What if I told you that despite averaging a triple-double, Russell Westbrook shouldn’t have been selected MVP in 2017? What if I told you Giannis should’ve been MVP over Nikola Jokic this past season? Throughout most NBA seasons, there is a heated race at the top between two or three candidates most deserving of the MVP award. Voters and fans struggle to determine the true meaning of value in ranking the best performers during a particular season and their impact on their team. I have taken it upon myself to vote on the last ten MVPs and see how my picks differ from the official voters.
Step one in voting for MVP is establishing consistent criteria. The MVP is purely a regular season award, which I can’t entirely agree with because I think the most crucial season, the postseason, is where the most valuable players are displayed. However, I will follow this criterion only considering regular season play. The most significant emphasis in my evaluation will be on individual statistical production, including efficiency and counting stats.
Then I will consider team success as most players in the MVP conversation are putting up remarkable stats. The unwritten rule has been that an MVP winner generally has to be a top 3 seed in their respective conference. Since 1985, only two MVP winners haven’t been top 3 seeds in their conference, Russell Westbrook in 2017 and Nikola Jokic in 2022. The seeding is critical, but I also look at the win % of the team when that candidate is in the lineup and compare it to the other candidates.
Lastly, I factor in the player’s situation, supporting cast, coaching, etc. Most MVP candidates are the driving force of their team’s success; without them on the floor, their team would be considerably worse. I won’t get into the hypothetical game of seeing which team would be worse without their star, but I will go off of the data we have and the support/lack thereof around them.
Harden over Westbrook
In this exercise, I only disagreed with two MVP picks, Russell Westbrook in 2017 and Nikola Jokic in 2022. Both players had phenomenal historic statistical production in these seasons, but James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo had better, more complete seasons. James Harden in 2017 was two rebounds shy of averaging a triple-double too! In addition, he led the league in assists averaging 11.2 per game, finishing second in PPG (29.1). Furthermore, Harden had a higher FG%, 3PT%, EFG%, and TS% than Westbrook. The Rockets were also the higher seed, a top three seed, as Harden led Houston to 55 wins compared to Westbrook’s 47 and 6th seed. Neither Harden nor Westbrook had an All-Star on their team. I believe the media narrative of Westbrook having accomplished a rare historic triple-double feat was ultimately the reason he received the award, but statistically and with team success, Harden was better.
Giannis over Jokic
Giannis just had a regular season that had people referring to him as clearly the best player on the planet. Still, when it was time for the MVP conversation, he consistently came in third behind Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, which was very puzzling to me. Giannis finished second to Joel Embiid in a scoring title race that was neck and neck until the very end. He also grabbed nearly 12 boards a night with six assists. Jokic overall had the edge in offensive production, although far from a landslide (Giannis scored more and also brings playmaking to the table). Only one player was named to first team All-NBA and first team All-Defense this past season, Giannis Antetonkounmpo. His Bucks also had a higher win % than both the Nuggets and 76ers! The Bucks were also the only top 3 seed amongst these teams. All three teams had significant time without star players, although admittedly, the Nuggets and 76ers did have less support for their superstars in the regular season (arguably different when Harden arrived). With all the facts on the table, Giannis still had the best regular season overall, which is why he’d receive my vote.
Grading MVP voters
Usually, the voters do end up getting these awards right. However, sometimes media narratives and falling in love with specific criteria aspects can skew the conversation in someone’s favor. To look back at an entire decade of winners and only disagree with two means that I would give the voters an 80% grade which is good. As long as we are consistent, I don’t mind the results but staying consistent with the criteria means another MVP for James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo!