A couple of weeks ago, ESPN released the results of a straw poll that showed Nikola Jokic firmly in the lead in this year’s MVP race. Jokic received 90 first place votes and was the only player on all 101 ballots. Although the voters in ESPN’s straw poll are not the same media members that vote on the awards at the end of the season, there’s some overlap.
Some have argued that while Jokic is a deserving frontrunner, there’s something off-putting about using health as the determining factor in awarding the league’s most prestigious honor. After all, LeBron James and Joel Embiid — you can throw James Harden and Kevin Durant in there, as well, if you want — are suddenly on the outside of the race looking in for reasons that are outside of their control.
I think the question that the few remaining Jokic-MVP-holdouts are struggling with is, how much does availability matter when it comes to the MVP race?
Inspired by a query sent to me by Tom Haberstroh of TrueHoop, I thought it would be interesting to look at the availability data on MVP candidates over time. Even though the NBA doesn’t require players to meet a minimum minutes threshold to be considered for an award, I figured voters implicitly might. It turns out, up until this year, availability has never been less relevant in the MVP race.
The chart above shows the percentage of total team minutes played by every player who has received at least one MVP vote since 1980. I’ve also included players who received a fifth place vote or better in ESPN’s most recent straw poll.
I’m using percentage of team minutes played because it allows us to make historical comparisons to seasons of different lengths. Also, percent of team minutes gives us a sense of who was available throughout the season for their team — something that wouldn’t show up if we just used minutes per game.
The first thing that jumps out to me when looking at the chart is that MVP winners and candidates are playing fewer minutes as a percentage of their team minutes than ever before. Part of that downward trend can be explained by the fact that players — especially high-end stars — are taking more games off for load management and nebulous injuries like “general soreness,” but also because everyone is playing fewer minutes in the games they do play. Last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo won the MVP playing only 30 minutes a game.
However, the percentage of team minutes played by MVP candidates is also trending downward because in recent years, the MVP has come from dominant teams that regularly blow out their opponents. Recent MVP winners like Antetokounmpo and Steph Curry were often sitting on the bench by the time the fourth quarter started since they helped provide their team with an insurmountable lead.
This is in part why I think Jokic’s availability is noteworthy and not just a box he checks that others don’t. Unlike Antetokounmpo’s MVP run or Curry’s before his, the Nuggets aren’t often in a position where they have the luxury to rest Jokic at the end of games. According to pbpstats.com, the Nuggets play a larger percentage of their possessions in High or Very High leverage situations than almost any other team.
That said, as playoff seeding becomes more solidified, I’d expect the Nuggets to pull back on Jokic’s minutes down the home stretch, which should result in his minutes as a percentage of team minutes to decrease.
Ultimately, I’m hesitant to frame the MVP race through the lens of durability or availability because it diminishes the on court impact Jokic is having this season. Even before Embiid and James were injured, Jokic had more than a compelling case to win the MVP. But with that said, even if the games played were equal between all the top candidates, I still think Jokic’s availability would matter because the Nuggets have had to lean on him in ways that are atypical for modern MVPs.
Health And Wealth
According to Vegas, the frontrunners for this season’s Coach Of The Year award are Quin Snyder in Utah, Monty Williams in Phoenix, and Tom Thibodeau in New York. The one thing all three coaches have in common is that each of their teams have exceeded expectations. Usually, when we can’t explain why a team is better than we thought they’d be, we assume it must have something to do with the coaching.
I’m skeptical of these assumptions, especially this season. I think the Jazz, Suns, and Knicks are playing better than expected because they’ve been the recipient of good health.
I’ve shown this chart before, but the takeaway is the same: the teams that are exceeding expectations the most have had to use fewer, distinct starting lineups. In other words, the Jazz, Suns, and Knicks have had the good fortune of their best players being available on a more regular basis compared to the rest of the league.
The same is true if you look at it through the lens of the amount of salary that has been injured on a game-by-game basis. The Jazz, Suns, and Knicks haven’t been bit by the injury bug nearly as hard as some other teams.
So while it’s tempting to chalk up the success of these teams to excellent coaching or some other hidden force (inb4 “they know who they are!”), I think a reasonable explanation is that they just got lucky with health. It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that it’s easier to coach a team when the starting lineup isn’t changing every other game.
Most Valuable (Injured) Player
Recently, Ed Kupfer and Ben Falk put out a challenge to data scrapers worldwide to collect and clean the NBA’s daily injury reports.
Ed Kupfer @EdKupferIf somebody wants a project, scrape the data from the NBA injury report PDFs from the last few seasons. Just change the date in the URL. https://t.co/SnKpFXPrRl
These things are an absolute pain in the ass to work with and I spent about ten minutes last Friday trying to clean the data before I gave up. Luckily, Jake Flancer was not as easily discouraged.
Building off of Flancer’s work, I was able to cross-reference how frequently a player appeared on the injury reports with their estimated player impact from Taylor Snarr’s dunksandthrees.com. With that information, I was able to come up with an approximation1 of the cumulative impact of every injury this season. Here are the 15 most impactful injuries from this season based on my analysis2:
For instance, we can see that losing a player like De’Andre Hunter or Thomas Bryant to injury for a lot of games is just as bad, if not worse, than losing a superior player like LeBron James or Anthony Davis for a fewer amount of games. I think that gets lost sometimes because guys like Hunter and Bryant aren’t household names.
Using the formula ((Estimated Wins / Games Played) * Games Out) - h/t Nathan Walker
Only players who have played at least one game in the 2020-21 season are included in this analysis.