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  • Writer's pictureRicky

MVP mini-manifesto

I’m always fascinated by Most Valuable Player awards because I think they’re a great encapsulation of how we think about value in sports at a moment in time.


For example, in the NBA, the shift from 2001 Iverson to 2018 Harden says a lot about how much more we have come to measure and value efficiency.


The WNBA MVP voting results just dropped and boy were they close:


Player

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

5th

Total Points

Breanna Stewart

20

23

17

0

0

446

Alyssa Thomas

23

12

25

0

0

439

A’ja Wilson

17

25

17

1

0

433

Napheesa Collier

0

0

0

32

13

109

Satou Sabally

0

0

0

8

11

35

Nneka Ogwumike

0

0

0

5

12

27

Chelsea Gray

0

0

1

5

3

23

Jewell Loyd

0

0

0

5

8

23

Jackie Young

0

0

0

3

4

13

Arike Ogunbowale

0

0

0

1

6

9

Aliyah Boston

0

0

0

0

1

1

Sabrina Ionescu

0

0

0

0

1

1

Courtney Vandersloot

0

0

0

0

1

1

So how do we think about value in basketball in 2023? I’m gonna freak out over the numbers for a bit, but I promise there’s a really cool lesson about incommensurability, which I guess I keep writing about. Let’s dig into the top 3 candidates:

Breanna Stewart 34.1 points 13.8 rebounds 5.6 assists 2.2 steals 2.3 blocks 58.5% true shooting plus-minus: +13.0 on-court +11.5 on-off (all stats per 100 possessions) Breanna is a rangy big with great feel and playmaking. Last year, the Liberty were 16-20; this year, they added Stewart and a recently-surging Jonquel Jones to finish 30-7, right at the top of the power rankings. And Breanna is unquestionably the center of everything. Her team dominates with her on the floor and looks pretty pedestrian without her. And she’s seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio, which is a bad stat because it’s unfair to players like her who command so much attention with the ball! But no one I know thinks she’s the best player in the league. That distinction is held by:

A’ja Wilson 36.7 points 15.3 rebounds 2.6 assists 2.2 steals 3.6 blocks 62.7% true shooting plus-minus: +19.0 on-court +16.3 on-off (all stats per 100 possessions) It’s unfair to both players to call her an actualized version of Anthony Davis, but A’ja Wilson is big and powerful and smooth and kinda does everything eighteen feet and in. Like Jokic, she already won the last two MVPs. So this year, she tied a WNBA record with 53 points in a game, and oh yeah, she also won her second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year. (Maybe the voters will tire of giving those to her soon.) Wilson’s team is so loaded with talent that one MVP voter had teammate Chelsea Gray (who I would trust with my life) ahead of A’ja Wilson on their ballot. We’ll get back to that. But first, there’s one more player we should talk about:

Alyssa Thomas 22.0 points 14.0 rebounds 11.2 assists 2.6 steals 0.7 blocks 52.0% true shooting plus-minus: +8.4 on-court +30.2 on-off (all stats per 100 possessions)





With Courtney Williams and Jonquel Jones gone and Brionna Jones tearing her achilles on June 20th, Connecticut has turned into the Alyssa Thomas show. (Though a 36-year-old DeWanna Bonner is honestly lacing it.) And Thomas, a gorgeous passer with a wonky push shot, has stepped up, leading the league in total rebounds and assists, smashing the WNBA record with 6 triple doubles in a season, and posting an on-off rating of +30.2 points per 100 possessions, good enough to carry the Connecticut Sun to a third-place finish at 27-13. Here are three increasingly desperate attempts to contextualize that number:

  1. LeBron’s best on-off rating ever was ‘only’ +21.2. That means he made the 2009 Cavaliers 21.2 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the court versus when he sat. Congrats, that’s 70% of Alyssa Thomas’s scoreboard impact.

  2. The 2016 Golden State Warriors who finished 73-9? They only outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions. The 2012 Charlotte Bobcats who finished 7-75? They were only outscored by 15.2 points per 100 possessions. So the gap between the winningest and losingest NBA teams ever is about 85% of the gap between the Sun with and without Alyssa.

  3. Here’s an even goofier comparison that makes me laugh: If Shaq and Kobe each shot a hundred free throws, Kobe would win by about 31 points.

+30.2 points per 100 possessions is an unreal number. (Seriously, some of it is probably statistical noise.) But what a number.


So who’s the MVP?


It’s clearly Alyssa, right? After all, the goal in basketball is to outscore the other team. So your scoreboard impact seems about as quantitative as value gets. And Alyssa’s was truly historical. Case closed. But even if we only care about scoreboard impact, consider two contexts in which you could add value to a team: Floor-raising involves improving a bad team. Ceiling-raising involves improving a good team. So let’s oversimplify each player’s case with this framework in mind: Alyssa Thomas made a bad team good. (floor-raising) Breanna Stewart made a good team great. (ceiling-raising) A’ja Wilson made a really good team really great. (really ceiling-raising) (As you can tell, I still really believe in the Aces over the Liberty.) So who’s the most valuable? Well, if you value winning championships, then ceiling-raising matters. It’s not realistic in a team game like basketball for one player to floor-raise a bad team all the way to championship heights. So if you only care about winning at the highest level, it’s ceiling-raising that counts. But of course, we also value the heroics of tremendous floor-raising. And let’s just grant that Alyssa Thomas was the most valuable player to her particular team. After all, she registered the most scoreboard impact, albeit on a squad that had a ton of room to improve. But improving a really good team requires that you fit with and complement the other high-end talent around you. And that’s tough! Here’s an extreme thought experiment: A player who could score at league average efficiency every single play could give even the worst team an average offense by just taking every shot. But how much would they improve an already great offensive team? So floor-raising and ceiling-raising can come apart. And then the question is: How do we compare them? It’s amazing that even within a seemingly quantified value (scoreboard impact) there are still distinct strands of contextual value (floor-raising and ceiling-raising) that we have to figure out how to evaluate against one another. Okay, I’ll come clean: Just like I thought Jokic should have been MVP, my pick was A’ja. But she disappointed compared to unrealistically high expectations, and the Liberty came on strong towards the end of the season with a few convincing head-to-head wins over the Aces. When Jeff Van Gundy mused during an NBA game that the defending champion Las Vegas Aces might not lose a game all year, he was doing them a bit dirty. (If you remember, he thought the 2011 Miami Heat would go *at least* 73-9 after adding LeBron and Bosh; they infamously started 9-8 and finished 58-24 overall.) But expectations for the Aces were sky-high for a reason, and they basically reached that, leading the league in Offensive Rating (113.0 points scored per 100 possessions) and Defensive Rating (97.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) and finishing 34-6, with the most wins ever. (But shoutout to the 1998 Houston Comets who went 27-3.) Alysha Clark won Sixth Player of the Year off the bench. Kelsey Plum was an All-Star. Both Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray (who I would trust with my life) earned MVP votes. And oh yeah, they added Candace Parker, even though she’s been out with a fractured foot since July. And A’ja still made such an awesome team way better. So how did Breanna win?

She's a great player, I'm just curious.

What’s really interesting is that the MVP voting process commensurates everyone’s individual rankings. Your first-place vote awards 10 points, your second-place vote 7, third 5, fourth 3, and fifth 1. And so does mine. So by weighting and aggregating everyone’s votes, Democracy in Action spits out the result that Breanna Stewart was the most valuable player, by a tiny margin. But that process doesn’t necessarily reflect the results of any coherent theory of value in basketball! If you care about floor-raising, go with Alyssa. If you care about ceiling-raising, go with A’ja. But I do think it’s a bit harder to argue that a vote for Breanna effectively splits the difference. And weirdly, the voters kind of agreed. Alyssa Thomas got the most first-place votes, and A’ja got the most votes for second place. But by just smushing everyone’s rankings together according to a single underlying scoring system, we ended up handing out the award in a way that feels like (and reflects) a mixture of voter fatigue and recency bias and mathematical compromise that fails to totally honor our deeply incommensurable underlying values. MVPs are really weird. (Just wait til I do my writeup of SlamBall MVP Gage Smith.)

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