NBA Top 50 – MVP Shares

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Rank Player MVP Shares
1 Michael Jordan* 8.138
2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 6.203
3 Larry Bird* 5.693
4 LeBron James 5.387
5 Magic Johnson* 5.129
6 Bill Russell* 4.827
7 Shaquille O’Neal 4.38
8 Karl Malone* 4.296
9 Wilt Chamberlain* 4.269
10 Tim Duncan 4.261
11 Kobe Bryant 4.206
12 David Robinson* 3.123
13 Moses Malone* 2.873
14 Kevin Garnett 2.753
15 Bob Pettit* 2.628
16 Hakeem Olajuwon* 2.611
17 Oscar Robertson* 2.479
18 Charles Barkley* 2.438
19 Steve Nash 2.429
20 Jerry West* 2.09
21 Kevin Durant 2.019
22 Dirk Nowitzki 1.804
23 Elgin Baylor* 1.659
24 Allen Iverson 1.567
25 Bob McAdoo* 1.494
26 Patrick Ewing* 1.424
27 Chris Paul 1.423
28 Julius Erving* 1.407
29 Dave Cowens* 1.338
30 Dwight Howard 1.249
31 Willis Reed* 1.073
32 Derrick Rose 0.981
33 Alonzo Mourning 0.968
34 Jason Kidd 0.933
35 George Gervin* 0.911
36 Bob Cousy* 0.882
37 Tracy McGrady 0.855
38 Dominique Wilkins* 0.849
39 Gary Payton* 0.823
40 Dwyane Wade 0.793
41 Clyde Drexler* 0.778
42 Scottie Pippen* 0.716
43 Sidney Moncrief 0.695
44 Dolph Schayes* 0.69
45 Wes Unseld* 0.639
46 Bernard King* 0.625
47 Rick Barry* 0.592
48 Chris Webber 0.588
49 Elvin Hayes* 0.571
50 Grant Hill 0.52

A couple days ago, we put together a top 15 list using playoff success as our criteria for consideration and then boiling down using stats, titles, and awards. It was a stilted approach in that I set out to be as inclusive as possible in determining playoff success but then was totalitarian in crediting the awards.

The above list is the top 50 cumulative career percentage of MVP votes received. Essentially the voters have a 1st place, 2nd place, and 3rd place vote every year. If one player were to receive 100% of the 1st place votes, he still would not get all the MVP shares for that year, because the 2nd and 3rd place votes comprise part of the whole. Since the voting is rarely ever that one-sided, generally the actual award winner’s total share leaves a lot for the runners up to add to their total.

What’s nice about measuring with the shares rather than just giving an arbitrary credit for winning the award is that it credits guys who were consistently high in the running but may have lost out to others due to missed games or when two great players starred for the same team and split the vote. Shaq and Kobe are good examples of players who may have got in each other’s way when it came to actually winning the MVP but both consistently received large portions of the vote – they are 7th and 11th respectively even though they each only won a single MVP award.

The other good thing about using voting results as a measure of player greatness is that voters can approach the game from a more nuanced perspective than numbers. If we picked MVP by statistics each year, Wilt would have 10, and Russell would have very few. Something was happening to make voters break the 60s up into some votes for Wilt, some votes for Russell, and enough votes for Oscar to win one year. As I wasn’t around at that time, and heck even the people who were avid fans didn’t have great exposure to all the teams and players, the views of the voters are all the context that we really have to go on to help supplement the raw numbers.

A quick note on the limitations of stats: take a look at Michael Jordan’s season in 1992. His team won 67 games and absolutely dominated the league with a margin of victory of 10.44. Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had their most efficient seasons. Obsessive basketball nerds like Bill Simmons (and me) consider 1992 to be the season where Jordan was at the peak of his basketball ability. It is also his worst statistical season in half a decade. His PER fell 4 points. His TS% dropped by 2.5. His free throw rate dropped by 4%. His ORtg fell by 4 points.

Basically all of his personal efficiency numbers tanked, and his team was better for it. Why? Well I was 13 at the time, and I don’t remember seeing him do anything all that different, but I’d guess it’s because he was giving up some of the isolation plays that led to his drives to the rim for easy scores and free throws in order to run the triangle and keep his teammates involved. Whatever happened, I don’t think MJ fell of a cliff at the age of 28, and his new play style worked to the tune of the best season any team had between the 1987 Lakers and the Bulls again in 1996.

So while Jordan’s box score stats indicated that this was the worst he’d played in half a decade and show a massive drop from 1991, his MVP shares actually went up by 1% from his previous MVP and by over 10% from his first MVP in 1988 (when he had the best season ever by PER standards). Granted, the metrics that I’m referring to didn’t exist back then, and the points, assists, and rebounds were still strong, so maybe that increase in MVP shares isn’t voters capturing nuances of Jordan’s game so much as voters responding to a dip in Barkley’s production and the absence of Magic Johnson. Still this is one subjective record of a player’s impact on his team and on the league that we have access to, and it dates all the way back to the late 1950s.

The weakness of using this measure is that MVP voting is not an exact science by any means. The criteria is ill-defined to the point of being almost useless. How is “value” defined for NBA players? Is it the player who personally accounts for the most wins on his team? If so then the best producer is probably that guy. Is it the player who takes a step back statistically to allow others to flourish? If so it’s probably the best player on the winningest team. It’s a very nebulous concept, and some players seem to get the lion’s share of credit that could be more evenly distributed. Take a look at Karl Malone sitting between Shaq and Wilt on the list. The asterisk next to his name is to indicate that he’s in the hall of fame, but it should be to indicate that 40% of his MVP shares belong to John Stockton, who incredibly does not make this list at all.

I stumbled across this list on Bastketball-Reference.com, and thought it was worth sharing. It’s not a definitive ranking by any means, but it is a good snapshot of how great players have been perceived by award voters over the years and certainly has some merit as a tool to help add some context to the box score numbers.

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