What makes an NBA player deserving of the league’s annual Most Valuable Player award?
The simple answer is to say that the best player in any given year is the MVP. But how do we define best? That could be the most well-rounded player on offense and defense, or the player who leads the league in scoring, or the one that has the most impact on winning (though that’s also subjective). It could be the player that has the best story throughout the season, that carried their team from the dregs of the NBA into being a playoff contender, because narrative matters.
What about the best player on the team with the best record in the league? Surely that player should be a part of the conversation, right?
That brings us to this season. Does Donovan Mitchell deserve to be a part of the 2021 MVP conversation?
After the Utah Jazz beat the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, I tried to see if Mitchell would say that he deserves to be an MVP candidate. Here is the full transcript of that conversation:
Sarah Todd: Hey Donovan, I’m not talking about you. So I’m going to try to get you to answer this question. When you watched the NBA growing up, or before this year when you’re surveying the NBA landscape, what type of player deserves to be in the MVP conversation?
(We both laugh.)
You see how I did that?
Mitchell: That was clever. I think first and foremost the biggest thing is team play. You know, it’s the MVP award for sure, but you don’t get there without a team, and we’ve been playing well. I think, for me, looking at it as, on the best team, we’re doing our thing, we have a lot of room for improvement, but we’re definitely doing our thing right now, just making plays. It’s not necessarily having 35, 10 and 10, it’s doing whatever is needed. And I feel like my teammates trust me, I trust them and I’m not too worried about it at the end of the day. I mean, I know what it is. Been here four years and the fans know that we just don’t necessarily get all the credit we deserve, and that’s not just singling out me. I feel like we use that as a chip on our shoulder. I’m just very fortunate to be in this position where my teammates trust me to go make plays like that. But the other stuff, if it happens, it happens, you know? I think the biggest thing is winning. Winning takes care of everything. That’s been my mindset ever since I got here. Winning heals everything. The outside stuff is what it is — it’s not up to me. I’m just going to go out there and be the best teammate I can be and go from there. That was very, very great how you worded that though, I liked that.
The Utah Jazz have the best record in the league. There are certainly arguments to be made about who the best player is on the Jazz, and who is the most impactful. Some would say Rudy Gobert, others would say Mitchell.
“I think first and foremost the biggest thing is team play. You know, it’s the MVP award for sure, but you don’t get there without a team, and we’ve been playing well.” — Donovan Mitchell
Like it or not, defensive impact alone does not sell a player in today’s MVP conversation. You don’t have to agree with that on principle — I certainly don’t — but it’s true. If defense carried more weight in subjective awards like the MVP, then Gobert would certainly have a convincing case to make. That’s just not the case in today’s world.
Offensive prowess and control on the offensive end is certainly something that comes into play when discussing MVP candidates and that’s an area where Mitchell excels and passes the eye test. He’s the Jazz’s leading scorer and has been so since he entered the league. He often initiates the offense, creates for his teammates and can take over a game seemingly at will and by himself.
So why doesn’t that seem to be enough to put him into the national conversation about this season’s MVP?
If you look at some of the most popular overall metrics and statistics, the MVP winners often lead in those categories, but not always.
Over the last 10 years, the players who have won NBA MVP have done so in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons.
Of players who played 50 games or more, in the 2019-20 season Giannis Antetokounmpo had the best defensive rating, highest net rating, highest player impact estimate (PIE), led the league in plus-minus and was a top 5 scorer. He also won Defensive Player of the Year honors last season.
In the 2018-19 season, Antetokounmpo was 11th in defensive rating, third in net rating, had the highest PIE, was second in per-game plus-minus and was a top 3 scorer. In both of his MVP winning years, the Milwaukee Bucks had the best record in the league.
In the 2017-18 season, James Harden was fifth in offensive rating, ninth in net rating, had the highest PIE, was top 5 in per-game plus-minus and led the league in scoring while the Rockets had the best record in the league.
Through the 2016-17 season, Russell Westbrook didn’t rank in the top 50 in offensive, defensive or net rating, had the highest PIE, was 47th in per-game plus-minus and led the league in scoring. The Oklahoma City Thunder entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
Stephen Curry had the best offensive rating in the 2015-16 season, was second in net rating, had the highest PIE, led the league in scoring and had the second best per-game plus-minus while leading the Golden State Warriors to the best record in NBA history.
In the previous season, Curry was fifth in offensive rating, second in net rating, fifth in PIE, had the best plus-minus and was eighth in scoring. The Warriors had the best record in the league.
In the 2013-14 season, Kevin Durant was 12th in offensive rating, 22nd in net rating, led the league in PIE, was seventh in plus-minus and led the league in scoring while he was with the Thunder, who were the No. 2 seed in the West.
LeBron James was second in offensive rating in the 2012-13 season, third in net rating, led the league in PIE, had the best plus-minus and was fourth in scoring on a Miami Heat team that had the best record in the NBA.
In the previous season, James was 17th in offensive rating, eighth in net rating, led the league in PIE, led the league in plus-minus and was third in scoring. The Heat were the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Through the 2010-2011 season, Derrick Rose was 47th in offensive and defensive rating, 19th in net rating, eighth in PIE, 12th in plus-minus and seventh in scoring. The Chicago Bulls were the top seed in the East and had the second best record in the league.
Through 25 games this season, among players who have played at least 20 games, Mitchell is 18th in offensive rating, doesn’t rank in the top 50 in defensive rating, is 22nd in net rating, is 43rd in PIE, 21st in per-game plus-minus and is 20th in scoring.
There are clearly players who are having a better statistical impact than Mitchell this season and have had a better statistical impact in previous MVP winning seasons, but the fact remains that Mitchell is one of the most important players on the best team in the league so far this year.
I think that’s the piece that Mitchell was getting at when he said, “It’s the MVP award for sure, but you don’t get there without a team, and we’ve been playing well.”
Maybe he deserves a little more recognition than he’s been getting. The MVP conversation is geared a little more toward individual success, not necessarily toward a player who works toward collective team success. It’s possible that the Jazz culture and style of playing shrinks the chances of earning individual accolades. Maybe if basketball starts to change, the conversation will have to change.
More importantly though, there are bigger things that Mitchell cares about. Winning heals everything, and if the Jazz end up being the best team in the league and winning a title and Mitchell is not named MVP, it’s not really going to matter, because the most valuable award of all is the Larry O’Brien trophy.