The vague and the valuable

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A poem:

“Luka for MVP,” shout Mavericks fans and Europeans galore.

“It’s Harden,” respond the Rockets,“He has the highest ceiling and floor!”

Laker fans retort: “It’s Lebron, LA is top in the West!”

“Pascal Siakam!” Toronto exclaims, “He’s by far the best”

Bucks fans respond, “What about Giannis Antentokounmpo?”

This is where the poem ends because nothing rhymes with Antetokounmpo.

The point of this poorly prosed poetry is this: No one has any idea who the most valuable player is.

The NBA provides no guidelines for how voters should cast their ballot for MVP, opting instead to let “valuable” be up for interpretation. And therein lies the problem, what is valuable?

Perhaps it’s the player who provides the most statistical value to a team, aka baseball’s MVP. Whoever has the most points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and other “advanced analytic” statistics should be the most valuable. Three difficulties emerge with the “stats” argument.

First, it isn’t easy to determine who is the most statistically valuable. To quote Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics”. Stats are easily manipulated, and can be used in a way to justify the argument for a number of different players.

Second, even if we assume that there is a player who rises above the rest statistically — i.e Russel Westbrook in 2017 — the pure stats argument isn’t enough. Let’s suppose there is a player who averages 50 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists, but his team’s record was 20-62. He provides statistical value, but is that value as good as someone who averages 30-10-10 on a 60-win team? The answer is no: Winning matters.

Third, how do you calculate defensive and intangible impacts? There are some defensive statistics, but these often fail to capture true defensive value. Likewise intangible factors such as leadership and communication are impossible to account for statistically. These factors are often completely disregarded for high-volume offensive statistics which don’t give a complete picture.

So if statistics alone can’t give us a clear picture of what “most valuable” means, perhaps we could consider what the team would look like without their MVP candidate? You could perhaps use plus/minus statistics — which is calculated by taking the points scored subtracted by points allowed when a player is on the court — to determine value.

But this approach comes with a litany of considerations such as who is subbed out with the MVP candidate, how do you handle blowouts in which plus/minus can be skewed, etc.? It’s incredibly hard to come with an objective way to calculate a player’s value, and sometimes their value is only obvious after the player’s departure. For example, the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers won 50 games in the regular season. LeBron James, the Cavaliers’ star at the time, leaves after a disappointing finals run, and the Cavaliers plummet to an abysmal 19 wins in their 2018-19 campaign.

That’s a difference of 30 wins. You would be hard pressed to find a player whose team would lose 30 more games without them. But we can’t retroactively give LeBron the MVP.

So maybe we decide to give the award to the best player on the best team. But again, is that really the most valuable? The best team is almost never the product of just one great player, but also a fantastic supporting cast. It’s hard to claim that the best player on the best team is always the most valuable.

Moreover, there are outside the game concerns with the award such as voters, who are members of the media, voting for the players whose beat they cover — or voting for someone new just because they don’t want to give the award to the same player year after year. This becomes especially pressing when we use MVPs to determine historical greatness, with players like Michael Jordan being praised for his five MVPs and players such as Kobe Bryant being denigrated for his one MVP.

None of this is to say that I’ve solved the MVP problem. Even though I believe James Harden should have several more MVP awards, Steve Nash robbed Kobe in 2005 and 2006, and LeBron James should have been the first unanimous MVP, my beliefs are just as flawed as the unabashed homers depicted in my poem.

If we can’t decide what “valuable” is, then maybe it’s time to do away with the MVP in its entirety. Perhaps we ought to make something new, something that gives respect to the greatness of these all stars while finding a way to distinguish them as well. It’s time for players, analysts, league organizers and fans to start a dialogue over what we want from a “best player award,” if we want one at all.

Michael Brust is a weekly columnist. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBesports.