By In Stuff

There’s only one MVP


Baseball awards are fun to argue about. There’s a specific reason for this: Baseball, more than any other major American team sport, separates the individual. Yes, of course, the overall goal is always winning. But in baseball the goal of the single player — get a hit, get a strikeout, make the catch — matches up almost 100% of the time with the goal of the team. Individual and team mesh well.

This isn’t true in other sports. In basketball, a player’s goal is not to score as many points as he can. In football it isn’t to make every tackle, or block every man or catch every pass. In hockey, if a teammate has a better shot, you pass the puck to your teammate.

If Bryce Harper gets nine at-bats and hits four home runs in a game, nobody thinks he’s being selfish and all about himself. If Kobe Bryant takes 50 shots to score 50 points, everybody thinks it.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to put the basic difference between baseball and other sports  — the best I can think of is the Derek Jeter vs. Tom Brady example. The point of this is not either of them, it’s LeBron James, but give me a minute.

A lot of people think Derek Jeter is overhyped and that’s fine. But let’s pretend that Jeter was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers instead of the New York Yankees. How different a player is he? I’m not talking about perceptions or championships won or any of that. Just: How different a player is he?

Best guess: He’s exactly the same player, the same .310 hitter, the same irrepressible ambition to play baseball, the same power and speed, the same defensive reputation. It’s a fair guess that he gets to 3,000 hits, a fair guess that he goes to the Hall of Fame. He might have played for multiple teams. He might have not had the late-career renaissance. He might have retired earlier. He might have been on everybody’s All-Underrated Team. But none of that changes the likelihood that Derek Jeter would have still been Derek Jeter no matter where he played.

Now, Brady. Let’s say Brady was taken by the Cleveland Browns in the draft rather than the New England Patriots. How different a player is he? The hard answer, I think, is this: He almost certainly would be a dramatically different player.

Play it out in your mind. The Browns had drafted Tim Couch with the first overall pick a year earlier, so they would have drafted Brady as a backup just like the Patriots did. The Browns were full invested in Couch for obvious reasons; it’s not entirely clear they would have even given Brady a second glance.

So what happens? Now, there’s no Drew Bledsoe to get hurt, and no Bill Belichick to boldly stick with the kid over the much bigger name (something most coaches would absolutely not do). You can imagine a scenario where Brady beats out Couch for the starting job, But even if that did happen, what next? The Browns offensive line wasn’t exactly great — Tim Couch was sacked 51 times in 2001. They were not overflowing with weapons — Dennis Northcut and Quincy Morgan were generally their best receivers. How good could Brady have been?

And then, after the Browns somehow made the playoffs in 2002, the team became a hot mess with regime changes, coaching changes, personnel changes, game plan changes basically every year. Does Brady change history? Does he stabilize the ogranization with great play? Maybe he does — no one can doubt his greatness as a player. And then again, maybe he doesn’t. Because individual greatness in football, even at quarterback, means little if the team can’t get out of its own way.

But — and this really is where we get to the point — the Jeter scenario is interesting to consider because it’s baseball. The Brady scenario is entirely beside the point. The thing that makes Tom Brady amazing is that his team ALWAYS wins. He’s a great player, maybe the greatest ever, he prepares for the moment like no one else, he rallies his teammates with fury, he makes the big throw just about every time. But you can’t really separate that from the team; and you would not even want to separate it. To ask what Tom Brady would be like on another team is to miss the point that in football your job is specifically NOT to be an individual. It is, as coaches always say, to do your job where you are … and do it so well that it raises your team higher.

All of which (finally) gets us to LeBron James.

A few years ago, back in 1997, the MVP Award went to Utah’s Karl Malone even though the voters were probably aware that Michael Jordan was still playing. Karl Malone is one of the greatest players in NBA history. But to give any award with “valuable” in the title to Karl Malone when Michael Jordan is still at his zenith is too ridiculous to even discuss. I remember at the time that the argument seemed to be that Maloney’s stats were blah blah blah and that Jordan’s teammates were yadda yadda yadda and that Jordan had already won la la la la awards and so on.

It was as stupid then as it sounds today.

This year, the NBA MVP award will go to Houston’s James Harden, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook or San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and that’s all well and good, they’re all wonderful players, they all had amazing seasons, and I can see how good their advanced metrics are.

There’s only one MVP, though. You know it. I know it. They know it too.

The thing about being as good at basketball as LeBron James is that at some point you lose sight of the fact that he is fundamentally different from every other player. He is the one player in the NBA, the only player in the NBA, who could be added to a reasonably good team and instantly turn them into a championship team.

Or this way: He is the one untradeable player. If San Antonio traded Kawhi Leonard for LeBron James, they would be better. If Oklahoma City traded Russell Westbrook for LeBron James, they would be better. If Houston traded James Harden for LeBron James, they would be better too.

This has been clear for a very long time — I mean, James has just guided his team to the NBA Finals for the SEVENTH STRAIGHT SEASON. Yes, he’s had some superb teammates. He’s also had some not-so-superb teammates. None of it matters. Seven straight Finals. It’s not even fair.

And how good is this Cleveland team without him anyway? The other night in Cleveland, James had a bad game. It just wasn’t working. He wasn’t in the flow at all. It looked for a while that his teammates would give him a night off. The Cavs built up a 21-point lead. The Cleveland crowd was into it. And then … the Celtics started hitting threes, the Cavaliers kind of went dead, and the Celtics won the game.

It was yet another subtle reminder: This Cavaliers team, even with big-name talent, can’t win without LeBron.

Put it this way: LeBron James has had 30 playoff games in his career where he had a Basketball Reference Game Score of less than 14 — this is the Basketball Reference total score that combines points, rebounds, asssists, steals into one handy number. How many of those 30 games do you think his teams have won — and remember, we are talking about Cleveland and Miami teams that have already been to seven NBA Finals, have won three championships, etc.

LeBron James’ team record when he goes for Game Score of less than 14: 6-24.

See, those teams don’t just need LeBron James to win in the playoffs. They need PEAK LeBron James to win. They need SUPERHUMAN LeBron James to win. And more often than not, he gives it to them. James has now scored more playoff points than anyone.  This is a guy who has had FORTY playoff games with a Game Score of 30 or better. In those games, not surprisingly, his teams are 32-8.

In Game 4 of the Boston series —  a game Cleveland needed to win and did win with a combeback of their own — announcers heaped all sorts of credit on James’ teammates, particularly Kyrie Irving who went for 42 and had some of the craziest finishes imaginable and Kevin Love who pulled down a career high 17 rebounds. They were the “heroes” of the night. They made up for a “subpar” LeBron, who somehow picked up four fouls in the first half. Even Thursday night, during Game 5, the legend Marv Albert kept talking about how the Cavaliers had overcome LeBron’s troubling night.

How bad was LeBron’s troubling night? He scored 34 with five rebounds and six assists. He scored 15 of those points in the fourth quarter to end the any Celtics dreams.

You don’t notice because this is what LeBron James does.  We often don’t notice sunsets either.

Thursday night, in the closeout game in Boston, James went for 35 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block. The Cavaliers scored a team playoff record 43 points in the first quarter, a team playoff record 75 in the first half, and Pujolsed a Boston crowd that had so desperately wanted to get hyped.

NBA Awards are silly to argue about for a bunch of reasons. One, nobody cares about the NBA regular season. Two, the voters routinely twist themselves into knots trying to separate the player from the team, something that just doesn’t work all that well in basketball. Hey, the three MVP candidates all had great seasons; you could argue persuasively that they all had better seasons than LeBron James did.

But come on: You’d take LeBron. And you wouldn’t even have to think about it.

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37 Responses to There’s only one MVP

  1. Nik says:

    Totally agreed. I think MVP voters just have an aversion to voting for the same guy over and over again. You mention Jordan vs. Malone, how about Lebron vs. Rose? Rose won the MVP and Bron completely demolished the Bulls in the playoffs.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      For some reason-probably “The Decision” nonsense-people have an animus toward LeBron. The guy has taken really otherwise pretty mediocre teams to the finals and championships. Maybe he is or maybe he isn’t better than Jordan, but to use the fact that he hasn’t won every finals appearance against him is ridiculous. I just don’t understand it. If anything, LeBron is probably underrated.

      • invitro says:

        “The guy has taken really otherwise pretty mediocre teams to the finals and championships.” — But this describes a lot of the teams that make the finals.

        • Dave says:

          Your point? In any sport “mediocre” teams **win** the finals they make. (As do injured, great, historic, you name it ones.) Jeez. Leave it alone.

          • invitro says:

            I might consider leaving “it” alone if I could figure out an iota of what you’re trying to splutter onto your keyboard…

  2. todmod says:

    Well – the actual reason Lebron didn’t finish top 3 is because he wasn’t one of the best 3 players in the regular season. He’s amazing and he’s the best player in the league – but he wasn’t one of the top 3 players in the time the award is given. His team finished tied for the 5th best record in the league with the Raptors, Clippers, and Jazz. They had the seventh best point differential. The Cavs weren’t world beaters in the regular season because they didn’t have the unstoppable Lebron playoff performances every night (he was still great plenty of times).

    The season is 82 games and 6 months long – it makes sense to award the best players. I find the “how could they not have just given the MVP award to Lebron” talk pretty silly.

    • Brian says:

      This is perfectly stated. Thanks.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Well, without LeBron, how would they have done? I don’t have a problem with him not winning MVP this year, but a lot of people simply look for ways to denigrate him.

    • Tom H. says:

      Interesting view and I see your point. Still, when you say “he’s the best player in the league” that raises the question – is the best player in the league by necessity the MVP? Joe has addressed this a few times in terms of baseball and his answer has been “Yes, the best player is the MVP” so that is probably coloring his view here. I think he has a good point, especially in basketball where the best player will raise a team above where it would otherwise play.

      From another viewpoint, maybe the Cavaliers weren’t the best team in the regular season, but the goal is to get to (and win) the finals and there’s no other player that has done it more. Would Oklahoma be close to the same team without Westbrook but someone more average instead? Would Cleveland be in the finals or even have the 5th best record with someone other than LeBron? Who elevates their team more and is thus more valuable?

      I don’t know, I kind of gave up on basketball a while ago, but I have read a bunch of Joe’s stuff over the years and the “best player is the MVP” is something I’ve seen him argue for more than once.

      • Curtis R says:

        If you took Westbrook off of this Thunder team, they would have won the Big 12, but that could be about the extent of their ambition.

        • KHAZAD says:

          I think they would need Westbrook to dethrone the Jayhawks.

          • invitro says:

            The five players on OKC who had the most minutes per game were drafted #2, #3, #11, #12, #26, #26, #36, and #36. I don’t follow college basketball much at all, but I think it’s a safe guess that the Jayhawks won’t have their top eight players drafted nearly as highly as the OKC players. And of course, the OKC players are veterans, almost all playing much better now then when they were rookies. Conclusion: OKC without Westbrook would beat the Jayhawks by about 165-34. The five worst players on OKC would probably double up the Jayhawks. (People suggest this kind of thing all the time. I don’t think they ever put any thought at all into the idea, but are just blurting something they heard a guy say on TV.)

          • MikeN says:

            I was going to argue with you about this, then I took a look at Kansas’s championship team:


            Anthony Davis’s Kentucky team(coached by Tom Izzo), or perhaps Rick Pitino’s squad, or UNLV maybe.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      I think Todmod has it right. Statistically speaking, Lebron wasn’t the best player during the regular season. We all know he’s the best in the league, and he is the MVP depending on how you define MVP, but while he was still probably top 10 statistically, he wasn’t top 3 or 4 even. So the question, really, is how could you defend giving Lebron the MVP?

  3. ScottyB says:

    We actually have the perfect comparison for “if Jeter were on another team.” Barry Larkin. . Their careers significantly overlapped and their stats are eerily similar:
    WAR: 67.6
    AVG: .295
    HR: 198
    OBP: .371
    SB: 379
    12-time All-Star, nine-time Silver Slugger winner, and the 1995 NL MVP. He hit .353 in the 1990 World Series, became the first shortstop to go 30-30 in a season, and stole at least 10 bases in 14 straight seasons. 3 gold gloves, and better defensive metrics than Jeter. Intangibles up to wazoo.
    WAR: 74.4
    AVG: .311
    HR: 258
    OBP: .380
    SB: 356
    14-time All-Star ranks sixth in baseball history in career hits, 6 silver slugger awards, plus excelled in an entire season’s worth of games in the post-season. 5 gold gloves, although poorer defensive metrics. Intangibles up to wazoo.

    • Scott says:

      I prefer the Alan Trammell comparison because they both had seasons when they should have one the MVP (87 and 98) and because it allows ARod to play the role of Ripken as the superior player at the same position in the same league.

      I think Joe’s largely right about Jeter being the same player, but I think there are two things different about his career:
      1 – He has a few hundred fewer hits. He’s 27th all time in games played, but 10th in plate appearances (7ths in at bats), benefiting from hitting at the top of the lineup for great offensive teams.
      2 – He probably moves off shortstop later in his career as his defense declined.

    • Chris H says:

      I was thinking Robin Yount myself:
      WAR: 77.0
      AVG: .285
      HR: 251
      OBP: .342
      SB: 271
      …though he obviously moved to the outfield, so in that respect Larkin’s a better comp.

    • Sonny says:

      Their stats are pretty similar, but I don’t think they would qualify as “eerily” close. 16 points of BA and 60 homers are quite a big difference. I know Jeter had a longer career, but he also had almost 600 more runs, over 1100 more hits, 100 more doubles, and 350 more RBI.

  4. Curtis R says:

    A few thoughts on this:

    Lebron’s team may have been to the Finals seven years in a row, and that is amazing. But it does need to be pointed out, I think, that all seven years they have represented the Eastern conference. And since Jordan retired, the Western conference has been ridiculously deeper and better across the board. This year, it has maybe been closer than most, but at least three and maybe as many as seven teams out west were as strong as any team in the east. Westbrook and Durant made one finals appearance; Paul, Griffin, and Jordan made none. If you take the eight teams that Lebron has taken to the finals and put them in the Western Conference, I don’t think you get more than two finals appearances.

    I think Kahwi Leonard should win the MVP for this season. My reasoning is pretty simple. He has been the best defensive player in the league by a fairly wide margin over the last three or four seasons, and in the season just finished, he is also now one of the top five or so offensive players in the league as well. Head to head, he was as good as and then better than Lebron in the 2013 and 2014 Finals. Lebron’s game has remained great, but because of the his offensive development, Kahwi is a completely different player. That Leonard does all of this without a hint of self-promotion – it took five years of him being in the league before I knew what his voice sounded like – is a bonus.

    Leonard is what Jeter would have been if he played defense like Ozzie Smith.

    • invitro says:

      “He has been the best defensive player in the league by a fairly wide margin over the last three or four seasons” — You just made Rudy Gobert cry.

  5. Ross says:

    Thanks Joe, I have always wondered how your MVP voting philosophy would differ for a sport like basketball or football where it’s harder to separate player and team. This helps. Good stuff.

  6. Zeke Bob says:

    It bugs me when anyone immediately dismisses a point they bring up to shore their own argument as “inarguable.”

    You can absolutely argue that Malone deserved that ’97 MVP, which is a regular season award, over Jordan. Just as you can argue LeBron didn’t deserve it this year.

    1996-97 Malone: 55% FG; 27.4 PPG; 9.9 RBG; 4.5 AST; 1.4 STL; .6 BLK; 28.9 PER or Player Efficiency Rating (his career high, for frame of reference Jordan’s career average is 27.9, LeBron’s 27.6); 16.7 Win Shares, 7.9 VORP (value over replacement player)

    Jazz finished 64-18

    1996-97 Jordan: 48.6% FG; 29.6 PPG; 5.9 RPG; 4.3 AST; 1.7 STL; .5 BLK; 27.8 PER; 18.3 WS; 6.8 VORP (interestingly Pippen had a 6.7 that season)

    Bulls finished 69-13

    Both had some strong teammates – Stockton, Hornacek & Russell for the Jazz and Pippen, Rodman, Harper, Kukoc for the Bulls – but it looks like Chicago was a little deeper (17.4 total VORP for Jordan’s teammates vs 12.5 for Malone’s).

    So yes, I think you could make a convincing argument for Malone that year.

    • invitro says:

      Yes, Joe’s claims about Malone/Jordan are too ridiculous to even discuss. What he says is as stupid when he wrote it as it sounds today.

  7. Alter Kacker says:

    Derek Jeter WAS drafted by the Brewers. In those days he went by the name “Robin Yount.”

  8. Larry Howser says:

    As always Joe great writing! It does make me wonder about the debate (being as old a sports fan as I am) about the old debate between Wilt and Russell – Wilt was (scoring wise) an amazing player but Russell did the same thing – he went to the finals – I think it was all but two seasons in his career – yet people forget and Russell often ends up further down the “greatest ever” lists than I think he should. Any thoughts?

    • invitro says:

      There is no debate. Wilt is the greatest basketball player ever, Russell was a vital piece of the Celtics’ dynasty. And when you say Wilt was “scoring wise” amazing — you seem to try to imply that scoring was the only way he was amazing. Well, obviously, he was amazing rebounding-wise, defense-wise, field-goal-percentage-wise, even assists-wise when he wanted to be… indeed, amazing in every aspect of the game except for free throws.

      • invitro says:

        Oops. I forgot amazing iron-man-wise. And volleyball-wise, blonde-girl-deflowering-wise, and house-decorating-wise, though I suppose they don’t count in this context. (Though they do in the greater context of Life. HEY-OH!)

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        Absolutely, it’s Wilt. Just look at the mediocre teams he dragged into the finals during the 1960s. Russell is in the pantheon, of course, but he also played alongside Hall of Famers at almost every position. The only player who rivals Wilt is the early Kareem, who did amazing things with a Milwaukee team that was one year removed from expansion (and then won the championship a year later with the help of a great, but over-the-hill Oscar).

        Jordan? Look at the Bulls’ record over his first two or three years. He didn’t immediately transform his team into a championship contender like Wilt and Kareem did. He had to wait until Scottie Pippen showed up.

    • MikeN says:

      Bill Simmons covered it in his very vulgar basketball book. He looks through Wilt’s teammates and finds them to be comparable to Russell’s. Simmons is biased of course, but the anecdote about a team in the hunt for a championship not wanting to acquire Wilt is telling.
      Wilt could fill the stat sheet, but this was his top priority. Other teams knew if he picked up some early fouls, you could go at him the rest of the game, because for him top priority was preserving his never fouled out streak.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        I’ve always had my doubts about the story of the “contending” team that didn’t want Wilt. One thing we know, however, is that, whichever team it was, they never won the title. How do we know that? Because the teams that won it all during Wilt’s career already had superstar centers (Russell, Reed, Kareem) and wouldn’t have been interested in trading them.

        On the other hand, the two teams that *did* trade for Wilt (the 76ers and the Lakers) were both rewarded with championships.

        And only a die-hard Celtics booster like Simmons could have thought that any of Wilt’s teams (except maybe the ’72 Lakers) had as much talent as Boston did during the Russell era.

  9. sourcreamus says:

    There has to be a distinction between the best player and the person who played best. James is a veteran and during the season decided to reserve his energy for the playoffs when it mattered most. Since MVP is a regular season award it should go to Westbrook.

    • JH says:

      Um, he led the league in minutes per game. I don’t know how you define reserving his energy, but it’s clearly not the same way I do.

  10. Bryan says:

    OKC – 29-23, .558 win% vs West, 18-12, .600 win% vs East
    CLE – 16-14, .533 win% vs West, 35-17, .673 win% vs East
    Regardless of how good LeBron is, when he doesn’t care about playing the best teams during the regular season and just yawns through the Eastern Conference for his 7th straight Finals appearance while having 2 presumed Hall of Fame teammates in their primes each of those 7 years it shouldn’t be surprising that he doesn’t win MVP.
    Cleveland’s over/under was 56.5 wins, they won 51. OKC 45.5 and they won 47. Houston 41.5 and they won 55. Spurs 56.5 and they won 61. For the same reason Popovich won’t win Coach of the Year, Harden is likely to win MVP. Popovich who presumably coached to the best of his abilities every game and all season is far more deserving of Coach of the Year than LeBron is of winning the MVP for these results:
    vs teams with 31 or fewer wins: 19-0, 1.000 win% (Bro, Phi, Orl, Knicks, Pho, Lakers, Min)
    vs teams with 32-40 wins: 10-6, .625 win% (Cha, Det, Sac, Dal, NO, Den)
    vs teams with 41-43 wins: 10-14, .417 win% (Mia, Chi, Ind, Mil, Atl, Por, Mem)
    vs teams with 47-53 wins: 10-7, .588 win% (Wash, Tor, Bos, OKC, Utah, Clippers)
    vs teams with 55 or more wins: 2-4, .333 win% (Hou, Spurs, GS)
    In the 2nd line LeBron seems motivated to play Jordan’s team 4-0 and was .500 against the other 5 teams. In the 4th line, 8-3 against the East so made an effort for seeding or East is really just that bad, 2-4 against the West teams. 12-1 or .923 win% against the East in the Playoffs.
    LeBron is the garbage time and playoff MVP. Give him an opponent that has no chance or start the playoffs and he’ll try. Since the regular season MVP ignores the playoffs, that 32-31, .508 win% against teams that won at least 32 regular season games and .533 win% against the entire West means if you’re going to award LeBron the MVP this year you should have awarded it at the beginning of the season since you’re basing it on how well he could play instead of how well he did play.
    Maybe 20 years from now people will look back and wonder why LeBron didn’t win more MVPs, maybe they will also look back and wonder why his teams didn’t win more games and maybe they will even draw a connection between those two things.

  11. Evan says:

    This isn’t Joe’s best piece, and it’s a shame because I generally find myself in perfect agreement with his definition of MVP. The idea that there’s no discussion to be had, especially when the numbers say otherwise, is an especially un-Posnanski thing to suggest. Oh well, I guess we all have our blind spots.

  12. invitro says:

    Here are bb-ref’s leaders in playoff VORP for the last several years:
    2006 Wade 2.6, Nowitzki 2.4, James 1.4, Brand 1.3, Carter 1.2
    2007 James 2.4, Duncan 1.7, Kidd 1.4, Ginobili 1.3, BarDavis 1.2
    2008 Garnett 2.1, Bryant 1.9, James 1.9, Paul 1.8, PGasol 1.5
    2009 James 2.9, Bryant 2.2, Howard 2.1, PGasol 2.0, RLewis 1.6
    2010 Bryant 1.9, PGasol 1.9, Rondo 1.7, James 1.5, Pierce 1.4
    2011 James 2.3, Wade 2.0, Kidd 1.5, Rose 1.3, Durant 1.2
    2012 James 3.2, Durant 2.0, Rondo 1.9, Wade 1.4, Harden 1.1
    2013 James 2.9, Leonard 1.5, Durant 1.3, DaGreen 1.3, George 1.2
    2014 James 2.4, Westbrook 2.0, Leonard 1.6, George 1.5, Durant 1.3
    2015 James 2.7, Curry 2.2, DrGreen 1.6, Harden 1.5, Griffin 1.2
    2016 James 3.1, Westbrook 2.3, DrGreen 2.0, Curry 1.3, Irving 1.3
    2017 James 1.8, Curry 1.4, Leonard 1.4, DrGreen 1.4, Harden 1.0

    bb-ref’s description of VORP: “A box score estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level player (-2.0) player, translated to an average team and prorated to an 82-game season.”

  13. MikeN says:

    Except LeBron during the regular season had one big game, when he destroyed the Celtics in a showdown for the #1 seed, and then the Celtics lost their next game and still got the #1 seed because MVP LeBron lost four straight games to end the season. FOUR! Back to back to a barely over .500 Hawks team and to a missed the playoffs Heat team, before giving up against Toronto.
    How can you be MVP while mailing it in like that?

    Westbrook averaged a triple double, Harden led in assists and was second to Russ in scoring. Leonard was an even better two way player than Scottie Pippen. And yes, I would take Leonard over LeBron right now.

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