Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Photo taken by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
The NBA’s most valuable player award has turned into an afterthought. A joke.
Since 2016, the player who wins the coveted award fails to exceed their regular season stats and achieve postseason success. The league’s outdated voting method — to vote after the regular season — is the culprit because it doesn’t reflect who truly deserves to be MVP. Instead, the NBA should allow voters to vote after the Eastern and Western Conference finals to factor in players’ playoff performances.
It’s no secret that the NBA regular season is a drag outside of a handful of marquee matchups.
While the league tries to deter load management, players rest throughout the 82-game season. When the NBA’s biggest stars, such as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard, miss games to preserve their bodies and prepare for the playoffs, it’s hard to justify anointing someone as the most valuable player when everyone doesn’t play.
At the end of the day, NBA players play to win championships. As coach Herm Edwards said, “You play to win the game.” Scoring 50 points or getting a triple-double on a random November night is nice, but if it isn’t happening in May or June, it does not matter.
The NBA Playoffs is where peak interest and focus is given from teams and players. From preparation to execution to what’s at stake, the postseason is a different breed. The last five NBA MVP winners were either eliminated early or had a disastrous performance in their respective playoff series.
The reigning NBA MVP is Nikola Jokic, who led the Denver Nuggets to the third seed without his teammate Jamal Murray. In the condensed 72-game season, Jokic played every game and averaged 26.4 points and 8.3 assists per game and shot 57% from the field, 39% from three and 87% from the free-throw line.
In the Western Conference semifinals, he and the Nuggets battled the No. 2 Suns, who swept them. Jokic’s shooting percentages declined, shooting 48% from the field, 28% from the three and 68% from the free-throw line. While he played well in the regular season, if voters were able to see what occurred in the postseason, someone else may have won the award.
The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo won back-to-back MVP awards in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, he averaged 29.5 points per game, shooting 55% from the field and 63% from the free-throw line. In the postseason, the No. 5 Heat defeated the No. 1 Bucks, 4-1, in the Eastern Conference semifinals, where he averaged 21.8 points, shooting 51% from the field and 54% from the field-throw line.
Similarly, in 2018, Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points per game and shot 58% from the field and 73% from the charity stripe, which led the Bucks to the first seed in the Eastern Conference. In the Eastern Conference finals against the No. 2 Raptors, he regressed, averaging 22.7 points and shooting 45% from the field and 58% from the free-throw line. Both seasons, he woefully underachieved when it mattered most.
In 2017, James Harden finally won MVP after finishing second in 2014 and 2016. His MVP campaign featured him averaging 30.4 points and 8.8 assists per game that earned the Rockets the first seed in the Western Conference. However, they lost in seven games to the No. 2 Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Harden struggled mightily, shooting 42% from the field and 24% from three.
Then there’s Russell Westbrook, the 2016 NBA MVP. He won the award by averaging a triple-double that led the Thunder to the sixth seed in the Western Conference after his former teammate, Kevin Durant, departed to join the Warriors in the offseason.
Westbrook became the first player since 1961 to average a triple-double for a full season, but it did not translate to postseason success. In short order, the Thunder lost to the No. 3 Rockets, losing in five games. While earning historic numbers deserves recognition, it did not contribute to team success.
Not including postseason play has left a glaring hole in the NBA’s most-prestigious award. While all these players are etched in NBA history for their impressive regular season performances, the season doesn’t end at the conclusion of the regular season. Postseason play matters. The NBA must consider playoff performances when voting for league MVP to rightfully crown the NBA MVP.
Derrian Carter is a graduate student pursuing a master's degree in sports journalism, who is enrolled in MCO 502 – Journalism Skills at Arizona State University. Email Derrian at: firstname.lastname@example.org.