Everything that’s wrong with the MVP Race: From timing to intangibles

Russell Westbrook and James Harden at All-Star Weekend

The 2016-17 MVP race has been a close-fought battle between three participants, namely Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. Each of these players has a number of compelling reasons as to why they should be crowned the MVP.

My own perspective has been that, of these candidates, it’s an incredibly difficult vote to make and I don’t think there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to have voted here necessarily. All three had regular seasons worthy of the award in any other year, when the competition wasn’t so impossibly high. In reality, the award is thought to be between Westbrook and Harden, and so those are the two I’ll really focus on in this article.

The first thing that jumps out though about the MVP award is the fact that we still don’t know who this year’s winner is.

Timing of the MVP Award

Whilst this regular season award has usually been handed out as the playoffs are commencing, this year we’re still waiting for the announcement at the NBA Awards show – set for Monday, June 26th. For me at least, this has huge implications for the perception of the award itself.

We already know the 2016/17 NBA MVP did not win the championship. We already know the NBA MVP did not even play in the finals. Doesn’t that take something away from the award? Doesn’t it become something of an afterthought? Doesn’t it steal some of the thunder (pun intended) from the winner?

Don’t get me wrong, players will clearly still want to win this award, but the timing relegates it to the point of insignificance in relation to the actual season it’s about. In the first attempt at this new timing, we’ve already been robbed of what has historically been an incredible motivator for players and talking point for fans.

With the favourites for the award still James Harden and Russell Westbrook, we could have witnessed a series akin to David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon squaring off in 1995, or Michael Jordan and Karl Malone in 1997. Instead, we’ll (most likely) see Westbrook win the award, with the knowledge that the Thunder won just a single, solitary game in the playoffs. In turn, we already know that the Thunder were unable to keep up with the high-octane Rockets offence – who we also know weren’t even an upper echelon playoff team when push came to shove.

The MVP award has historically been about intangibles. I don’t just mean in terms of player performance, I mean in terms of what it meant to the league handing it out as the playoffs commenced. Regardless of who won the award, it provided a level of excitement, of hope and optimism for that fan base. Either Thunder, Rockets or Spurs fans would have seen their franchise player win the award and maybe harboured dreams that maybe, just maybe it was their year.

Instead, while the award will still appear on lists and in the books, anyone who watched this season play out will largely remember the dominance of two teams in the playoffs. With the hindsight we are now afforded, it was the stars of the Cavaliers and the Warriors who were undoubtedly the standout players from the season taken as a whole.

The NBA Awards Show

The other aspect that comes across as demeaning to the award for me, is the actual format of how it is presented. The league has turned the awards into a ‘show’ that will also feature a line of new categories. Besides from the usual celebrity nonsense (grumpy old man alert!) the fact that it’s not afforded its own platform undermines its credibility.

Yes ladies and gentlemen. The MVP trophy now has equal billing to the #BestStyle award.

The. Best. Style. Award.

This is not a test, this is not a drill, do not adjust your dial. Let me repeat. The NBA MVP trophy now has equal billing to the #BestStyle award – a bastardised social media competition in which people vote for the player whose style they most admired.

With this trajectory, I can only imagine in a few years time we may see the MVP presented alongside the X Factor winner, or perhaps a whole new reality TV show where the finalists are put into a house and the whole process is fan voted.

Jokes aside. Hopefully, point made – this is nonsense.

Our MVP Finalists

What I found fascinating during the regular season was the certainty that many people seem to have in their choice of who is most deserving of the award. My intention with this article is not to question the credibility of the candidates. I can’t emphasise enough – my own view is that all three had MVP-worthy seasons in any normal year.

What I want to question is where the absolute certainty comes from among those particular writers and fans. I want to ask whether we shouldn’t all be a little more uncertain as to who the winner should be when faced with such strong candidates.

While there were a number of other legitimate candidates throughout the season, for the best part of the season the popular dialogue surrounding the award covered just two (Harden and Westbrook), one of which will almost certainly be crowned MVP.

With this regular season award still yet to have actually been handed out and the hindsight we’re now afforded, it seems like an awkward, inconvenient truth that our two leading MVP candidates were both eliminated from the playoffs in (to put it politely) underwhelming fashion. In my mind at least, having been an NBA fan for the best part of 20 years, I associate this award with players that have gone on to either win championships that season or at least drive their teams into the latter stages of the playoffs (sorry Dirk 2006-07 MVP season).

With Westbrook’s Thunder falling at the first hurdle, winning just a solitary game and Harden having endured a painful elimination game performance – what happened to our leading MVP candidates? Or (in retrospect) were we all along considering these players knowing they had virtually no chance of sustained winning when it really mattered? And as a counterpoint, does that even matter for a regular season award?


Both Westbrook and Harden had absolutely otherworldly statistical seasons. By any metric you apply, they both come up trumps. Matt Moore from CBS Sports wrote a fantastic piece comparing the top MVP candidates across a whole range of statistical perspectives. Read it now!

There are the fundamental points that cannot be disputed:

Russell Westbrook is the second player to ever average a triple-double.
James Harden changed position and became the fulcrum of one of the most historically effective offences we’ve ever seen in the NBA.

Seemingly for many people, these two factors were enough in themselves to justify them being the MVP – regardless of the arguments for others. But should that be the case by default? Are numbers ever really enough simply in themselves? If that’s the case, why do we allow voting and not simply employ an algorithm to determine the winner?

Again, my aim to not to say that either Harden or Westbrook is not deserving – far from it. Just to question the process and the basis on which people base their opinions. At the halfway point of the season, I was prompted to write an article questioning why Kawhi Leonard was just 8th in the MVP race at that point, when the numbers, the team record and even the eye test seemed to indicate otherwise.

So what should we value?

Basketball is a simple game.

5 players on each team, 94 x 50 feet of hardwood, two hoops suspended ten feet above the floor.

Whoever scores the most points wins.

Everything else that we talk about and build up in terms of assessing the performance of teams and individuals on a basketball court has some level of subjectivity to it.

In reality, it is neither inherently better nor worse to win with an individual player contributing more points (or other counting stats) than the rest of his team combined or to have a perfectly balanced load between team members. The entire purpose of the game (or any game) is to win.

Hypothetically, should a player be penalised if their team’s best chance of winning is a more balanced approach, even if they are capable of producing better individual numbers were they on a team that favoured a different approach? Take the Warriors. Undisputedly, their ‘Big 4’ could all put up bigger numbers on a different team or in a different situation. Does that diminish their abilities as players simply because they’re on a team that shares the ball?

For all the incredible numbers and metrics that we now have to help assess player performance, too often I see these figures bandied around as though they are conclusive simply in themselves. These numbers are simply a result of two factors: what a player is capable of, and the opportunities they are provided with through the system that their team plays.

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double this year. This may be a feat for which he may well be the only person on the planet even physically capable of achieving. Read that again, Westbrook is as special a player as we have in the league right now, but I genuinely don’t think he’s a better player for having put up those numbers.

I (honestly!) have a half-drafted article from a few years ago that I never got around to finishing arguing Westbrook’s corner, that were he ‘the guy’ on a team (written when he teamed up with Durant) he’d be a perennial MVP contender in the ‘do it myself’ Allen Iverson mould.

The major rap on Westbrook at the time was that as good as he was, his style of play kept the ball out of Kevin Durant’s hands too often and he didn’t pass enough. Fast forward, and one future hall of fame teammate departure later and funnily enough, he has the ball more, he shoots more and his numbers increase. He’s actually doing more of what he was originally chastised for, but the perception is now that it’s a good thing and he’s a better player for doing it.

This wasn’t Westbrook suddenly ‘getting it’, changing his game or becoming a radically superior player – he simply found himself in a new situation that empowered him to display the combination of desire, unmatched athleticism and scoring ability that obviously wouldn’t reflect in numbers to the same degree when sharing the floor with Durant.

Changing Perceptions of the Triple-Double and Individual Statistical Feats

It’s funny how quickly perceptions around statistical feats can change. For anyone relatively new to the game you may not remember him, but Ricky Davis (last season was with the Clippers in 09/10) was a player that encapsulated the individual over the team. If you looked at his individual numbers, you’d assume he was an all-star calibre player, but his stats usually came before (and often at the expense of) the success of the team. To put his mindset into perspective, this was a player who genuinely believed that Lebron James was drafted by the Cavs to be a part of his supporting cast.

On the 16th March, 2003 Cleveland was playing at home against Utah and Ricky Davis was one rebound short of his first career triple-double. He received an inbound pass from the sideline, laid the ball up against his own rim and caught the ball in an attempt to be credited with a rebound.

The result? Receiving a hard foul as the other team felt disrespected, ridicule from the wider NBA fan base and an undisclosed fine from the Cavaliers for ‘Unsportsmanlike Conduct’. The fact that someone would play what essentially amounts to their own mini-game within an actual game, for a statistical feat that is entirely dependent on the number of numerals we depict in the symbol for the number ten… came across as a gaudy act, committed by a ‘me-first’ player from the ‘too much, too soon’ generation.

I don’t mean to disrespect Westbrook by bringing up Davis. I’m just highlighting how the perception towards the triple-double as a feat in itself, beyond even the team’s success, has historically been viewed in different ways.

James Harden

The scenario that facilitates an individual player to put up the biggest possible numbers he’s capable of, is unlikely (not impossible) to be the same scenario that gives that player’s team the best chance of winning.

However, the combination of Harden’s skill-set and D’Antoni’s offensive system seemingly proved a perfect match in this regard. Harden’s incredible ability to change speed, read defences, shoot from range, find open teammates and get to the foul line meant he was impossible to contain this season. He was the engine, the driver and the wheels for the Rockets locomotive. This combination drove the Rockets to the third-best record in the league, far better than most predicted at the outset of the season.

But what if we think a bit more cynically? Remember, this is the same system that helped Steve Nash win two MVP awards without ever reaching the finals, and even made Jeremy Lin into a temporary superstar. If one player is the primary decision maker, scoring option and playmaker on almost every possession of a basketball game, aren’t they bound to put up incredible numbers providing they’re good enough?

In regular season games, if your team is conditioned to play so fast and to play the statistics in terms of shooting selection (threes and shots at the rim) you’re bound to win a certain number of games by catching teams unprepared and the variance that shooting so many threes brings. But when teams play against that system in a series, take the time to put detailed game plans together and to throw everything they have at Harden (or whoever the primary ballhandler is) – just as we saw in the elimination game against the Spurs, everything to date tells us this system will ultimately fall short.

Shouldn’t Winning Matter?

In exactly the same way we saw Steph Curry regress (purely regular season, statistically speaking) this year, I’d challenge someone to come up with a compelling argument that the two-time MVP has significantly declined as a player. Similarly, I’d challenge anyone to make a credible argument that the Warriors are in a worse position having added Durant to the roster.

Historically, winning has always been a precursor and a qualifying factor to winning the MVP trophy. With this in mind and out of curiosity, I broke down the MVPs since 1990 (what I’d think of as the era I’ve either directly watched or am most familiar with) to see if the tie between winning records and the MVP trophy was as close as it seemed in my mind.

Here are the MVP winners, the year they won and how they’re team finished in the overall standings.

Westbrook 2017 10th
Harden 2017 3rd
Leonard 2017 2nd
Curry 2016 1st
Curry 2015 1st
Durant 2014 2nd
James 2013 1st
James 2012 3rd
Rose 2011 1st
James 2010 1st
James 2009 1st
Bryant 2008 3rd
Nowitzki 2007 1st
Nash 2006 4th
Nash 2005 1st
Garnett 2004 2nd
Duncan 2003 1st
Duncan 2002 2nd
Iverson 2001 2nd
O’neal 2000 1st
Malone 1999 1st
Jordan 1998 1st
Malone 1997 2nd
Jordan 1996 1st
Robinson 1995 1st
Olajuwon 1994 2nd
Barkley 1993 1st
Jordan 1992 1st
Jordan 1991 2nd
Johnson 1990 1st

One third of the teams in the NBA had better records than the Thunder this year. Is the triple-double feat enough to overcome that fact? I’m not saying it’s not, but it’s a big factor to have in mind.As a general rule, the MVP trophy has been seen as the award for the best player, from one of the standout teams. Exceptions have been made (most notably with Steve Nash in 2005-06) for individuals that have driven their teams to exceptional performance, but not even close to ever rewarding a player from a team with the 10th best record in a league of 30 teams.

Have you seen a more underwhelming elimination game performance from a superstar level player than Harden’s game 6 against the Spurs? With the hindsight the NBA now gives us with their timing of the award, would you not place an asterisk if Harden were to win? It’s obviously a regular season award, but the fact it’s not awarded until after the postseason means we can’t help but take that into account.

Final Thoughts

Just to re-emphasise, this article is not to dismiss what Westbrook or Harden has achieved this season. I genuinely never thought I’d see a player average a triple-double or a single player be able to produce the kind of complete solo offensive mastery that reflects in team wins that we’ve seen from Harden. What I’ve tried to do is to challenge:

1. The level of certainty so many people seem to have had in who deserves to win the award when in my eyes it’s anything but clear-cut
2. Highlight how the league itself is diminishing the prestige and the value of the award

Come Monday evening we’ll have crowned a 2016-17 NBA MVP. But having watched the performances of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry and especially Kevin Durant in the playoffs and the finals… It won’t be the MVP I’ll immediately think of when I remember this season.

Similarly, history may not be kind to this year’s MVP. Karl Malone winning over Michael Jordan twenty years ago in 1997 is an example of a campaign that hasn’t stood the test of time when afforded retrospect. The key difference now is that players and fans don’t ever get to experience the excitement of the award in the actual moment. Previously, the chance of winning a title seemed to dangle that little bit closer knowing that team has the MVP onboard.