As the NBA season winds down, sportswriters across the country are trying to figure out who they want to vote for as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. If you ask any knowledgeable basketball fan about this year’s MVP race, you will probably get a top-four list like this (in alphabetical order): Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Derrick Rose. The community is in general agreement with the above players. But once you ask people about why they support a particular MVP candidate, the question inevitably comes up about what the meaning of the award is. And there are as many meanings as there are people who want Republican Gov. Rick Snyder not to speak at commencement.

One of the common ways that people like to define the MVP is by using this question: “Which player, if subtracted from his team, would cause his team to suffer the most?” In other words, who is the most valuable to his team? This seems to be logical. After all, the award has the phrase “most valuable” in it. This year, if you were to answer that question, the player would probably be either Dirk Nowitzki or Derrick Rose. For Nowitzki, there is actually some empirical data to base the answer off because his Mavericks have stumbled to a 2-7 record in games where he is injured, but are playing 47-14 (77 percent) ball with him. His presence apparently makes a huge difference. Rose is also a possible answer, probably because he meets the proverbial “eye test.” He creates countless open shots for his teammates and scores at will — especially with his improved three-point shot.

But the above way of defining the MVP has a catch. If you take the phrase “most valuable” literally, then the award should be available to players on teams with bad records. A great player, if stuck with bad teammates, will be assigned greater responsibilities every game and therefore be more valuable to his team than a great player who has good teammates and therefore less responsibility. For example, Tracy McGrady’s Orlando Magic teams in the early part of the decade would have been atrocious without him. However, an unwritten rule exists in the league that the MVP award must go to a player on a 50-win team — it has never happened any other way. The Magic never won 50 games and McGrady never got an MVP award, even though he regularly performed superhumanly for them.

Other people like to use a more basic question: “Who is the best player this season?” This definition works because the best player in the league should, theoretically, provide the most “value” to any team he plays for. This year, and for many years past, the one player who could instantly make a team into a contender is LeBron James. And in the end, isn’t this question the one people would rather have answered, instead of the really abstract question posed earlier in the column? LeBron is the NBA’s best player, as evidenced by his all-around statistical greatness and league-leading Player Efficiency Rating. He also aces the proverbial “eye test.”

Well, LeBron certainly has the numbers to prove his case to the MVP voters. But statistics tend to be offense-oriented because offense is easier to quantify. LeBron, of course, is a very good defender, but think about Steve Nash — a two-time MVP — who is not known for his defense. The NBA has an age-old mantra that “defense wins championships.” Logically then, shouldn’t the best defenders be the MVPs since they do the things that are most conducive to winning championships? I am willing to bet that if someone came up with an All-Offensive Team, it would bear more resemblance to the MVP candidate list than the All-Defensive Team does.

If defense is weighed more heavily in the voting, Dwight Howard should run away with the MVP. The Defensive Player of the Year award has been his for consecutive years and will be his for many years. However, he only seriously got in the MVP discussion when his offensive game also improved to elite status.

The MVP award sparks provocative debate, and these kinds of debates make sports great. But if we want to debate, we need to come up with comprehensive definitions and stick to them because basketball legacies are at stake. Otherwise, MVP might mean Major Voting Problems.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu.

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