Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Most Valuable Column: The 50-Win Standard

Josh Tucker is the author of RespectKobe.com. His weekly Most Valuable Column looks at the criteria and candidates for the Most Valuable Player award in the NBA. This week's topic is the 50 win standard. Josh lives in Kansas and his favorite kind of pancake is Kobe... I mean, blueberry.

Merriam-Webster defines precedent as "the convention established ... by long practice." In a legal context, Wikipedia defines precedent as "a legal case establishing a principle or rule that a court or other judicial body adopts when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts."

In the legal context, an established precedent is not only significant, but, in many cases, binding. For instance, a lower court is required to abide by any precedent established by a court that is higher up in the appeals path. Furthermore — and this is of particular significance to our present discussion — any court is required and bound to follow the precedent established by its own prior decisions.

To gain a sense of just how seriously our nation's legal system views the concept of precedent, consider Roe v. Wade. While many in our country long for a day when Roe v. Wade might be overturned, it is precedent that makes that possibility such a complex issue. Because the precedent established by the U.S. Supreme Court decision has factored so heavily and frequently into lower court decisions, the ramifications of reversing the decision would be tremendous. This has nothing to do with the moral merits of the decision — regardless of how you or I may personally feel about the issue, the fact remains that, from a legal standpoint, reversing the decision would be complicated. (Note to the reader: This is not a discussion of the merits of Roe v. Wade — whether you are a strong supporter of the decision, or firmly opposed to it, that is a discussion to be held elsewhere.)

In non-legal contexts, a precedent may be established by a single event (as is often the case in legal contexts), or by a series of events occurring over a longer period of time. The longer a certain pattern of behaving exists, the more it is seen as being authoritative.

On a less formal basis, the concept of precedent also factors into our personal and interpersonal daily lives. In interpersonal relationships, the concept of breaking an established precedent is called hypocrisy, and a person who does not abide by the precedent established by his or her own prior actions, decisions, statements, or attitudes is considered a hypocrite — which is not a favorable designation. And though we may, at times, have very valid reasons for wanting to behave differently than we have in similar situations in the past, those past decisions tend to carry more weight in a disagreement than the one that we are about to make, and others are often reluctant to allow us to act in a way that is seen as hypocritical.

So it is that, at all levels of personal and corporate social interaction, the concept of precedent is both well established and highly valued.

An MVP Precedent

What does this have to do with the annual MVP race? One of the primary criteria factoring into the decision is the idea that the MVP should come from a team that has won at least 50 games in an 82-game season (equal to 61%). This is not a rule that is clearly articulated in a voter's handbook published by the NBA, or in any other official guidelines. This is a rule that is established solely based on precedent, and it is a precedent that is adhered to by the vast majority of voters.

To understand the strength of the established precedent that insists that MVP candidates come from teams that have won at least 61%, let's have a look at the history of the MVP Award. The following chart shows, in reverse chronological order, the players that won the award, which team they came from, and what their team record was at the end of the season. In addition, it shows their team winning percentage, as well as the length of the NBA season that year. Finally, since seasons were shorter in the '50s and '60s (as well as the strike-shortened '99 season), it uses their winning percentage to show how many games they would have won had they kept up that pace in an 82-game season.

Column H, showing the player's team's win pace in an 82-game season, is the column to pay attention to. In recent years, there's no adjustment — the number of games they won is what you get. Further back, it tells you what the 82-game equivalent is — such that in 1958, winning 49 games in a 72-game season was the equivalent of winning 56 games today.

Here is where we see the precedent that has been established. Not since 26 years ago in 1982 has a player won the MVP Award while his team won fewer than 50 games. Furthermore, in those 25 years of 50-win MVPs, only two have won it while their teams won fewer than 55 games. Thus, we can safely say that the precedent is actually one that strongly favors, and almost demands, that an MVP candidate come from a team that has won at least 55 games in an 82-game season.

Prior to 1983, of course, a few players did receive the award while their team won fewer than 50 games — sometimes even while their team floundered. In the entire 53-year history of the award, going back to 1956, only four players have won the award while their teams won fewer than 50 games. Moses Malone did so twice.

Furthermore, only eight players have won the award while their team won fewer than 55 games. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, again, Moses Malone each did this twice.

Of these 10 occasions, however, there are four notable exceptions:

  • In 1977, though Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the award with only 53 team wins, the Lakers' 53-29 record was first in the league. Since no other team won more than 50 games, this must be counted as an exception, even when using the 55+ wins standard.

  • In 1975, Bob MacAdoo won the MVP award with only 49 team wins; the Braves, however, had the third best record in the league. While the 55+ wins standard would surely give the award to a member of the Celtics or the Bullets, both of whom won 60 games, the fact that the Warriors had the third best record in the league is at least enough to earn them a 1-game leniency in my book, qualifying them for the 50+ wins standard.

  • In 1960, Wilt Chamberlain won the award with 49 team wins (the equivalent of 54 today). The Warriors' 49 wins, however, gave them the second best record in the league. In addition, Chamberlain led the league in both points (37.6 ppg) and rebound (27.0 rpg) while only a rookie. Given all this, consider this an exception, placing it in the 50+ wins category.

  • In 1957, though Bob Cousy won the award with only 44 team wins (the equivalent of 50 today), the Celtics' 44-28 record was first in the league. Since no other team won more than 38 games, this also must be counted as an exception to the 55+ wins standard.

Accounting for the exceptions, this means that since its inception, only four times has the award gone to a player that failed to meet the 50+ team wins standard, and only six times has it gone to a player that failed to meet the 55+ team wins standard. Put a different way, the award has gone to a player who met the 55+ team wins standard 89% of the time; 92% of the time, it has gone to a player that met the 50+ team wins standard.

Since 1982, 100% of the award winners have come from 50+ win teams, and 92% have come from 55+ win teams.

Recent Exceptions

Now, let's take a look at the two recent exceptions to the 55-win standard:

In 2006, Steve Nash won the MVP Award with only 54 team wins. He clearly qualified for the minimum standard of 50+ wins, but fell short of the higher 55+ wins standard by 1 game. However, that same year, the Pistons, Spurs, and Mavericks all won at least 60 games.

No player from the Spurs or Pistons was chosen because those teams were considered to have won due more to a team effort than to any remarkable individual efforts by one player (that's an assessment that I think is fairly accurate). However, the Mavericks won 60 games, while Dirk Nowitzki had a stellar year. He averaged 26.6 points and 9.0 rebounds per game while shooting .480 from the field, .406 from beyond the arc, and .901 from the line.

Given Nowitzki's impressive individual contributions and the Mavericks' 60-win season — which met the higher 55-win standard — I would suggest that he was more deserving than Nash was in 2006 (though I believe Nash was fully deserving in 2005, when the Suns won 62 games). In this case, there doesn't appear to have been enough reason to drop below the 55+ wins standard.

In 1988, Michael Jordan won his first MVP Award while the Bulls won 50 games. This is the only other exception to the 55+ wins standard in the last 25 years. The reasoning for this, however, is hard to find. Since Jordan averaged 35 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.16 steals per game, while shooting .535 from the field, one could easily assume that he won the award for individual/statistical dominance.

This makes little sense, however, since in 1987 he had averaged 37.1 points and nearly identical numbers in blocks, steals, and rebounds. Meanwhile, in 1989 he averaged 32.5 points, 8.0 assists, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.89 steals per game, while shooting .538 from the field, an overall stat line that is significantly more impressive than his 1988 averages. However, in both of those years the award went to Magic Johnson.

Furthermore, it's worth noting that, though Wilt Chamberlain won the award on four separate occasions, he did not win it in 1962 — by far his most statistically and individually dominant year, in which he averaged a mind-boggling 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds. That year, Bill Russell was the MVP.

In addition, Oscar Robertson, who essentially averaged a triple double for five straight years, won the MVP Award only once, in 1964. That year, he averaged 31.4 points, 11.0 assists, and 9.9 rebounds per game. However, he had at least four other years with similar or even more impressive stat lines, in which he did not win the award. In each of those four other years, Bill Russell won the award.

Given all of the above, it seems difficult to suggest that Michael Jordan won the award in 1988 with the lowest win total of the last 25 years simply due to individual and statistical dominance. It seems more likely that, enticed by his individual heroics, voters were eager to give him the award. Having been unable to do so from 1985 to 1987, when the Bulls won 38, 30, and 40 games, respectively, they jumped at the opportunity to name him MVP when he reached the absolute minimum possible qualification, leading the Bulls to 50 wins.

This suspicion is supported by the fact that in both of the next two years, when Jordan was even more statistically dominant across the board, Magic Johnson won the award — despite the fact that, in 1990, the Bulls won 55 games. They had denied Magic the award in 1988, even though the Lakers won 62 games while the Bulls only managed 50, because they had been looking for a way to give the award to Jordan. However, once they had done so, the need to do so once again was not so strongly felt, and they returned to their established precedent of awarding the MVP to a player who had led his team to at least 55 wins in an 82-game season.

It is my position that, if precedent is to be taken seriously, neither Steve Nash nor Michael Jordan should have won the MVP Award in 2006 and 1988, respectively. (That is not to question their other MVPs — but only those in 2006 and 1988.) Had those awards been given to Magic Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki, the two players likely more deserving than Jordan and Nash in 1988 and 2006 (based primarily on the 55+ team wins standard, with less emphasis on other factors), there would not be a single exception to the 25-year precedent of 55+ team wins.

The Proof is in The Pudding

Hopefully, I've shown beyond the shadow of any doubt the strength of the precedent established for an absolute minimum of 50 wins in an 82-game season, with an extremely strong preference for at least 55. For some of you, precedence is important, and now that you have seen the strength of this precedent, you're convinced that it is a criteria that we must adhere to.

Others of you, however, are still not convinced that this is something we should insist on. Sure, there's obviously an established precedent... but what reason is that to stick with it? Surely we shouldn't continue to do something a certain way simply because "that's how we've always done it!" There should be a legitimate reason for doing anything.

Fair enough. And rest assured, there are reasons — both for why it's a good standard, and for why it shouldn't be changed.

The primary reason for which this is a good rule is that the proof must be in the pudding.

As I wrote in early February of this year, at which time Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James fans were vocally and vehemently protesting the 50-win standard (which I have come to refer to as the Bryant-Nash Rule), I revisited the issue that had kept Kobe Bryant from winning the MVP Award in both 2006 and 2007, in an article called LeBron & Fans Experience the "Bryant-Nash Rule". Rather than repeat myself, allow me to quote a couple paragraphs from that article:
[The Bryant-Nash Rule] prevents a superstar on a horrible team from receiving the MVP Award. Were the MVP defined according to its strict, literal dictionary definition, the result would likely be that a superstar on a losing team would receive the award 9 times out of 10. While this reasoning may not be explicitly stated, I believe that, subconsciously at least, this is why the Bryant-Nash Rule exists.

Perhaps a better way to see this is as a measure to prevent stat-seeking. Giving the MVP Award were to a high-performing superstar on a losing team would open the door to stat-seeking, “me first” players who pad their stats while their team loses, all in pursuit of the MVP Award. This would reward players like Gilbert Arenas — who is more than willing to take his shots (even when they aren’t falling), score his points, and make his own case with a vocal arrogance, while pouting when his coach asks him to play defense — for looking out for himself while failing to do what is best for his team.

To expound on that thought: When one player succeeded in winning the award with a "me first," stat-seeking attitude, others with that same tendency would see his individual success and the glory that accompanied it, and attempt to replicate it.

Is it a hard and fast rule that whenever a player is statistically dominant, it is at the expense of the team? Absolutely not. For example, I have long held that Kobe Bryant's "shoot first" mentality from 2005 to 2007 was, in fact, the best way to help his team, and therefore not an indication of selfishness, but rather of his willingness to do whatever was necessary to win. (Numerous quotes from head coach Phil Jackson and assistant coach Tex Winter, the creator of Jackson's triangle offense, confirm that this was at the coaching staff's request, as part of the larger plan for helping the team win while teaching them the offense.) Nonetheless, the likelihood of players seeking their own stats and putting individual performance above team performance increases exponentially when you reward players for that type of individually dominant play without accounting for the impact on the team.

Are you someone who hates arrogant, selfish attitudes in NBA players (I know there are a lot of you, since it is an excuse that virtually every non-Lakers fan has used to criticize Kobe over the course of his career)? If so, then rewarding a player for arrogant, selfish play should be something you should hope to avoid. Meanwhile, encouraging a player to help his team win should be seen as a plus. Therefore, if you're an NBA fan who values teamwork as much as (or more than) you do individual brilliance, this is something you should embrace.

But wait — there's more. Not only is this a way to keep the voters from rewarding selfish play, but it is also a way to measure a player's impact on his team. Most succinctly put, the "literal" definition of a "most valuable player" is "the player whose team would suffer the most without him." Unfortunately, while that may be a great concept, it is impossible to measure.

How many games would the Cavs have won without LeBron James last year? Or the Lakers without Kobe? Or the Suns without Nash two years ago? Significantly less in each case, to be sure. But how much less? Five games? 10? 15? More? It is impossible to say. The only indication we have is how a team plays when their star is injured, or otherwise unable to play.

But that has problems of its own. What if, as the case was with Kobe Bryant this year, the MVP candidate on a certain team is never injured? Then it becomes impossible to know how the team would do without him. What if he's only injured for a handful of games, as was the case for LeBron James this year (who was out for seven games)? The sample size is much to small, and allows for far too many unaccounted for variables, to derive any significant conclusions from.

But it goes even beyond that. When a team loses their star player to temporary injury, they tend to play in a stop-gap, "hold down the fort" mode. On the other hand, when they start the season with the assumption that all 82 games and whatever playoff run they have will be without him, they're likely to take a significantly different approach, figuring out how to win as much as possible without him, and completely redesigning their system to work with what they have (see: Chicago Bulls, 1993-94). Given all of this, it really is impossible to tell, based solely on how a team performs when their star player is out, how they would do over the course of an entire season without him.

So, aside from simply guessing at which team would suffer more without its star player — a method that would open itself up to far too much subjectivity, essentially boiling down to "Yuh-huh! Nuh-uh!" arguments between Kobe fans and LeBron fans — how do we assess a player's value to his team, compared to other players? Simple: Win games!

As I've already mentioned, the proof should be in the pudding. If a player really is that valuable to his team, then it should reflect in the team's win totals. After all, which measure might be a more accurate assessment of a player's value to his team: his stats, which tell us nothing about how those stats impacted the team; or his team's performance? Perhaps I'm guilty of assuming the obvious, but it seems to me that a team's performance is a better indicator of a player's value to the team than his stats.

Is it a perfect measure? By no means. In an ideal world, we'd have some reliable way of actually determining how many games a team would have won had they played an entire season without him, and then comparing that to how many they won with him. The player that caused the biggest jump in games won would be the MVP. But we don't have any such thing (sorry, Wages of Wins doesn't come close to counting, here). And in the absence of such a perfect measure, the 50-win standard is the next best thing.

Simply put, it says, "Are you really that valuable? Fine, then show us by helping your team win!"

Why Changing it Would Be a Bad Idea

The following are, in reality, more reasons to keep the 50-win standard, expressed in the light of the negative ramifications of removing that standard. Clearly, "because we've always done it this way" is not a good enough reason, in and of itself, to keep it a certain way. But the history of the award does in fact present very important reasons for which the 50-win standard should be upheld.

The first of these is that it cheats all those who came before the change. Changing it in 2008, for example, would have resulted in LeBron James winning the award for the exact same reasons that prevented Kobe Bryant from winning it in the previous two years. How fair is it to say, "Kobe, when you did [insert impressive feat here], it prevented you from winning; but LeBron, when you did the exact same thing, it was the very reason you won!"

And this is not just a Kobe vs. LeBron thing; it is far beyond that. It is equally unfair to say to Michael Jordan that when he turned in 31.4 points, 11.0 assists, and 9.9 rebounds per game while leading the Bulls to 47 wins — 20 more than they won the year before he showed up — it was not enough, but when LeBron tallied 30.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 7.2 assists while leading the Cavs to only 45 wins, it was MVP-worthy. Or to say to Wilt Chamberlain that his 50.4 points per game were not enough, but Kobe Bryant's 35.4 points per game were MVP-worthy. It cheats those who have been disqualified by the 50-win standard to suddenly remove it as a standard from here on out, because their only fault was that they were born too late.

Related to this is the fact that it would make it difficult to compare future MVPs with those past. It would create a rift in history, putting an asterisk next to the award. This may seem insignificant, but consider that comparing the present to the past is something that we, in the sports world, relish. When Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a single game, we immediately brought up the comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points in a single game. As he was scoring 50+ points in four straight games, it was impossible to separate his current accomplishments from the past accomplishments of Michael Jordan (three straight 50+ games) and Wilt Chamberlain (seven straight). When Steve Nash seemed on the verge of winning his third straight MVP Award, much of the talk centered on how that would put him in a class with Bill Russell and Larry Bird. If we change the way the award is defined, then we partially rob ourselves of the ability to compare the present to the past. The pre-2008 MVP and post-2008 MVP awards would essentially be completely different awards that happen to share the same name. If we want a different award — that is, one that rewards a different accomplishment — why not simply create a new one? Is the name of the award that important? If it's that important that we have an award for "the player whose team would suffer the most without him," why not call it the "Most Impressive Player" or the "Most Dominant Player"?

Finally, changing the nature of the award would be a bad idea not only because it cheats past players and it robs us of the ability to compare them with future players, but also because it cheats future players, as well. Consider a hypothetical situation: Imagine that the NBA decides to change the rules, such that all baskets inside the three-point line are now worth three points, and all those beyond the three-point arc are now worth four. One night, Kobe Bryant goes off for 120 points. When asked how he feels about breaking Wilt Chamberlain's single-game scoring record, what do you think Kobe would say? I imagine it would go something like this:

"Well, no, I don't think it means much. Back then, all three-point baskets were only worth two points. Everything's changed, scoring 100 points now is like scoring 60 when I first started playing. It's not the same thing."

In essence, changing the scoring system in that way would make it easier to score points. In doing so, it would lessen the challenge of reaching scoring 100 points in a game.

Changing the MVP Award to reward individual excellence, without insisting that team success go along with it, is paramount to shortening the finish line for guys like LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul. It's a disservice and a disrespect to them, because it insinuates that they can't, or shouldn't have to, get there on the same terms as those who came before them.

These guys are immensely talented, and they are constantly pushing the envelope, constantly improving, constantly pushing the boundaries of human physical accomplishments. They don't need us to shorted the finish line for them. They don't need any breaks. They don't need the help.

Having recently won his first MVP Award, Kobe Bryant has been frequently quoted as saying that it is particularly special to him because it indicates that he has succeeded in improving in an area in which he has taken a lot of criticism in his career: making his teammates better. Ask Kobe which is harder, to rack up impressive statistics or to make his teammates better and lead the team to elite standing with a 55+ win record. The answer will be a no-brainer: the latter is a much greater challenge.

It's a disservice to these incredibly talented athletes to reduce the MVP Award to a stats race. In its current incarnation, the award is a much more difficult challenge, and therefore a more prestigious and rewarding accomplishment. Kobe Bryant fans may have wanted to change it in the past so that their guy could win the award now — just as LeBron James fans want to change it now so that their guy doesn't have to wait. But if either camp were given their way, it would be a disservice to the players they support.

If we really think these guys are that good, then the last thing we should want to do is to shorten the finish line, because the accomplishment won't be worth as much. Instead, we should have faith that they are capable of rising to the high level that the award currently demands. As a Kobe Bryant supporter, I can tell you that, having been through all of this, and having once been in the camp that wanted the award to be defined literally, this is much more rewarding. In retrospect, I would never change it.

Some Personal Notes

Those of you who are most skeptical of me, as a Kobe Bryant fan writing an MVP column, might be thinking something along these lines right about now:

Of course he's in favor of the 50-win standard now, because without it Kobe wouldn't have won the MVP this year! If he were to come out and say the 50-win standard is a lousy idea, he'd invalidate Kobe's 2008 MVP Award! But I bet you if it was like 2006 all over again, he'd be back in the camp wanting to change the MVP so Kobe could win it again.

Not so.

First, allow me point out that, in late March of this year, I wrote an article entitled Kobe Bryant Was Never Robbed. In that article, I stated my opinion that, contrary to the indignant cries of many Lakers fans, Bryant did not deserve the MVP Award in either 2006 or 2007. In that article, I also admitted that if he had, then it would be LeBron's turn this year.

Furthermore, let me point out that if we really were going by the "literal" criteria (i.e., the player whose team would suffer the most without him), Kobe would have been the clear winner in both 2006 and 2007. Therefore, if I really was only interested in gaining as much recognition for Kobe Bryant as possible, then it would make more sense for me to dismiss this year, and say that instead, he should have won it in 2006 and 2007. That way, I would be giving him credit for two MVP years, not only one.

From the perspective of a "Kobe fanatic," embracing the 50-win standard doesn't make much sense, because it means admitting that, to date, Kobe has only deserved one MVP Award — the one he won — rather than insisting that he deserved at least two, and was robbed.

But I believe firmly in the 50-win standard, even at the expense of admitting that Kobe didn't deserve to be MVP — or even to be considered, for that matter — in 2006 and 2007.


Clearly, I'm in favor of the 50-win standard. The question is, how do I intend to implement it here in the Most Valuable Column, in determining the 2009 MVP? Here's how it will work.

Because there has not been a single exception to this rule in 25 years, and only four exceptions in the entire 53-year history of the MVP (of which Moses Malone owns two), the 50-win standard will be a required criteria here at the Most Valuable Column. Regardless of how impressive a player is at all other facets of the game, if their team does not win at least 50 games out of 82 (61%), they will not be considered valid MVP candidates.

The only possibility for an exception will be if BOTH of the following are true:

  • The player in question has had a season at least equal to (preferably greater than) Wilt Chamberlain's in 1962, Oscar Robertson's in 1964, or Michael Jordan's in 1989, and...

  • The success of all teams that won more games than the player in question is primarily attributable to team success, rather than any single individual's impact.

If both of the above are not true, then an exception to the 50-win standard is not warranted.

Furthermore, a suitable candidate that meets the 55-win threshold will be given preference over one that only meets the 50-win threshold. The key word here is preference. This is not a hard and fast rule; it is a guideline. I reserve the right to go with a player whose team won 53 games over the one whose team won 58 if the other factors involved provide a compelling advantage to the player whose team won 53 games.

This much is clear: I don't consider Michael Jordan's 1988 season to have been superior enough to Magic Johnson's to warrant his 50-win MVP, and Steve Nash's 54-win MVP over Dirk Nowitzki in 2006 was questionable at best (and only because he was one win away). For me, to disregard the 55-win standard that has been in effect for 23 of the last 25 years will require more separation between the candidates in other areas than existed in those years.

Beyond that, there will be no explicit terms regarding win totals. There has never been any such thing as a 60-win standard that has been even moderately adhered to, so I will not be implementing one. Therefore, a player whose team won 55 games is on equal ground with a player whose team won 65 games, leaving other factors to determine the winner. Only in the very rare and completely unforeseeable circumstance that all other factors are equal (or balance each other out) could exact win total be the determining factor.

Convince Me

Now it's time for you to sound off. Hopefully, the 50- and/or 55-win standards make more sense to some of you than they used to. But maybe not. Maybe you're not convinced that such a standard should be used at all. Or maybe you are, but you think that separation between 50 and 55 wins should be more lenient.

Let me know in the comments. As is the modus operandus here at Hardwood Paroxysm, I won't be engaging in an in-depth discussion in the comments, the way I do over at Respect Kobe. That's the place for you to discuss. Matt has suggested that, since I've opened this up for discussion and some of you have raised very valid points, I go ahead and respond in the comments, so you may want to browse the comments for further discussion. And if anyone can present a well reasoned and supported argument for why the criteria I plan to employ is flawed, I'm more than open to having my mind changed.

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