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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

MVP Selection Criteria

The NBA has deliberately never published a specific set of criteria for selecting the regular season Most Valuable Player award. The league long ago determined that the controversy and conversation that almost annually surrounds the selection process is good for business. A few unwritten rules have gained general acceptance, most notably that the MVP should participate in the vast majority of the season's games, and that the MVP's team should finish in the top four in its conference. 

If one accepts the notion that the NBA's MVP should participate in at least 85% of the regular season games (70 games in an 82 game season, or 61 games in the 72 game season that the NBA is using in 2020-21), then LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, and James Harden are among the players who are disqualified from consideration for this year's MVP. Two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has played in 48 of Milwaukee's 57 games, needs to play in 13 of his team's 15 remaining games to not fall below the 85% participation threshold. 

Nikola Jokic (26.4 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 8.1 apg, .569 FG%) has performed so well while playing in all 57 games for the fourth seeded Denver Nuggets that he might be the top candidate even if most of the other top candidates had not disqualified themselves by missing so many games. All factors considered and weighted appropriately, Antetokounmpo (28.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, .564 FG% for the third seeded Milwaukee Bucks) is the only player this season who is competing with Jokic for the MVP award.

The NBA first selected an MVP after the 1956 season. The only NBA regular season MVP who did not participate in at least 85% of his team's games (including the 2020, 2012, and 1999 seasons that did not last the full 82 games, and the 1956-67 seasons when the NBA schedule gradually increased from 72 to 81 games) was Bill Walton, who played in 58 out of 82 games in 1977-78. Walton led Portland to the 1977 NBA title, and the 1978 Trail Blazers went 48-10 with Walton compared to 10-14 without him. Walton was so dominant during the 1976-78 period that the voters rewarded him for his impact on his team and the league despite how many games he missed during his MVP campaign.

Another unwritten rule for MVP voting is that the winner's team should rank among the top four teams in his conference. In 1982, Moses Malone won the regular season MVP while playing for a Houston squad that finished 46-36, tied for fifth-sixth place in the Western Conference. Malone had carried the Rockets to the NBA Finals in 1981, and he had previously won the MVP for the 47-35 Rockets in 1979. Malone won his third and final MVP in 1983 after teaming up with 1981 MVP Julius Erving to lead the 76ers to a league-best 65-17 record (and the 76ers subsequently set the all-time playoff mark by going 12-1 en route to winning the title). Like Walton a few years earlier, Malone was such a dominant player that in 1982 he overcame the voters' usual reluctance to support players from mediocre teams.

Russell Westbrook, whose 2017 Oklahoma City Thunder finished sixth in the Western Conference, is the only exception to that "rule" since 1982, and Westbrook overcame the "rule" by becoming the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season, a feat that Westbrook accomplished in each of the next two seasons before "slumping" to 27.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 7.0 apg last season (during which he adjusted to playing for a new team while also suffering various injuries and overcoming a bout with COVID-19).

This season, Westbrook is averaging 21.8 ppg, 10.9 apg, and 10.9 rpg. He is on the verge of averaging a triple double for the fourth season in a five season span. Robertson averaged an aggregate triple double over a five season span, but he had just one season in which he averaged a triple double. No other player has come close to averaging a triple double for a season. Triple doubles are often used as a benchmark to praise the versatility of players ranging from LeBron James to Nikola Jokic, but somehow Westbrook--whose 172 career triple doubles are just nine short of Robertson's record of 181--is now ignored when the subject of the league's best all-around player is discussed. Westbrook did not make the All-Star team this season (snapping a streak of six straight selections), and it seems unlikely that he will receive much consideration for the All-NBA Team or the MVP. Westbrook's Washington Wizards, who have endured a staggering number of injuries and games missed due to health/safety protocols, are currently tied for 10th place in the Eastern Conference; the seventh through 10th place teams will participate in play-in games to determine the seventh and eighth playoff seeds. The Wizards have a losing record, but they have won five games in a row and seven of their last eight. During that eight game span, Westbrook has posted these numbers:

Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in all seven wins, and his plus/minus number in the loss (-21) was less than the margin of defeat (28). In 11 games during April, Westbrook is averaging 21.6 ppg, 13.4 rpg, and 12.1 apg.

Westbrook has participated in 50 out of the Wizards' 57 games, so he is on pace to play in more than 85% of the schedule. The only possible reason that he is not touted as an MVP candidate is the Wizards' record. However, Stephen Curry is receiving endless praise for his recent scoring feats and three point shooting barrage. Curry is without question a great player and a great shooter. He has played in 50 of the Warriors' 58 games, so he is on track to meet the unwritten participation requirement for MVP candidates. Curry's Golden State Warriors are in ninth place in the Western Conference, but their .500 record places them in a virtual tie with the 10th place team that has played two fewer games so far. 

In other words, for all of the talk about Curry's value, impact, and "gravity," he is the best player on a .500 team that is fighting to get into the play-in games.

Why is Westbrook's unprecedented all-around dominance not being as highly praised and prominently recognized as Curry's scoring and shooting feats? Westbrook's team is essentially at the same place in the East that Curry's team is in the West. The Wizards have not been a playoff team since 2018, so Westbrook is trying to turn around a losing team with a losing culture; in contrast, the Warriors have two starters (Curry and Draymond Green) from their teams that won three titles while making five straight Finals appearances, plus they have the same coach, and they have two other rotation players (Kevon Looney, Damion Lee) from their 2019 squad that reached the NBA Finals. Kelly Oubre is a proven scorer (18.7 ppg last season prior to joining Golden State), Andrew Wiggins is a former number one overall draft pick with a 19.5 ppg career scoring average, and James Wiseman is the second overall pick in the 2020 draft. The Warriors have more talent than the Wizards, but the popular narrative is that Curry is some kind of miracle worker while Westbrook is supposedly having a disappointing season.

For historical context, it is worth noting that the Warriors have way more talent than the Lakers had when Kobe Bryant carried the Lakers to the sixth best record in the West in 2006. The play-in format did not exist in 2006, but Bryant's Lakers did not need any help to qualify for postseason play. Bryant led the league in scoring (35.4 ppg, the highest scoring average since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in 1986-87). The Lakers' second best player in 2006, Lamar Odom, never made an All-Star team, and would not have started for at least six of the other seven Western Conference playoff team that season (the other seven starting forwards for Western Conference playoff teams in 2006 were Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Shawn Marion, Pau Gasol, Elton Brand, Kenyon Martin, and Kenny Thomas/Shareef Abdur-Rahim for the Kings, with the eighth place Kings being the only other West playoff team for which Odom would have started). After Bryant and Odom, the 2006 Lakers who played the most minutes were Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Chris Mihm. I am not convinced that Michael Jordan could carry that squad to a playoff berth (and you can forget about Curry or Westbrook doing so); Jordan's sub-.500 1987 Bulls included Charles Oakley, John Paxson, Gene Banks, Dave Corzine, and Earl Cureton in the main rotation, and each of those players had long and solid careers. Bryant is the only 2006 Laker who would have started for the 1987 Bulls, and not many of the 2006 Lakers would have made that squad as backups (Smush Parker is not beating out Sedale Threatt or Steve Colter, to cite just one example).

Bryant finished fourth in the 2006 MVP voting; he received the second most first place votes, but many voters left him entirely off of their ballots (i.e., they did not consider him a top five player that season). Jordan finished second in the 1987 MVP voting; his Chicago Bulls finished 40-42, while 1987 MVP winner Magic Johnson led the L.A. Lakers to a 65-17 record (Johnson later won the Finals MVP after the Lakers captured the NBA title). 

It is interesting that Jordan in 1987 and Curry in 2021 are talked about as legitimate MVP candidates, while Bryant in 2006 and Westbrook in 2021 are criticized for their supposed shortcomings as opposed to being praised for leading their teams to at least the same level of success as Jordan and Curry. I agree with the unwritten rule that an MVP candidate must play in the vast majority of his team's games--a player who missed too many games is of limited value no matter how well he played when he was available--but the inconsistent standards regarding outstanding players on mediocre teams is puzzling.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:48 PM



At Wednesday, April 21, 2021 2:37:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hi David,

I think the award should go to Giannis or Jokic and any other selection would largely be robbery. In particular, I would choose Giannis again but I think he will not get it this year because of the "voter fatigue" that has prevented any player from winning more than two in a row since Larry Bird. Curry has been on a nice tear recently but I do not think it is too much to ask that his team should at least be able to make the playoffs. Curry is an excellent offensive player but he is at best average defensively and cannot consistently check the best opposing guards in the league, let alone anchor a team defense, which is why I would not take him above Jokic or Giannis.

Kobe carrying the 2006 and 2007 Lakers to the playoffs is obviously an achievement in-itself and it is interesting to consider which players could replicate such a feat. In my case, I think that prime Jordan *could* carry a similar team to the playoffs in the West if he had been time-travelled to that era, provided that it was coached by Jackson or another coach who could extract the maximum out of guys like Kwame and Smush. I agree though that one has to wonder a little bit considering Jordan's lack of major team success in the league before the arrival of Pippen and Grant.

Granted the 80s were a deeper league than the 2000s and a cast of solid rotation players in 1987 accounted for less, when the league's best teams regularly featured 4 - 5 HOFers, than it would today or in 2006.

At Wednesday, April 21, 2021 4:05:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

First, I continue to appreciate your views and your ability to highlight underserved storylines and players in the league -- especially those that are criminally derided and/or ignored by the mainstream media. I also appreciate you continuing to mention Bryant's 2006 season -- and how little he had to work with on that team. I am surprised you wrote this: "I am not convinced that Michael Jordan could carry that squad to a playoff berth." I agree with this wholeheartedly. For as much grief as people gave Bryant for being a bad teammate...I can't ever see Michael Jordan force-feeding the ball into Kwame Brown in the playoffs -- in order to take advantage of an obvious mismatch. Bryant did that...and it nearly got them into the second round (curses forever to you Tim Thomas! lol).

Back to your article. I am all for media who cover Westbrook in a real way -- and focus on his achievements and postive impact, as opposed to focusing on his deficiencies. It's interesting the difference between how Westbrook is covered and Kevin Durant who has talked down basically every elite player he's ever played with...also interesting how KD is considered a top 2 player, despite always playing on a team with at least one MVP winner...and only winning 2 rings. For comparison's sake, Lebron's never played with an MVP.

That all said, the comparision with Curry is missing a few key factors that absolutely have an impact on the overall narrative.

First, your statement: "Westbrook's team is essentially at the same place in the East that Curry's team is in the West," is a bit disingenous. Sure, it's factually accurate, but it's missing critical context. First and foremost, is that Curry's team is a .500 ball club, and Westbrook's is at .421. Secondly, the West is tougher than the East. The West's play-in teams (currently) all have .500 or better records. In the East, only the Heat have a winning record. The rest are all losing teams.

And while the talent disparity on both teams is slightly skewed in favor of the Warriors (who have themselves been injury-riddled, the latest being Wiseman who is done for the season), it's not really in question that Bradley Beal is better than any other player on either team. Both teams are made up of two vets and a bunch of young, mostly unproven players. But the talent gap shouldn't be considered big enough to merit much attention. The Wizards do have a pair of top 10 lottery picks of their own in Hachimura and Avdija, both who have improved as the season has progressed and are part of the reason the Wizards have been playing better of late.

I believe Wiseman will be a top 30 player in the coming years. But this season? At only 19, he's been one of the worst starters in the league. It's no surprise that the Warriors have improved by leaps and bounds since Wiseman's went down. Looney isn't a blue chip prospect or player, but he oozes "basketball smarts" and is never out of position on offense or defense.

Oubre has also missed most of this run. Speaking of...Oubre's 18.5 ppg average last year is a mirage. He is...not a good scorer. He was able to average that last year because of how the Suns played -- at one of the fastest paces in the NBA with Ricky Rubio feeding him. Due to a shaky-at-best handle and a bipolar shot that is either ice or fire, Oubre will always be average-to-negative offensively until he improves both areas. He also lacks basketball IQ...and doesn't seem all that interested in improving this area.

Overall, I am thankful for this article and look forward to more of them...even if I do think that Curry's current level of appreciation is justly deserved. I just also think Westbrook deserves more love and appreciation as well.

At Wednesday, April 21, 2021 11:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I share your distaste for "voter fatigue" and I agree with you that either Giannis or Jokic should win. I would take Jokic because he has played every game and his numbers are just a bit better, but I would not be outraged if Giannis won again.

Curry's size and his defensive limitations are two reasons that I would never rank Curry as a Pantheon-level player. In general, I just don't believe that 6-3 great players are as valuable as 6-6 great players. How to compare the 6-6--6-9 guys to the dominant centers is a topic for another day, but at least the 6-6--6-9 guys can guard multiple positions and are not a liability in a defensive switch. Curry can barely guard his position, and he certainly cannot guard any other position.

It is possible that Jordan could have made the playoffs with Kwame and Smush, but I am not certain that he could.

At Wednesday, April 21, 2021 11:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for your kind words.

I am not suggesting that Curry's supporting cast is great this season, but it is much better than depicted, and I would take his supporting cast over Kobe's supporting cast in 2006 and 2007 without hesitation. Green is better than Odom, and for all of the flaws of Wiggins, Oubre, and the others the Lakers did not have anyone other than Kobe who could score 18-20 ppg, and actually had few players who would have played very much for any other playoff team during those seasons (or any other season).

I understand the differences between the East and the West this season, but in the larger context of the discussion of MVP selection criteria the point is that the "unwritten rule" is that an MVP candidate's team is supposed to be in the top four in its conference. The conferences are rarely 100% balanced. Both Curry and Westbrook are leading teams that are fighting to get in the play-in games and nowhere near fourth place. So, if the "unwritten rule" is applied consistently and fairly then neither player is an MVP candidate this season--but if the media is going to go crazy over Curry's 10 game scoring/shooting run then the media should go equally crazy over Westbrook's triple double prowess. Every time someone other than Westbrook gets a triple double, it seems like the media is ready to hold a parade--but Westbrook is averaging a triple double for the season, something that he has already done more often than every other player in pro basketball history combined!

I enjoy watching Curry play and I am not opposed to the media praising his scoring/shooting, as long as Westbrook's triple double feats are similarly praised.

At Wednesday, April 21, 2021 11:53:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Westbrook's Wizards beat Curry's Warriors 118-114 tonight.

Westbrook finished with 14 points, a season-high 20 rebounds, and 10 assists. He shot 5-17 from the field, and he had nine turnovers. Westbrook sometimes does not shoot well, and he sometimes turns the ball over a bit too much, but he rebounds like an elite center, he is a great passer, and he also guarded Curry most of the game, holding Curry to 18 points on 7-25 field goal shooting (including 2-14 from three point range). Curry had eight assists, seven rebounds, six turnovers, and a team-worst -23 plus/minus number. Westbrook had a +10 plus/minus number.

Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said of Westbrook's defense, "That's the thing that Russell probably won't get a lot of credit for, but he did a great job of guarding him, putting pressure on him, making him take tough shots. It wears him out. Every now and then, an amazing player like Steph will have an off game, and a lot to do with it was Russell."

At Thursday, April 22, 2021 3:40:00 AM, Anonymous Cyber said...

I would give the award to Jokic with only Giannis being a serous contender at this stage, Embiid's durability costed what was looking like an easy win a few months into the season although at that point the Nuggets were roughly in a similar spot to the Warriors now, Jokic had the productivity down since week one just not the record

Speaking of the Warriors a lot has been made of how Curry is carrying this Warriors team and I definitely think he's been carrying a lot of the offense but the Warriors have been winning more so because of their defense which we all know he's not responsible for. I've seen people be very disingenuous with both their on/off on Offense without him and also their record without him which prompted me to look into both. Excluding Wizards game they have a 114.5 offensive rating with him (would be 10th) and a 103.9 offensive rating without him which would barely edge out the Thunder for worst offense in the league. Nice, except I've seen people straight up argue his offensive impact is anywhere near 06 Kobe's whose team had a top 3-4 offense with him and by far the worst offense in the league without him, and unlike Curry he did not have a Draymond on his team that really helps with his own offensive impact (it's a small sample but Warriors have a bottom 5 offense with Curry in but Green out)

Since we've been able to get on/off data there hasn't been a season near as impactful offensively as 06 Kobe (it seems the only reason the defense was statistically better without him in 06 was because Phil knew they needed their best defenders outside of Kobe to keep that team afloat, they didn't have a choice really with that cast; I thought he was all-def caliber based on the film I've seen that season but there's only so much a wing can do when he's sharing the court with Smush, Mihm, and Brown on both ends) and the crazy thing is he wasn't even handling the ball all that much, usually those are the kind of seasons with high offensive impact (and I usually find them a little deceptive because I don't believe that's the best way to maximize a team's chance of winning it all) but Kobe's value as a super dynamic scorer who not only maximized his touches (The opposite of Harden) but could also run an offense if needed was immense, Curry can't compare even in the easiest era for a guy with his skillset to make an impact. Just makes the recent hot takes of people arguing Curry is better than Kobe infuriating, whether on offense or as a player it's not debatable at all to me

As for their record without him, it happened to be probably the toughest stretch of the season with Green missing a lot of them as well, and the ones with Green were much more competitive than the ones without him even including the games Curry played in. Just misleading stuff to me

I do find it interesting that you're not sure even Jordan could get that team to the playoffs. My belief (I'll go to my grave believing this) is that only a handful of players in league history could have done something similar (as far as having a winning record and making playoffs) with the 06 Lakers (MJ being one of them) but I'm not sure if anyone in league history could have done better with that roster. It was an absolute mess of a roster with several teams below them in the standings having a better supporting cast, they just didn't have a best player comparable to Kobe

Great article as usual, just a lot on my mind regarding this recent stretch and the hot takes I see on Twitter and other social media that I wanted to let out. Curry is a great player but his exciting style of play and relatability always has people going way too overboard with putting him in Pantheon discussions and I just don't believe he's that caliber of a player

At Thursday, April 22, 2021 5:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kinda weird you're touting RW for MVP this year when he didn't make the AS team and few would even say he's the best player on his team. WAS is also 4-3 without him compared to 21-30 with him.

What we're seeing is plenty of proof with RW that his stats are nowhere what they might indicate over the past 5-6 seasons. Empty stats and stat padding similar to what I see with James often. Ever since KD left, RW has only made the 2nd round once and that was being Harden's #2. And he hasn't even been the best player on his team all those years either. 2 1st round losses with George. Now he's playing with another great player and his team probably won't even make the playoffs in the weaker East. OKC improved from 2019 to 2020 with Paul instead of RW, too. RW is a great player, but it just doesn't add up.

His 1st triple double season was a novelty and a great story. In hindsight, he obviously should never have won MVP that year. If RW could actually raise his teams to what his stats indicate, then he'd get the praise, but that doesn't happen very often.

At Thursday, April 22, 2021 5:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You made several excellent points regarding Curry, Kobe, and Harden. Curry is a great player and he is fun to watch, but he is not a Pantheon-level player.

At Thursday, April 22, 2021 5:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


To borrow your phrase, it is "kinda weird" that you missed the points that I made. I did not "tout" Westbrook for MVP; I very clearly stated that either Jokic or Giannis should win.

I have written about Westbrook's playoff career at length, so I am not going to rehash all of that material here other than to point out that Westbrook was an All-Star/All-NBA level performer for four teams that advanced to the WCF, including one team that reached the Finals. How many current players can match that?

It is odd that only Westbrook's triple doubles are "empty." I have yet to see anyone say that about the triple doubles posted by the Big O, Magic, Jason Kidd, or Westbrook's contemporaries. I don't have Westbrook in my Pantheon, but his triple doubles are not somehow less valuable or impactful than the triple doubles posted by other players. The Wizards are 15-12 this season when Westbrook posts a triple double.

I love the small sample size theater regarding the Wizards' 4-3 record without Westbrook this season. Care to look at those four wins? One came against a then 9-14 Bulls team. Another came against a then 7-14 Heat team. A third win came against a then 2-3 Timberwolves team that is now 16-44. The Wizards sans Westbrook did beat a then 7-4 Suns team--an impressive win, but one game hardly proves (or disproves) much of anything.

It is great when I provide skill set analysis, historical context, and a breakdown of a player's entire career (over the course of years of writing about Westbrook) and the best that a Westbrook detractor can come up with is "But what about Washington's 4-3 record against mostly weak teams without Westbrook? Doesn't that invalidate Westbrook's entire career?"

At Thursday, April 22, 2021 7:08:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...


You cherry-pick a bunch of stuff with your anti-Westbrook argument. Houston was a strange season. You can say Westbrook was Harden's #2...but is that the truth? Without Westbrook, their experiment would not have been possible. Also, it wasn't until they put the ball in Westbrook's hands that the experiment started to work. It was destined to fail regardless though. No way could they win anything of signifigance without a rotational player bigger than 6'6.

OKC improved, not just because of Paul, but because of Shai breaking out, Gallinari staying healthy (which he's never done), and Schroeder having a career year. Yes, Paul certainly had a huge impact on Shai and Schroeder, but let's not gloss over the effect Westbrook has had on his teammates.

1. KD - won his only MVP playing with Westbrook
2. George - had his best season and was in the MVP conversation
3. Beal - was leading the league in scoring (never done before)
4. Harden - had his second highest scoring season of his career

KD's never done anything without another MVP on his team. George flopped hard with Kawhi Leonard in the second round. Beal couldn't do anything with Wall. Harden too, wasn't able to accomplish anything without another all-star (near MVP-level player). Tell me who the second best player was on OKC during Westbrook's MVP season?

This year, the Wizards were hit hard by COVID-19 early on and have been decimated by injuries. They are an extremely young team that is also coached by...Scott Brooks. That said, now that they've had time to gel, the team is playing a lot better. The main driver of that improvement? Westbrook.

Circumstance and context matter when discussing the value of players. Other than KD, no other former teammate of Westbrook has anything but praise for his work ethic, leadership, and ability to elevate those around him.

At Thursday, April 22, 2021 11:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Those are excellent points.

About a decade ago, I predicted that Westbrook would inherit Kobe's mantle as both the NBA's best guard and as a polarizing player who is either loved or hated. Both predictions came true, as Westbrook won an MVP, set many triple double records, and is continuously downgraded by both media members and fans. The fact that Westbrook had to have a historic triple double season to win an MVP that some people still bizarrely consider controversial says it all. I think that if LeBron James, James Harden or certain other players averaged a triple double for a season then social media might explode and the Hall of Fame might do the first ever induction of an active player, but somehow Westbrook's triple double feats--including a 20 rebound game as a point guard!--are dismissed as "stat padding."


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