In his press conference ahead of Game 1 on Tuesday, commissioner David Stern showed a surprising level of interest in the concept of delaying the MVP voting until after the postseason. He didn’t exactly endorse the idea and didn’t seem to care all that much, but he certainly did not reject it out of hand:
“It’s an idea that should get some traction. I have no particular opinion on it one way or the other. And the worst answer I can give you is the truth – it’s always been done this way. That doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.”
The fact that LeBron James was obviously the best player in the Eastern Conference finals inspired this line of questioning. James finished third in the MVP balloting but outplayed Derrick Rose so badly that many seemed to think perhaps the voters got a bit carried away in giving Rose the award in a landslide. (Rose received 113 first-place among a voting group that included 120 journalists and one “fan vote.”)
The thinking underlying all of this is that the playoffs are more important than the marathon regular season, and so it feels a bit foolish to give out the league’s most prestigious individual award before seeing how each star performs under real pressure. There is truth in that. The playoffs are more important than the regular season, and the pressure level of an elimination game is obviously much higher than in a game against the Nets in March.
But I’d be against this, for two main reasons:
• There is value in the grind of the regular season, even if a lot of fans don’t realize it. The regular season is where a team forges its identity in just about every way. It’s a narrative that isn’t glamorous or dramatic, but every team goes through it. Coaches settle on rotations they like. They experiment with lineups and players that seem tantalizing but ultimately don’t work. Teams figure out what sets work best on offense, and then go about mastering those sets, tweaking them and tweaking them again. Players discover each other’s tendencies and learn to help one another on both ends of the floor. They practice crunch-time sets and choose which to keep for the important games and which to toss.
It’s a process that unfolds in fits and starts, in little revelations, and a team’s postseason performance is usually the culmination of that process. Examples are legion. The Suns didn’t really find themselves last season until about the 50-game mark. The Lakers’ regular-season performance this season presaged their downfall, and Kobe Bryant’s inability to practice (through no fault of his own) appears to have had some small effect on team chemistry. The Cavaliers last season lamented how little time they had to play Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison together.
Both of this year’s finalists stand as testaments to the importance of the first 82 — of the experimentation and learning that take place from October through April.
Having a star around to lead that process matters; that process cannot really take place in earnest without those star players to serve as the center of it all. The MVP awards a star for being there, and that’s the way it should be.
• I’m not convinced this all-encompassing Overall MVP would go to a person other than the MVP of the Finals. The Finals MVP has become a sort of de facto postseason MVP, because it almost always goes to the best player on the championship team. If the Heat win the title, LeBron will probably win this award; Dirk Nowitzki will be a shoo-in if the Mavs win it all. If you had just one Overall MVP award, lots of voters would pick Nowitzki or James in these scenarios. Both finished in the top six of the actual MVP voting to begin with, and both have been so spectacular in the postseason that their combined performance would probably trump that of Dwight Howard and Rose in this mythical voting process. That’s how much relative importance folks would (rightfully) place on post-season play. And we already have an award for that.
To really work, voters would have to be willing to select an MVP whose team fails in the postseason instead of just giving the award to the best player on the title-winning team. LeBron, for instance, was the best player of the 2009 postseason by a long shot, but the Cavaliers lost to the Magic in the conference finals, an outcome considered a huge disappointment. A subset of voters would hold that against James and deny him the Overall MVP he surely deserved.
And what about Howard? His team lost in the first round this season, but he had a monster series (turnover issues aside) and was the runner-up in the actual MVP voting. Would he get the look he deserves in this mythical MVP voting? What about Chris Paul, who finished 13th in the actual MVP voting (a joke, by the way) but emerged as perhaps the MVP of the first round in a losing cause. Would he be a better candidate or a forgotten first-round loser come ballot time? Simply put: The playoffs carry so much weight among the league’s followers that an Overall MVP might sometimes turn into Finals MVP redux.