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??
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.
|2016–17||Russell Westbrook||Guard||Oklahoma City Thunder||47||10|
|2015–16||Stephen Curry||Guard||Golden State Warriors||73||1|
|2014–15||Stephen Curry||Guard||Golden State Warriors||67||1|
|2013–14||Kevin Durant||Forward||Oklahoma City Thunder||59||2|
|2012–13||LeBron James||Forward||Miami Heat||66||1|
|2011–12||LeBron James||Forward||Miami Heat||46||4|
|2010–11||Derrick Rose||Guard||Chicago Bulls||62||1|
|2009–10||LeBron James||Forward||Cleveland Cavaliers||61||1|
|2008–09||LeBron James||Forward||Cleveland Cavaliers||66||1|
|2007–08||Kobe Bryant||Guard||Los Angeles Lakers||57||3|
|2006–07||Dirk Nowitzki||Forward||Dallas Mavericks||67||1|
|2005–06||Steve Nash||Guard||Phoenix Suns||54||4|
|2004–05||Steve Nash||Guard||Phoenix Suns||62||1|
|2003–04||Kevin Garnett||Forward/Center||Minnesota Timberwolves||58||2|
|2002–03||Tim Duncan||Forward/Center||San Antonio Spurs||60||1|
|2001–02||Tim Duncan||Forward/Center||San Antonio Spurs||58||2|
|2000–01||Allen Iverson||Guard||Philadelphia 76ers||56||2|
|1999–00||Shaquille O'Neal||Center||Los Angeles Lakers||67||1|
|1998–99||Karl Malone||Forward||Utah Jazz||37||1|
|1997–98||Michael Jordan||Guard||Chicago Bulls||62||1|
|1996–97||Karl Malone||Forward||Utah Jazz||64||2|
|1995–96||Michael Jordan||Guard||Chicago Bulls||72||1|
|1994–95||David Robinson||Center||San Antonio Spurs||62||1|
|1993–94||Hakeem Olajuwon||Center||Houston Rockets||58||2|
|1992–93||Charles Barkley||Forward||Phoenix Suns||62||1|
|1991–92||Michael Jordan||Guard||Chicago Bulls||67||1|
|1990–91||Michael Jordan||Guard||Chicago Bulls||61||2|
|1989–90||Magic Johnson||Guard||Los Angeles Lakers||63||1|
|1988–89||Magic Johnson||Guard||Los Angeles Lakers||57||3|
|1987–88||Michael Jordan||Guard||Chicago Bulls||50||8|
|1986–87||Magic Johnson||Guard||Los Angeles Lakers||65||1|
|1985–86||Larry Bird||Forward||Boston Celtics||67||1|
|1984–85||Larry Bird||Forward||Boston Celtics||63||1|
|1983–84||Larry Bird||Forward||Boston Celtics||62||1|
|1982–83||Moses Malone||Center||Philadelphia 76ers||65||1|
|1981–82||Moses Malone||Center||Houston Rockets||46||8|
|1980–81||Julius Erving||Forward||Philadelphia 76ers||62||1|
|1979–80||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||Center||Los Angeles Lakers||60||2|
|1978–79||Moses Malone||Center||Houston Rockets||47||7|
|1977–78||Bill Walton||Center||Portland Trail Blazers||58||1|
|1976–77||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||Center||Los Angeles Lakers||53||1|
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.
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.
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.