Bill Simmons had a piece on his Grantland site earlier in the week talking about who should be the MLB MVP. He picked Justin Verlander, which as a Tigers fan (to the weak extent I care about baseball) made me happy, but the article was really more about deciding what ‘most valuable’ really means. Of course, no one thinks that ‘most valuable’ means ‘best’, for some unknown reason. Instead the best player on a contender is usually the MVP, and Bill says the best player on a non-top team should only be MVP if he absolutely demolished everyone else or the top teams didn’t have great options. That is, it can’t always be the best guy period because the team overall has to have something positive going for it, like the Tigers making the playoffs. I’m going to look at it another way.
As I (and others) have covered a couple of times, it’s better to be really good or really bad. Those are the teams that get in the playoffs soon (although you don’t have to be ‘really good’ to make the playoffs), and the teams that will have the best chance to win a championship soon, either by being good now or by drafting good players that they can underpay and thus become good in the near future. What you do not want your team to be is mediocre. Thus the Tigers may end up wishing they didn’t have Verlander (at least this year); he’s good enough to get them into the playoffs but probably not good enough to win a championship with the other players around him. Similarly, Bill’s example of his choice of Kobe Bryant for MVP in 2005-2006 is a poor one; Kobe was good enough to get the Lakers into the playoffs, but they were only a 7 seed and lost in the first round. Kobe is arguably the worse choice compared to Verlander since the MLB playoffs are noisier than the NBA; the Tigers will have a better chance of winning now than the Lakers did in 2006.
This raises an interesting definition of ‘most valuable’ if we agree to ignore the ‘best’ player (not that we would agree on that anyway): the MVP should be either a) the best player on, say, one of the top four teams or b) the worst player with meaningful minutes on one of the bottom four teams. I bet you’ll never come across option b in a MVP discussion again, but they could arguably help their team more than anyone else by causing them to be so bad that they can draft a great player the next year. You might argue that someone like David Robinson should thus be in the mix the year he got injured, causing the Spurs to be awful and get the opportunity to draft Tim Duncan, but injuries don’t count because it was (presumably) unintentional and had he played, the Spurs would have done better and not gotten the same draft position, so the Admiral really contributed nothing. A more proper example is Dajuan Wagner, who cost the Cavs nearly four wins (according to Wins Produced) in 2002-2003, the year before they drafted LeBron James.
With the undoubtedly correct definition of MVP in hand, who should have won in the NBA last year? The top four teams were the Bulls, Spurs, Heat, and Lakers. According to WP, their best players were Derrick Rose, Manu Ginobili, LeBron, and Pau Gasol, respectively (going by total wins, not per-minute productivity; you have to play the games to get your team into the playoffs, after all). Of those four, LeBron had easily the best season, and he should have won the real-life MVP if everyone wasn’t angry at him. At the other end, the four worst teams were the Timberwolves, Cavs, Raptors, and Kings. Their worst players, again by total wins, were Jonny Flynn, Samardo Samuels (impressive for only 700 minutes), Andrea Bargnani, and Jermaine Taylor. In this world, it’s actually counter-productive for the ‘wolves to have Kevin Love, although they managed to be the worst team this past season anyway. Thus everyone can be happy; Kevin Love deserved not to be the MVP last year. Instead we get to nominate someone who comes as no surprise to WP followers: Andrea Bargnani.
Finally, to decide the MVP, we have to ask what would have happened to the Heat and the Raptors if they didn’t have LeBron or Bargnani. LeBron played 3063 minutes; an average player given that much court time would have produced 6.4 wins, or about 12 less than LeBron. If the Heat had won 12 fewer games they would’ve been the 4th or 5th seed in the East and squarely in the land of mediocrity teams want to avoid (albeit in the playoffs and perhaps in range of contender status next year with a big free agent pick-up… like LeBron). Bargnani played 2353 minutes, during which time an average player would have produced 4.9 wins, or about 6.5 wins more than Bargnani. With an extra 6 wins the Raptors would still only have 28, which actually puts them squarely in the long-wait-for-playoffs part of the curve from my last post. Since the Raptors weren’t going to get a really great shot at the number one pick either way, the MVP from last season is LeBron for taking the Heat from a middle-of-the-pack playoff team to Finals contender.
I should note that since most GMs/coaches aren’t complete idiots, it’s hard to generate a lot of negative wins for a team. You have to get a lot of minutes and be terrible yet make people think you bring something to the team to really hurt them, and even then you can only cost a team maybe 8 or 9 wins while a league-best player will easily earn at least 10 wins above average for his team. For this reason it’s inherently more difficult to win MVP as a poor performer. For that reason, I want to give a shout-out to Mark Blount, who could make a good argument for the 2007-2008 MVP (as far back in time as I was willing to go). The Celtics were clearly the best team in the league but their best player (Kevin Garnett) was only the fifth best player in the league. The Pistons were second-best but their best player (Chauncey Billups) wasn’t really MVP material, and the Lakers had to split votes between Kobe and Lamar Odom. At the other end, the Miami Heat won (?) the worst record in the league by five wins (losses?) over the SuperSonics Miami’s Mark Blount managed to cost his team 3.7 wins, marking most of the difference. Had Blount been even average, the Heat would have fallen (risen?) to third or fourth worst in the league, costing them valuable ping pong balls.
Things didn’t work out for Miami as the Bulls somehow won the lottery and took Derrick Rose, but they did pick second. The Heat took Michael Beasley instead of Russell Westbrook or Kevin Love, but that isn’t Blount’s fault. So I hereby retroactively give the 2007-2008 NBA MVP trophy to Mark Blount for his attempt to get the Miami Heat the quality rookie they needed to get over the hump. I’m sure that Kobe Bryant will be humble enough to admit he didn’t deserve to win anyway.