Defining MVP

It has become an annual rite in professional sports leagues throughout the United States. As the end of the season nears, the debate rages anew – what, exactly, constitutes a “Most Valuable Player”?

The WNBA, in the ballot it sends to the 54 voters – 12 members of the national media and three members of the local media selected by each team, usually team broadcasters and beat writers – who are entrusted with the responsibility of selecting the MVP, sets out no guidelines for how Most Valuable Player is defined. That decision is left in the hands of voters, which has not been a real problem in years past. Only one of the WNBA’s first six MVPs – Sacramento Monarchs post Yolanda Griffith – came from a team that did not earn home-court advantage in the playoffs. The great players have also been on great teams, making the decision relatively easy for MVP voters.

Jackson’s MVP candidacy is the source of debate.
Ray Amati/WNBAE/Getty
Things have changed in a big way during the 2003 season. Of the league’s top three players by the efficiency rating, and arguably the top three players in the league (the Storm’s Lauren Jackson, Indiana’s Tamika Catchings and Washington’s Chamique Holdsclaw), only Catchings’ team remains alive in the postseason hunt, and the Fever’s playoffs chances are slim at best. Now, MVP voters face a difficult decision – vote for statistics, or for team performance?

While the issue had already come up with Catchings and Holdsclaw, it vaulted into the WNBA media spotlight when Jackson – anointed the favorite by WNBA fans in an online poll where, at last count, she had 46% of the votes – saw her Storm slip out of the playoff hunt with five straight losses following a season-ending sprained foot suffered by center Kamila Vodichkova.

The issue is really a much bigger one than whether Jackson is a deserving MVP candidate, a question the voters will answer when they turn in their ballots, due next Tuesday. No, the question is really how to determine the Most Valuable Player. Is it simply the best player in a league, or is the answer more complex, something that involves the fuzzy concepts of team quality and caliber of teammates?

Increasingly, the answer to that question has depended upon a maze of semantic arguments. One of the most popular justifications for an MVP vote is how the team would fare without the player. But this runs smack into a seemingly opposite theory of voting for the best player on the best team – even if it is, like the 2001 Seattle Mariners, an ensemble cast that relies as much on its depth as individual brilliance. Then there are those who want to rely solely on the consideration of best player – usually a concept based primarily on statistics. Of course, there are experts whose opinions lie somewhere between these extremes, like voter Mike Terry of the Los Angeles Times. “I sense Jackson will prevail,” he wrote in his awards column earlier this week, “But I'd feel better about it if the Storm makes the playoffs.”

While a non-playoffs MVP would be unprecedented in the relatively short history of the WNBA, it has happened in other sports – but rarely. In the 38 years the NBA has been awarding an MVP, there has been just one MVP from a non-playoff team – Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won his fourth MVP during the 1975-76 season, when the Lakers finished 40-42 and missed the postseason by virtue of having the fourth best record in the Pacific Division. The worst winning percentage by an NBA MVP was the first one, St. Louis Hawks forward Bob Pettit, whose team finished 33-39 (.458) but was tied for second in the Western Conference that season.

In baseball, non-playoff MVPs are much more common, probably for a number of reasons. Relatively less teams make the playoffs in baseball, a single superstar player has a smaller impact than in basketball and statistics have always played a greater role in the analysis of baseball. To find a non-playoff baseball MVP, one needs look back only two seasons, when Barry Bonds’ San Francisco Giants won 90 games but fell just shy of the NL Wild Card. Bonds won the MVP nonetheless – apparently setting a new all-time home run record was too much for voters to ignore. Less than two decades ago, the voters honored Andre Dawson despite the fact that he played for a last-place team, the 1987 Chicago Cubs (though, at 76-85, the Cubs were very good for a cellar dweller).

Baseball has also hosted the most compelling arguments about what an MVP is, perhaps none better than last year. Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada, who had average statistics for an MVP, beat out Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who had one of the great all-time offensive seasons for a shortstop – but on a Rangers team that finished miles behind the first-place Athletics. columnists made the arguments for either side last year. Mark Kriedler dismissed Rodriguez, writing, “There are no MVP's on last-place teams. It's a contradiction in terms. … Show me the player who is making the greatest difference on a team that is going from fair to good or good to great, and I will show you a better MVP candidate than Rodriguez.” Jim Baker disagreed with his colleague, writing, “As you have no doubt heard a thousand times this year: ‘the award is not for 'best season' but for most valuable to the team.’ Of course, I would contend that having the best season makes one invaluable to one's team.”

The NFL’s history with regards to non-playoff MVPs parallels the NBA’s. Though the NFL is somewhere between MLB and the NBA in terms of playoff teams, the NFL has had just three non-playoff MVPs – none since O.J. Simpson for the Buffalo Bills in 1973.

Jackson would become the first MVP from a non-playoff team in WNBA history.
Jeff Reinking/WNBAE/Getty
If a voter decides not to go with Jackson because the Storm are not playoff-bound, that also eliminates Holdsclaw and, barring something unforeseen, Catchings. Left are two top MVP candidates – Minnesota guard Katie Smith and Detroit forward Swin Cash. Though Smith is currently last of the seven candidates in, her statistics are impressive indeed. Until a recent slump, Smith was making a strong run at becoming the first player since 1997 to finish in the top ten in all three shooting percentages and scoring average. As it is, there is no more efficient high scorer than Smith. The rest of her game, however, is not necessarily MVP caliber. Cash plays for the best team of any of the top MVP candidates, but her statistics are the weakest. Cash ranks just seventh in the league in total efficiency points, and is further back on a per-game and per-minute basis.

While there is no doubt Cash’s Shock is better than Jackson’s Storm, the comparison with Smith – whose Lynx are currently 18-15 – raises an important question – just how meaningful are the playoffs as an evaluation of a team? Certainly, making the playoffs is the primary goal of any team’s season and the postseason outcome weighs heavily in evaluating a season. Still, making the playoffs versus not making the playoffs is not necessarily a meaningful distinction. The Lynx and Storm could yet finish with identical records. As well, was the Storm in the Eastern Conference, it would still be in the playoff hunt. Then there is the question of point differential – the difference between the points a team scores and those it allows, which many analysts believe to be as important a measure of a team’s quality as its record. Despite its recent slump, the Storm still has the third-best point differential in the WNBA at +2.5 – significantly better than Minnesota’s +0.6.

There’s another big-picture question in play in the MVP debate – how much credit or blame can we assign to a specific player for their team’s performance? Jackson has continued to put up big numbers during the Storm’s five-game slide that ruined the team’s playoff hopes and, perhaps, her MVP candidacy – 21.4 points and 13.6 rebounds per game, including four double-doubles. Jackson has supplied 32.4% of the Storm’s scoring and 38% of its rebounding in Vodichkova’s absence. In light of those numbers, it seems difficult to discredit Jackson for the outcome of those games.

Jackson has the numbers, but that may not be enough. Without a set standard for the definition of Most Valuable, the definition remains open for each individual voter to make. In years like this, with several qualified candidates but no obvious one, that is an extremely difficult decision. Jackson’s teammate, Sue Bird, summed up the tentative, indecisive conclusion to any debate of MVP qualifications nicely. “It really just depends on - there aren't any guidelines in terms of MVP,” Bird said yesterday after practice. “Your team doesn't have to make the playoffs, you don't have to average this, that, and the other thing. It just depends on a player's play. Lauren, I think, individually has played better than any player in this league. At the same time, it's about how you can raise the level of your team as well. It just depends on how you look at it.”

We’ll know in a few weeks how voters look at it.