NBA MVP Criteria: How the NBA should choose MVP based on past winners

Throughout NBA history, there have been 63 MVPs and only six times has the winner of the award lead a team with winning percentage less than .600.

Looking at all 60+ MVP award winners since the league started handing out the award tells us how to define “valuable” when the inevitable MVP voting discussion rears it’s head in June. The question is how much should voters value winning over individual accomplishment? How heavy should that player’s contribution to their team weigh in the decision? If NBA history means anything, the answer is pretty clear. Let’s take a deeper look.

What Factors Determines “Most Valuable”

When it comes down to it, how one votes for the MVP depends on their definition of “valuble. So, what does “most valuable” mean when we speak of an NBA MVP?

The NBA MVP award has quickly become a yearly discussion in how to define it, what criteria should be weighed, what are the requirements and which factors should have the most influence? There are several angles one can take when discussing the merits of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, but the argument every year seems to boil down to two main interpretations of “most valuable”.

The first argument isn’t complicated; it’s basically the best player on one of the top four teams in the league (record-wise). The other argument takes “Most Valuable Player” much more literally; they argue that the “most valuable” is exactly that — the player that means the most to their teams. The hypothetical that’s used most often is if we removed that player from the team and replaced with an average player, the team would be a complete mess.

Most seasons, those two conversations coalesce and make voting for the two or three MVP candidates easy, but every few years there’s a player having such an extraordinary season that despite his team’s record, he forces his name into the conversation. The player is no doubt one of the best players that season, yet their team isn’t in any serious conversations for the NBA Championship.

Winning Matters Most for MVPs (Usually)

It’s insightful to have the MVP’s team records to evaluate when and how the trophy has been awarded in the past. Of the 63 NBA MVPs from the 1955-56 season to the 2016-17 season, here’s how their teams fared:

  • 39 played for the team with that year’s best regular season record.
  • 23 of them won that season’s championship.

As we mentioned earlier, since the first MVP award was given out in 1956, there have only been six MVPs that played on teams that have fallen below the .600 winning percentage. And shockingly, there have been two NBA MVPs whose teams were lost more games than they won.

MVPs with Lowest Winning % in NBA History
Season Player Team Record Team Win%
1979 Moses Malone Houston Rockets 47-35 0.573
2017 Russell Westbrook Oklahoma City Thunder 47-35 0.573
1982 Moses Malone Houston Rockets 46-36 0.561
1976 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Los Angeles Lakers 40-42 0.488
1956 Bob Pettit St. Louis Hawks   33-39 0.458

Here’s all 63 NBA MVPs and sorted by their team’s winning percentage — from highest to lowest.

MVPs and Team Records
Year MVP Team Record Team Win%
2016 Stephen Curry 73-9 0.890
1996 Michael Jordan 72-10 0.878
1967 Wilt Chamberlain 68-13 0.840
1973 Dave Cowens 68-14 0.829
1986 Larry Bird 67-15 0.817
1992 Michael Jordan 67-15 0.817
2000 Shaquille O'neal 67-15 0.817
2007 Dirk Nowitzki 67-15 0.817
2015 Steph Curry 67-15 0.817
1971 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 66-16 0.805
2009 LeBron James 66-16 0.805
2013 LeBron James 66-16 0.805
1983 Moses Malone 65-17 0.793
2018 James Harden 65-17 0.793
1987 Magic Johnson 65-17 0.793
1997 Karl Malone 64-18 0.780
1965 Bill Russell 62-18 0.775
1972 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 63-19 0.768
1985 Larry Bird 63-19 0.768
1990 Magic Johnson 63-19 0.768
1968 Wilt Chamberlain 62-20 0.756
1981 Julius Erving 62-20 0.756
1984 Larry Bird 62-20 0.756
1993 Charles Barkley 62-20 0.756
1995 David Robinson 62-20 0.756
1998 Michael Jordan 62-20 0.756
2005 Steve Nash 62-20 0.756
2011 Derick Rose 62-20 0.756
1962 Bill Russell 60-20 0.750
1991 Michael Jordan 61-21 0.744
2010 LeBron James 61-21 0.744
1999 Karl Malone 37-13 0.740
1970 Willis Reed 60-22 0.732
1980 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 60-22 0.732
2003 Tim Duncan 60-22 0.732
1963 Bill Russell 58-22 0.725
1961 Bill Russell 57-22 0.722
1974 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 59-23 0.720
2014 Kevin Durant 59-23 0.720
1978 Bill Walton 58-24 0.707
1994 Hakeem Olajuwon 58-24 0.707
2002 Tim Duncan 58-24 0.707
2004 Kevin Garnett 58-24 0.707
2012 LeBron James 46-20 0.697
1969 Wes Unseld 57-25 0.695
1989 Magic Johnson 57-25 0.695
2008 Kobe Bryant 57-25 0.695
1964 Oscar Robertson 55-25 0.688
1966 Wilt Chamberlain 55-25 0.688
2001 Allen Iverson 56-26 0.683
1958 Bill Russell 49-23 0.681
1959 Bob Pettit 49-23 0.681
2006 Steve Nash 54-28 0.659
1960 Wilt Chamberlain 49-26 0.653
1977 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 53-29 0.646
1957 Bob Cousy 44-28 0.611
1988 Michael Jordan 50-32 0.610
1975 Bob McAdoo 49-33 0.598
1979 Moses Malone 47-35 0.573
2017 Russell Westbrook 47-35 0.573
1982 Moses Malone 46-36 0.561
1976 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 40-42 0.488
1956 Bob Pettit 33-39 0.458

Only once in the last 18 years did a player win the MVP with a win % less than .600 — Westbrook in 2017 . Outside of that, it wasn’t even close. The other 17 MVPs were on teams that won well-above 60% of their regular season games. In fact, they were all above .650. The team record closest to Westbrooks was Steve Nash‘s 2006 Phoenix Suns with a relatively-weak .659.

With that in front of us and seeing as there’s only been six MVPs that had teams that finished below .600 in NBA’s 60+ years, it’s safe to say that winning is the biggest factor when determining the league’s MVP. Putting it another way, approximately 9% of all regular season MVPs were given to players that had a very special season, but their teams weren’t even close to their greatness, record-wise.

On the other side, more than 90% of the time an MVP’s team finished well above the .600 mark and was usually one of the top one, two or three teams in the entire league. Using NBA history as what voters valued when determining the league’s MVP, winning matters the most when looking at “most valuable”.

 

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