Why the NBA MVP Award Doesn’t Matter

As the NBA season inches closer to the finish line, the MVP race becomes a hot topic among NBA talking heads, but who wins the award really shouldn’t matter. Sunday’s Cavaliers-Rockets matchup, where Houston outlasted Cleveland in overtime, reinforced a feeling that I have had for a while now, which is that the NBA MVP race doesn’t matter and you shouldn’t care about who wins the award each season. In a recent sit down on Grantland with Bill Simmons, Kobe Bryant said that it pissed him off that he has only won one MVP award in his career. He blamed the fact that the media is given the opportunity to vote on the award each season, and they presumably have gotten it wrong many times. Bryant certainly has every right to be annoyed about having just one MVP award. He joins a list of players that over the years have been passed over for the MVP when they likely should have won it. My advice to Bryant and to any of those players (not that they’d listen to me) would be to forget about it. Winning the MVP is a big deal and is the highest individual honor in sports, but it means nothing from year to year, especially in the NBA.

Each season, everyone who has something to say about the NBA puts in their two cents about who they think should win the award. There is always bickering about what criteria should carry the most weight in voting. Should the best player on the best team be considered above the best player statistically, or vice versa? Do we vote for someone who had a good year, but hasn’t won the award before, just for novelty’s sake? The whole process of deciding who the Most Valuable Player is varies amongst the very people who are assigned with the task of deciding who wins the award. Some years it seems very obvious who should win the award while in others, not so much.

To discuss the list of MVP’s throughout NBA history brings up the greatest players of all time. Winning an MVP award essentially makes a player a lock for the Hall of Fame and can do wonders for that individual’s career and prospects on and off the court. For the most part, the players widely regarded as the greatest ever also have the most MVP awards. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six MVP’s, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan each won five, Wilt Chamberlain won four, and LeBron James already has four on his mantle. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird each won three a piece. In general, the greatest players in NBA annals have won more MVP’s than anyone else. But despite this fact, there are many egregious oversights in the history of MVP voting in the NBA. This is where the ambiguity of “most valuable” becomes an issue. Often times, the NBA’s clear cut best player doesn’t win the award. Everyone typically knows who the league’s best player is, yet the media in charge of voting feels the need to give the award to a player who had either his best individual season, played for a better team, or just had a better feel good story. This often happens despite the fact that anyone involved with the league would rather have the league’s best player than the MVP every day of the week, and there are many examples to back this up.

I’ll stick with just the Jordan era and the subsequent years to list some examples. After Jordan won his first MVP in ‘88 and clearly established himself as the NBA’s alpha dog, he only won five MVP awards. Granted, the two following MVP’s went to Magic Johnson, who was absolutely deserving in his own right, but throughout the 90’s there was no one even close to Jordan. Charles Barkley won the award in ‘93 and Karl Malone won in ‘97, two years where there was clearly Jordan voting fatigue. During his two year hiatus, Hakeen Olajuwon and David Robinson benefited from Jordan trying his hand at minor league baseball.

The NBA’s best player of the post-Jordan era was Shaquille O’Neal. His run from the late 90’s up until 2005 was one of pure dominance. There was no one in the NBA you would have rather had on your team during those years after Jordan retired. Yet despite this, O’Neal only won the MVP award one time, in 2000. Tim Duncan is an all-time great, but in the early 2000’s he was not on O’Neal’s level, even though he won back-to-back awards. Some of this is the regular season laziness of O’Neal, but he was the NBA’s alpha dog for all of those years and lost MVP awards to Duncan, Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, and Steve Nash.

Once O’Neal left Los Angeles, Bryant was unquestionably the NBA’s top player despite being on mediocre Lakers teams. MVP awards for Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are the reason Bryant only has one to show for his great career. Before Bryant could win more than his one MVP from 2008, James became the NBA’s top dog, and he still hasn’t given up his stop atop the list of the NBA’s best. Even though we all know James is the best player there is right now, he still somehow was not the MVP in 2011 thanks to some likely post-”decision” backlash, and he also lost out on the award last season.

Getting to LeBron James on this list brings up an interesting conversation about the recent games the Cavs have had against the Rockets and Warriors. Steph Curry and James Harden are atop most people’s MVP watch lists right now, with James and Russell Westbrook not far behind. James played sensationally against Curry in a Cavs win against Golden State. He didn’t fair as well in the aforementioned loss to Houston, with two big missed free throws down the stretch when he had a chance to win the game. What makes these games interesting is that whether or not the Cavs won them, LeBron James remains the best player in the league and the guy you would most want on your team for this season. Even if Harden is now a bit further ahead in the MVP race, anyone who follows the NBA would rather have James.

The whole MVP discussion is only relevant in barroom talks about who we think are the greatest players ever and where they might rank on arbitrary, biased lists. Ultimately it doesn’t matter who wins the award this year or the next, because we all know who the best players are and we know which players are great. Anyone even in the discussion for an MVP is a great player. Just enjoy watching the great players and great games without trying to decide who has been more valuable when we can’t even decide what that even means. This is why I don’t care who wins the MVP this season and neither should you.


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