Every NBA MVP candidate has flaws in their resume but digging into those flaws leads down a neverending rabbit hole of arguments and counterarguments.
The NBA MVP Award, given to the most valuable player of the current regular season, has been around since 1956. Until the 1979-80 season, players voted on the winner. Since then, the award has been voted on by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters in the US and Canada.
Over the past few seasons, the MVP conversation has become THE basketball conversation for the latter portion of the season, particularly on social media.
Multiple players are worthy of consideration for this year’s MVP, each withs a credible case to hoist the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. But no candidate’s case is impervious to plausible rebuttal. Everyone has a resume and every resume has a hole.
So instead of presenting each candidate’s foundational case, I will change the perspective by dealing with the perceived flaw in each MVP candidate’s argument (and see how easily they each fall apart).
Devin Booker’s NBA MVP Argument
Flaw in his MVP Argument: Chris Paul is the best player on the team
Counterargument: Then how are the Phoenix Suns the unquestioned best team this season?
The Phoenix Suns have won over 60 games this season. But I’m old enough to remember when they began the year with losses in three of their first four games. Devin Booker received some criticism for his individual slow start and the team responded by winning the next 17 games in a row. A good portion of the credit around the Suns’ excellence has been given to point guard living legend Chris Paul.
His propensity for turning teams around for the better is well-documented, and he certainly is vital to Phoenix’s success. Then around the All-Star break, Paul suffered a right thumb fracture, causing him to miss over a month of playing time. Booker and Phoenix proceed to further separate themselves from the rest of the Western Conference and eventually the entire NBA. Phoenix finished the season eight games ahead of second-place Memphis, with identical 32-9 home and road records.
Phoenix has been the most consistent team and Devin Booker is the constant at the center of it. After averaging just 23.2 points per game in October and November, Booker finished at a career-high 26.6 points per game this year. Paul has been viewed as the best — or at least, the most important — player for the past two seasons. But in Paul’s absence, Phoenix maintained their lofty internal expectations. Booker is as cool as they come on that court, playing the shooting guard position like a smooth bassline: steady and smooth. Booker has clearly shown he is the most valuable player on the team with by far the best record in the NBA — one of the popular arguments for MVP. That case is a common MVP argument used over the years, but it isn’t as concrete this year, for several reasons.
Joel Embiid’s NBA MVP Argument
Flaw in his MVP Argument: His stats aren’t as impressive as Jokic or Giannis
Counterargument: Who has a better story than Joel Embiid?
Every team has trials and tribulations during its season. Injuries are among the most common; see the derailment of the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship dreams. Joel Embiid has had his own battles with injuries, which cost him the first two years of his career. As he’s gotten in better shape, he’s grown from All-Star to superstar to now MVP candidate. Last year’s runner-up won the scoring title, becoming the first true center to average at least 30 points per game since Shaq in 2000.
But that’s not the most interesting part of Joel Embiid’s 2021-22 story. The Sixers have been mired in the uncertainty of Ben Simmons and his availability for the first half of the season, and now are dealing with the inconsistency of deadline-acquisition James Harden. Joel Embiid has maintained his MVP level of play, even playing in more games this year — 51 of 72 games last year, 66 of 78 this year. In a narrative-driven award conversation, what’s a better story than a player who was runner-up maintaining that excellence despite chaos and uncertainty throughout the franchise?
Nikola Jokic’s NBA MVP Argument
Flaw in his MVP Argument: Denver is not a top-3 seed! MVPs aren’t on those kinds of teams
Counterargument: Why not? A player has already been awarded an MVP for a special outlier season.
Last year’s MVP is having a better season this year. As if someone taught a marble column how to hoop, Jokic methodically obliterates opposing defenses with amazing efficiency. Shooting, rebounding, and passing with equally high skill, without elite vertical or horizontal athleticism. There is one thing that Jokic has yet to fully overcome: the Western Conference standings. Denver has been in the playoff seeding most of the year, although residing in the bottom half of those standings — never rising above fifth for most of the season.
As stated with Booker’s case for MVP, most winners of the award play on teams that finish in the top three of their conference. The most basic cause-effect relationship for a superstar player is how well their team performs during the season. Despite 10 players being on the court at one time and no one player being able to truly do it alone, most of the weight of responsibility is placed on the shoulders of that star player. Simply put, how good is a superstar player if they can’t, in some measure, lift their team to be one of the best?
But what about the outlier season? Sometimes, a player is having such an anomalous season that it bucks win-loss trends. Not only does the NBA have such an instance, but it’s also a recent example. In 2017, Russell Westbrook won the MVP in large part for averaging a triple-double for the whole season. This was a year after Kevin Durant departed for Golden State, and the Oklahoma City Thunder was not seen as a playoff team. Westbrook shouldered a superstar’s responsibility and pushed the Thunder to the No. 6 seed and 46 regular-season wins. The Nuggets are No. 6h in the West, without having Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr — two max contract talents — for essentially the entire year. So, to the question of why Jokic should receive consideration for Most Valuable Player, the rebuttal is frankly, “why not?’
Jokic’s game cannot be charted on an XY graph. He is the outlier player. Sure, we want our hoop superstars to always be among the top seeds. Circumstances do not allow for every superstar to carry their teams to the best regular-season records. But that does not take away from the fact that Nikola Jokic, the NBA’s most efficient player last year, is better with less surrounding help.
Luka Doncic’s NBA MVP Argument
Flaw in his MVP Argument: He started too slowly!
Counterargument: The regular season means the whole season.
After leading the Slovenian National Basketball Team to a silver medal finish in this past Summer Olympics, Luka Doncic spent time enjoying the remainder of the offseason. He showed up to Mavericks’ camp in less-than-ideal playing shape, leading to a slow start by his still-young but lofty standards. The first two months of the season, Doncic and the Mavericks underperformed. Doncic is shooting over 46 percent from the field from February on, and Dallas has risen to fourth in an incredibly competitive Western Conference.
Yes, Doncic’s season started below average, but the award is for the entirety of the regular season. Overcoming adversity is a staple of sports and Doncic has worked his way into shape, pushing the Mavs into the playoffs without another All-Star caliber player on the roster — something no other MVP candidate can say.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s NBA MVP Argument
Flaw in his MVP Argument: He’s no more dominant than he has been in previous MVP years.
Counterargument: He’s better than those MVP years.
Talented players have great games. Great games make up a great season and great seasons make up great careers.
Consistency is part of greatness but it can make greatness boring.
Giannis won back-to-back MVPs in 2019 and 2020. There comes a time when voters grow tired of giving it to the same player in too many consecutive years. Giannis and the Bucks have been the most consistently great player/team combination the past four seasons. The Bucks are coming off winning a championship and Giannis entered this year with a 50-point elimination game performance as the springboard to be even better as a player.
So, the question is: how can the most valuable player lose value as he gets better? Meeting expectations breeds comfortability. Sure, we know Giannis is excellent and his individual games and highlights are still mesmerizing, we have grown accustomed to his overall greatness. That should increase his case for MVP, not hinder it.
Kevin Durant’s NBA MVP Argument
Flaw in his MVP Argument: He’s missed so much time.
Counterargument: Sometimes absence just underscores value
“The best ability is availability,” is one of the older adages in sports and life. It is exceedingly difficult to properly assess most individual contributions on the court if they’re not on the court. However, that logic better applies to unknown commodities. But what if we already know what a player’s impact is because of a 15-years sample of excellence?
Enter Kevin Durant. Year three of the experiment of Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn has seen its share of difficulties. The best moment for the Nets since Durant has been there is him being inches away from beating the eventual 2021 NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semis. With limited availability from any of the other All-Star caliber teammates — whether it is Kyrie’s part-time work schedule, James Harden’s nagging injuries or Ben Simmons’ multifaceted recovery — Kevin Durant had the Brooklyn Nets as the top team in the East before he went down with an MCL injury. Then, the Nets plummeted in the standings and are now jockeying for play-in positioning instead of home-court advantage.
Gin Rummy, Samuel L. Jackson’s character on Adult Swim’s “The Boondocks,” used the silly and purposely ague phrase, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” This means that just because something is not there does not mean something isn’t there. Kevin Durant’s absence is the opposite of that logic. It is not much of a reach-in thought to see that Kevin Durant is the main reason for Brooklyn’s success. They are still considered one of the favorites to win the East (second to Milwaukee) That’s not the case if Kevin Durant is unavailable. And that is as credible an example of value as win-loss record while a player is on the court.
Value is subjective in its connotation. There is no concrete definition for how to determine the MVP. If there were, we wouldn’t need over a hundred voters for the award. If there was a definitive formula to determine the Most Valuable Player, the elite players with the ability to perform at that level would look to adhere to that formula.
The most beautiful trait in basketball is individuality and this MVP race, with all its stats and narratives, arguments and counterarguments, is a perfect example of what makes the game so great.