Why NBA MVP debates about Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, others are useless until we define what ‘valuable’ means

If there is a version of basketball hell, this year’s NBA MVP debate would be a defining feature.

Most are familiar with the Greek myth of Sisyphus — if not by name, at least by story. After cleverly defying death not once, but twice, Sisyphus is sentenced to a burdensome task of pushing a giant boulder up a steep hill. As soon as he gets the huge rock inches from the top, however, it perpetually rolls back down to the starting point, forcing him into a cycle of frustration and futility.

This is the exact course that NBA MVP conversations have followed over the past few months. As soon as one analyst, fan, coach or player seems to be making a strong case for one candidate, someone from the other camp comes along and forcefully shoves the boulder back down the hill, crushing the soul of everyone in its path.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with debate — particularly when it comes to sports. It’s the lifeblood of the institution. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and Devin Booker have been so good this season, that it merits a civil, worthwhile discussion about which player should take home the league’s most coveted and respected individual, regular-season honor.

The problem is, the discussions have been anything from civil, and can hardly be considered worthwhile.

A good debate is like a tennis match, with one excellent point being acknowledged and countered by the other, much to the delight of the crowd. A more apt metaphor for this year’s NBA MVP debate, however, would be one player serving the ball, the other player refusing to return it and instead firing their racket as hard as they can back at the server, shouting obscenities and waving their middle fingers in the air.

While Antetokounmpo, Doncic and Booker all have strong cases, the crux of the debate has centered — pun intended — around Jokic and Embiid for the second straight season. Without getting into too much of the gory detail, a large contingent of Embiid supporters claim that Jokic’s hefty frame is being propped up by top rankings in a swath of advanced stats and analytics that are meaningless or insignificant. Jokic supporters counter that even if you don’t buy into the advanced figures, the reigning MVP has just as strong a case based solely on traditional counting stats, as evidenced by this sarcastic tweet from the Denver Nuggets after Jokic became the first player in NBA history to ever collect 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a single season.

The flames have further been stoked by the fact that Jokic beat out Embiid for MVP last season. It’s even driven Embiid to curiously suggest that missing out for the second-straight season would confirm some sort of bias from the media — who vote on the award — toward him and/or players from Philadelphia.

“If it happens, great,” Embiid said of potentially winning his first MVP. “If it doesn’t, I don’t know what I have to do. I’ll feel like they hate me. I feel like the standard for guys in Philly or for me is different than everyone else.”

This is where we are. Players crying media bias. Fans insulting each other. Red-faced writers pulling out their hair, trying to convince colleagues of their position.

The arguments have distracted us from the truly great basketball that’s taking place on the court, and the thing is — none of it matters. That’s right. It doesn’t matter, because the entire “debate” has ignored one primary and crucial step:

The definition of terms.

Even the most rudimentary lessons on debate require, before the discussion even starts, the answer to a basic question: “What are we talking about?” On page one of a prompt from the National Speech and Debate Association, there it is in big, bold, underlined font: Defining the terms of the debate.

“When we approach a new topic for debate, a good first step is to define the terms of the topic,” it reads. “Without a clear understanding of a topic’s key terms, we will not know what either side needs to prove over the course of the debate in order to win.”

How on Earth can we convince someone else that Nikola Jokic is more valuable than Joel Embiid, if we haven’t even defined what “valuable” means?

It’s like sending 100 art historians to the Louvre and telling them to identify the most valuable painting — their version of the “MVP.” Some might take it literally, coming back with the piece they feel is most expensive. Others would choose the one they felt had the strongest influence on other artists. Some might just pick the one they like the best.  

To some, historically, the NBA MVP has been the best player on the best team. In that case, it’s neither Jokic nor Embiid — it’s Booker.

To some, it’s the player who’s done the most with the least. In that case, you can make a strong argument for Jokic, who’s led his team to a near-.600 winning percentage with the Nuggets’ second- and third-best players sidelined for essentially the entire season due to injury.

To some, it’s the most dominant player on both sides of the ball. In that case, the award might go to Embiid, who leads the NBA in scoring while remaining one of the league’s most intimidatingly stingy rim protectors.

The term “valuable” has such broad, varying definitions that it’s impossible to come to a consensus on what the word even means, let alone who deserves to win the award. If we simply handed out “Best Player,” much like the Oscars do with “Best Picture,” at least we would have some common ground. It would also be much more predictable, as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry or Giannis Antetokounmpo probably would have taken home the honor in each of the past 15 seasons.

The variance that “most valuable” presents leads to the type of sports debate we all crave, but before we can have anything resembling a productive discussion, we have to define the terms — preferably to the person you’re debating, but, at the very least, to yourself. Before you scream from the mountaintops that Joel Embiid is the MVP of the NBA, tell us what you think “most valuable” means. It could avoid a lot of confusion and save everyone hours, days, weeks of frustration and anger.

If you don’t define your terms, you’re simply pushing a 7-foot boulder up a steep hill, waiting for someone else to push it back down.


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