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MVP Voting Has Never Been More Boring

With the first round of the playoffs set to begin Monday, the NBA will soon announce the winners of this year’s regular-season awards, based on pre-bubble performance. This year’s finalists for the MVP have already been announced, with only Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James expected to receive first-place votes.1 This fits a pattern that has become the norm in recent years: The number of serious MVP candidates is rarely more than two players.

Since 1981, the first season that the NBA media voted on the award,2 there have been eight MVP races in which two or fewer players received first-place votes. It’s happened in five out of the last seven MVP races — six in the last eight if it happens again this year.

The days when fringe MVP candidates like Peja Stojaković or Jermaine O’Neal could siphon off a first-place vote or two are long gone. In today’s NBA, there is a clear consensus around which players are contending for the league’s highest individual honor, making it harder to justify a vote for a candidate when he doesn’t have a realistic chance of winning.

One reason for this decline in fringe MVP candidates may be that the NBA now publicizes every voter’s ballot, a practice that began in 2014. Before then, when a voter wanted to go against the grain and vote for Carmelo Anthony over LeBron James for MVP, that voter did so anonymously. But since 2014, every media member’s ballot for every award is public record. This puts pressure on voters to submit ballots that don’t stray too far from the consensus unless they want to be publicly shamed.

The Athletic’s Sam Amick, who has an MVP vote, has suggested that the fear of backlash, particularly on social media, leads to fewer dissenting opinions in the MVP race. In 2019, Amick told Hoops Hype, “There are definitely some people who feel that a few years ago, had votes not been publicized, Stephen Curry wouldn’t have won unanimously. In 2015-16, it kind of reached a point where there were no other candidates [perceived to be on the same level] so you were going to look like an idiot if you voted for anybody else other than Steph.”

Contrast the MVP race with the NBA’s Executive of the Year award, which is voted on by team executives (they can’t vote for themselves) and the ballots are kept secret. In each of the past three seasons, the only ones with available voting totals, eight candidates received first-place votes for the award.

Another factor likely contributing to the trend toward consensus is that the NBA has taken steps to make the panel of media members who vote on the awards less team-focused. As recently as 2016, local broadcasters were able to vote on the awards, which may have resulted in some ballots that favored hometown players. Guys like Ben Wallace in 2003, Elton Brand in 2006 and Dwight Howard in 2009 may have benefited from this kind of homerism: All three received exactly one first-place MVP vote in their respective seasons.

The panel of voters is also smaller than in years past. After the NBA took away voting privileges from local broadcasters in 2017, the number of voters shrunk from 131 to 101. A smaller panel of voters means there are fewer first-place votes to go around.

One final reason for why voters converge on a couple of players each year may be that voters have more information on the candidates than ever before. Discussions about the MVP race take place year-round and often start before a single regular-season game has been played.

Voters also have access to better information. Advanced analytics, which allow for easier and more objective player comparisons, have improved as they’ve grown in popularity. That also means it’s harder to make a case for Player C when Player A and Player B rank higher across various impact metrics. As a result, subjective analysis and narrative, which can favor fringe MVP candidates, play less of a role in determining the top vote-getters than they might have in years past.

This, on its surface, is a good thing. Advances in accountability and access to more and better information has led to an improved MVP race in which, more often than not, the player with the most impressive season wins the award. If there’s a downside, it’s that the voters are vulnerable to groupthink.

One way to counteract groupthink is to encourage voters to embrace the ambiguity of what “most valuable” means. The NBA has never explicitly defined it, so why start now? After all, under an expansive view of “most valuable,” there can be more candidates from which to choose.

For example, if you think the MVP should be awarded to the best player — and not necessarily who just had the best season — then it is perfectly reasonable to cast a vote for Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP. Or if you feel the MVP should be given to the player who elevated himself and his team the most when compared to preseason expectations, then there’s a case for Chris Paul as the MVP. Or if you want to define “valuable” literally and base it on which NBA player performed best in relation to his contract, then a vote for Luka Dončić makes sense.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with someone voting for either Antetokounmpo or James. But it’s worth considering whether we need a 100-person panel of voters if that’s what everyone is going to do.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. James Harden is the other finalist.

  2. Before 1981, the players themselves voted.

Owen Phillips is a data analyst and writer living in Brooklyn. His work can be found on NPR, The Outline and The Awl.

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