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Baseline Awards: Introducing the NBA MVP Trifecta

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Three guys who could have won the Trifecta. (Getty Images)
Three guys who could have won the Trifecta. (Getty Images)

The gist: The MVP award has a lot of value in being vague and generic, but it also fails to accurately present the truly most valuable players, and too often skews toward a specific mold of player. To make the award more accurate, and to generate a little more money and interest, I propose we split the award into three awards: Raise the Defensive Player of the Year Award to prominence, and create the Offensive Player of the Year Award and a Most Impactful Player Award.

Only if a player were to win all three awards would he be considered Most Valuable. In doing so, we would recognize the very best while giving all voters and fans the ability to defend the player they advocate for based on their abilities. And the NBA makes a little extra money in sponsorships.

That's the short end of it. Here's the long end of it.

The MVP award is not broken. That's the first thing we need to say. If you're an advocate of the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, and I usually am, then nothing needs to change with the MVP process. The Most Valuable Player award usually results in the election of the player who has had the best overall season. In the instances where it does not, it's still a win for the NBA because of the controversy.

The award itself is purposefully ambiguous. Voters can vote based on the player's value to their team, their value in terms of overall quality, in terms of having contributed the most to the most number of wins (the "best player on the best team" postulate), any number of approaches to decide who gets their selection.

This gives the voters freedom, but more importantly, it spurs debate. That's the big upside for the NBA. Every time a debate breaks out about who the award goes to, how the award is decided, who should vote, whether the vote is good or bad, past winners and losers, any time it gets any attention at all, the NBA wins. The award has successfully penetrated the social consciousness, and that has a world of value.

So in a lot ways, the MVP award is great.

But it could be better.

The goal with my idea is not to develop a system that answers the question "Who is the most valuable player in the NBA?" to the end of eliminating debate. That's boring. The objective is to give voters a better guideline to adequately assess who the truly best players are in the league during a given season, and provide marks of greatness for the real elements that go into assessing a player.

Let's stop pretending that defense is the paltry element that doesn't really mean anything, when coaches rail on it and everyone loves to say "defense wins championships." Let's stop treating individual, high-volume offense with disdain because we can't see the effect it carries on wins. Let's leave open the ability for voters to reward having that special "it" quality

Now there, are degrees, but in general, you can delineate nearly any parameter by which to judge a player into three categories: offense, defense, and intangibles. Those are the three you hear about all the time, right? Here, I even made you a chart.

I'm sure we're missing some things. But this gives you an idea of where the most important parts of a player's game goes. And you can separate them into those three categories. There are sub-categories, of course.

Field goal percentage, points per minute, points per possession, you can put those under efficiency, but that's still under offense. All the defensive elements like ball-denial, positioning, pick and roll defense which can't be measured by the box score, those would be in a separate category from the overrated box score metrics like blocks and rebounds, but would still be under defense. And leadership could have its own sub-category, but can't be placed outside the intangibles list.

So that's what makes up an NBA player. How do you decide who's the most valuable?

Wouldn't the best way to describe the "most valuable player" and thereby a player who truly deserves the all-time recognition, be to recognize players who you could list as worthy of all three counts?

Would there ever have been such a player?

Maybe. You could realistically make the case for Michael Jordan in 1992, Shaquille O'Neal in 2000, Moses Malone in 1982, Charles Barkley in 1993, Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994 and 1995, Karl Malone in 1997, LeBron James in 2009, 2010, and 2012, and Dwight Howard in 2011, just for starters.

I'm not saying those players definitively would. Most of the players had issues in one of the three categories. That's what makes it so difficult. I'm arguing you could make the case.

And that's what makes it so interesting.

So let's look at the advantages of breaking up the award into what I refer to as "The Trifecta."

Offensive Player of the Year: We talked about this one in detail last month. What ends up happening most of the time is that the best offensive player winds up as Most Valuable. Kobe Bryant has always been an able-bodied-to-great defender (it drifts, year to year). But was his defense good enough to warrant Most Valuable in 2008, or even in the years it was thought he should have won, in 2005 and 2006?

For that matter Steve Nash?

But the Offensive Player of the Year award shouldn't be a lesser award than the other two. Offense is just as important as defense and if you're an intangibles player who can't score, you're a role player (and a limited on at that).

Why not accurately reflect a player's offensive accomplishment? For instance, this season, James Harden won't wind up registering in the top three for MVP, barring a huge upset. But he would certifiably have a spot for him on the Offensive Player of the Year award. Let's reward the great scorers in this league with something that gives true value to their accomplishments without overlooking others' contribution.

If we remove all the other fluff from the conversation, imagine how good a debate about Steve Nash or Kobe Bryant in 2006 would be. Or Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James or Chris Paul this season? You can still work in the questions of "What makes a good offense?" and "How much does efficiency matter?" There's no chance of this running into a statistics competition any more than the current MVP is.

Let's stop pretending offense means most valuable and reward it for what it is. No better, no worse. Its own award.

Defensive Player of the Year Award: This one has been typically known as the following: Best Big Man. Setting aside the questions of what's more difficult, being a great defensive big man or great defensive perimeter player, the award is almost like a consolation prize for the great players in this league.

Not quite good enough at scoring to win MVP? Congrats, you win DPOY! It's a terrible way to go about it. The risk with this new system I'm suggesting is lowering the value of the other awards. But the real crux to making it work is raising the value of the Defensive Player of the Year award. This has to be taken more seriously. Whether that's providing voters with more information, choosing different voting contingents who have time to really get into this stuff, or just changing the thinking through PR outreach of the teams.

The DPOY award needs to be taken seriously, more seriously than it is now. This should no longer be "Guy with most blocks and rebounds." It's got to factor those in, too. They do matter defensively. But it has to factor in how the team defends with him on the floor, how he defends possession to possession in terms of ball denial, fighting through screens, guiding to help, and contesting shots.

There's still room to argue that Serge Ibaka's ability to intimidate the defense with block means he should win, or that Dwight Howard's rebounding dominance controls possessions to a degree worthy of this reward. But let's make it about all elements of defense and let's make sure we're really giving this award the credit it deserves in league that talks about how much defense matters, then fails to really analyze it when it comes to rewarding success.

Let's stop relegating the DPOY to a fringe award, a pat on the head of the biggest dog in the yard, and really start talking about defense in an intelligent way.

Most Impactful Player: Sounds a lot like MVP, right? That's because it is.

I have nicknamed this award "The Derrick Rose Out." In 2011, voters knew that LeBron was still the best player in basketball. If you wanted to judge him on a curve based on the help around him or his clutch help, that's fine. Then you had Dwight Howard. It seems like a lifetime ago, but Dwight Howard was a monster in 2011. Dominant on both sides of the ball.

Was his offense worthy of offensive player of the year? No. But he was so dominant on the other end, it put him into consideration.

However, the voters had another name in mind. It wasn't Derrick Rose's numbers that sold him, nor was it the team success even of the Bulls (though it helped). Most people knew that the Bulls' defensive system was what put them at the top of the East. It wasn't entirely that or entirely Rose, it was both. But more importantly, voters loved the narrative.

Kid from nowhere rises to superstardom, leads Jordan's old team to the top spot in the East, making huge shots along the way and making highlight play after highlight play. It was subjective, like the award. And here's the thing. You need that.

You need to let the voters make this kind of call. You need to give them the out to ignore the nitty-gritty of x's and o's and statistics. You need to give them a chance to vote for that player who they felt made the most impact, even if they don't think the player was good enough to win offensive player or defensive player of the year.

In other words, Most Impactful Player is about contributing to wins and subjective excellence.

You need to let the voters vote with their heart and not with their minds sometimes. Most Impactful Player accomplishes that. And if you want to use it more objectively, Most Impactful can be used in terms of combining usage and plus/minus. Even better, say that in 2006 you wanted to reward Bryant's offensive firepower but felt that Nash made his teammates so much better, he was more valuable.

Bryant wins Offensive Player of the Year, Nash wins Most Impactful. Ben Wallace wins DPOY, and we have an accurate representation of how the season played out.

You can see Bill Russell winning Defensive Player of the Year and Most Impactful but not Offensive Player of the Year. That would go to Wilt, and we have a true representation of the league.

This system isn't perfect, but it's not meant to be.

Is it more complicated? Absolutely. But this is a more complicated time. We have better ways to look at the game, more ways to watch, to analyze, to enjoy the game. Let's not complicate it just to complicate it, but let's make the system better because we can. Let's make Most Valuable Player a level of excellence only touched upon once in a generation. And let's give credit where it's really due.

For giggles, here are my rankings for this season right now.

Offensive Player of the Year:

1. LeBron James, Heat

2. Kevin Durant, Thunder

3. Chris Paul, Clippers

4. Tony Parker, Spurs

5. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies

2. Andre Iguodala, Nuggets

3. Tony Allen, Grizzlies

4. LeBron James, Heat

5. Roy Hibbert, Pacers

Most Impactful Player

1. LeBron James, Heat

2. Kevin Durant, Thunder

3. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks

4. Chris Paul, Clippers

5. Kobe Bryant, Lakers

 
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