If there’s one thing that constantly fuels discussion, it’s who deserves to be the league’s Most Valuable Player. Much of the debate circles around what deems a player worthy of the award, whether ‘most valuable’ comes down to individual numbers, team wins, carrying a franchise or fulfilling a narrative throughout the regular season.
Using data from the last 10 seasons, I look at the statistical case for this year’s candidates and suggest that there’s one clear frontrunner at the season’s halfway point.
Statistics that favour MVPs
To predict the MVP, it helps to understand the strength of the relationship between leading the league in a statistic and being awarded a first place vote. Looking at MVP winners and other candidates with first place votes over the past 10 years, the statistics that link most strongly to MVP votes can be clearly seen.
- PPG: Points per game
- RPG: Rebounds per game
- APG: Assists per game
- WS: Win shares, a number that quantifies a player’s contribution to team wins, which is sometimes displayed per 48 minutes to account for playing time.
- Box +/- : Box plus minus describes a player’s on-court contribution, not taking into account playing time, where the league average is zero. This statistic uses traditional box score data to reveal how many points their team is better or worse off by having them on the floor.
- PER: Player efficiency rating, a rating developed by John Hollinger that shows a player’s per-minute net contribution, where the league average is zero.
- VORP: Value over replacement player, a measure of a player’s value to the team over a theoretical backup player, calculated by: [BPM – (-2.0)] * (% of possessions played) * (team games/82).
The category with the best correlation to MVP votes is Box Plus Minus (BPM), in which the league leader has received first place votes in each of the last 10 seasons and won MVP in eight of those years. Win Shares (WS) and player efficiency rating (PER) follow closely, with 90 percent of the league leaders receiving votes and 80 percent winning the award. Call Over Replacement Player (VORP) follows on, again with 90 percent of leaders receiving first places votes, but only 50 per cent winning the award.
The traditional box score stats of points, rebounds and assists per game have a much weaker link. In particular, rebounds is the worst indication, in which the league leader has not won MVP since Kevin Garnett in 2003-04. Unlucky, Andre Drummond.
When players have led the league in BPM and PER in the same year, they have won MVP 90 percent of the time. Derrick Rose in 2010-11 is the statistical outlier in many of these categories, having fewer points, rebounds, WS, VORP, BPM and PER than LeBron James, who finished with 109 fewer first place votes (out of a total 121).
Playing on a winning team
The last player to receive a first place vote for MVP and not make the Playoffs was Allen Iverson in 2005 and the only player to win the award was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976, whose LA Lakers failed to make the postseason. In fact, since 1975, only Moses Malone (1979, 1982) and Russell Westbrook (2017) have won the MVP on a team that has won less than 50 regular season games.
Talking championships, the MVP has won the Larry O’Brien Trophy in three of the last 10 years (LeBron James 2012, 2013; Stephen Curry 2015) and in 23 of the 65 total NBA seasons (35%). It certainly helps to have them on your team, but it’s not a guarantee of silverware.
One argument often made against a player’s MVP case is the lack of games played, either through injury, load management or other circumstances. Through the history of the league, the MVP has played an average of 97% of the regular season, as shown in the graph.
Bill Walton is the clear outlier, who played only 70 percent in 1977-78, and there’s only been four other seasons when the MVP has played below 90 percent (which equates to 74 games in a standard 82 game season). In this 2020-21 season, which is shortened to 71 games, 65 games would take players over the 90 percent marker, whereas it would take playing 70 of the 72 games to match the 97% average.
This year’s race
Analysing the numbers from this year’s crop of candidates (using the top eight from Basketball Reference’s MVP Tracker) clearly show that there’s one big man sitting top of the pile. It might surprise a lot of people that it’s not Joel Embiid, but rather the Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. And it’s not even that close.
Using the same statistics as discussed earlier, Jokic leads the league in PER (fifth best all time), BPM (third all time), and WS per 48 minutes (10th all time). He’s carrying the Nuggets into a playoff spot, after a poor start and inconsistent contributions from the rest of the roster have put a huge weight on his shoulders. He’s played every single game of the season so far and if the numbers can be maintained, he could be in line to be the first center to win the award since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.
As for the other candidates, Embiid has raised his game to a new level, consistently displaying his talents on a nightly basis (something we’ve long asked to see) and is the closest to Jokic in the key categories. James Harden’s scoring is at its lowest since 2011-12 but Brooklyn has been steamrolling it’s way through the league since his arrival. LeBron James’ numbers are incredible, even more so considering he’s 36, but they just aren’t better than Jokic or Embiid. The Lakers’ recent run of losses without Anthony Davis also don’t do him any favours.
Basketball Reference’s MVP Tracker agrees that Jokic is the frontrunner, though the bookies have a top three of Embiid first, James second and Jokic third. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons and Yahoo’s Chris Haynes declared that it’s Embiid’s to lose, entering the All-Star break, contrary to the numbers.
If it were based solely on statistics, there would be no need for votes. The computer would churn the numbers and out would pop the MVP. The human element of voting crucially gives consideration for the emotions and passion that are why we love the game in the first place.
Narrative plays a huge role in shaping our view of the league’s best players, beyond the raw data. Jokic is less favoured in this regard. His Nuggets have been underwhelming after last year’s feisty playoff push (though not down to his lack of production) and although he’s been an almost unstoppable go-to scorer, he has lacked the clutch, highlight plays of Embiid, James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and, in particular, Damian Lillard.
James continues to be part of the conversation due to his status as one of the greatest players of all time. The media seem particularly prone to his candidacy this season, potentially as a result of the fact he has only four MVPs in his 18-year career. The stats suggest he should have claimed the 2010-11 over Derrick Rose, but he’s simply not been the best player in every other regular season to deserve more awards, nor does he deserve it over Jokic or Embiid this year. Going by Basketball Reference’s records, James doesn’t lead the league in a single statistic this season.
If Philadelphia retains the top spot in the East (currently half a game above the Nets), the narrative may sway in Embiid’s favour, despite arguably having more help from his teammates. If Lillard continues his clutch scoring and can secure a playoff berth with the absence of CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, he could also gain more traction.
Antetokounmpo will have to do something remarkable to win the award for a third consecutive season, but his recent dominant streak keeps it within the realms of possibility. It would be quite something for Harden to emerge the winner, scoring around 10 points less per game than the previous two seasons and playing on a much better team.
In a year with so much uncertainty and inconsistency from teams due to coronavirus, it might be the most consistent player that clinches the award. With so many teams within a handful of games of each other, it could be more likely that individual dominance resonates with voters over team success, more than usual.
At the halfway stage, it’s refreshing to have so many names in contention. If these numbers are sustained through the rest of the season, Jokic has to be given more respect and recognition as the most valuable player. It’s time to start taking ‘The Joker’ seriously.