MVP and “Best Player on Best Team”

Investing the notion that the NBA MVP traditionally goes to the best player on the best team.

NBA MVP trophy

Every year when talking about who should win NBA MVP, the following argument is always brought up:

MVP traditionally goes to the best player on the best team, therefore Player X should win because he is the best player on the best team.

I’ve always been bothered by this argument because of two reasons. One, it’s a lazy argument. People don’t have to watch a second of basketball to argue this. Two, if MVP always went to the best player on the best team, there would be nothing to debate besides whether Kevin Durant is better than Steph Curry.

Now, to investigate if this argument is actually true. Does MVP actually usually go to best player on the best team??

The Data

I gathered data from every season starting from 1976-1977 to find who the MVP was that season, what his team record was, and what was their overall seed. This is 41 seasons of data.

SeasonNamePositionTeamWinsTeam Rank
2016–17Russell WestbrookGuardOklahoma City Thunder4710
2015–16Stephen CurryGuardGolden State Warriors731
2014–15Stephen CurryGuardGolden State Warriors671
2013–14Kevin DurantForwardOklahoma City Thunder592
2012–13LeBron JamesForwardMiami Heat661
2011–12LeBron JamesForwardMiami Heat464
2010–11Derrick RoseGuardChicago Bulls621
2009–10LeBron JamesForwardCleveland Cavaliers611
2008–09LeBron JamesForwardCleveland Cavaliers661
2007–08Kobe BryantGuardLos Angeles Lakers573
2006–07Dirk NowitzkiForwardDallas Mavericks671
2005–06Steve NashGuardPhoenix Suns544
2004–05Steve NashGuardPhoenix Suns621
2003–04Kevin GarnettForward/CenterMinnesota Timberwolves582
2002–03Tim DuncanForward/CenterSan Antonio Spurs601
2001–02Tim DuncanForward/CenterSan Antonio Spurs582
2000–01Allen IversonGuardPhiladelphia 76ers562
1999–00Shaquille O'NealCenterLos Angeles Lakers671
1998–99Karl MaloneForwardUtah Jazz371
1997–98Michael JordanGuardChicago Bulls621
1996–97Karl MaloneForwardUtah Jazz642
1995–96Michael JordanGuardChicago Bulls721
1994–95David RobinsonCenterSan Antonio Spurs621
1993–94Hakeem OlajuwonCenterHouston Rockets582
1992–93Charles BarkleyForwardPhoenix Suns621
1991–92Michael JordanGuardChicago Bulls671
1990–91Michael JordanGuardChicago Bulls612
1989–90Magic JohnsonGuardLos Angeles Lakers631
1988–89Magic JohnsonGuardLos Angeles Lakers573
1987–88Michael JordanGuardChicago Bulls508
1986–87Magic JohnsonGuardLos Angeles Lakers651
1985–86Larry BirdForwardBoston Celtics671
1984–85Larry BirdForwardBoston Celtics631
1983–84Larry BirdForwardBoston Celtics621
1982–83Moses MaloneCenterPhiladelphia 76ers651
1981–82Moses MaloneCenterHouston Rockets468
1980–81Julius ErvingForwardPhiladelphia 76ers621
1979–80Kareem Abdul-JabbarCenterLos Angeles Lakers602
1978–79Moses MaloneCenterHouston Rockets477
1977–78Bill WaltonCenterPortland Trail Blazers581
1976–77Kareem Abdul-JabbarCenterLos Angeles Lakers531

Analysis

The following is a breakdown of team seed versus the percentage of MVPs won in the past 41 seasons and a logistic regression with Seed as the independent variable and number of MVPs won as the dependent.

#1 – 61% (25)

#2 – 19.5% (8)

#3 – 4.9% (2)

#4 – 4.9% (2)

#7 – 2.4% (1)

#8 – 2.4% (2)

#10 – 2.4% (1)  <- Westbrook, 2017


I will grudingly admit, “Best player on best team” has some merit to it. Traditionally, MVP has gone to best player best player 61% of the team. Of course, this also means that the best player on the best team does NOT win MVP 39% of the time. Guess the validity of this depends if 60% meets your definition of “traditionally.”

The data definitely does not show  a linear relationship. Looks more like exponential.

Seed vs. MVPs Regression

Obviously, this line is not a great fit, but it still has a great R squared of 73.65%, meaning that the function above explains about 73% of the variation in number of MVPs won.

Conclusion

Despite not being a very strong or convincing argument (IMO) “best player on best team” does have the data to back it up. In the past 41 seasons, the best player on the best team has won MVP 61% of the time and there appears to be some correlation between team overall seed and MVP.

Of course, this is still a qualitative, media-driven award. As a salty Rockets fan, I’m sure that even if Houston ends up with the best record in the league, there will be some other narrative that pops up to deny Harden MVP again.

Avatar

Author: Jasper Wu

Jasper is a consultant in New York City and founder of BallAndOne.com and Wu Advisory. He graduated from Cornell University.