In a recent post, I offered a defense for Nikola Jokic’s case for earning his third straight MVP. I argued that he’s having a better season than Joel Embiid, his team is in first place in the West, his team’s lack of playoff success the past two years isn’t his fault, and that we shouldn’t hold it against him that he has won the past 2 MVPs as a reason to deprive him of a third. In other words, if he’s the MVP this year, he should win the MVP, and “voter fatigue” shouldn’t be a factor.
However, I do have some sympathy for the people who are upset by the prospect of Jokic three-peating in MVPs, something only Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell have ever done before. Because guys like LeBron, MJ and Shaq–they’re all better players overall than Jokic is, and yet those guys have never won three straight MVPs. It just feels like, if Jokic gets his third in a row, we have to either start considering him one of the very greatest players in league history, or we have to have the conversation about whether the NBA MVP award means as much as it once did.
I would choose the latter, and I think most other people would, too: we probably have to start looking at the MVP award differently. It’s no longer a signifier of you being the best player in the league. I’ve not heard anybody argue that Nikola Jokic is the best player in the league despite his MVP awards. He’s up there in the top 5-7 of course, but if he’s the MVP three years in a row, theoretically we should all view him as the best player in the league. And MVP is also no longer a signifier of where you rank on the all-time list–in other words, it’s probably no longer the case that the more MVPs you have, the higher you deserve to be on the hierarchy of NBA greats. Jokic has 2, likely 3, MVPs to KD’s 1, and Kobe’s 1, but would anyone put Jokic higher than Kobe and KD on the all-time list? No.
But none of this is Nikola Jokic’s fault. He didn’t ask for this. He just goes out and plays. If there’s any superstar in the league that would actually lobby to win this award, he’s the last guy to do it. I think he genuinely doesn’t care if he wins it or not. Don’t get me wrong, he’s been happy and humbled and honored and all the rest to win the award, but I don’t think he’s one of those guys who really cares so much about winning it.
You could tell in the past, guys like Westbrook and Harden, they were really gunning for it. Joel Embiid has been pretty public the past couple years about how much he wants to win the award, and about how disappointed he is when he doesn’t win it. But even these guys, who were blatantly gunning for the MVP award (Westbrook’s legendary stat-padding so he could average a triple double comes to mind; Westbrook is the biggest stat-padder in NBA history and nobody else really comes close), were not the ones who tarnished the value of the NBA MVP.
The group of people who are to blame for the MVP award being cheapened are the award voters.
And it’s not because of racial bias. I know there was a very heated argument on ESPN between Kendrick Perkins and JJ Redick over this the other day, but I find it hard to believe that racial bias is a main reason that Nikola Jokic is about to win his third straight MVP. It’s the NBA. It’s not like only white players win the MVP award.
The real bias at work here is the PER Bias.
NBA awards voters are absolutely obsessed with the PER stat in recent years. I compiled a chart of all the MVP winners going back to 2000, as well as the league leader in PER:
Since 2016, the player who finished the season #1 in PER has also won MVP every year. That’s 7 straight years of the NBA MVP being awarded to the player with the highest PER.
The last player to win MVP without having the best PER is Steph Curry in 2015. He ranked 3rd that year, but because the Warriors won 67 games, the guy who led the league in PER, Anthony Davis, did not win MVP. The Pels that year went just 45-37. (The guy who was second in PER was Westbrook in 2015, and it was mainly because KD missed 55 games that year with injuries, but the Thunder didn’t even make the playoffs in 2015.)
If you look at the years 2000-2015, there were 8 MVPs that didn’t lead the league in PER over that span, and 8 MVPs that did lead the league in PER. From 2000-2015, PER was not the main determinant in the MVP race.
That’s no longer how things work.
John Hollinger, according to an interview he did with The Oklahoman back in 2011, said he invented the PER stat in 1996, but that “it took 3-4 years before it got to the point where it is now.” So it wasn’t until 1999-2000 that PER as we know it today was developed.
Even still, Hollinger wasn’t hired by ESPN until 2005, and that’s really when his PER stat gained popularity and began moving into the mainstream of basketball discourse–along with advanced stats in general. And it really wasn’t until the mid-2010s that the “analytics revolution” really took off and advanced stats like PER became ubiquitous.
I remember back in 2015, when the Warriors first exploded onto the NBA scene and began revolutionizing the game with their three-heavy offense, I would listen to Mike and Mike in the Morning on my way to work, and Greenberg would always be talking about how efficient Steph Curry was and citing all these stats that nobody had ever heard of before (all passed to him by Hembo, of course), and that’s really when I personally got introduced to advanced stats. I’m not an insider nor do I possess any unique insights or knowledge into the game of basketball, so I can say with a good deal of confidence that when I started getting introduced to the world of advanced sports statistics, that’s probably when most other serious/hardcore sports fans did as well.
This lines up pretty perfectly with when the NBA MVP Award turned into the NBA PER Award: right around 2015-2016 was when everybody became aware of PER and advanced stats became an integral part of the basketball conversation.
The issue I have is not that these advanced stats have entered the mainstream. That’s the furthest thing from how I feel. Advanced stats are great, the more the merrier.
My issue is that it’s now starting to feel like a lot of these awards voters are just blindly following the advanced stats, PER specifically, primarily so they can feel like they’re being “data-driven,” objective and with the times. There’s probably a lot of group-think that goes on as well. Most of these awards voters are on Twitter 9-10 hours a day, they all follow each other and interact with each other, and nobody wants to be that one guy who is perceived to be stuck in the past, and not on board with the advanced stats.
Maybe a lot of them feel like advanced stats like PER were developed by really smart people, and so who am I to question PER and the other advanced stats? There is probably a lot of that going on, this sort of blind deference to the perceived experts.
And this is the problem with the awards voters leaning on PER and the advanced stats: they take them as if these figures are infallible; they look at PER the way we look at 2K player ratings. They think if you’re leading the league in PER, then that means you’re the best player in the league–the same way the player with the highest rating in 2K is the best player in the game.
PER is now seen as the shortcut way to answer the question: Is this player better than that player? Just look them up and the guy with the higher PER is considered to be the better player. It’s that simple!
This is where I draw the line. I’m not on board with this at all. You cannot determine which player is superior simply by comparing their PER numbers. That is not how it works, nor was it ever intended to work that way.
PER is convenient: it’s a single catch-all statistic that people now take to be a final, comprehensive grade on each player in the league. And so I think there’s a lot of laziness that has now taken root, where MVP voters need only point to PER to justify their selection, and to add a whiff of authoritativeness to their rationale: “Well, such and such player led the league in all the advanced statistical categories and that’s why I voted him for MVP.”
Who are you to argue with the advanced stats?! What are you, some kind of regressive Luddite?
Another big problem with the MVP award is that nobody can actually agree on the criteria. What, exactly, does “Most VALUABLE Player” mean? Most valuable to his team? How do you quantify that? How do you measure that?
A lot of people view in the more old school way: the most valuable player is the best player on the team with the best record. But this is also flawed because what if there are several teams that are right around the same record? Right now, the Bucks are 47-18, the Nuggets are 46-20 and the Celtics are 46-21.
The Bucks have the best record, Giannis is having an incredible season, he’s done it mostly without Khris Middleton, and even after Middleton came back he’s been a shell of himself. So why isn’t Giannis getting more love in the MVP talks? You might say it’s because of racial bias, but he’s already won 2 MVPs in his career, and it wasn’t all that long ago (2019 and 2020) so racial bias doesn’t really hold water, IMHO. You could say it’s voter fatigue because he’s already won 2 MVPs, but then again, so has Jokic and voter fatigue doesn’t seem to be holding him back.
In my opinion, the real reason Giannis isn’t being talked about more as the MVP is because’s he’s 4th in PER. He’s behind Jokic, who is once again leading the league in PER at 31.7, as well as Joel Embiid at 30.8, and Luka Doncic at 29.8. Giannis is at 28.5. There’s no way he’ll surpass Jokic in PER this year, and that’s why, in my view, Giannis isn’t being talked about more as the MVP of the league.
Up until quite recently, the Celtics have had the best record in the league all year. Jayson Tatum is having a career year himself, he’s the top option on the Celtics, and so you would think Tatum would be getting a lot more MVP love. But he’s actually a distant fourth place at +3600 behind Jokic (-350), Embiid (+500), Giannis (+900).
It doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense for Tatum to be so far behind Jokic considering their teams have virtually the same record, and Tatum is having a phenomenal year, averaging 30.3 points a game, 8.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and shooting 53.7% eFG.
But guess what? Tatum only ranks tied for 14th in PER. So that’s probably why he’s not getting much traction in the MVP conversation.
I’ve always said the MVP award should be renamed to the Most Outstanding Player award, the MOP. “Outstanding” and “Valuable” are both fairly nebulous terms, in that everyone can have a different definition of them and thus the criteria for voting on the award is going to be different from voter to voter, but I think “Outstanding” is a lot more clear in what it means than “Valuable.” When you’re talking about the Most Outstanding Player, it’s pretty obvious that you’re talking about the best player in the league that season.
When we’re talking about the most valuable player, there’s an implicit team element in play, because of what we talked about above: valuable to whom, exactly? And there’s no other answer to that question than, “valuable to his team.”
If it was the Most Outstanding Player award, then we could just focus on the individual players and how outstanding they were that season. Was this player more outstanding than this other player?
But then we still run into the same problem we’re running into now with the MVP award: how exactly do you gauge how outstanding a player truly was? Voters would still be leaning heavily on PER, the same way they do with the MVP award. They simply gravitate towards that one catch-all number. It’s so easy and convenient: “Player A has a PER of 31.6, while Player B’s PER is just 26.7, so clearly Player A is better than Player B.” That is how a lot of people view PER.
In my view, it’s difficult to deny that PER has completely taken over the NBA MVP award discussion.
Last season, Jokic ran away with the MVP award despite the fact that his team finished tied for the 10th-best record in the league. Denver went 48-34 last year. 9 teams had a better record (including the Suns who went 64-18), and Toronto had the same record as Denver. Denver was the 6th seed in the West. We can talk about how Jamal Murray missed the whole year, and Michael Porter missed all but 9 games.
But while it was certainly very impressive that Jokic led the Nuggets to the 6th seed in the West despite the fact that two of the team’s three best players were out the whole season, that alone shouldn’t be grounds for a player winning MVP. Luka Doncic led the Mavs to a 52-30 record and the 4th seed in the West last year and he didn’t have any All Star teammates, either. Sure, he had Jalen Brunson, but the Mavs last year were basically just Luka and Brunson.
Luka was not a serious MVP contender last year despite what he accomplished. The race last year was between Jokic, Embiid and Giannis. Embiid’s Sixers only won 51 games last year, and Giannis’ Bucks also won 51 games.
Why was the MVP race between those guys? Because they were the top 3 in PER. Jokic last season posted the highest PER ever recorded in a regular season: 32.8. Giannis was a 32.1, and if not for Jokic, Giannis’ 32.1 would’ve been the highest PER ever recorded. Embiid’s 31.2 would be an all-time great number, just not last year in comparison to Jokic and Giannis.
I really do believe Jokic won the MVP last year primarily because he posted the best PER ever at 32.8. You can certainly point to how much he had to carry his team with Murray and Porter injured, but you’ll never convince me that his incredible PER mark last year wasn’t the single biggest reason he won the MVP trophy. Not when every NBA MVP since 2016 has gone to the guy with the best PER.
Ultimately, we’re going to be splitting hairs here when we argue about who should win MVP. We’re debating between the top 3-4 players in the league: whether it’s Jokic, Embiid, Giannis or Tatum, all these guys have at the very least a decent argument for why they deserve to win MVP. If any one of those four won MVP this year, I would not have any issues with it.
Now, if they gave the MVP award to Lauri Markkanen, or SGA, then I’d have issues with that. Nothing against those two guys, but if either of them won the award this year, that would mean that the MVP voters got it wildly, unacceptably wrong.
But the voters aren’t going to give the award to Lauri or SGA, so we don’t even have to worry about this happening. They’re going to give it to someone who is unquestionably deserving of it, whether that be Jokic (probably), Embiid, Giannis or Tatum.
I don’t think there’s one season since 2000 that you can point to where the guy who won MVP wasn’t at least decently deserving, and wasn’t at least a top 3-4 player in the league. Even when D-Rose won it in 2011 over LeBron, it wasn’t like D-Rose wasn’t deserving at all. The Bulls had the best record in the league that year with 62 wins, and D-Rose was the main reason why.
It’s not like these awards voters are giving out MVP trophies to the 14th best player in the league on a routine basis. It’s hard for me to get too heated about perceived MVP snubs given that there isn’t one year I can point to where the guy that won it didn’t at least have a decent case for it.
So it’s really more of a TV sports narrative thing to get #Outraged over this guy winning MVP over that guy. People on the debate shows might scream at each other ’til they’re blue in the face over who they think should win MVP, framing it as if Player A winning the award is an absolute travesty and Player B being snubbed is an injustice on par with Jim Crow, but the reality is that in any given year, all the main MVP candidates are deserving and thus there isn’t really much worth being outraged about.
And while I do have my qualms with the PER stat, my main beef isn’t even with the PER stat itself, but rather the MVP voters’ lazy reliance on it. The MVP has basically gotten to a point where it goes to the guy with the highest PER by default, and I don’t like that. Because now that PER is more popular than ever, it could lead to a point (if it hasn’t already) where all these players and coaches know exactly what to do to “game” the measure and play in a way that results in a super high PER rating, because they know that’s how you win the MVP nowadays.
PER doesn’t even purport to measure how valuable a player is; it claims to measure efficiency. And so it shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all when it comes to awarding the MVP trophy.
I’ll do a separate post in the coming days or weeks on my issues with the PER stat, but for now I want to just leave it at this: I do not like the fact that we are at a point where the player with the best PER automatically wins MVP every year. The voters need to stop leaning so heavily on PER, and start taking more factors into consideration.