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No Playoffs, No MVP
The Most Valuable Player trophy is awarded based on vague criteria that are open to interpretation, but the definition of MVP is quite simple. The award should go to player who contributed the most to their team’s success in that particular season. Success is the key word; an MVP elevates the game of his teammates and creates wins for the team. If a player cannot, through his own individual play, raise the play of others enough to even qualify for the playoffs, he is certainly not the MVP.
J.J. Watt had without a doubt one of the most dominant defensive seasons in recent memory, but he was sitting at home while Aaron Rodgers went to work in the playoffs. Unlike Watt, Rodgers led his team to the playoffs, and would be a worthy choice for MVP.
Rodgers has the decided benefit of being a quarterback, but regardless, who contributed more to their team’s success, Rodgers or Watt? For all the ridiculous plays Watt made, only a handful had a meaningful effect on the final outcome of the game. The nature of football makes the MVP debate something of a lost cause, because the quarterback position is always going to be the most important determinant of team success, especially in today’s NFL.
The question of whether the Most Valuable Player should be from a playoff team is just as pertinent in the NBA this season. Anthony Davis plays like a machine programmed to destroy anything that comes into the lane, and his 31.0 player efficiency rating (PER) leads the league, but as it stands now, he would not be the MVP. Instead, it is Stephen Curry, whose electrifying skill, unbelievable shooting, and general basketball aptitude have the Warriors sitting atop of one of the most competitive and loaded conferences in NBA history. Given his younger age, it could be argued that Davis is more impressive. The key difference between them is this: Curry has his team heading towards the Finals, while Davis’ Pelicans will be hard-pressed to even make the playoffs. The Pelicans occupy the ninth seed at the moment, five games behind Phoenix for the final seed and just one game above the surging Thunder.
Basketball and football are very different. A player can influence the game from any position on the court in basketball; there is no quarterback who disproportionately affects a game’s outcome. Anthony Davis looks great on the court and is as exciting as any player in the league to watch, but the Pelicans as a whole are a mediocre team who play slow, take bad shots, and allow too many points for a team with Davis under the rim. The Warriors, on the other hand, are an absolute pleasure to watch, with expert ball movement, smart defensive rotations, and players hitting shots from all over the floor. This all begins with Curry, who influences the play of the opposing team in a way that Davis does not, creating opportunities for his teammates and ensuring success.
It is safe to say that the Warriors would not be in first place without Curry, while the Pelicans would likely only fare slightly worse without Davis. The success of the team is crucial to a player’s candidacy as MVP. No one cares about the best player on a losing team. To the victor go the spoils.
Value added always
American professional sports have an unhealthy obsession with evaluating players on the basis of their championship rings and playoff appearances. How many online pundits try to diminish Peyton Manning’s achievements because he ‘isn’t clutch’ or only has one Super Bowl ring to his name? It’s silly. A player’s value extends beyond their team’s record, and this year, sports writers should recognize this and give J.J. Watt the MVP over Aaron Rodgers.
It is often the case that excellent players will tend to get their teams into the playoffs. Their ability to do so is part of their ‘value.’ You can reasonably expect that the majority of MVPs will be on playoff-bound teams. However, there is more than one way to judge ‘value.’ Are they doing something historically significant? How do they measure up according to advanced metrics? How much better are they than the next best player in their position? How many aspects of the game do they impact? What kind of reputation have they built for themselves? How well have they played against tougher opponents? In the case of J.J. Watt, he scores higher on all of the above questions than any other player in the league. The Texans may not have made the playoffs, but J.J. Watt has been freakishly valuable in almost every other imaginable category.
It’s not as though the Texans laid an egg this season. They were rated fourth smartest team in Football with one of the best defensive scores, in no small part due to Watt. The Texans also had a winning record, 9-7. We cannot forget how arbitrary team records are: the Arizona Cardinals missed the playoffs last year with a 10-6 record, while the Green Bay Packers won a Super Bowl in 2011 after a 10-6 regular season. The Texans also had a better season than Carolina, who made the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record. No one in his or her right mind would argue that any player on the Panthers was more valuable than J.J. Watt this season. However, if we were following the logic of giving the MVP to playoff-bound players, we would look to Carolina before Watt.
The example of team records shows that there is an element of luck in team sporting success. The Panthers would have been watching the playoffs at home if they were in the AFC, or any other NFC division. The Texans were in the playoff hunt until the very last week of the season. A player’s value is something you can quantify, while luck is not. Insofar as a team’s success is down to luck, you do not want that to reflect on the asserted value of the player in question. The Texans were 2-14 last season and improved to 9-7 this year and still did not make the playoffs. J.J. Watt has been the best football player this year, and the fact that his team did not make the playoffs should in no way diminish his achievements.
To conclude, broadening the MVP debate beyond playoff teams will not only lead to a more accurate evaluation of what ‘value’ is, but will also lead to a more varied and interesting debate about how good a player is, and how impactful their seasons have been.