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Pushing for NBA MVP isn’t the best path to a championship

Chasing the NBA MVP has become a fool’s errand.

Denver Nuggets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

In Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Steph Curry, the first unanimous MVP in NBA history, and reigning 2015 MVP and champion, had a shitty game. He shot 6-of-19 from the field and Golden State was outscored by three points when he was on the floor. The game was an anxious rock fight from the tip, with the Cavs storming back thanks to a Draymond nut shot and subsequent suspension, from 3-1. The Warriors had just set the regular season record for most wins, breaking a record set by Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and had already had a miraculous comeback of their own against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. So, there are many variables to look at when considering why the MVP didn’t get his ring, but it was the beginning of an emergent trend.

In 2017, MVP Russell Westbrook turned in one of the most remarkable, and divisive seasons in NBA history. Following the defection of who was supposed to be the Jordan to his Pippen, Kevin Durant, Westbrook went on a tear, averaging the first triple-double in a season since Oscar Robertson. His team went 47-35, good for sixth in the West, an overachieving but still lackluster win total for an MVP candidate. Still, the voters couldn’t resist the narrative, and gave the award to the player with the best stats. His team fell in the first round, going down meekly 1-4 to former teammate James Harden’s Rockets.

In 2018, it was finally Harden’s turn. The perennial MVP bridesmaid and inventor of the modern, again divisive, heliocentric offense, had an undeniable season. He scored 30 with nearly 9 assists per game, on 36 percent from three. Harden was joined by Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards in league history, and his usage rate actually went up to 36% from 34% the previous year, as he reimagined the limits of what a team could accomplish when one guy has the ball nearly the entirety of every possession for an entire season. The Rockets blew what was probably their best shot at upsetting the Warriors (though 2019 could’ve and probably should’ve been their year as well), blowing a 3-2 Western Conference Finals lead. Harden played admirably in Games 6 and 7, getting 32 points in both, but Chris Paul’s body betrayed him and the Rockets simply didn’t have the horses to compete with the Warriors. Despite the 32 points in Game 7, he shot 15 percent from 3.

Giannis Antetokounmpo won the next two consecutive MVPs, with Mike Budenholzer’s beautiful efficiency machine constructed around him. The Bucks were a regular season juggernaut, winning 60 and 56 games respectively. But they were beaten in the Eastern Finals by the eventual champion Toronto Raptors after winning the first two games of the series, and they were embarrassed the next season by the Heat, who stymied, frustrated, and many thought at the time exposed Giannis in what still, even now, might be Erik Spoelstra’s masterpiece.

Nikola Jokic won the next two. The second season was fairly controversial, as the Nuggets, like Westbrook’s Thunder before him, finished sixth in the West (and another worthy candidate was arguably more important to his more successful team in the Eastern Conference). But Jokic was emerging as an advanced stat monster on a team without its second best player, Jamal Murray, recuperating from a major ACL tear. In 2021, the Nuggets were swept out of the second round by the Suns, and lost to the eventual champion Warriors in the first round of 2022, 1-4.

In 2023, NBA MVP Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers blew a 3-2 lead on the Celtics in the second round, going out sad in seven. Embiid was -27 in a laugher and scored 15 points. The conventional wisdom was that the brilliant big man simply ran out of gas.

The first ever NBA MVP was handed out in 1956 to Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks. There were six teams in the league at the time and I don’t really understand how the playoffs worked that season and refuse to figure it out for this piece. But the next season, MVP Bob Cousy’s Boston Celtics took home a ring. In the ‘60s, the MVP won the championship half the time, largely thanks to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. In the ‘70s, the MVP won the championship twice. In the ‘80s, thanks largely to Larry and Magic (and Moses Malone), the MVP won the championship half the time. Same for the ‘90s, thanks to Jordan with an assist from Hakeem. In the aughts, it happened twice thanks to Duncan and Shaq, and in the 2010s, thanks to LeBron’s Heat and Steph Curry in 2015, the MVP won three rings.

What all this means is as it stands, only thanks to Kareem’s regular season dominance (six MVPs between 1971-1980), and postseason bad luck in the ‘70s with first the Bucks, then the Lakers, followed by a drought in the aughts of the same length (with two confusing MVPs for Nash, and the shadow dynasty of the selfless Spurs perhaps skewing the voting) the current streak of eight consecutive seasons with the MVP not winning the championship is tied with the longest droughts in league history, which it may break next season.

There are aspects of the game now that differentiate this drought from the one we witnessed in the ‘70s, and even the ‘00s. There wasn’t one dominant player during this stretch that couldn’t get it done in the postseason (Or in the case of Duncan’s Spurs, a dominant team with a soft spoken leader voters didn’t perhaps fully appreciate the importance of). There was a succession of them. There was a number of factors you could point to for why this has happened: Injury luck, the borderline unfair dominance of the Durant Warriors who couldn’t justifiably have any one player worthy of MVP, and any number of bad bounces that ended up costing a team their shot, but these questions of circumstance occur every season. What is most interesting about this drought is the idea that perhaps, it has become not a bug, but a feature of the MVP.

In 2021, Giannis was essentially disqualified from winning the MVP, as it is purportedly a regular season award (but history has shown us voters are not immune from considering postseason failure for candidates). Perhaps this was a coincidence, or perhaps, having won the award twice, he made the best decision for his body, and his postseason chances, he played 61 games, a career low, and his usage rate dropped five points from the previous season.

In 2023, as the discourse heated up around whether Jokic should be the first three-time MVP since Larry Bird, he seemingly took himself out of the running. Jokic played a career-low number of games, sat out five of the last seven with the Nuggets comfortably in control of the No. 1 seed, but even before that during the final two months of the season, noticeably took his foot off the gas as the team mailed in a relatively lackluster March, throwing many championship prognosticators off the scent. If the Nuggets can overcome the Heat, as they are heavily favored to do, that creates a remarkable pattern of two players in the last three years who have come off consecutive MVPs to win the ring, but not the award the next season.

The grind of the modern game, the speed, the defensive demands, have never been more intense. Just getting through an NBA season with your health intact has become a distinction, to maintain that streak all the way through the second, even more intense two month season of the playoffs is practically a miracle. This has been accentuated by the three dominant players who have traded off the honor over the past five years all being big men, or players who may benefit more than most from saving their best effort for the postseason, but it also may signal a seachange in what the award represents. Not a distinction for the league’s best player, but a kind of perfect attendance award for players more motivated by an individual distinction, rather than a team championship. The award has always purported itself to be for the regular season, and now that is potentially all it will be, a hollow accolade for best stats.

The message to Philly fans may be — if Philly is comfortably in their seed by early spring — to encourage Embiid to take it easy in March and April, rather than push for a repeat of the award that is becoming a scarlet letter.