What is the most important accolade across all sports?
Bill Simmons asked this question seven years ago in his 700-page basketball epic. The answer is still the same: The NBA MVP.
When one compares the resumés of MLB, NFL, and NHL MVP's to those of the NBA, none can stack up. The most valuable player in baseball still cannot affect the play of his teammates. The NFL's MVP plays just one side of the ball (well, unless they're JJ Watt). And the last non-goalie to win the Hart Trophy averaged just 21:58 of ice time (37% of an NHL game).
NBA MVPs undertake a multitude of tasks on the basketball court. In addition to being a top scorer (since the merger only two players have won MVP averaging under 20 PPG), they make their teammates better, are often elite defenders, and play at least 75% of the game.
Winning an MVP is so indicative of excellence in fact, that every single winner has been inducted into the Hall of Fame (assuming eligibility). So how have MVP's been awarded? Since 1981, an ever-growing panel of writers has created a ballot of their top-5 choices for the award. The votes are tallied, and the winner gets to revel in the glory of winning an MVP.
It seems simple enough, but writers manage to screw it up so often. But really, are they to blame? How can anyone expect a diverse group of over 100 people to agree on what 'valuable' means, and then put aside all biases for the vote? And it's not like the old method was working.
Before 1981, the MVP was decided on by players, which led to problems that literally anyone could have seen coming. The most glaring example of a flawed players' vote was in 1975, when Bob McAdoo beat out Rick Barry. By pretty much any calculation, Barry was the most valuable player that season as the engine of an underdog Warriors team that rode their Cinderella story all the way to the championship. But none of that mattered.
Barry could have averaged 100 PPG and still not won. He was a notoriously mean teammate, he insulted the entire southern United States, and whispers of his racism were bandied about through the entire league. So the players instead voted for McAdoo, someone with a palatable personality who put up killer numbers on an overachieving Buffalo team.
If the players and writers both get it wrong, what are some of the reasons for it? First, we need to see what they're getting wrong. Here's a list of nine MVPs awarded since 1981 that were at least a bit suspect.
2011: Derrick Rose
2008: Kobe Bryant
2007: Dirk Nowitzki
2006: Steve Nash
2005: Steve Nash
1997: Karl Malone
1993: Charles Barkley
1990: Magic Johnson
1981: Julius Erving
From that list, which are the most egregious? Let's dive into the worst of the worst, and look not just at who should have won, but what led the media into voting for the wrong player.
Karl Malone - 1997
In the late 1990's, the league was diluted by expansion, and many once-promising teams had suffered casualties. Two teams managed to emerge from the heap, relying on continuity and veteran leadership: The Bulls and Jazz.
Before 1997, Utah had gone just 7-8 in playoff series, dating back to the 1989 playoffs. They looked to be a team on the decline, with two stars whose combined age was a startling 67 years old. Even their third-best player (Jeff Hornacek) was 33 in 1997.
Yet amidst a Western Conference devoid of contenders, the Jazz finished with a sterling 64-18 mark, their best in franchise history. Winning 64 games obviously deserves praise, but Utah fell short of Chicago’s historic 69-13 record. FiveThirtyEight’s ELO model favors the Bulls as well, whose rating peaked at 1809. Including the playoffs, their ELO “blend” is the third-best in NBA history.
So why did the media’s narrative focus on Utah? Novelty and sexiness, two words one would never associate with Malone and Stockton’s Jazz. Their pick-and-roll-heavy offense had been the same for over a decade, only now they were winning more games. Fans and writers alike confused results with progress, and believed that the Jazz had overcome their heartbreaking loss in 1996 Western Finals, and were now ready to win a title. It seems that in the minds of many, Utah took a leap forward in 1997.
The late-90’s Jazz are perhaps the largest beneficiaries of the era they played in. Following Jordan’s first retirement, NBA basketball devolved into a stagnant, deliberate game. The wonderful stats.nba.com conveniently has advanced data beginning with the 1996-1997 season.
Most striking about the late-90’s style of play was its profoundly slow pace. A glance over the pace numbers from the 1997 season reflect this. The median pace value was 89.9 (possessions/48 minutes). To put that in contemporary context, the 2016 Jazz finished dead last in pace — with 93.2 poss/48. By far slowest team in 2016, they would have been the third-fastest team in 1997.
Well, teams taking the air out of the ball played right into Utah’s favor. Few teams in NBA history have had a more reliable set piece than the Malone - Stockton P&R. While no Synergy Sports play-type data exists for 1997, shooting zone information is still available. Malone led the league in both makes and FG% from the restricted area, hitting his 456 buckets at a 67.7% clip. As he had done for many seasons, he continued to excel as a roll man.
But doesn’t it say something about the quality of the league if the most bruising inside presence was a 33 year-old power forward? Why was Malone suddenly peaking in his 12th season? He deserves a ton of credit for staying in shape this late into his career (it’s why I put him over Barkley all-time), but to suggest that he improved in his age-33 season is ridiculous.
Malone’s newfound success was a case of attrition. His typical Western foes were felled by one thing or another. David Robinson broke his foot after just six games, missing the remainder of the season. Hakeem was finally worn down at age 34, two years removed from a grueling Finals run. Barkley was hampered by nagging injuries upon being dispatched to Houston, and managed just 53 mediocre games. Shawn Kemp had to play himself into shape after a 22-day holdout stunted his training camp. With every realistic rival falling victim to injury, age, or their off-court habits, Malone was finally able to shine.
Perhaps the most apt quote for the 1997 and 1998 Jazz was uttered by HBO's preeminent eunuch, Varys. “The storms come and go, the waves crash overhead, the big fish eat the little fish, and I keep on paddling.” Malone, Stockton, and Sloan were preyed on by true contenders for the better part of a decade. But as the big fish died out, no one else came along to take their place.
Over the course of the season, it became the sexy story to talk about the Jazz, who were hitting their stride on the back of an unheralded star. Writers loved that high-character guys like Malone and Stockton were finally succeeding. Factor in the growing hip-hop culture in the league, and the media practically fell over themselves to vote for Malone.
He was someone who lacked rap albums, illegitimate kids, and cornrows. Basically, he was the antithesis of Allen Iverson, who represented everything old (read: white) writers thought was wrong with the NBA. I’ll bookend this with a quote from a 1997 SI piece about race in the NBA, which encapsulates the racial climate during this era. "There is a sense that the league was trying to send a message to the public," wrote Phil Taylor, "that the NBA it knows and loves was not becoming too dangerous, 'too black.'"
Hopefully by now, it’s pretty clear that (a) Malone should not have won, and (b) there was a perfect storm that caused the media to push for him. But who was the rightful winner? The answer is so obvious that I considered not even writing it: Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
He was only the face of the league, and had just followed up a 72 win season with a 69 win campaign. Jordan’s stat line contained the typical excellence, and his status as league alpha-dog remained unquestioned.
Ironically, the media that so pined for Malone’s success may have ensured his demise. After being robbed of his 5th MVP, Jordan was never going to vindicate those voters by losing to Malone in the Finals. He averaged a 32-7-6, and scored 38 points to win Game 5 despite having some bad pizza the night before.
Jordan’s calm demeanor made Malone’s flustered performance look even worse. The MVP finished the series averaging just 23-10 on 44% shooting, down from 55% in the regular season. And in the deciding game 6, he shot 7-15 from the line in a 90-86 loss. Cosmic justice I suppose, for stealing an MVP from the greatest player of all time.