The award for Most Valuable Player (MVP) is always hotly debated amongst diehard sports fans and figurehead experts. The issue in doling out this award to the individual who is supposed to represent excellence in their respective league during the most recent season is how to actually decide who in fact is the “best” player. Thus, it essentially comes down to deciphering what factors determine one to be the most valuable player out of all eligible players for one specific season. Is it an athlete’s uncanny ability to keep their team competitive and in striking distance of postseason success or is it purely an honor that should be derived from individual stats? This age-old question has constantly been interpreted in different ways throughout each professional sport.
I believe that while a team’s record should be noted as part of the equation that decides who will earn the MVP award, it should not be a primary aspect. Russell Westbrook was the first NBA player to average a triple-double in a season since Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals did so in the 1961-62 season. While one would think that Robertson would have unanimously won the MVP award for that season, he in fact came in third place behind Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain of the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell and Chamberlain played on championship-contending teams that season, while the Royals barely finished above a .500 record. Thus, the voters in that era decided that a team’s performance in the standings mattered more than a player’s on-court contributions. This is not to say that only stats should be weighed as a factor in deciding who the true MVP of that league is, but that one should consider how a team might perform without the player in question. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a lottery-destined team without Westbrook as their point guard.
While triple-double average was the icing on the cake in terms of why voters decided to crown him as the MVP of the 2016-17 season, he made his teammates better and almost singlehandedly won and kept them in games that they would have no business being in if he was not their star point guard. Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, winner of two MVPs and also a two-time runner-up for the award in his first five MLB seasons, has led the league in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in each season. WAR is an estimate of a player’s value to date and tracks the question of, if Mike Trout got injured and had to be replaced with a freely available minor leaguer or bench player, how much value would the team be losing? While WAR is an imperfect system, I am a big proponent of its use in helping to decide MVP races, as I believe that team performance should not be the sole factor in deciding who is truly the most valuable player in a league.
Another player that was robbed of an MVP award due to his team’s poor record is Kobe Bryant, former Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard, during the 2005-2006 NBA season. Steve Nash, who led the Phoenix Suns to 54 wins and a Western Conference finals berth, averaged a double-double in points and assists and was surely deserving of garnering some support for taking home the award. However, Bryant was an unstoppable force that opposing defenses could not contain and went on to average over 35 points per game while also grabbing 5 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists a game. Bryant’s Lakers finished with seven less wins than Nash’s Suns and did not make it past the first round (ironically losing to the Suns in Game 7), and because of this, he was penalized for not having as good of a supporting cast in LA as Nash in Phoenix. Bryant’s best supporting players were Lamar Odom, Smush Parker, Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown. Besides Odom, a casual NBA fan would have no idea who these players were, while Nash was playing alongside All-Stars such as Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire. Thus, the Lakers surely would not have even come close to securing a playoff berth had it not been for Bryant’s otherworldly season. Because Bryant did not have the same talent that Nash had around him, he was overlooked and Nash took home the MVP.
Team performance is the most important aspect of a successful sports franchise, but in terms of deciding who really is the MVP of any professional sports league, I believe that the question of what would this team be like if a player were not in the lineup every night should be asked.