Arguments and counterarguments for every NBA MVP candidate

Every NBA MVP candidate has flaws on their resume, but digging into those flaws leads to an endless rabbit hole of arguments and counterarguments.

The NBA MVP award, presented to the most valuable player of the current regular season, has existed since 1956. Until the 1979-80 season, players voted for the winner. Since then, the award has been voted on by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters in the United States and Canada.

Over the past few seasons, the MVP talk has become THE talk of basketball for the latter part of the season, especially on social media.

Multiple players are eligible for this year’s MVP, each with a credible case to lift the Maurice Podoloff trophy. But no case of a candidate is immune to a plausible refutation. Everyone has a resume and every resume has a hole.

So rather than presenting each candidate’s basic case, I’ll change perspective by addressing the perceived flaw in each MVP candidate’s reasoning (and see how easily they fall apart).

Devin Booker’s NBA MVP argument

Error in his MVP argument: Chris Paul is the best player on the team

Counterargument: How then are the Phoenix Suns the undisputed best team this season?

The Phoenix Suns have won over 60 games this season. But I’m old enough to remember when they started the year losing three of their first four games. Devin Booker received some criticism for his individual slow start and the team responded by winning the next 17 straight games. A good portion of the recognition for the Suns’ excellence went to living point guard legend Chris Paul.

His penchant for changing teams for the better is well documented, and he’s certainly critical to Phoenix’s success. Then, around the All-Star break, Paul suffered a fracture of his right thumb, missing over a month of gameplay. Booker and Phoenix continue to separate themselves from the rest of the Western Conference and eventually the entire NBA. Phoenix finished the season eight games ahead of second-place Memphis with identical 32-9 home and road records.

Phoenix have been the most consistent team and Devin Booker is the constant focus. After averaging just 23.2 points per game in October and November, Booker finished with a career-high 26.6 points per game this year. Paul has been seen as the best – or at least the most important – player of the last two seasons. But in Paul’s absence, Phoenix maintained high internal expectations. Booker is as cool as they come on this seat, playing the shooting guard position like a smooth bass line: steady and smooth. Booker has clearly demonstrated that he is the most valuable player on the team with by far the best record in the NBA – one of the popular arguments for MVP. This case is a common MVP argument that’s been used over the years, but isn’t as concrete this year for a number of reasons.

Joel Embiid’s NBA MVP argument

Error in his MVP argument: His stats aren’t as impressive as Jokic or Giannis

Counterargument: Who has a better story than Joel Embiid?

Every team has trials and tribulations during their season. Injuries are among the most common; watch the derailment of the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship dreams. Joel Embiid had his own struggles with injuries that cost him the first two years of his career. The better he gets in shape, the more he’s grown from All-Star to Superstar and now MVP nominee. Last year’s runner-up won the scoring title, becoming the first true center to average at least 30 points per game since Shaq in 2000.

But that’s not the most interesting part of Joel Embiid’s 2021-22 story. Bogged down in the uncertainty of Ben Simmons and his availability for the first half of the season, the Sixers must now deal with the inconsistency of James Harden’s deadline acquisition. Joel Embiid has maintained his MVP level and played even more games this year – 51 of 72 games last year, 66 of 78 this year. In narrative award talk, what better story than a player coming second and maintaining that excellence despite chaos and uncertainty across the franchise?

Nikola Jokic’s NBA MVP argument

Error in his MVP argument: Denver is not a top 3 seed! MVPs are not on such teams

Counterargument: Why not? One player has already been recognized as MVP for a special breakaway season.

Last year’s MVP is having a better season this year. As if someone taught a column of marble to mature, Jokic systematically obliterates opposing defenses with amazing efficiency. Shoot, rebound, and pass with equal skill, with no elite vertical or horizontal athletics. One thing Jokic has yet to conquer entirely is the Western Conference rankings. Denver has been in the playoffs for most of the year, despite being in the bottom half of that standings — and never progressing past fifth place for most of the season.

As mentioned in Booker’s case for MVP, most winners of the award play on teams that finish in the top three of their conference. The most fundamental cause and effect relationship for a superstar player is how well their team performs during the season. With 10 players on the pitch at once and no one player can really do it alone, most of the responsibility rests on this star player’s shoulders. Simply put, how good is a Superstar if they can’t, to some extent, make their team one of the best?

But what about breakaway season? Sometimes a player has such an anomalous season that it goes against win-loss trends. The NBA not only has such an instance, but is also a current example. In 2017, Russell Westbrook won the MVP in large part for averaging a triple-double throughout the season. This was a year after Kevin Durant left for Golden State and the Oklahoma City Thunder were not considered a playoff team. Taking on the responsibilities of a superstar, Westbrook propelled the Thunder to 6th seed and 46 regular-season wins. The Nuggets are No. 6 in the West without having Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — two maximum-contract talents — essentially year-round. When asked why Jokic should be considered as a Most Valuable Player, the rebuttal is frankly “Why not?”.

Jokic’s game cannot be plotted on an XY chart. He’s the runaway. Of course, we want our Hoop Superstars to always be among the top seeds. Circumstances don’t allow every Superstar to lead their teams to the best regular-season records. But that doesn’t change the fact that Nikola Jokic, the NBA’s most efficient player last year, is better with less surrounding support.

Luka Doncic’s NBA MVP argument

Error in his MVP argument: He started too slow!

Counterargument: The regular season means all season.

After leading the Slovenia national basketball team to a silver medal at the past Summer Olympics, Luka Doncic spent some time enjoying the remainder of the offseason. He emerged into the Mavericks camp in less than ideal playing form, which made for a slow start by his young but high standards. In the first two months of the season, Doncic and the Mavericks underperformed. Doncic is shooting over 46 percent from the field as of February, and Dallas has moved up to fourth in an incredibly competitive Western Conference.

Yes, Doncic’s season started underperforming, but the accolade is for the entirety of the regular season. Overcoming adversity is a staple of the sport, and Doncic has banged his form and pushed the Mavs into the playoffs without another All-Star Caliber player on the list — something no other MVP contender can claim .

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s NBA MVP argument

Error in his MVP argument: He’s no more dominant than in previous MVP years.

Counterargument: He’s better than those MVP years.

Talented players have great games. Great games make a great season, and great seasons make great careers.

Consistency is part of greatness, but it can make greatness boring.

Giannis won back-to-back MVPs in 2019 and 2020. There comes a time when voters get tired of giving it to the same player for too many consecutive years. Giannis and the Bucks have been the most consistent great player-team combination over the past four seasons. The Bucks win a championship and Giannis entered this year with a 50-point elimination game performance as a stepping stone to becoming even better as a player.

So the question is: how can the most valuable player go down in value as he gets better? Meeting expectations creates comfort. Sure we know Giannis is excellent and his individual plays and highlights are still fascinating, we’ve grown accustomed to his overall greatness. That should reinforce his case for MVP, not hinder it.

Kevin Durant’s NBA MVP argument

Error in his MVP argument: He’s wasted so much time.

Counterargument: Sometimes absence only underlines the value

“The best ability is availability” is one of the older sports and life wisdoms. It is extremely difficult to appreciate most individual contributions on the pitch when they are not on the pitch. However, this logic applies better to unknown commodities. But what if we already know what a player’s influence is based on a 15-year sample of excellence?

Enter Kevin Durant. The third year of Durant and Kyrie Irving’s experiment in Brooklyn has seen its share of difficulties. The best moment for the Nets since Durant was there was when he was inches away from beating eventual 2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. With limited availability from one of the other All-Star teammates — be it Kyrie’s part-time work schedule, James Harden’s nagging injuries or Ben Simmons’ multifaceted recovery — Kevin Durant had the Brooklyn Nets as the best team in the East going down with an MCL injury. Then the Nets plummeted in standings and are now battling for play-in positioning instead of home field advantage.

Gin Rummy, Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Adult Swim’s “The Boondocks,” used the silly and intentionally ague phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That is, just because something isn’t there means not that something is not there. Kevin Durant’s absence is the opposite of that logic. It’s not a far-fetched thought to see that Kevin Durant is the main reason for Brooklyn’s success. They’re still considered one of the favorites to win the East (second to Milwaukee). That’s not the case when Kevin Durant isn’t available. And that’s as credible a value example as a win-loss record while a player is on the court.

Value is subjective in its connotation. There is no concrete definition for determining the MVP. If it were, we wouldn’t need more than a hundred voters for the award. If there were a definitive formula for determining the most valuable player, the elite players with the ability to play at that level would try to stick to that formula.

The most beautiful attribute in basketball is individuality and this MVP race with all its stats and narrative, arguments and counter arguments is a perfect example of what makes the game great. Arguments and counterarguments for every NBA MVP candidate

John Verrall

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