Time to Converse: An Examination of the NBA Most Valuable Player Award (Part 1)


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Last week, The Sixth Man squad (Mack and Pat) sat down to discuss the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. We talked about the problems we have with the award, including the existing (yet unspoken) criteria that determines who wins it. We even re-select the Finals and regular season MVP winners based on our own proposed criteria.

Without further adieu, let the conversation begin!

Mack: The Golden State Warriors won the 2015 NBA Finals a few weeks ago.

Pat: Congrats!

Mack: Yeah! Congrats to the Dubs and all the Bay Area folks who got see their team capture the title for the first time in forty years.

Something you and I have been talking about a lot recently is the MVP award, specifically what Most Valuable Player actually means. We had a winner of the NBA Finals MVP award, Andre Iguodala, who was… questionable, to say the least, in terms of whether or not he was truly deserving of it. Strong arguments could have been made for Steph Curry and LeBron James.

Pat: Absolutely.

Mack: The decision to give the award to Iguodala raised a lot of questions for us about how MVP is actually defined and how (if at all) its meaning has changed over time.

Pat: Right, that’s a huge thing…

Mack: … Because it’s apparent that the MVP isn’t always the best player in basketball.

Pat: No, he isn’t. Just think about all the years Jordan didn’t win it in the 90’s.

Mack: Nor is the MVP the guy who puts up the biggest numbers necessarily. In your mind, do you think Andre Iguodala should have won the MVP award of the finals?

Pat: My answer has to be no. Do I think he was the best player in the series? No. Was he fortunate enough to be on the winning team? Yes. But based on my personal criteria for MVP, his performance didn’t do it for me. I wanted to see the winner of the award be the player who impacted his team the most—the guy whose team would have definitely lost had he not been playing. In others words, the MVP should’ve been the player who was the most valuable to his team.

Look at Golden State. They had four players who could “defend” LeBron James. Green, Thompson, Livingston and Barnes could all check him. Iguodala was essentially interchangeable part, at least defensively.

But no one can replace LeBron James. No one. You take him out of that series, the Cavs are done. They don’t win a single game.

In my mind, Andre Iguodala wasn’t MVP caliber. My vote would have gone to LeBron. Hands down.

Mack: I totally agree with you. I think Iggy was named the MVP for two main reasons. First, he had very solid numbers: 16.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, and 4 APG. Second, and more importantly, he helped turn the series around when he was inserted into the starting lineup. After the opening tip in Game 4, things immediately began clicking for the Warriors.

Pat: Yes.

Mack: But who chose to put Iggy in that position in the first place? It was Coach Steve Kerr’s brilliant decision to go small that resulted in the Warriors winning the momentum swinging game. They never looked back, taking the two remaining games in the series and dominating in the process.

Although Iguodala’s energy and veteran leadership certainly helped, it was Kerr’s game plan that put the Warriors in a position to better handle LeBron and the Cavs on both sides of the ball.

Pat: And I mean, Iggy did a good job on LeBron, but it’s not like he shut LeBron down or anything. Dude still averaged 36 PPG in the series!

There was also the fatigue factor. The Warriors benefitted immensely from many of the Cavs players being on the floor upwards of forty-five minutes a night (good one, David Blatt). By the end of the series, the Cavs were completely gassed.

Mack: I was seriously worried about Dellavedova. It seemed like he was rushed to the hospital every other night because of dehydration and exhaustion. Not a fun time for Delly.

If you ask me who the MVP of the series is through the first three games, there’s no way I say Steph Curry. With the Cavs up 2-1 and LeBron averaging 41 PPG, 12 RPG, and 8.3 APG, the King would have earned those honors.

Pat: Right.

Mack: But you can’t overlook those last three games. Curry was back to his old self. He pulled Dellavedova back down to earth, and transformed him from the best defender on the planet (through the first three games) to a dude on roller skates.

Steph finished the finals averaging 28.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 6.3 AST, on 51.9 FG%. Those numbers are much better than Iggy’s.

Think about this for a moment: What’s the difference between removing Iggy from the series vs. removing Curry. The Warriors lose without Curry. They still have a good chance of winning without Iguodala.

Pat: Agreed. And you could see Curry’s growth in the series, too. At the beginning, Curry looked like a young, inexperienced player who was pressing. He attempted a lot of bad shots. It seemed like he thought he had to make spectacular plays to get the ball in the hole.

By the end of the series, he was making the right basketball decisions—passing out of double teams, getting his teammates involved, and hitting shots.

That being said, Curry’s finals numbers don’t match up to LeBron’s: 35.8 PPG, 13 RPG, and 8.8 APG on 39.8 FG%. He was unstoppable. It could have been the best basketball I’ve ever seen him or anyone play over a six game period.

The guy is a walking triple double. And in the playoffs, no less!

Mack: What’s amazing about LeBron’s numbers is that they’re so consistently high. Because they’re always so high—reaching the thirties in points and the teens in rebounding and assists—people come to expect it. That expectation takes away from the numbers in a way. Putting up triple double-esque figures every night makes the triple-double (or forty points) seem less special. The stats lose value, and we tend to forget how truly unbelievable he is night-in and night-out. Frequently, we say that LeBron doesn’t have a strong game if he finishes with a stat-line of something like 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. He’s so good that these numbers don’t floor us—instead they make us criticize.

Pat: Thank God [our friend] Jalen isn’t here to listen to us gush about LeBron, by the way. He can never know what we really think about LBJ… or else we won’t hear the end of it.

Mack and Pat: (Laughs).

Pat: In terms of great finals MVP winners, certain names come to mind. Jordan, Russell, Bird, etc. None of them took a night off. They always found a way to put up huge numbers or significantly contribute even if they were having an off game. I think that says something about Curry. He was lost for those first three games.

Mack: Absolutely. And LeBron certainly wasn’t.

Pat: Exactly! He was so consistent, and he influenced every single game. I mean, the Cavs were in games that they probably shouldn’t have been in and even won games that they had no business winning. The Cavs lost Kyrie and Love, yet each NBA Finals game was competitive thanks to LeBron.

Mack: And Curry could afford to have a bad game. The rest of his team was able to carry the load. LeBron had to be exceptional. That’s another reason why LeBron ought to have won the award over Curry and Iguodala.

Pat: For the Cavs to have made it as far as they did, taking two games from the best (and healthiest) team in the league… That’s amazing. I don’t care if the East stunk this year. The Cavs had only played together for a year (less than that for Shumpert, J.R., and Mozgov), and they were without two all-stars by playoff’s end. LeBron almost single-handedly led Cleveland to its first championship since 1964.

What’s even more insane to think about is how many minutes LeBron has logged in the last five years. He made it to finals every season! Not to mention, he played in the 2012 Olympic Games. The guy is a freakin’ machine.

Mack: It’s scary. He must have been absolutely exhausted. Probably still is. You have to wonder when all that wear and tear will finally catch up to him.

Pat: Yeah, that’s true.

Mack: LeBron is here in his prime right now, and he’s doing all these inhuman things. When he does start to slip a little bit, we’re going to notice it. We’ll be like, “Oh my god. We really didn’t appreciate him enough while he was killing it.”

Pat: And that’s why he should have won the final’s MVP! Who cares if he won or lost. He was the most valuable to his team. Jerry West was the first ever finals MVP (1969), and his team lost the series. Somehow the NBA has moved away from acknowledging greatness in defeat. Certainly, you can lose and be the most valuable to your team. It’d be ridiculous to think otherwise.

Mack: Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about the voters briefly. Who is it that gets to vote for the finals MVP?

Pat: Members of the media.

Mack: Right.

Pat: I mean, that’s a whole other issue right there. It’s media members that vote on these MVPs, and interpret their own meanings of the word “value” (which are unknown or at least not explicitely explained to the public).

I feel like players should get to vote. It’s them who have to take the floor with a LeBron, Curry, or Harden every night. Only they should truly know how valuable a player is to their team.

Mack: I agree, but bias is always a concern.

Pat :Yeah, but bias is also a concern with the media. People report from different NBA cities and presumably support certain teams.

Mack: True.

Now that we’ve discussed the finals MVP in depth, let’s talk about the unspoken, and somewhat troublesome, existing criteria that determines who can be selected as MVP (both of the regular season and finals, since the criteria for each seems synonymous).

Pat: The winner of the award has to be the best player on his team. He must be a “star” who significantly contributes to his team’s success.

Mack: He also has to be on a team that wins a lot of games. If your team misses the playoffs, you basically become automatically disqualified from winning the award. This is similar to the NBA Finals MVP, as we’ve been discussing. If you lose, you won’t win it. What else?

Pat: The player has to have the ability to almost… dazzle on any given night.

Mack: Yeah. Like he sort of needs to catch the media’s attention early. And then the media innundates the public with endless highlights and praise of him.

Pat: Exactly. Take this season, for example. LeBron’s numbers were nothing to sneeze at: 25.3 PPG, 6.0 RPG, and 7.4 APG. Yet it was Steph Curry, who had very similar numbers to LeBron (26.2 PPG, 4.7 RPG, and 8.5 APG), who stole the show. ESPN hyped him whenever the Warriors had a game, and he was featured in commercial after commercial (as a spokesperson for State Farm, Under Armour, etc.).

There was so much buzz surrounding Curry. He captivated people, casual fans and hardcore fans alike, with his ridiculous handles and silky smooth shooting ability. Curry demonstrates that marketability and being able to excite the masses typifies an MVP in today’s NBA.

Mack: Curry’s got flare. The fact that he’s new and fresh (unlike LeBron) contributes to everyone’s captivation, as well.

It was amazing to me how much ESPN put the spotlight on Curry at the start of the season. They totally rode him out and made him their new poster child. Curry was a top headline every night. As an audience, we needed to see his latest tricks. And ESPN presented it that way: “You’ll never guess what Steph Curry did tonight.”

It’s almost like what happens in the WWE. Yes, I’m pulling WWE into the discussion. If the front office guys decide that they like you, they’ll push you to the moon. That’s what ESPN did with Curry.

Pat: Right. And media outlets are always looking for the next guy. LeBron is not gonna be around forever, so it’s like “Oh, here comes this new Curry fellow.” They tried with KD, but injury forced ESPN to search elsewhere for a new “target.” They focused on Harden too, but he didn’t stick around as long as Curry (since his team got bounced from the playoffs).

Not to mention, Curry epitomizes the direction the league is heading. He’s a superstar point guard that’s absolutely dynamite from three-point land—one of the best of all-time. Everyone loves the three-point shot. It has become a focal point in many teams’ and coaches’ game plans.

Pat: Curry certainly is leading the three-point charge. He also has unmatched ball-handling skills. He’s a 2K player in real life that can control the rock and shoot in ways that we’ve never seen before. He really does have the ball on a string!

Mack: Oh, and here is another factor that’s important for an MVP candidate. Your chances of winning the award will exponentially increase if you didn’t win it the prior season.

Pat: Definitely. Definitely. And I think that’s why we saw a three horse race. We had Curry, Harden, and Westbrook. These guys were putting on a new kind of show every night. They were fresh, as we were saying.

Mack: And even though he technically was in the discussion, you knew LeBron wasn’t gonna win it. He’s been there, done that. And quite frankly, people grow bored of LeBron winning the MVP award. He’s won it four times already!

That concludes Part 1 of our MVP conversation. If you like what you’ve read so far, check out Part 2 on Thursday! In it, we’ll reveal who we believe actually should have been named the regular season’s Most Valuable Player.