The interpretation of what makes the Most Valuable Player in the NBA is something that invites contention and, this year especially, mass hysteria amongst fans and analysts alike. Since 1955, the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, named after the NBA’s first commissioner, has been given to the regular season’s most exceptional performer – and of this description lies a particularly tough-to-identify problem within its translation.
Weighing up the reasoning
On one side of the argument, we have individuals who view statistics in the highest regard, arguing that personal performance is what warrants a player to be exceptional, whereas the other side of the argument states it is team success, and how much a player contributes to that success which warrants them to be exceptional.
Each argument makes sense – purists tend to believe in team success, and casual fans who seek entertainment believe in individual performance as the defining indicator for an MVP. This season’s three finalists have been announced as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets guard James Harden, and San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. As is almost unanimously the case in NBA MVP selections, each candidate's team made it to the postseason this year.
Lessons from history
When taking into account league trends, media narratives, and hindsight, you can begin to understand who might be selected MVP in the future. For example, in the 1960’s the league was still small, and such a small market was born from its original teams, most of which regularly moved from city to city due to fluctuating demand. However, in the league's infancy, one team remained steady – the Boston Celtics, arguably the most decorated franchise in NBA history. Whether it was Bob Cousy in 1957 or Bill Russell (5 times), a Celtic won the award six out of the first 10 years.
When the league began to rapidly expand, fewer eventual champions were chosen as the probability of the best individual player winning the championship began to diminish. However, there still was an unwritten rule in selecting the MVP – team success was mandatory. In the entire history of the award, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the only player ever to win MVP without his team making the playoffs, which occurred during the 1976 season when the LA Lakers missed the postseason. It has only happened once in 62 years, a feat Abdul-Jabbar can be quite proud of.
And since 1985, the standard has been even higher. In the last 32 seasons, there has never been a player who has won the award without their team being a top-three seed. Take a moment to let the gravity of that fact sink in. This year, only two of the finalists fit this criterion – Leonard, who’s Spurs finished second in the Western Conference, and Harden, who’s Rockets finished third. Westbrook and the Thunder finished sixth overall in the Western Conference standings.
But, does this negate Westbrook’s chances to be selected league MVP? That’s largely up to the media who make the selections. In Westbrook's favor, the fervent narrative spun by the media surrounding his play this season is unprecedented. While Westbrook seems destined to become the NBA MVP on June 26th, it must be taken into account how much deliberation each of the individuals put into this award before submitting their selections in mid-April.
What does it say when in the past 32 years, there have been countless player seasons greater than those of individuals who have won the MVP? Historically, the media members making these picks are generally very shrewd with the award. That’s why Leonard, the best player on the second-best team, will win the 2016-2017 Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
The case for Leonard
Leonard has been regarded as the best two-way player in the NBA and people like his head coach, Gregg Popovich, believe that’s what makes an MVP player. Believe it or not, Leonard was one of the most efficient offensive players in the game this season, on top of being a finalist for the Defensive Player of the Year award as well. What is it worth in the MVP race to be a finalist in both MVP and DPOY categories?
Leonard finished in the top 10 in a few important categories: PER rating (27.5), points per game (25.5), steals per game (1.8), usage percentage (31.1), defensive rating (101.6), total win shares (13.6) and value over replacement player (6.2). Highlighting these categories, in particular, illustrates his effectiveness on both sides of the floor this season, as well as his individual and team impact as the best player on the Spurs. Leonard is notorious for his excellent decision making, and while having one of the best coaches in the league helps, it’s up to Leonard himself to execute night in and night out, which he does.
The offense runs through Leonard, and he excels at taking care of the ball, only turning the ball over on 10% of his total touches. In addition to taking care of the ball, he shoots the ball exceptionally well for as much as he has the ball, evident by his .485/.381/.880 shooting splits. In terms of overall shooting efficiency, only Isiah Thomas (.625) had a higher True Shooting Percentage than Leonard (.611) out of all players with a usage rate of over 31.0.