With the regular season past its due date, the pundits begin delivery of their playoff narratives. Delayed as always, I find my thoughts attached to the ‘spectacle’ of their previous narration. The talk of that middle word, ‘Valuable.’ The word is poorly conceptualized, yet unanimously understood.
The thought steps emanating from the same start point out into a perfect circle. Each path is mathematically formulated, spoken with passion and confidence. However, I hear echoes from the past, with swapped names and numbers. Is their interpretation intuitive? Or do they miss the essence of value? There is space for simplification, even for the prediction of future MVPs.
In the infancy of basketball, the statistical landscape was destitute. Basic metrics such as ‘Rebounds’ first began being recorded in 1950, ‘Steals’ in 1973, ‘Blocks’ in 1973. Others like the turnover and 3pt makes came later (due to the creation of the line). With such basic metrics being unavailable, how did voters decide the MVP?
Was it as simple as nominating the scoring leader? Of course, not. They knew the MVP nomination held many qualifications, as do we. Though then, the MVP debate had less avenue for departure. They lacked the metrics to form a thorough argument. To them, the nomination depended upon the trusting words of Justice Potter, “I know it when I see it.” The eyes know. But how? That is the question asked by each innovator of measurable. With further emphasis on statistics, we head steadfast toward objectifying the subjective. But it is necessary!
Today there are five main paths of reason to argue their choice for MVP. Each neatly fits into a stereotype, which pundits find themselves clogged inside. Coincidentally they love to ‘value’ one arsenal of stat over another. How can there be favoritism? Is that not like seeing a beach landscape, yet pretending only to see the sun?
First, there is the “Box score softcore” guy. The casual viewer with an abundance of responsibility. He loves sports more than anything, but adulthood got him. With an immense reservoir of historical context carried with him from adolescence, he can impressively sing a nursery rhyme for the winners of the NBA finals from 78’ to 11’.
Yet, he confuses the Warriors and Cavs titles. “The Spurs won one, right?” Tragically, he can recite the entirety of the 2007 roster of the Dallas Mavericks (assistant coaches included), but currently only knows the name, Luka. This man is dear to my heart, for the twinkle is there. Please, when you talk MVP, look beyond the points, rebounds, and assists columns. There are other metrics now. And easy on the highlight tapes bud. I see your evolutionary trajectory.
Then there is the reactionary, the purest. Who loves to remind the acolytes of individuality that basketball is a team sport. He is a martyr, standing for a logo over the recognizable face. This fan flipped his newspaper straight to the standings. Now he loves to talk ‘win share’ and ‘plus-minus.’ Any praise to the player comes from top-down team success. I like this guy.
He grew up with a basketball in his hand, shot at plastic backboards in the driveway, a role-player that had his last game at high school senior night. To him, the current NBA looks wretched at times, *cough* ‘heliocentric offense.’ Beyond martyrdom, the irony of this guy is that he usually finds himself alone with his opinions. My friend, the game is different now. Looking at player stats tells you more about team success than you might think.
The third guy has no soul. “The MVP should go to the best player. Who is the best player every year? Lebron. End of story.” If he is old enough, he likely believed that Jordan should have double-digit MVP awards. Stored in his walk-in closet are Heat back-to-back shirts and Warriors ¾ hoodies. “The San Antonio Spurs were not a dynasty,” he said in passing as Tim Duncan got inducted into the HOF. Ugh, this guy.
With his trendy apparel, purple I phone 12 preordered, and favorite movie list aligning perfectly with the highest-grossing movie list. The single positive is that his soullessness can be replaced with your own. Remind him that it is an award for the best player this season or any belief system that you hold, and he will say, “True.” You got him until he watches Stephen A. tomorrow morning.
If the previous guy was soulless, this guy is all heart. He is a romantic lover of the greats and their journey of failing and overcoming. To him, the MVP is a lifetime achievement award. Or the hero in the never-ending soap opera of the NBA. If he could, he would give out multiple MVPs, “CP3 gets 1B.” Another two years like this one from Randle and he will vote for him.
Finally, the analyst. The first premise guy. He succeeded in STEM education. Likely an engineer or should have been. Despite his intellect, he often talks in rudimentary cliché. “Three points is more than two.” Often he understands via thinking in negatives. Subtract this person from the team, and what effect does it have? How much more of an impact does he have over his replacement? If you swap players, is the fantasy team better than the original? He loves thought experiments.
With the cultural breeze that sounds like whistling praise, I cast my sail and shout, “all are valid!” The caricature unraveling of their runway of reason reaches the foot of ‘value.’ Now, most integrate the views into coherence. When viewing the voter tally at the end of the election, you would think they all perfectly integrate.
That said, the foundation of their argument is sandy. The foundation of ‘value’ is what statistics have tried to explain since its impetus. We have not changed. The eye remains supreme; it does not deceive. It brings you to what is valuable. That which is scarce, novel, and unique; to the anomaly of player or skill.
The twist of the abdomen on an awkward one-legged jump shot. The post passes across the baseline, beating the recovering defense by two steps. The “dream shake” to a fadeaway swoosh, block shot, followed by a trailing pull-up three. It is the innovator of range, ascending to a new peak. We love what at the moment we cannot truly understand, for it fails to fit in our reserve of playback.
Think of the last ten awarded MVPs. Each winner is a first of his kind; Giannis, Harden, Russ, Steph, KD, Lebron… Derrick Rose, eh. Have they existed before? “Sort of, they shoot like this guy, pass like that guy.” They also have two legs and two feet. Now take this as the foundation, and you realize ninety-nine percent of the league can never win the award. Now think of players that are not clones yet to win the award. Zion Williamson, Luka Dončić, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic. Of the two lists of players, are the next five MVPs not on this list? If Jo-know-Jo-know.
The eye is the foundation. Then build the colonnade of player stat, team success, peak player, story, and heaviest burden to hold the mantelpiece for the trophy. Of the players that controlled your eyes, who has the sturdiest columns? Which can level a mantelpiece?
Metrics often lead people to sins of knowledge. It confounds and leads astray. Favoring one of the five columns happens occasionally. Rose won because of a story, the Chicago kid bringing the Chicago team back to the greatness it once had. Somehow, most of the time, the eye hews the web of metrics.
It is the eye we have to thank for choosing our MVP. Computations do not convince the way sensory output does. Or maybe, it is just the ear. The hearing of that centerpiece, that rambunctious rambler that sends his sound waves permeating through the masses?