Rudy Gobert should be in the discussion to be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. More than that, he should be one of the top contenders to bring home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
Donovan Mitchell is in a similar situation, albeit to a much lesser extent. He shouldn’t win the MVP award, but he should at least have his name mentioned once or twice in the discussion, simply as a courtesy.
Gobert and Mitchell together have led the Utah Jazz all year long, the same Jazz who have been the NBA’s best team for most of the season and currently boast the league’s best record at 50-18.
And yet, with the regular season winding down — Utah has four games remaining — neither Gobert nor Mitchell are anywhere to be seen in the MVP race.
According to oddsmakers, Denver’s Nikola Jokic is the runaway favorite to be named the league’s MVP. Behind him, depending on the source, are Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Phoenix’s Chis Paul, Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Brooklyn’s James Harden, the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James and the LA Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard. New York’s Julius Randle even makes an appearance.
It doesn’t matter the oddsmaker, though, Gobert and Mitchell simply don’t show up.
That is a travesty, according to the Athletic’s John Hollinger, specifically when it comes to Gobert.
“Gobert is the most underrated player in the league right now,” Hollinger wrote in his recent All-Underrated Team column. “The best player on what has been the league’s best team this season, he’s a top-five MVP candidate by any objective measure.”
Hollinger isn’t alone in that belief. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix said practically the same thing in an interview on “The Dan Patrick Show.”
“Rudy Gobert is making a strong case to be in consideration,” Mannix said. “Gobert is so much better than his numbers. He is, with all due respect to Ben Simmons, the Defense Player of the Year. And offensively, he frees every player on his team with his screen setting. At far as impactful players on both ends of the floor, Gobert is up there with the best.”
Mannix followed that up, however, by noting that he isn’t going to vote for Gobert to win MVP.
“I think there are better players,” he said.
If that sentiment prevails among voters and if the current odds are accurate, Gobert and Mitchell will make NBA history. Not the best kind, but history nonetheless. Since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976, there have been only six instances in which a player from the winningest team in the league has been kept out of the top five in MVP voting.
The first came in 1990-91. That season, the Portland Trail Blazers finished with a league-best record of 63-19. Michael Jordan won the MVP, though, with Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone rounding out the official top five.
Portland’s best vote-getter was Clyde Drexler, who finished sixth, while teammate Terry Porter finished ninth, per Basketball Reference.
The next time it happened was in 1993-94. The Seattle Supersonics won 63 games that year, powered by stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Hakeem Olajuwon was named the MVP, however, with Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing finishing as the top five. Payton and Kemp finished No. 6 and No. 7, with Kemp tying with Malone.
In 2001-02, the Sacramento Kings were the NBA’s best regular season team and arguably its most exciting. The Kings won 61 games, but their best player — Chris Webber — couldn’t crack the top five in MVP voting.
Tim Duncan won the award, followed by Jason Kidd, O’Neal, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. Webber finished seventh, while teammates Mike Bibby and Peja Stojaković tied for 16th.
Ten years later, in 2010-11, the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs tied for the best record in the league at 50-16. Tony Parker cracked the top five in MVP voting that year, coming in at No. 5, but Rose finished only No. 11. The prize went to LeBron James, with Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Parker comprising the top five.
Two seasons later, in 2013-14, the Spurs won a league-best 62 games. The MVP went to Durant, though, with James, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah and James Harden finishing as the top five vote-getters. The best Spur finish in MVP voting that year belonged to both Tim Duncan and Parker, who tied for No. 12.
The most recent snub occurred in 2016-17. The Golden State Warriors went 67-15 that season, but Stephen Curry finished No. 6 in MVP voting behind Russell Westbrook, Harden, Leonard, James and Isaiah Thomas.
In some cases, the voting snubs make sense. There is nuance when it comes to voting for postseason awards, after all. Drexler and Porter and Payton and Kemp split votes between them, really negating any hope of a Trail Blazer or Sonic bringing home the MVP those seasons. In 2000-01, Webber finished No. 4 in MVP voting. That finish and the efforts of Bibby and Stojaković clearly affected his finish the following year.
Rose finished No. 11 the year after he became the youngest MVP in league history, a clear demonstration that narrative matters when it comes to who wins MVP. The 2013-14 Spurs, meanwhile, were really a collective. Duncan’s career was coming to its end, as was Parker’s. The Spurs were more sum of their parts than star-driven, even with an up-and-coming Leonard on the roster.
And in 2016-17, Curry was coming off back-to-back MVP awards, and Durant had joined his team that year, too.
The Jazz this season are unique in that list. Gobert and Mitchell were both All-Stars, as was teammate Mike Conley, but there shouldn’t be voter fatigue. They haven’t won anything, other than Gobert claiming Defensive Player of the Year twice. They could be seen as splitting votes, but neither Gobert nor Mitchell is top 10 in the odds to win MVP, suggesting there aren’t any votes to split.
It is possible that neither Gobert nor Mitchell care. Jazz coach Quin Snyder has often said that “the strength of our team is our team,” and the Jazz have appeared to be more team-driven than star-driven, even this year.
Still it is rare that the best team in the league isn’t recognized in MVP voting. That is exactly what appears will happen to the Jazz, though, which will earn them a spot in history.