Defining Value

By Josh Eberley #41

For those who have never been to Calgary, Alberta, it is a peculiar place. A place near mountains, hilly, yet flat, and the weather is more fickle than the average Twitter user. Heat, rain and snow can all occur on the same day. The MVP award is sort of like Calgary’s weather, it’s a fickle beast, with an evasive blueprint ever a struggle to comprehend.

Seriously, there is no clear definition. To the award’s credit, it’s kind of what makes the banter and yearlong discussion of the winner so much fun. Unfortunately, the fuzzy criteria can leave fans of a quality candidate anything but pleased come the end of the year. Let’s recap what popular passes for an explanation of the award depending on who you talk to.

Firstly there’s, “The best player on the best team contending for a title.”

Secondly, “The best individual player.”

Finally, “The player that would cost his team the most wins should he be replaced with an average player.”

We’ve seen cases where the above logic might be all encompassing of the MVP, might not at all fit the MVP, or partly supports the MVP. Let’s pretend the MVP did have a set definition, whichever of the three you might choose. Looking back with some semblance of set criteria would change an awful lot of history.

For argument’s sake, let’s take the best player on the NBA franchise with the best overall record in every given season for the first scenario. Then, let’s take the imperfect but fairly well known player efficiency rating (PER) leader in every season for option two. Finally, let’s take the leader in win shares (WS) each season as an indicator of option three.

Starting with this season and working our way back through the 20 years previous, let’s see how the above changes would’ve altered our accepted NBA lore.


  • MVP: TBD
  • Best Player on Best Team: Kevin Durant, Golden State 48-10 
  • Win Shares Leader: James Harden, 11.5
  • PER Leader: Russell Westbrook, 29.3


The jury is still out on 2016-17. While James Harden and Russell Westbrook remain the frontrunners, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Kevin Durant (up until the recent knee injury) are very much still in the race.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Steph Curry
  • Best Player on Best Team: Curry, Golden State 73-9
  • Win Shares Leader: Curry, 17.9
  • PER Leader: Curry, 31.5

Maybe the best offensive season of all time, Curry shot his way to the top. The first ever unanimous MVP and the best regular season record of all time make the year truly memorable. This is also the first of five seasons where regardless of criteria, the winner would be the same.

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  • MVP: Steph Curry
  • Best Player on Best Team: Curry, Golden State Warriors 67-15
  • Win Shares Leader: James Harden, 16.4
  • PER Leader: Anthony Davis, 30.8

The 2015 MVP was a sticky and divisive year on the MVP frontlines. It was a tight and highly contested race until the end. Harden showed real value leading the Rockets to a second-seed and Anthony Davis flashed that MVP potential that he’s still trying to regain. In the end, Curry emerged victorious and likely got the nod in a large part thanks to the Warriors’ record. Houston fans are very much hoping 2017 is Harden’s year.

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  • MVP: Kevin Durant
  • Best Player on Best Team: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs 62-20
  • Win Shares Leader: Kevin Durant, 19.2
  • PER Leader: Kevin Durant, 29.8


This was the first year that the perennial belief of LeBron James being the best player in the NBA had been disputed in some time. Durant torched the League and though his mom was the real MVP, Durant took home the trophy.

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  • MVP: LeBron James
  • Best Player on Best Team: James, Miami 66-16
  • Win Shares Leader: James, 19.3
  • PER Leader: James, 31.6


The best of the Heatles years together was 2012-13. It was the most memorable title of their run, James was a single vote away from the unanimous MVP (his fourth) and the Spurs lost in the Finals for the first time ever.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

2011-12 (lockout year, 66 games)

  • MVP: LeBron James
  • Best Player on Best Team: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs 50-16; Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls 50-16
  • Win Shares Leader: James, 14.5
  • PER Leader: James, 30.7

It seems forever ago that fans and tabloids alike were foolishly challenging LeBron James’ clutch factor, drive and killer instinct. The 2011-12 campaign put those murmurs to bed.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Derrick Rose
  • Best Player on Best Team: Rose, Chicago 62-20
  • Win Shares Leader: LeBron James, 15.6
  • PER Leader: James, 27.3

The James MVP fatigue was real. He’d won two in a row and people were looking for other options. Sadly, now it would appear Rose was at the pinnacle of his powers, but at the time the Bulls record, his youth while playing for his hometown as a No. 1 pick drove heavy narrative for an MVP award as his welcome-to-stardom moment.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: LeBron James
  • Best Player on Best Team: James, Cleveland 61-21
  • Win Shares Leader: James, 18.5
  • PER Leader: James, 31.1


LeBron’s 2010 MVP run might have been his most boring. The Cavaliers had the best regular season record, even though most knew they didn’t have the surrounding pieces to make a serious playoff run. No one else was close to James from a talent perspective either (Mo Williams and a 37-year-old Shaq withstanding), so in synopsis the vote was simple. The lack of help might’ve been the tipping point to LeBron taking his talents to South Beach.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: LeBron James
  • Best Player on Best Team: James, Cleveland 66-16
  • Win Shares Leader: James, 20.3
  • PER Leader: James, 31.7


Dwyane Wade was at his peak, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers were on a mission but James’ talent shined brightest as he won his first ever MVP award. He put Cleveland on his back, taking them to a franchise-best 66 wins, all with a team that featured a questionable All-Star (Mo Williams), Delonte West (!), Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ final good NBA season, an expired Ben Wallace and assorted odds and ends like Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Daniel Gibson.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Kobe Bryant
  • Best Player on Best Team: Kevin Garnett, Boston 66-16
  • Win Shares Leader: Chris Paul, 17.8
  • PER Leader: LeBron James, 29.1


The first of three nonsensical MVP years on this list. Bryant got a lifetime achievement award in 2008, as it appeared the media decided that a player that great needed to win at least one MVP in his career. Paul had a lesser team (New Orleans Hornets) and better advanced numbers. Garnett was the Celtics’ rock and backed it up by taking the Celtics to a title over Bryant. And this might’ve been the first year James was the clear No. 1 talent.

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  • MVP: Dirk Nowitzki
  • Best Player on Best Team: Nowitzki, 67-15
  • Win Shares Leader: Nowitzki, 16.3
  • PER Leader: Dwyane Wade, 28.9


You could argue Nowitzki was overdue. No matter how disappointing the 2007 playoffs were, (I still don’t believe it!) you had to give it to him. Nowitzki and the Mavericks cut through the League like a hot knife through butter, Nowitzki maintaining the 50-40-90 percentages the whole damn way.

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  • MVP: Steve Nash
  • Best Player on Best Team: Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons 64-18
  • Win Shares Leader: Dirk Nowitzki, 17.7
  • PER Leader: Nowitzki, 28.1


The second year via the prescribed criteria where the actual winner doesn’t fit. Nash’s Suns had the fourth-best record, James and Nowitzki had better advanced numbers, and the common vote was for Bryant even though he winded up fourth in the final tally. A lot of Nash voters must’ve still been feeling the after-effects of Nash’s magical season from a year ago.

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Steve Nash
  • Best Player on Best Team: Nash, Phoenix Suns 62-20
  • Win Shares Leader: Kevin Garnett,16.1
  • PER Leader: Garnett, 28.2


Nash just barely edged out Shaquille O’Neal for the MVP. Nash had only six more first place votes, but he took Phoenix and the League by storm, and as media darlings, became the subject of much coverage. Garnett might’ve been the best player in the League but his Wolves missed the postseason.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Kevin Garnett
  • Best Player on Best Team: Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers 61-21
  • Win Shares Leader: Garnett, 18.3
  • PER Leader: Garnett, 29.4

The infamous 2003-04 season saw legends Gary Payton and Karl Malone team up with O’Neal and Bryant in Los Angeles to usher in the superteam era. The super trooper team up was all for naught as the Detroit Pistons would win the title with a roster that will likely not see a single Hall of Famer. Garnett was three first place votes away from being the unanimous MVP as he carried the team to a top seed in a very crowded West field that featured six 50-win teams.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Tim Duncan
  • Best Player on Best Team: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs and Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks 60-22
  • Win Shares Leader: Duncan, 16.5
  • PER Leader: Tracy McGrady, 30.3


Duncan snags his second MVP and beats out rival Garnett. Individually they were close but Duncan was blessed with the better franchise and the rest is history. Tracy McGrady, who had a wonderful individual season played on a woeful Magic team that offered zero help.

D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Tim Duncan
  • Best Player on Best Team: Chris Webber, Sacramento Kings 61-21
  • Win Shares Leader: Duncan, 17.8
  • PER Leader: Shaquille O’Neal, 29.7


Duncan won his first MVP in a tight race over Jason Kidd. David Robinson’s time with the team was rapidly fading and Duncan took on a huge role in the best individual season of his career. Even among a star-studded season from Western Conference bigs (O’Neal, Webber, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol won Rookie of the Year), Duncan still stood out.

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  • MVP: Allen Iverson
  • Best Player on Best Team: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs 58-24
  • Win Shares Leader: Shaquille O’Neal, 14.9
  • PER Leader: O’Neal, 30.2


The last of the indefensible winners. Allen Iverson carried the offensive load for a very good defensive team and took the Sixers to the Finals. However, Iverson was eighth in WS, seventh in PER and the Sixers didn’t have the best record.

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  • MVP: Shaquille O’Neal
  • Best Player on Best Team: O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers 67-15
  • Win Shares Leader: O’Neal, 18.6
  • PER Leader: O’Neal, 30.6


The one and only MVP year for O’Neal. HOW DOES HE ONLY HAVE ONE MVP AWARD? This was peak physical Shaq coinciding with peak motivated Shaq, which resulted in his first championship. Look at these charts and wonder how despite his dominance he only has one MVP trophy chilling on the mantle. Iverson took one vote in 2000 as well, which as you probably know cost O’Neal a unanimous win.

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1998-99 (lockout year, 50 games)

  • MVP: Karl Malone
  • Best Player on Best Team: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs and Malone, Utah Jazz 37-13
  • Win Shares Leader: Malone, 9.6
  • PER Leader: Shaquille O’Neal, 30.6

His Airness had retired for the second time. Teams everywhere were salivating and scraping over each other for a shot at the throne. Malone ends up winning a tight race between himself, Duncan and Alonzo Mourning. Ultimately it was the Spurs who seized the title, the franchise’s first and the beginning of a still-going run of excellence.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images


  • MVP: Michael Jordan
  • Best Player on Best Team: Jordan, Chicago Bulls and Karl Malone, Utah Jazz 62-20
  • Win Shares Leader: Malone, 16.4
  • PER Leader: Shaquille O’Neal, 28.8


It was the last season Jordan ever played and he went out on top. Ok, ok that’s a lie. Jordan did win his last MVP (in Jordan-like fashion, exacting revenge on the MVP Malone wrested from him the previous season) and his last title topping Malone in both contests. Ouch!

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  • MVP: Karl Malone
  • Best Player on Best Team: Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls 69-13
  • Win Shares Leader: Jordan, 18.3
  • PER Leader: Malone, 28.9


Malone edges out Jordan for the first of his two MVP awards but Jordan got the last laugh, defeating the Jazz in the Finals. For what it’s worth, there was also some chatter for Grant Hill who came third and at the time was looking like a future winner.