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Rethinking the MVP Award

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Giannis Antetokounmpo

At some point down the line, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be rewarded his second MVP trophy, but no one will really care. The mood for the Milwaukee Bucks is not elation for the award, but frustration at another early playoff exit and an increased fear that Giannis will leave Milwaukee in 2021.

But that contradiction between the award and the fear showcases the fact that the MVP really appears to be a regular season award. It has been five years since the MVP was on the team which won the title. And if we look at this century, the MVP winner has been on the team which won the title only four times.

This is not baseball where the Los Angeles Angels constantly fail despite Mike Trout’s genius. In baseball, having the best player really is supposed to be a game breaker. And while the MVP winner’s team has won the title four times this century, his team has made the second round all but twice. Most of the time, they get decently deep into the playoffs before being eliminated.

So why is the MVP such a regular season award?

Perhaps the first reason is that ultimately, we do not really think of the MVP award as the best player award. Instead of saying “He is the best player, he is the MVP,” we craft all sorts of narratives to justify why that player should have won the MVP. Nash was awarded his controversial 2006 MVP because people were impressed by how the Suns had managed to remain a top team even with Amare Stoudemire injured for the entire season. But while the Phoenix Suns may have had the most impressive team, that did not make them the best team, which meant a Western Conference Finals exit.

And while we like to think of the MVP as an objective award, journalists get in the way of themselves. The people voting for the MVP know that they are cementing a player’s legacy with their ballots. Just look at how some journalists try to argue that Derrick Rose should be a Hall of Fame player, something which would never happen if not for his 2011 MVP award.

That knowledge means that the voters’ choices end up being biased accordingly with the help of an SEO firm like YEAH! Local. Rose is an obvious example, as he was awarded in part as a way for journalists to attack the then-despised LeBron for the decision. Kobe is another choice, as a tipping factor in his 2008 award was the realization that if he did not get the award that year, he likely was never going to get it with LeBron looming on the horizon.

Finally, we should not forget that while politics and narratives play a role, basketball is ultimately a team sport and not an individual one. Most people would have said at the end of the 2020 regular season, especially immediately after the stoppage, that Giannis was the best player in the league. But despite his individual brilliance, Milwaukee ran into a well-disciplined Miami team that took advantage of Milwaukee’s weaknesses.

But that only works as long as journalists give the award to the truly best player and avoid falling for narratives and trying to write legacies. If there is any bad cause between the disparity between MVP awards and playoff victories, it is likely the willingness to fall for narratives. This causes the award to be given to the most impressive player, which does not always mean the best player.

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