Everything you need to know about the MVP Award

I loved Arturo’s MVP race piece. One of the fun subjects is how players are voted to MVP. In 1981 the NBA turned from having the players vote on the MVP to a different method. Via Wikipedia:

The award is decided by a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters throughout the United States and Canada, each of whom casts a vote for first to fifth place selections. Each first-place vote is worth 10 points; each second-place vote is worth seven; each third-place vote is worth five, fourth-place is worth three and fifth-place is worth one. Starting from 2010, one ballot was cast by fans through online voting.

While examining the historical voting patterns for MVP looking for a story I instead ended up in minutia. I don’t really have a cohesive piece today, but I do have lots of random stuff I found. Enjoy!

The Voters like Scorers

michael jordan

Only one player has managed to earn an MVP while scoring fewer than 20 points a game and that’s Steve Nash in 2005 and 2006. We’ll get to 2006 below but let’s talk 2005. I argue this vote happened because of two funny movements in the NBA. Steve Nash went from Dallas in 2004 to the abysmal Suns. In 2005 they went from a 29-53 record the year before to a league best 62-20 record. Nash (rightfully so) clearly got a lot of the credit for this move. At the same time Shaquille O’Neal left the Lakers to go to Miami, and helped lead them to 59-23, the best record in the East. Much like the decision was unpopular because a big name forced his way onto another team, Shaq’s movements were viewed similarly. Couple that with a team first player turning around a terrible team and a perfect scenario happened. Nash beat out Shaq but by a mere 34 points for the award.

Only one player has managed to get a first place vote while also scoring fewer than 10 points per game. That was Ben Wallace in 2003, and to whoever made that vote, I salute you!

As Dave Berri and Dean Oliver have said “Top Scorer on a Winning Team” is the formula for MVP. The first part is clearly true, let’s move on to the second.

The Voters like a Winner Part 1


Only three MVP winners have been on a team that won fewer than 55 games (adjusting 1999 and 2012 for 82 game seasons): Moses Malone in 1982, Michael Jordan in 1988 and Steve Nash in 2006.

In 1982 Malone lead the league in rebounding (mainly due to his offensive boards, which he was excellent at), he was one of three players to score 30+ PPG, the other two being George Gervin and Adrian Dantley. Dantley’s Jazz had an abysmal record. George Gervin’s Spurs were only two games better than Malone’s 46 win Rockets. Malone absolutely crushing the stats and possibly it being only the second year of the voting scheme may have helped him in. I’m also sure his name recognition at having won the award before helped too.

In 1988 Jordan lead the league in scoring at an insane 35.0 points per game. This was 4.3 points ahead of second place — Dominique Wilkins. He also lead the league in steals and was named Defensive Player of the Year. So, if you crush it on both sides of the floor and destroy the scoring title, the voters may spot you 5 wins.

In 2006 Nash won his second MVP despite his team being a win short. There’s a few fun explanations. First, he was the incumbent winner. Next, he did improve his scoring by 3.3 points a game from the previous season.  Amare Stoudemire went down with injury and the Suns stayed competitive, which definitely helped the narrative. Finally, both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant had seasons scoring over 30 points per game. The Cavaliers only won 50 games and the Lakers only won 45. It’s possible they pulled enough of the votes off of Dirk Nowitzki to help Nash. And don’t worry, we’ll get to Nash more in a second.

The Voters Like a Winner Part 2

Only two players managed to get multiple first place votes despite being on losing teams. Michael Jordan in 1985 and 1987, and Moses Malone in 1981. What’s more, every player to get multiple first place votes was on a team that made the playoffs.

The Voters Require you to Play


Allen Iverson in 2001 is the only MVP to win playing fewer than 75 games (and he played 42 minutes a game in the 71 games he played) Only Steve Nash in 2005 and 2006 and Julius Erving in 1981 have won the award suiting up for less than 36 minutes a game. Shaquille O’Neal in 1998 is the only player to get a first place vote and play fewer than 80% of his games (he suited up for 60)

Magic Johnson and the Split Ballot

He'll do anything to hate on the Lakers!

1990 was a crazy season. Here’s a fun rundown of some of the stars on good teams. Magic Johnson – Lakers (63 wins), Charles Barkley – 76ers (53 wins), Michael Jordan – Bulls (55 wins), Karl Malone– Jazz (55 wins), David Robinson – Spurs (56 wins). All of these players got at least one first place vote too. And that brings up the crazy part. Magic Johnson is the only player in the history of the modern voting scheme to get the MVP without getting the most first place votes (that honor went to Charles Barkley)

Also, winning the MVP without winning a majority of the first place votes is rare too. Only five players have pulled it off:

  • Magic Johnson in 1989 (50.0%) and 1990 (29.3%)
  • Karl Malone in 1999 (37.3%)
  • Julius Erving in 1981 (40.6%)
  • Tim Duncan in 2002 (45.2%)
  • Steve Nash in 2006 (45.6%)

What Consensus?

Almost unbeatable

Almost unbeatable

Only three players have come within less than five votes on a unanimous MVP

MVP Candidates this Season?


I’ll assume no narrative will be as compelling as Nash in 05, or player as dominant as Jordan or Malone. If we look for teams on pace for 55 wins, we have the following:

Oklahoma City Thunder – On pace for 64 wins. Favorites for MVP

Both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have over 20 PPG. Durant is currently in third place in the scoring race behind Kobe and Melo, so he’s an easy frontrunner and I’d argue favorite for the award.

Westbrook is 7th in the league in scoring at 21.7 points per game. He’ll get some first place votes (sadly) but no shot at the award.

San Antonio Spurs – On pace for 63 wins. No shot at MVP

Tony Parker leads the Spurs in scoring at 19.4 points a game, with Tim Duncan scoring 18.0 points a game (to go along with 9.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks) Neither hits the 20 point mark. What’s more, Parker only pays 32.5 minutes a game and Duncan is only at 30.3. Finally, Popovich has no problem resting starters. If the race out west gets out of reach, expect Popovich to rest these guys for the playoffs. The Spurs remain impressive, but they’ll end this season without a recognized MVP.

Los Angeles Clippers – On pace for 62 wins. No shot at MVP

Let’s start out, Chris Paul is amazing. He’s amazing. Seriously. He currently leads the league in both Wins and WP48. That said, he doesn’t score enough points. Chris Paul sits third on his own team in points per game behind Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford. And none of these players breaks the 20 points per game mark. It’s a shame to be sure. Unless a hundred or so writers start reading and using the Wages of Wins, I don’t think the Clippers have any shot at this and that’s even after their impressive win streak.

Miami Heat – On pace for 60 wins.  Decent shot at MVP

After some bumps the Heat are winning games at the same rate as they were last season. LeBron James is still playing quite well and his raw numbers aren’t that far off from last season. Really, Bron stands a good shot at this award, the only real issue is that both Melo and Durant play the same position. Both stand poised to either outscore or be on a team with more wins. If that happens, I can’t expect Bron to repeat (again) Wade has also cracked the 20 point mark. His health, reduced playing time and fact that he plays with LeBron though, means he has no shot at the award.

Memphis Grizzlies – On pace for 57 wins. No shot at MVP

Rudy Gay leads the team in scoring at 18.0 points a game. He doesn’t crack our 20 point barrier and is so far from Melo, Bron and Durant, who all play the same position, that it won’t ever be a question. Zach Randolph is powering this team this season and his 16.7 points to go with 12.3 rebounds are impressive. Sadly, they’ll go overlooked by the voters. I’ve been impressed by this team but they have no shot at an MVP.

Golden State Warriors – on Pace for 56 wins. Outside shot at MVP

At the start of the season I recall laughing my head off seeing David Lee listed as an MVP candidate on a betting site. (The odds were ridiculous, but of course, so was the premise of David Lee as an MVP candidate) and a few months later, that premise is no longer so ridiculous.

Stephen Curry leads the team in points per game (20.4), assists per game (6.5) and steals per game (1.6) and is likely the player that will get any of Golden States MVP votes. It’d be weird to see voters go for a point guard and pick Curry over CP3, but hey it could happen.

David Lee is a close second in points per game (20.2), while also remembering how to rebound (11.1) So he’s gone from a hysterical choice as an MVP candidate to a solid dark horse.

With the conventional MVP candidates clogged with small forwards, Golden State may slip in with a point guard and a forward-center. I don’t expect them to have a solid shot. Still, if  Curry or Lee ends the year with a strong run and the Warriors continue to over-perform, well crazier things have happened in the Golden State.

New York Knicks – On Pace for 56 wins. Decent shot of MVP

Melo is second in the scoring race behind Kobe. I actually thought he had a very good shot at grabbing this award to start the season. In fact, I still do. The Knicks have cooled a bit since their killer start. If Melo doesn’t keep the scoring title from Durant or the Knicks don’t maintain their winning ways, which is very possible given their age, the MVP won’t go to Melo. I’m used to Melo getting the credit for other productive players on winning teams. We’ll see if Derrick Rose’s trick from 2011 still works on the voters.

Alright, way more MVP trivia and speculation than anyone could ever ask for! Hope you enjoyed it.,


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