NBA MVP: Is There a Secret Qualification to Winning?


With all the Michael Jordan 50th birthday hullaballoo in the air, I got to thinking about MJ's MVP count: five. For most players, that's a high number (tied for second all-time with Wilt Chamberlain, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

But for Jordan, the uncontested Greatest of All Time, it seems low. Qualitatively, at least, he was "the best" in each of his six championship seasons. Quantitatively, too, he was a beast: at 27.91, he is the all-time career leader in PER (Player Efficiency Rating: an algorithm that factors in all other individual stats to come up with one number valuing a player). But Charles Barkley won MVP in '93 and Karl Malone won in '97. As this year's MVP race heats up, I set out to find if there were any quantitative clues for predicting MVP, as the qualitative "best" player clearly doesn't always win.

The short answer: no. There is no stat that will predict the MVP. There are, however, indicators that we can look at to narrow down the MVP list to a maximum of four players. 

I started out by examining the last ten years of NBA MVPs, since the sportswriters and broadcasters who picked those MVPs are likely still around and will therefore vote on the 2013 MVP. Whenever I noticed a trend, I went back further in the books to see how it held up. 

None of the five basic basketball stats (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) holds the answer. As recently as 2011, Derrick Rose won the MVP while staying outside the top 5 of any major category. That year was an aberration, as "The Decision" left a bad taste in everyone's mouth and effectively eliminated LeBron from consideration. But even in such a year, there were much better players, in terms of traditional stats, than D-Rose. 

Advanced statistics like PER, Win Shares (an algorithm that looks at a season and estimates the number of wins that can be attributed to an individual player's performance), and Adjusted Plus/Minus (a team's +/- for an individual player, adjusted for the performance of the other players on the floor) offer a better correlation, but still no clear indicators. The man who undoes all of these theories is Steve Nash. 

Steve Nash is entirely unremarkable in advanced statistics. In his two MVP seasons, he ranks #15 and #10 in Win Shares, 18th and 14th in PER, and doesn't crack the top 15 in Adjusted Plus/Minus. Any arguments that his MVP honors are a fluke are negated by the fact that he won it in back-to-back years. 

So if basic stats and advanced stats can't give us the answer, where can we look? Eastern/Western Conference Player of the Month gives us nothing. Sometimes the MVP has a long track record of in-season honors by the time they get the crown, sometimes they don't. 

Here is the one necessary qualification for an MVP candidate: you must play on a contender team. Specifically, you must play on a team with a regular season record that ranks in the top 4 in the league. This has been the case in each of the 24 years since the '88-'89 season. The last player to play on a non-contender team and win MVP was Michael Jordan in '87-'88. However, he was both the Defensive Player of the Year and the league's leading scorer: the only person ever to win both honors in the same season. 

Nobody this year is at risk of repeating Jordan's all-around dominance. So who are the top 4 teams (by record) in the NBA? San Antonio, Oklahoma City, L.A. Clippers, and Miami. And who are the best players on each of those teams? Tony Parker, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and LeBron James. These are the only MVP candidates. Unfortunately, stats can't give us an answer on who will be MVP. But the next time somebody mentions Melo or Harden in an MVP conversation, set them straight.