The making of an NBA MVP

When it comes to the NBA MVP, it’s an incredibly crowded court this year.

Though the award theoretically goes to the best player in the league, history shows that the race is hugely subjective. Sometimes it goes to the most important player for the league’s best team, or the star with the most impressive statistics, or the one whose team would be the most affected by his absence. The definition of what truly makes a player “valuable” seems to change every year.

That’s particularly true this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo has a narrow lead for Betway Sports betting favourite over James Harden in what will likely be the closest vote in years.

It’s debatable whether Harden’s brilliant offence makes him more influential than Antetokounmpo’s all-round game, but what does the history of the award tell us about MVP criteria?

How about scoring? Being the league’s top scorer didn’t use to be a prerequisite for an MVP, but four of the last five winners led the NBA in points, and all of them averaged over 30 per game.

Assists have also been influential over the past decade, with eight of the 10 MVPs since 2008 having ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in assists.

Naturally, then, while centres and power-forwards were favoured in the 1990s and early 2000s, guards and ball-dominant forwards now receive most of the votes.

Seven of the 11 MVPs between 1993 and 2004 made the NBA’s top 10 in rebounds, but only one has scored the MVP since then: Russell Westbrook (a point guard) in 2017.

The MVP is meant to be a single-season award, but it is rarely handed to a player who hasn’t been one of the best in the league for a sustained period.

Of the last 17 MVPs, for example, 14 had been voted into the All-NBA first team in the previous season, and all 14 were coming off a top-four finish in the MVP voting.

Over the past decade, one statistic has been the clearest indicator of who will be the NBA’s MVP: Player Efficiency Rating.

This advanced metric, developed by the Memphis Grizzlies’ executive John Hollinger, boils down all a player’s statistics into a single number. Of the past 10 MVPs, eight led the league in PER.

As important as statistical brilliance is, though, the team you play for is ultimately crucial. Seven of the last 10 winners played for the team with the league’s best record. Of the last 15 winners, 11 topped their conference at the end of the regular season, with just three of the last 25 MVPs winning fewer than 54 games (one of which was Karl Malone in the lockout-shortened 1998/99 season).

It’s for that reason that Antetokounmpo has a major edge in this year’s race. At seven feet tall, with the top PER in the league, he is easily the best player for the Milwaukee Bucks. The team, in turn, won 60 games this season, three more than any other team.

Winning more games than the Golden State Warriors puts Antetokounmpo at a major advantage over Harden, whose Rockets won 53 games, finishing third in the West and fifth in the NBA.

Despite Harden’s statistical excellence – he led the league in scoring in the regular season with 36.1 points per game and also ranked seventh in assists – Antetokounmpo has also exhibited exceptional all-round numbers and has the advantage of playing for a superior team.

The debate will continue until (and probably beyond) the NBA awards, but, if the past is anything to go by, voters will almost certainly choose the Greek Freak.