and then without that specific player.
Since we can’t just simulate an entire NBA season 450 times, (one time without each individual player) this once again becomes a subjective question.
So I did what any smart person does when posed with a difficult question, I went to the experts! I had the pleasure of exchanging messages with two of the smartest guys in the basketball analysis business, Howard Beck, and Justin Termine, who were generous enough to answer the fill-in-the-blank above, and to give me their rationale behind their answers. Keep in mind what we discussed earlier. This is a regular season award, so I received these answers prior to the start of the playoffs. Even though their answers did include the eight seeding games from inside the bubble, which the MVP award itself also excluded, both of their responses were submitted before Game 1 of every first-round series.
Let’s take a look at what each of them had to say!
I believe the Trailblazers would fall off the most if they were to lose Damian Lillard for a significant time. They went 2-6 in the games he missed this year, but the most telling evidence for how significant their drop-off would be came from the games we saw in the bubble. Portland’s defense was ranked 27th in the NBA this year, and without Lillard they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the amount of points they’re giving up. Even looking at the bubble we saw Portland need 51, 61, and 42 points from Lillard in their final three ‘seeding games’ to beat the Sixers, Mavericks, and Nets seven combined points. In the case of the Sixers and Nets, they weren’t even facing opponents near full-strength.
This was an intriguing answer. Damian Lillard, as phenomenal as he was this season, did not put up a year which would be typically considered for MVP. Which is interesting, because if everyone on his team was slightly better, yet Lillard put up the same stats, Portland could have finished as a top-three seed instead of squeaking into the playoffs. Were that to happen, Lillard would most definitely be in the running for the award.
Why is that? How can a guy’s MVP chances shoot up so drastically, simply through better performance of his teammates? That’s one of the reasons this award is flawed. Lillard may have very well been the most ‘valuable’ player in the league in a literal sense, but he only finished eighth in voting because he didn’t have as good of teammates as the players who finished ahead of him.
The Bucks would fall off the hardest if they were without Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s their best scorer and their leading playmaker, the engine of their offense and the linchpin of their top-ranked defense. The Bucks’ entire identity depends on him. Milwaukee does have Khris Middleton, but he’s a complementary star, not a leading man or No. 1 option. They have no one else who can consistently create or break down a defense. Without Giannis, the Bucks would be no better than a seventh or eighth seed.
Howard decided to go the route of a player whose team won a lot, yet still the player who had the biggest impact on a winning team. Milwaukee was most certainly the best, and most dominant team in the league throughout the regular season, and Giannis cemented himself as the best player on that team.
The second point which he brings up is one which I agree with a lot. Giannis had a weaker supporting cast, specifically at the top of the roster, than his fellow competitors. As much as Khris Middleton certainly had an all-star caliber season, he is not as good as Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, or Paul George (regular season award!); the other players who would typically be considered as an adequate second fiddle.
A lot of people would likely retort that point by saying that Milwaukee has a greater collection of talent, which is true, but playing alongside other top tier talent is a lot more beneficial to the respective player, than a team full of depth. Giannis has a lot of teammates who make great secondary, and tertiary creators; players who can make open shots, and create plays once Giannis has already broken down the defense. Playing alongside another star, allows him to potentially “take plays off,” and also become a secondary creator himself at times. Giannis would be extremely strong as a roll-man, or attacking off a close-out, if he had a teammate who commanded enough attention from opposing defenses.
The question becomes, what do we do with the MVP award? Do we just leave it in this abyss of ambiguous criteria? Where MVP voters are picking based on their own conceptions of value? Or should the award’s categories be slightly more solidified to the point where it does go to the player who was the most traditionally ‘valuable’?
I personally believe Bradley Beal was the most valuable player to his team in the 2019-2020 regular season. Beal averaged over 30 points per game while being extremely efficient, yet he received zero credit for it this year, because the remainder of his team was so lackluster. Beal most definitely should have been an All-Star, probably should have made an All-NBA team, and quite honestly, was arguably the most ‘valuable’ player to his team during the season. Without Beal, the Wizards are probably sitting with the worst record and the number one pick in the upcoming draft.
The MVP award often goes to the player who had the most dominant season, combined with winning, which is far easier when you have better players around you. “As it happens, I did vote Giannis for MVP this season. But not based on the ‘take player X off team Y’ formula. It’s because he was the league’s most dominant player, period, and he powered his team to the NBA’s best record” (Howard Beck).
Should there be two awards then? A Most Valuable Player Award, and then a Best Individual Season Award? The only problem with that, is the BIS award would go towards the player who would typically win MVP, and the MVP award would be all over the place. Not to mention the title of league MVP has developed such a pedigree in itself that, even though the BIS award might be more prestigious, it would probably never look that way in anyone’s eyes.
Matt Esposito and I discussed this on the most recent episode of The Playgrounder Podcast. He brought up a great point of how the MVP award is used as such a substantial piece of someone’s legacy, yet in the grand scheme of things, might not always be a great indicator of how good a player was.
Take this year for example. Yes, Giannis was the best player through the regular season, and he deserves recognition for that. However, he and the Bucks flamed out in the playoffs to a team who was ranked four spots below them, and there were multiple players who performed better than Giannis on the most important stage. We see that happen a lot—the MVP of the regular season isn’t even close to the MVP of the playoffs. Yet, 30 years from now, all we’re going to see is who won the MVP, without necessarily seeing the full picture.
Voting for MVP is an extremely difficult task. The best, and most valuable player for me, most certainly coincide, because to me the best thing you can do, and the most valuable thing you can do as a player is effect winning in a positive manner. However, as we’ve already established, having better teammates around you not only makes winning easier, it provides more room for individual success as well.
I think in order for the MVP to hold as much value as it does, it has to include the postseason. Otherwise, we’re awarding such a prestigious honour to an individual for how well they perform only to exclude the most important part of a season.
I am still all for recognizing the player who performs the best in the regular season, regardless if they might be a product of their situation or not. But does that make them the most indisputably valuable player in the entire league? My answer is no, and it seems a lot of other people feel the same.