USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: James Harden (13), Giannis Antetokounmpo (34), Paul George (13).
- What are the most important factors in deciding the NBA MVP?
- Matt Moore dives deep into the award and gives the 15 most important questions voters should answer before crowning this year's winner.
They both deserve it.
That’s the first thing I want to stress as we begin a deep and thorough conversation about the 2019 NBA MVP race. There is a threshold that an MVP has to meet, and after that it’s about parsing through the worthy candidates to figure out the most worthy one. The nightmare scenario is when there aren’t really worthy candidates, but someone has to win. That’s not the case this year.
Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden are deserving of the MVP award. Both guys pass the test for a worthy winner — Paul George is right on that threshold. Their respective fanbases will gnash their teeth and throw things if their guy doesn’t win, but, honestly, it won’t be any sort of sports tragedy. Both guys deserve it; one guy’s going to win.
So which one? How do you choose? In 2017 — the toughest MVP race I’ve ever covered — I broke down the relevant questions then. I decided to bring back the approach for this year’s showdown between the Beard and the Greek Freak.
How do you define “valuable”?
This is, of course, the heart of the thing. Don’t think for one second there’s a single definition to this. The league keeps it vague, precisely because it prompts so much debate on a daily basis. These endless debates about how to define “most valuable” fuels the controversy and discussion with zero cost. Think of all the ways you can align this question:
Is it how much your team needs you?
Is it best overall player?
Is it most impactful?
Is it best player on best team?
There are all sorts of paradigms you can use to define it, but you have to decide on one first. Everything else you need to figure out about which candidate is the right one goes from that point.
You don’t have to keep the same standards year over year, either. Each season is a microcosm. If a team wins 65-plus games, that might be enough to lean towards the best player on that best team. If a player crosses a statistical threshold never before matched, that can swing things in his favor. The important thing is to start there.
How much does the legacy of the award matter?
What I mean by this is how much stock do you put into what happened when previous winners were judged by certain standards.
For example, Russell Westbrook won in 2017 with the Thunder having won just 47 games. While players have gotten MVP with fewer wins — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won it with only 40 wins for the Lakers during the 1975-76 season — that’s well below the standard that’s been set. Does it matter to you that historically the player has had to win more games? Does it matter more to you that Westbrook broke that trend in recent history?
Personally, I don’t regard past voting trends at all. For starters, the voting bloc has evolved substantially over the past 10 years. More analysis, better metrics, more context and more shared knowledge change how the voters make their decision. Holding on to standards that predate these evolutions just seems flawed.
That’s not to say there aren’t still narrative voters, because there are. A lot of times they’re local media that don’t have the time or access to have a fully formed opinion, and in that case the “story” of a season outweighs other factors.
There’s also an argument to be made on the merits of this, that too much analysis comes from a place lacking in full understanding gained from day-to-day coverage of the team, and that a 10,000-foot view is the only one with actual clarity. However, it’s going to lack in evidence and sustained reason.
This is separate from how much wins matter, which we’ll get to later.
How much does offense-defense balance matter?
Let’s be honest: Defense has not mattered in the case of this award historically. Defense is usually just a sweetener in the deal.
But given what we know now about how important defense is on both an individual and team level, how much does it matter today?
Do you need to have a good defensive profile, or just not a bad one?
Let’s start here:
Defensive Rating is a team metric; it’s not based on any individual player’s performance. However, at the very least, it reveals how a team defends when that particular player is on the floor.
Harden fans will let you know that he leads the league in deflections (just ahead of George) and that he is 88th percentile in defending the post. But the Rockets defense has been an absolute mess this season and is absolutely part of why they’ve slipped from being the top team in the West last season. Harden’s played a part in that.
Now, to really figure out Harden’s defensive impact you have to get into the weeds, and we’ll do that later this month when we look at his candidacy in detail. But you have to watch the games and evaluate Harden’s defense for yourself while considering all these metrics and more.
Meanwhile, George is considered to be a leader for Defensive Player of the Year. Antetokounmpo is right there with him. They’re both leading high-level defenses. Does that matter? Should it matter?