The Absurdity of the 2022 MVP Race

05/15/2022 The Absurdity of the 2022 MVP Race

By: Matthew Cahill

How NBA MVP Voting Became Such a Mess

The 2022 NBA MVP was officially announced earlier this week, and it concluded one of the most highly debated award races we’ve seen in sports history. For the second consecutive year, Nikola Jokic took the award home over Joel Embiid, which has split the NBA community in two. Jokic supporters claimed his incredible advanced stats and ability to drag his injury-riddled team into the playoff picture as merit to win the award, while those in Embiid’s corner argued that he led his team to a better record while being the top scorer in the league amidst the entire Ben Simmons trade drama. Going forward, it Is going to become even more difficult to confidently pick a winner in years to come, mainly because it’s an award that seems to be changing its meaning.


While the voting method for the award can never be 100% perfect, there at least used to be a somewhat solid framework in place, but that began to shatter during the mid 2010s. In 2015, Stephen Curry won his first MVP award over James Harden for leading the Warriors to a league-best 67 wins. James Harden had the better counting stats and led the Rockets to the 2 seed, but since Curry’s numbers were comparable on a much better team, he was ultimately given the award. This was the norm at the time, as the MVP was usually given to the candidate who had a better team record (IE: Derrick Rose 2011, Steve Nash 2005) regardless of if they truly had the best regular season or not.


Two years later in 2017, James Harden was again an MVP frontrunner thanks to a historically great season where he averaged 29 points, 11 assists, and 8 rebounds a game to lead the Rockets to the 3 seed in a stacked Western Conference. Unfortunately for the Beard, this was the same year that Russell Westbrook became the first player to average a triple double in 55 years, putting up 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists a night to drag the Thunder to the playoffs without Kevin Durant. Even though Harden had comparable stats with the better record, he ultimately came up short in MVP voting again, resulting in Westbrook being rewarded with the award for his record-breaking year.


Westbrook edging out Harden for MVP showed that voters were starting really take other factors into consideration when it came to casting their ballot instead of simply choosing the premier player on a contender. Would Russ have won the award if he put up 1 less rebound or assist per game and didn’t average a triple double? Absolutely not. In fact, he averaged a triple double for the next two seasons and didn’t even finish in the top 3 for voting in either year. But the story of him responding to Kevin Durant leaving him for Golden State by putting up numbers we haven’t seen since the 60s led to voters steering away from typical voting practices.


With voters having more discretion than ever, this year’s MVP voting proved to be exceedingly difficult. Looking at the numbers, Embiid had one of the best scoring seasons from a big man we’ve ever seen, putting up an efficient 30.6 points per game on nearly 50% shooting to lead the league in scoring. Prior to Embiid, there hasn’t been a center that’s led the league in scoring since Shaq did so back in 2000 (he won the MVP that year). On top of his offensive brilliance, Joel was also one of the best defensive big men in the league, averaging both 1.5 blocks a night and 1.1 steals per game. Jokic on the other hand didn’t average as many points (27.1 PPG), but he shot an absurd 58.1% from the field, while being his team’s main facilitator (7.1 APG) in addition to pulling in nearly 14 rebounds a game. These numbers led to the Joker recording the highest single-season player efficiency rating (32.85) in league history, as well as leading the league in Win Shares (15.2), Box Plus/Minus (13.7) ,and Value over Replacement (9.8).It’s truly a toss-up when it comes to picking who had the better season numbers-wise. If you value scoring and defense, Embiid is your pick. If you value all-around numbers and advanced stats, the Joker is your guy.


When it comes to narrative, Jokic has a slight edge. Heading into the season, the 76ers were without Ben Simmons, who demanded a trade and refused to play for the organization ever again. Embiid still put up his aforementioned monster numbers to lead Philly to 51 wins and a top 4 seed in the superior Eastern Conference, but he did get some help along the way as he played with James Harden from mid-February onwards. The Nuggets, however, didn’t have such luck when it came to putting talent around Jokic. Jamal Murray missed the whole season nursing a torn ACL, and Michael Porter Jr. went down for the rest of the year just 9 games in as his infamous back problems flared up again. Despite not having his second or third options available for essentially the whole year, Jokic still led his team to 48 wins and the 5th seed in the West.


The storyline and advanced stats at play proved to be what voters valued more, which led to Jokic winning the award yet again. Had this exact scenario taken place prior to Westbrook’s 2017 campaign, Embiid would have likely walked away with the trophy, as voters favored team record more than anything prior to that. However, it looks like the days are gone when the candidate with the best record automatically wins the award, which is likely going to blur the lines on who deserves to win in the years to come.


Going with this method of voting basically leaves voters with the question, ‘which player meant the most to their team this year’? This definitely sounds like the correct definition of an MVP, but the decision is so much more difficult to accurately make compared to giving it to the best player on one of the top teams since there is no concrete metric for picking a winner. You can argue that Joel Embiid had a historic scoring season with a slightly better record, but then again, Jokic’s record-breaking advanced stats are hard to ignore. You can then refute that by saying Embiid is the better defensive player, and stats can’t 100% account for that. From there you can say that Jokic did it without any help, but then again Embiid dealt with a toxic locker room all year and that James Harden isn’t the same player he once was. Every possible argument can now be refuted, which is why there were so many debates on who really deserved the award this year.


These debates aren’t going to end anytime soon either. Without team record being used as the ultimate tiebreaker between two candidates, there is really no right or wrong answer when deciding between players as good as Embiid and Jokic. So going forward, prepare yourself for many more years of intense debate defending your MVP picks, because unless someone is the best player in the league on a historically good team (IE: 2016 Steph Curry), there no longer seems to be a clear right or wrong answer.


Photo: Joe Stella / Media Mobilize