In a December interview with Rachel Nichols, Luka Doncic had this to say when asked about winning the MVP award:
“I think I can do it. But that’s not my first goal. Far from it. My goal is always is to win the championship.”
As the second half of the season gets under way, the MVP race is almost as tight as the schedule is. Luka Doncic came into the 2020-21 season as the odds-on favorite (+405, according to sportsbettingdime.com), but now he finds himself outside of the top three candidates for the award. The drop off has come mostly at the hands of the Mavericks’ slow start as a team, because when you look at just his per-game stats (28.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 9.0 APG at the All-Star break), he stacks up with the best in the league.
Every franchise and fan dreams of holding the right to say that their team housed the winner of the coveted MVP award for that season. This is, aside from a bragging point on Twitter, an attempt to believe that their team has a better chance to win the NBA championship, simply because the “Most Valuable Player” plays for them. It’s common to think this way, as it is a logical assumption that if a team has the best player for any given year, they are also more likely to win the Finals. However, history, and particularly recent history, tells a different story. Here is why Luka Doncic winning MVP is not imperative to Dallas returning to the top of the basketball world:
What the records show
Although the fandom of the NBA has become more player-centric in recent years due to factors like player mobility and player marketability, winning, specifically in the postseason, has become increasingly more a team statistic. In the last 20 seasons (since 2000-01), the MVP of the given year has made the Finals six times, and won it only four. In the 20 seasons prior (from 1980-81 to 1999-00), the MVP made the Finals 14 times and won it nine. This drastic difference is the result of a couple factors:
The first is the increase in talent throughout the league.
In 1999-00, 20 players averaged 20-plus points per game. This season, in 2020-21, 40 players have hit that mark before the All-Star break. Hall-of-Fame power forward Kevin Garnett said in an interview with The New York times that he doesn’t think “guys from 20 years ago could play this game.” Not only is the increase in talent visible night-to-night, but former players, like The Big Ticket, who have played in the 90’s and the 2010’s are verbalizing it as well. Guys are taking step-back threes and inventing new dribble moves routinely, things that would have been considered wizardry 20 or 30 years ago. Fred Vanvleet scored 54 points this season and wasn’t drafted in 2016 after he came out of Wichita State. When role players are as good as some Hall-of-Famers from years past, the need for a great team rather than a great player is higher than ever before.
The second is the increase in player mobility.
When LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, he knew he was creating a power shift in the East with title implications. What he didn’t realize was the magnitude with which his decision would affect player empowerment and movement. As we’ve seen with guys like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and even LeBron himself again, players are going to get to where they want to play, even if they have to demand a trade. This new hunger for freedom has spread the league’s increasing number of stars all over the association, making it harder to win on a nightly basis. It is nearly impossible to dominate in the modern era the way, for example, Bill Russell did, because not only is the skill level of players much higher as previously mentioned, but there are more of these players on every team. Recently, postseason domination by a single player has seldom ended in a championship ring.
The implications of winning MVP
Congratulations! You just won MVP. Now, what exactly does this mean?
Well for starters, it probably means you don’t have much help. In the last 20 seasons, the MVP has had an average of 0.85 All-Star teammates, meaning 1.85 All-Stars on the team including the MVP. In fact, eight out of the 20 years, the MVP had zero additional All-Star teammates. During the same time period, the team that won the championship had, on average, 2.1 All-Stars on their team. This is significantly higher than the 1.85 that the MVP’s team had. The only MVP since 2000 to win the championship without an All-Star teammate was Tim Duncan in 2003.
Where could this discrepancy come from? Well, if you won MVP, it most likely means you also made a lot of money that year. Since 2000-01, the MVP’s salary, on average, has been almost 27 percent of the salary cap for any given year. The only years it wasn’t higher than 20 percent were Steve Nash’s back-to-back years (2005: 20 percent, 2006: 19 percent) and Derrick Rose’s year (2011: nine percent). In 2004, Kevin Garnett’s MVP salary was 64(!) percent of the salary cap. When you are paying, on average, over a fourth of available money to one player, it can be hard to allocate funds to build a great team around them. There are outliers (for example, Brooklyn this year), but the majority of the time this sentiment holds true.
Another guarantee is that if you won the award, your usage rate was very high. 13 out of the last 20 MVP’s had top five usage rates for that season, and all but two had a rate higher than 27 percent (Steve Nash, 22.7 in 2006 and 20.1 in 2005), and 11 of them had a rate higher than 30 percent (as high as 40.2 by Russell Westbrook in 2017). It’s hard to carry a burden this heavy and also win at the same time, which is why it hasn’t happened much since the turn of the century.
What this means for Mavericks fans
When Dirk Nowitzki accepted his MVP award in 2007, he wasn’t leaving practice to give his speech, he was leaving his couch at home. The Mavericks were outed in a historic upset that year during the first round, and the “MVP curse” claimed another victim. It is fair to assume that Luka Doncic will win MVP in the near future, but fans who also want the Mavericks to win a championship should be aware of this:
Recent history says that winning MVP has implications that decrease the likelihood of also winning the championship in the same year. Only four have done both in the last 20 seasons (Steph Curry, LeBron James (twice), and Tim Duncan, who are all at least top three at their position all-time), and none have done it in the past five years. Yes, we should push for Luka to win the MVP because it can be a legacy-defining award that adds incredible prestige to a resume. But don’t push too hard. Let the other guys battle it out at the top of the MVP race, let history repeat itself, and watch Luka lead Dallas back to the place the Mavericks went on June 12, 2011.