May 13, 2010

The Curse of MVP

The most cherished individual accolade in the NBA consciousness is the Most Valuable Player (MVP) - more than All Star game appearances, more than All Star game MVPs, and perhaps more than the Finals MVP. Look at the list of former MVPs (and many, present and future Hall of Famers), and you will realise how much on an effect their performances for the given season have on the history of the NBA - Bob Petit, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and LeBron James - just to name the ones who have won the award more than once.

Every year, the MVPs are discussed, argued, and the meaning of 'valuable' itself faces heated debates from across the basketball-speaking world. Is the best statistical player the most valuable? Is the best team player the most valuable? What about the best player on the best team? Or the one player whose absence in the team would make the biggest difference on the team's success?

My own definition of "valuable" in this sense is the one player whose absense would make the biggest difference in the entire standing of the league.

But here is the twist in the tale: the MVP award is given only for a player's performance during the course of the regular season, not the playoffs, and of course, not the Finals. That means, in today's NBA, the most valuable player over a maximum of the 82 regular season games that each team plays. Playoff/Championship success be damned.

Let's take a look at the list of NBA MVPs over 10 years, from the 1999-2000 to the 2008-2009 season. I've added the names of their team in brackets - next to the names are the names of the teams that actually won the NBA title that year.

1999–00 MVP: Shaquille O'Neal (Los Angeles Lakers) Champion: Los Angeles Lakers
2000–01: MVP: Allen Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers) Champion: Los Angeles Lakers
2001–02: MVP: Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs) Champion: Los Angeles Lakers
2002–03: MVP: Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs) Champion: San Antonio Spurs
2003–04: MVP: Kevin Garnett (Minnesota Timberwolves) Champion: Detroit Pistons
2004–05: MVP: Steve Nash (Phoenix Suns) Champion: San Antonio Spurs
2005–06: MVP: Steve Nash (Phoenix Suns) Champion: Miami Heat
2006–07: MVP: Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks) Champion: San Antonio Spurs
2007–08: MVP: Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers) Champion: Boston Celtics
2009-09: MVP: LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers) Champion: Los Angeles Lakers

Look at that list again - only in two seasons has the NBA MVP also lifted the Championship trophy - Shaq in 2000 and Duncan and 2003 - and the feat hasn't been repeated in the past six seasons. Now, there are two honourable mentions here, since Allen Iverson (2001) and Kobe Bryant (2008) led their respective squads all the way to the NBA Finals before losing it. Kobe did redeem himself and win a ring the following year. Most of the other MVPs didn't perform too shabbily (with the exception of Nowitzki and the Mavericks epic first round fail in 2007), but you get the picture - for some reason, in the 2000s, the MVPs of the year have rarely been champions.

Compare it to a decade before, where five of the 10 MVPs became champion, although four of those credits go to this guy called Michael Jordan (you may have heard of him!), who played six full seasons in the 90s, won MVP in four of them, and was NBA champion in all six.

So, is there a recent curse associated with the MVP award? LeBron James, deservedly, was voted almost unanimously as this year's Most Valuable Player, repeating last season's feat. But he also seems to be repeating last season's postseason failure. The Cavs were beaten by the Magic in last season's Conference Finals, and have been thoroughly dominated by the Celtics in the 2nd round so far this year. The Celtics have a 3-2 advantage, after winning Game 5 by a whopping 32 points, and holding LeBron to what was one of his worst games ever.

I think of the regular season and the playoffs as two different stages of the same game. Kind of like Super Mario Bros., where Mario can jump around in Level 1-1, easily squashing mushrooms and collecting coins, but has to step up his game when he has to battle Bowser at the end of World 8. And Princess Peach is the Larry O'Brien trophy.

Okay, okay, so I got sidetracked by a decade of childhood gloriously wasted on Nintendo. But anyways, you get the point. The playoffs are tougher, more gruesome, more physically challenging, and our hero faces more evil guys more often. MVPs like Iverson, Nash, Nowitzki, and LeBron who haven't won a championship, still have to conquer these demons to see the bright championship light, thus conquering their trophy/princess.

The Cavs have been the best team in the league the last two seasons, and LeBron has been their best player. He has pretty much been the best statistical player in the league for this period, too, and the one with the highest trade value, and the best team player, the one whose absense would have the most drastic affect on his team and the entire league.

And yet, here are the Cavs and their King, barely surviving against the dominant Celts. I read an amazing article on LeBron today, written by Adrian Wojnarowski, who complained that he has spent too much of his energy and motivation promoting himself as a basketball icon than a basketball winner. The regular season disagrees with this statement, but the championship counter doesn't lie.

LeBron has two more games to win to get past the Celtic stage, and then two more series to win to get to his Princess Peach. Can he survive the MVP curse?

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