The Heisman Trophy was just awarded in College Football. It’s widely considered to be one of the best trophies in all of sports- from the iconic pose of the trophy, the pageantry behind the ceremony and its prestigious award-winners, and the campaigning that collegiate athletes put on for it by having their “Heisman moment” and imitating the trophy on the field.
While it’s the trophy of the season that identifies the best individual season, it by no means gives it out to the “best” player (think about some of the award-winners and how they’re doing now post-Heisman… cough Baker Mayfield, Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel..). There have been consensus number one picks like Trevor Lawrence or Andrew Luck that went down empty-handed from the award because that particular season was not about them- they had a dud or an injury or a hiccup in their team’s success. That doesn’t define their value to the team, but the merit of the award is to whom the season is about; that’s what makes the “Heisman moment” so special.
In 2017, Russell Westbrook won the MVP Award by becoming the second-person ever in NBA history to average a triple-double at 30.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists. Skeptics will tell you that all of those were empty and inefficient stats on a Thunder team that finished with a first round exit as the 6th seed and those numbers weren’t “valuable” at all as they didn’t contribute to winning or team success. How could you possibly be the best player with a style of play that’s ball-dominant, inefficient, and detrimental to the development of the rest of the roster?
It’s easy to pile on Westbrook’s MVP season in hindsight now that he’s become the black sheep of this 2022 Lakers team long past the days of where he had the burst that he had and triple-doubles have become much more common throughout the league with the advancement of versatility and scoring.
However, in 2017, the story WAS Russell Westbrook. The triple-double streak was a phenomenon that dominated every daily NBA sports show as he flew through the air to shove a teammate out of the way to grab that last rebound. This was also the 2017 “revenge” season in which we embraced his tenacity in wanting to do it all after Kevin Durant bailed on playing with him in that small market to join the 73-win Warriors. We praised Westbrook for “embracing adversity” and taking on that sort of stat-padded burden without his star teammate on a roster with Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson. Who could forget the infamous return game to Oklahoma City for Durant that featured hundreds of Thunder fans dressed up as actual cupcakes?
No, he may have not been the most “valuable” player that year, but the 2017 season was Westbrook’s, and he was worthy of winning the award if it was told the same way that the Heisman Trophy was awarded. Throughout sports, there is a recurring issue with how we define the word “value.” Is it the best player in the sport? Is it who provides the most to winning with the least amount of support? Is it who puts up the greatest statistical production in the season from end-to-end?
The Heisman Trophy presentation isn’t unflawed- there are probably years where an unworthy winner has won, and it has also become a quarterback-centric award given their importance to the position. However, it’s given without the controversy of trying to define the term “valuable” and focuses more on telling the story of the season.
The NBA MVP has become a narrative-based award and needs to admit it. Last season, there wasn’t as much of an individual storyline that was the superior narrative as much as it was Nikola Jokic absolutely continued to do absurd Nikola Jokic things for the second year in a row with a roster that was more depleted, and with his build and play style, it’s something no one has ever seen before. He went from averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists to becoming the first player ever to score 2,000 points, have 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists in a single season. There wasn’t any Russell Westbrook “revenge” tale to be told, it was just continuous dominance as he kept the Nuggets afloat in the absence of Jamal Murray. However, going forward, there is absolutely no chance for Jokic to win a third MVP now with factors such as the human element of “voter fatigue” and the need for a narrative. If Jokic continues to be the most valuable contributor to his roster with his steady numbers and contributions to winning, we shouldn’t pretend that someone else that
merely goes up a level or exudes that revenge.
“Valuable” has become so subjective in all of sports, especially when the makeup of successful teams require different levels of individual contributions in their systems. So far, the story of the season so far is how successful the Boston Celtics have been as a team as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been the best one-two punch in the league. Tatum has been the established #1, going up even another level to make Boston the unanimous best team in the NBA, but won’t put up the same gaudy levels that someone like Luka Doncic will when Doncic has arguably the least amount of support around him as a superstar and giving him an ungodly-level of usage rate. Is that fair to Tatum for the voters that will just look at a box score and see the numbers, unable to see that Boston has been the story of the year? Absolutely not.
Avoiding the definition of “valuable” and just telling the voters to answer the eye test question of who the best individual story of the year was that defined success will avoid the gray area. That’s what one would hope the goal was yesterday when they announced that the award is now going to be the MJ Award. It needs to be as ceremonious as possible that tells the story.