The MVP Race: One Metric to Rule Them All
All year long, the MVP conversation is a source of debate and joy in the NBA mediasphere. The kind of embarrassing elephant in the room, though, is that everyone has different philosophies on what should determine who the MVP is. All sorts of metrics are roped in, and there’s different schools of thought about what matters more.
I cut out the middle man, and have a metric created specifically to track the MVP race. In this post, I will (again) introduce the metric, make a fairly straightforward attempt to justify it, then show you results and analysis I’ve made from that metric. So let’s talk about what the metric is. You ready? Here:
If a player is his team’s best performer in a game that team wins, he gets a point toward his MVP candidacy. That’s it. That’s all it is.
Why is that an appropriate way to gauge MVP over the whole season?
In an 82-game season, where all games count equally toward determining seeding, which is what teams are playing the entire regular season for, it is important to value games equally, despite narrative temptation to do otherwise. Narrative thought processes are disproportionately subject to bias and very fickle at that. We must use a metric. Traditional metrics, points/rebounds/assists per game, are too inconclusive. Advanced metrics, player efficiency ratings and beyond, are formulaic and lacking in context.
The ideal way to carry out this process would be to watch every game from the season, and with the full context of the game, identify who each team’s best player was. Nobody balanced has time to do this. So, we box score watch. An obvious concern might be that box scores don’t tell the whole story either, which they don’t. However, they usually tell enough of it to determine who a team’s MVP was in a given game. An example from a Mavericks-Bucks game on April 3rd:
It’s very easy to look at the above box score and determine that Doncic was Dallas’s best player. His play was the reason they won. You can complain that he shot 9–22, or that he had 6 turnovers, but you cannot contend that anyone on the Mavs’ roster did better. Doncic’s team won, he was its best player, Doncic gets a point toward his MVP case. Pretty simple.
Milwaukee’s side of things tells a different story. ESPN labeled Jrue Holiday as the team’s best performer. Do you agree? Giannis Antetokounmpo outscored Holiday by 8 points, going 5–10 on 10 additional shots beyond what Holiday took, got himself 7 more free throws even though he went 4–8 from the line. Holiday netted 9 assists and 0 turnovers where Antetokounmpo had 2 assists and 3 turnovers, and a block where Antetokounmpo had an extra steal. Holiday’s +/- was -5 as opposed to Antetokounmpo’s -9. Fortunately, Milwaukee lost, so no one is getting a point for their MVP case regardless. But what if Milwaukee had won? We would need to determine whose presence in the game was the stronger determining factor in their team’s success. We could either make a decision based off the numbers, or look deeper. If we watched the game, we could easily make a judgment based off what we saw, like what happens in the All-Star game, but for our purposes, let’s say we didn’t see this game. We can research, look at who scored critical buckets or made critical defensive lapses (Holiday did both). Ultimately, I’m siding with Holiday, because Antetokounmpo played below his standard, and had Giannis played better, the Bucks may well have won. Is that subjective? Yes. Is it thoughtful? Also yes. It’s one game among 82.
What makes the system great is its ability to balance out over time and provide perspective. Antetokounmpo, in the narrative conversation, helped his candidacy a lot in the last week of March by putting up phenomenal performances against Philadelphia and Brooklyn. However, he then sat out a game the Bucks lost against the Clippers and underperformed in a game against Dallas. Giannis’s major MVP breakthrough week was one in which his team went 2–2. Should the two major wins count as much as a game the Bucks willingly rested four starters and another in which they obviously didn’t bring their best game? Well, they do count the same, so yes, we should count them the same.
This is how Luka Doncic, whose team has a better record than Milwaukee in a stronger conference despite a significantly weaker supporting cast, has earned his way into the MVP conversation and as of right now (decided by that April 3rd game, as it were) ranks a hair above Giannis in my rankings. Narratively, Luka started the year poorly, was demeaned by his owner for being out of shape, admitted as much himself, and the Mavs sputtered out of the gate. In reality, despite being out of shape, Luka was still propelling the Mavericks to wins, which is all that should have mattered at the time and all that matters now, in retrospect. The Bucks have 12 wins where their best player was someone other than Antetokounmpo (Holiday in 7, Middleton in 3, Portis in 2); Dallas has 12 wins in which its best player wasn’t Doncic (Brunson 6, Dinwiddie 3, Porzingis 3). The Mavericks are 49–30, the Bucks are 48–30. Doncic has 37 wins. Antetokounmpo has 36. It’s that close.
But that’s wrong. Giannis is clearly the better player this season.
Is he? Giannis Antetokounmpois one of the best players in the world, having his best scoring season ever, shooting like never before from midrange and the 3-point line. He’s near his career high in assists, so the increased scoring isn’t coming at the cost of distrubiting the ball to teammates. However, Antetokounmpo is averaging 30.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists, while Doncic is averaging a 28.3, 9.1 and 8.7. So, on raw numbers, is a difference of +1.8 points, +2.5 rebounds, and -2.9 assists a definitive difference? Not really. But, more importantly, raw numbers shouldn’t dictate MVP candidacy. LeBron James averages 30.2, 8.2 and 6.2 this season, and the Lakers stink. He’s collecting stats in a vacuum of suck.
Advanced metrics have been created to reconcile many different statistical fields available, including raw numbers, plus-minus numbers, and on-off statistics. However, these are attempting to standardize a formula to assess how to add value to the average NBA team, when often the things teams value in players aren’t standardized. Consider how important Antetokounmpo is to the Bucks’ defensive strategy in comparison to how important Stephen Curry is to the Golden State Warriors’ defensive strategy. Antetokounmpo is a perennial DPOY candidate while the Warriors have built a roster around Curry to compensate for defense. This means Steph’s defense is less essential, though his offense is more so. The key in deciding MVP is figuring out who moves the needle for teams in terms of deciding who wins games. The easiest way to do this isn’t points, and it isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula. It’s the eye test. Who is making the difference in the game? I say we apply the eye test 82 times, check our facts with numbers, and keep perspective rather than trying to speak the narrative language of a six-month season where we have five different clear-cut frontrunners for MVP throughout the year.
The metric values the right things.
It values consistency. It values winning. It allows for incorporation of any and all context while keeping the perspective of an 82-game season. And what’s more, I’ve been doing this for years, and the cream always rises to the top.
The metric becomes less efficacious the further you go down the list.
Would you say Dejounte Murray is a more valuable player than LeBron James? Probably not, but the metric has Murray higher on the list than James, because James keeps putting up great numbers in losses, which are the MVP equivalent of hot air. Still, most teams would take James for their playoff run over Murray. The metric ignores all other players on a team, even if they are a toss-up for having been the best. In the Bucks example above, Antetokounmpo gets no mention, no credit. His game was worthless to Milwaukee. This makes sense because, given that they lost, all 5-foot-7 of me could have filled in his 40 minutes and Milwaukee’s record would be the same.
The metric doesn’t become distracted by who the best player is theoretically, and stays focused on who has played the best (in a way that contributes to winning).
MVP hasn’t ever truly been about who is the best player, though. It’s been about who made the biggest difference in winning games for their team this season. Kevin Durant is a great example of this. He’s universally regarded as a top-3 player in the world, by many he’s the best, and yet he’s not a top MVP candidate. He’s been injured, he’s deferred to Harden and Irving at times throughout the year, and generally doesn’t bring his A game unless it’s called for. A player who is hurt naturally suffers in my rankings from time missed, as their team naturally suffers. A player who has a highly capable teammate also suffers, because when you have two MVP candidates, it’s really hard, actually, to have any. If Durant and James Harden are both MVP-caliber, then you could probably make do without one or the other of them, and in that case are either really capable of being considered the most valuable? In theory, maybe, but not in the practice of the season.
The metric only cares what happens when you win, and only cares who is most valuable, not how valuable you are.
Should scoring 50 points in a close loss versus resting and getting blown out count the same toward the MVP? Should a 50-point game with a buzzer-beater to win count the same as a 17-point, 6-rebound, 3-assist performance in which you have three teammates getting 13, 4, and 2? I think it’s easy to argue that they shouldn’t, but they do in this metric. In the initial cases, both players netted their team no gain in the standings. In the latter cases, both players were the most valuable player in a game that counted as one win toward playoff seeding determination. If 17/6/3 guy does that every night in 60 wins for his team, then maybe he’s got something there, he’s involving his teammates, and manages to slightly outperform them each game. If the 50-point guy goes off 10 times over the year and plays like crap the rest of the time or is injured, you have a really great player, but not a really great season.
Maybe it’s formulaic anyway.
In my tracking of this metric, I use as a baseline ESPN’s “Top performer” box on their scores page. With a line like Doncic’s, I would look at that and accept it at face value. Doncic had 32/8/15, he was their best player. No one else likely had 37/14/8 or something competitive with that. I’d be right. With Holiday’s line, I’d investigate. Oftentimes ESPN’s algorithm values the efficiency of someone who goes 7–8 from the field with 18 points over someone who goes 9–25 with 32 points. I don’t.
Wait, so you use an algorithm anyway? After all this talk about how it’s not an algorithm?
Maybe? I don’t actually know how ESPN calculates and decides its top performer slots. I assume it’s an algorithm (or a common advanced metric). All I know is it’s usually right. Most algorithms would be usually right from game to game. It’s the aggregation and interpretation of the data that make the metric I use more descriptive of MVP (not counting losses, and equalizing modest top performances with 50-point games). Also, it’s the freedom to diverge from the algorithm that keeps the metric consistent. Factoring in context absolutely happens in the larger MVP conversation, so it may as well factor into the individual data points.
Lastly, and this is true I guess, you don’t have to award MVP to whoever gets the most “wins.” Although, I would.
It is possible that you could track these numbers and use them as another metric in your evaluation of MVP. We know that the Nuggets are useless without Jokic, and we have usage numbers and on-off numbers to show that. But neither usage numbers nor on-off numbers value winning, they only value scoring. Scoring is great, but winning is more indicative of success. Perhaps you, like me, have Joel Embiid fourth on your rankings, but you don’t want to give the award to the guy who won last year, or the guy who’s won twice before, or the guy you know could have a better season if he came into the year in better shape. OK, that’s your right. However, I think everyone should at least think about the MVP race this way. MVP discussions incorporate so many subjective variables, if you could create a variable for “Was he the MVP tonight?” and track it over the season, why wouldn’t you?
So, who’s winning the MVP race?
Here’s my data table:
Let’s look at the rankings, and the individual cases, a little more closely.
1. Nikola Jokic
The Most Valuable Player stands alone. Nikola Jokic is part of a roster predicated on a Big Three, with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. supplementing him. Murray and Porter Jr. have been sidelined for all and most of the season, respectively leaving Jokic alone. Like a Serbian chariot horse, Jokic has carried the load for Denver, keeping the Nuggets in position to compete for a title, should they manage to get their two injured stars up and running before it’s too late.
Jokic is as unheralded an MVP as they come, with pithy local support (thanks to a failure of team ownership to get the team broadcast locally by any cable company other than DirecTV, the Nuggets are the least-watched NBA team in their local market), a lumbering finesse that stands in stark contrast to sexier skillsets across the league, and having just won the league MVP last year, Jokic isn’t an appealing option for MVP, narratively speaking.
Jokic has been the Nuggets’ best player in 70 of their 79 games this season. The player who comes closest to Jokic in this regard is Luka Doncic, who has been the Mavs’ leading performer in 57 games. This 13-game advantage is beyond any subjectivity margin of error. He’s simply and clearly been his team’s best player more often than anyone else in the league. This is why, despite limited team success, as the Nuggets trend anywhere between fifth and seventh in the West, Jokic’s success is undeniable. Jokic has been the team’s leading man in 26 losses, but more importantly, has led his team to 44 wins. Given that there is quite literally no one positioned to carry the load for Denver aside from Jokic, he has provided more value to his team than any other player in the league.
The typical MVP season, I’ve noticed, features a player who is his team’s best player around 70% of the time, and whose team wins games about 70% of the time with that player as their leading player. It’s a simple formula, 70/70, that results in a typical MVP season bringing in about 40 wins. Jokic is operating at 88/63, which is pretty stunning. It also makes sense in context. The Nuggets have had 9 games in which someone other than Jokic was their best player. They’ve gone 3–6 in those games. Even with Jokic performing at a high level, the Nuggets’ supporting cast gets in the way of winning fairly often. Is it worth it to have a player as good as Jokic if the rest of your team makes you lose anyway? It’s a fair question, and for an answer I’d say, well, it’s less worth it, at any rate.
2. Luka Doncic
Luka Doncic could wind up being one of the best basketball players of all time. The Slovenian sensation just turned 23 in February, and is already disappointing people around the league. He is averaging 28.3 points per game, 9.1 rebounds, and 8.7 assists, and yet the main criticism of his MVP case is that he’s not really playing his best ball. Criticisms from earlier in the year about conditioning still loom large, and the Mavericks, who have been making a late bid at the third seed in the West, are an underappreciated team at the moment. Doncic has been the motor, rutter, and gas tank for his team in a manner this year which only Jokic has topped.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis has shifted more from a high-effort player to a big-time-game high-effort player. He responds to the moment, and that has helped him become a champion. However, it’s also changed the way his MVP case is presented. No longer are the Bucks a walk-in-the-park one seed, because they’ve rested and coasted, aware that all that truly matters for what they’re trying to accomplish is the playoffs. Still, Antetokounmpo is able to deliver huge games in big moments. You just see his case suffering somewhat when he delivers back-to-back major performances in what feel like a playoff dress rehearsals against Philadelphia and Brooklyn, then sits out against the Los Angeles Clippers, whom the Bucks are unlikely to see in a theoretical Finals matchup, and then underperforms (a measly 28/10/2) against the Dallas Mavericks, who also aren’t likely to meet Milwaukee at the summit. Overall it’s a 2–2 stretch, but Antetokounmpo looks like the Most Valuable Player because he showed what he’s capable of when it counts. It always counts in the regular season, however.
4. Joel Embiid
It’s dawning on Embiid that he’s not going to win the MVP, as he grumbled “I don’t know what I have to do” to win the award. Well, here’s Philly’s MVP chart:
Embiid sits around 64/64, when the MVP standard is 70/70. If Embiid was 39–16 on 55 games as best, it would make a difference for the 76ers. The 76ers are 16–12 when Embiid isn’t their best player. If Philly gives 5 of those games back to Embiid, goes 13–10 in games without him, but Embiid’s record goes to 39–16, and the 76ers are 52–26 through 78 games instead of 48–30, they’re sitting on top of the East, Embiid trails only Jokic in games won as best, and has a 1 seed to compare to Joker’s 6. So, pretty much that’s what he’d have to do.
5. Trae Young
Atlanta’s struggles have largely fallen on Young’s shoulders this season, and he is marked by those struggles to the tune of having the lowest winning percentage as his team’s best player of anyone in the top 10. However, this metric rewards consistency, and Young has been out there for Atlanta all year, playing in 72 of 78 games (astounding in a Covid-bludgeoned season). With the third-most games as his team’s best player, he has dragged the Hawks from out of the playoffs to a proper 8 seed with four games to go.
6. Jayson Tatum
Tatum has quietly entered the back end of the MVP conversation as Boston has roared back from an 18–21 start to compete for the East’s top seed. His candidacy was hamstrung by that slow start, which was more significant than Luka’s fat phase, though less publicly scrutinized. Narratively, Tatum presents as a perfectly fine candidate, averaging 27/8/4.4 in 74 games, and leading the charge on perhaps the greatest surge by any team outside of Phoenix and Golden State this season. Tatum is a hair behind Young because Tatum has Jaylen Brown to share the load, while Young’s best teammate is John Collins, who has underperformed relative to expectations this season.
7. Stephen Curry
Even before injuring his hand, Curry’s candidacy began to fall off once the Warriors clearly established themselves as on par with Phoenix early in the season. It was hurt further with the return of Klay Thompson, which marked a turning point in the Warriors’ season that was perhaps opposite of what was anticipated. The Warriors have put Klay back in the starting lineup and given him lots of shot opportunities, even as he is getting his sea legs back under him. The play of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole (and Curry) suffered, and the tight rhythm and flow the Warriors played with was disrupted somewhat. The Warriors did this because they know their final and most powerful form features a fully incorporated Klay Thompson, and they were willing to sacrifice what had worked really well to get there. Also, Draymond Green getting hurt and now Stephen Curry getting hurt went hand-in-hand with that. Regardless, Stephen Curry had the Warriors right alongside the Suns to start the year even as his shooting percentages dipped. He’s maintained similar numbers to his career figures despite lower percentages.
8. Devin Booker
Booker’s case is a classic one of a team having two MVPs. Chris Paul and Devin Booker have shared in Phoenix’s glory, and were you to combine their figures, they would be second to Jokic in these rankings with an absurd 42 wins on 51 games as their team’s best player. Paul received lots of MVP love earlier in the year, but when his absence didn’t dint the Suns’ trajectory, Booker slowly entered the conversation as the primary candidate from Phoenix. While Booker may be capable of playing at an MVP level, he should probably just be happy he doesn’t have to play without Chris Paul, and vice versa. It’s working for the Suns, who ran away with the league’s best record this season.
9. Karl-Anthony Towns
Towns’ rise has paralleled Tatum’s as the season has worn on. The core difference is while both have amplified their individual play since mid-January, Tatum’s team has performed way better. Towns has doggedly led a scrappy Timberwolves team into competition for the 6 seed, but has seemingly come up short as the Wolves need lots of help to get there over the year’s final week. For Towns, he isn’t averaging career highs in points, rebounds, or assists, but his team is winning more than it has since Jimmy Butler was in Minnesota, and Towns is having his first season as his team’s best player in a winning season. His trajectory is such that next year projects to be a more serious MVP push from Towns, who at age 26 is just entering his prime.
10. Ja Morant
Ja Morant has been anointed this year as the NBA’s most entertaining player, and for good reason. He has gotten in grooves that put him squarely in the MVP conversation for stretches, but playing in 56 games has limited his viability, furthermore, his team going 19–2 in his absence throws a wrench in any serious Ja-for-MVP conversation.
11. Dejounte Murray
Dejounte Murray and the just-keep-swimming San Antonio Spurs have nearly completed their theft of a play-in berth from under the noses of the apathetic and complacent Los Angeles Lakers. Murray doesn’t have a serious MVP candidacy, given the Spurs sub-.500 record, and Murray’s sub-.500 record as his team’s best performer. However, it’s worth looking at how his year looks in an MVP context. With 49 games as his team’s best player, Murray ranks behind Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Trae Young, and that’s it. He’s been rock solid for Greg Popovich and is a promising piece to build around.
12. DeMar Derozan
DeMar Derozan is a name that typically lands higher on MVP discussions, and ripping off one of the best scoring stretches in NBA history certainly adds to his case. Where his case falters, though, is that he’s not really the core building block of his own team, and Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic have combined for 37 games as the Bulls’ best player (the Bulls have gone 19–18 in those games). The Bulls have really good pieces but still don’t really know what the final form of their team is. Derozan has taken command in the fourth quarter and down the stretch of games because LaVine’s back has been a continuous nag for him for most of the season. LaVine’s play has quietly suffered because of it. LaVine is still putting up numbers, but he’s laboring and his health is probably the Bulls’ best opportunity for improvement between this year and next.
13. Donovan Mitchell
The balance in Utah between Mitchell and Rudy Gobert has always been interesting, particularly given that measuring Gobert’s defensive impact is really difficult. Mitchell garners an outsized portion of the credit for Utah’s success, although Gobert’s DPOY awards are likely enough to help him sleep at night. The Jazz are in a tailspin, but their smooth sailing through most of the season’s opening months leaves Mitchell in a favorable position, as he still ranks among the league’s elite in this particular metric.
14. Darius Garland
Darius Garland broke onto the scene in a huge way this season, making his first All-Star appearance and shouldering the load for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that suddenly had a load to shoulder. Garland’s role was solidified early in the year when Collin Sexton suffered a season-ending injury, and it’s interesting to see how those two will fit with one another when Sexton returns next year. Garland’s a good example of where having good teammates can allow a star to be a star. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley have been essential to the Cavs’ success, and Garland’s at that, but Garland has been the consistent leading man on a deep and wide Cleveland team that appears to be running out of gas as the playoffs approach.
15. LeBron James
In LeBron James’ best season in Miami, 2011–2012, he averaged a career low 2.4 3PAs per game. This year he has averaged 8.0 3PAs per game. That’s really all I have to say about LeBron James or the Lakers.
16. Pascal Siakam
We’re definitely beyond legitimate candidates at this point, but there’s still interesting things to look at in these rankings. Siakam leads Toronto with 30 games as its best player. Toronto’s roster is still young enough to develop, but decisions should be made quickly as Siakam and VanVleet are 27 and Anunoby is 24.
17. Kevin Durant
It’s easy to attribute Brooklyn’s slide to Durant’s absence, but a 19–15 record in games as his team’s best player isn’t the most impressive. After an initial hot start, it’s seemed like the Nets’ ethos has reverted to “just get to the playoffs,” and that approach is costing them down the stretch as they’ve slipped into the 10th seed in the East. One bad game in the play-in tournament could end their season, if they don’t finish with four wins and get into the 7–8 game.
18. Jimmy Butler
Who is the Miami Heat’s central cog? Is it Butler? Is it Kyle Lowry? Is it Bam Adebayo? Is it Tyler Herro? The Heat are deep and multi-faceted, and Butler may not exactly be the straw that stirs the drink. A better analogy is that he’s the liquor in the Long Island Iced Tea that gets two shots instead of one. Rum? Anyway, Butler isn’t the dominant force he was in the 2020 Bubble Heat, but he’s still there, and it’s his team before anyone else’s. For now.
19. Brandon Ingram
A wild observation about the Pelicans is that Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas have the same number of games, 26 as the Pellies’ best player. The Pelicans are 18–8 in Ingram games and 9–17 in Valanciunas games. Valanciunas is sort of a garbage man for the Pelicans. In games where Ingram is absent, or the team is getting blown out, Valanciunas will still be there, going for 20 and 10. The Pelicans as constructed are in a holding pattern, awaiting the return of Zion Williamson. The play of their best players, Ingram, McCollum, and Valanciunas, seems to reflect that. They aren’t motivated to cohere or go all out, because the only iteration of their team that competes for a title is the one where Williamson returns and becomes their leading man. BI, CJ, and JV are all content to quietly, humbly ball out until then. Mellow Pellies.
20. Chris Paul
Even early in the season, before his injury, when Paul was getting mentioned on MVP ladders or by analysts ranking their top 5 candidates, Booker was getting most of the love from the metric. Paul has been prominent, and his orchestration of the Suns offense can at times be hard to quantify, as it goes a lot deeper than raw assist numbers. He was at one point a decent case against the efficacy of the metric, but then the Suns won a bunch of games without him and I stopped worrying about that.
Anyway, here’s where the list goes after Paul.
As you can see, it stops becoming a contest of who the best players are and more of a fighting over scraps from the big eaters ranked above. When a player is traded, like James Harden or Domantas Sabonis above, I put an asterisk by their team name, stop counting for the old team, and begin a new row if they win a game for their new team. Harden’s record compared to Durant’s is interesting. Tyler Herro and Terry Rozier’s win percentages are interesting, as are Zach LaVine’s and LaMelo Ball’s.
Anyway, that’s how I evaluate who MVP is and I’m pretty sure I’m right. Thanks for reading.