The NBA Most Valuable Player Award is a Big Deal. We like it when national media introduce our favorite players into “the conversation”. Players who actually win have “NBA MVP” appended to their name for eternity, no matter how well or poorly they play afterwards. It’s a career-changing event.
Ironically, the moment of crystal clarity is preceded by a messy glop of ill timing, indistinct criteria, and a basic lack of definition. Even if we never fully agree on the eventual winner, refining the process would help us understand what we’re disagreeing about.
The 2016-17 MVP race came down to the wire between James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Harden’s team had a better record but Westbrook ultimately won the award on the strength of a historic triple-double average. However, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost in the first round of the playoffs, while the Houston Rockets lost in the second. If they couldn’t lead their teams past the second round, were Westbrook and Harden really the most valuable players in the league?
Of course, MVP voters never got the chance to consider those results. A panel of 100 independent media members vote for the NBA awards. Their votes are based on a player’s regular season performance. Even though the winners of this year’s award will be announced after the Championship series, in a TNT awards show on June 25, nothing that happened to them in the past two months—arguably the most important of the season—will actually count.
Even if they did get to weigh all evidence, it’s unclear what the criteria voters use for selecting the MVP. An NBA.com roundtable article polled official voters to find out what criteria matters most in making the MVP decision. Some, like Steve Aschenbrenner, were as straightforward as “who was the best player on the best team?” Others took a slightly more more nuanced approach, like John Schumann who said “My vote went to the individual who had the biggest effect on why a good team was good.” Presumably each finds clarity, but not about the same thing.
Given this, the MVP voting system would benefit from a couple of changes.
- Include the postseason and time announcements accordingly. Things move quickly in the NBA. If a player does not lead their team deep into the playoffs, how deserving are they? Wait until the postseason is over to bestow the award. Think how much can happen in a week in the NBA. Do you really think two months should pass between when the ballots are turned in and the results are revealed? Even when the outcome is clear, elapsed time serves nobody. Last year the big reveal ended up anticlimactic because we already knew how most of the media had voted.
- Do it Hall of Fame style. The James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame accepts nominations for inductees and then a Screening Committee determines who the finalists will be. The list of finalists is passed along to the Honors Committee which deliberates before voting for the inductees. For the MVP race, set up a similar nomination and deliberation system. All nominations would be limited in the number of words (no 10,000-word tomes, just short essays published on nba.com). A committee would deliberate and vote for a winner. If necessary they might vote multiple times until a winner emerged.
Do you think restructuring timing and voting would help the MVP process? If you had a magic wand, would you reform the MVP voting system? Comment below.
Tara Bowen-Biggs (Team Mom) | @tcbbiggs