Since 1985, 28 of the possible 36 NBA’s Most Valuable Player awards have gone to a player on a No. 1 seed in their conference.
Hey, the Utah Jazz are the No. 1 seed in their conference. Do they have a legitimate MVP candidate?
Let’s start here: the Jazz don’t have anyone in the league’s top 15 in points (Donovan Mitchell ranks 16th, with 24 points per game). In the most commonly cited player value metrics, like Win Shares, Value Over Replacement Player and Box Plus-Minus, a Jazz player appears only in the top-10 once: Rudy Gobert, 10th in Win Shares. The Jazz’s success is due to their compilation of players, not an MVP-level leader.
Furthermore, the recent trend this decade has been to reward the player with the more impressive statistics, not necessarily “the best player on the best team.” It is very unlikely that a Jazz player will actually win the award this season.
And yet. There are five slots on the MVP ballot, and there’s a good argument that voters will reward the Jazz’s excellence — if it continues — with someone on that ballot, even if it’s not at the top.
That’s the next big question: who would you choose?
Donovan Mitchell is certainly the Jazz’s highest-profile player. He averages 24 points per game, has the Adidas shoe deal and ranks fourth in the Western Conference guards in All-Star votes — the only Jazzman to appear in the top 10. He’s unquestionably the Jazz’s offensive leader, and even as a younger player, is the most important player voice in the Jazz’s locker room. Over the course of the winning streak, he’s been terrific in multiple facets: scoring, playmaking, rebounding, you name it, he’s done it.
On the other hand, Mitchell’s numbers don’t leap off the page when compared against elite scorer competition. They’re not wildly better than last year’s metrics: Yes, Mitchell is averaging more assists, but he’s getting more turnovers, too.
The eye test shows year-over-year improvement in Mitchell’s game, but voters will want real tangible proof of it on the stat sheet to credit the Jazz’s improvement to the fourth-year guard.
Rudy Gobert is another plausible candidate. He leads Las Vegas’ odds as the most likely player to be named Defensive Player of the Year, which would be the third of his career. He has taken yet another defensive leap this season, getting more blocks per minute than he’s had since his rookie year.
He’s being increasingly recognized for his offensive contributions, too. As former Memphis Grizzlies exec John Hollinger wrote while making an MVP case for the Frenchman, “Gobert is what makes this whole thing work. The threat of his rim runs, combined with his non-stop energy for setting ball screens, is the fulcrum for the entire offense and what makes defending the Jazz so maddening.”
And yet: Gobert averages 13.4 points per game. There have been point guards who have been in the MVP conversation despite low scoring totals — Steve Nash and Jason Kidd are the two examples in the last few decades in the 15 points per game realm — but never anyone like Gobert, who would only make the top 5 due to his defensive contributions.
There’s even a plausible fringe third candidate: Mike Conley. Conley makes this list because he’s the star that stirs the drink: when he’s on the floor, the Jazz outscore opponents by a remarkable 17.7 points per 100 possessions. When he’s off the floor, the league’s best team gets outscored themselves, 2.8 points per 100 possessions. The huge impact on the game makes Conley the league’s plus-minus leader.
Plus, if you’re looking for one reason the Jazz have gone from good to great, it’s Conley’s improvement. Voters love those narratives.
On the other hand, Conley doesn’t have the stats of a league MVP candidate, not even one like Nash and Kidd. With Mitchell and Gobert on the roster, Conley’s a clear third fiddle — even he’d agree.
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps took a straw poll of 100 media members on their top 5 in the MVP race right now. All three of the above Jazzmen garnered votes: Gobert got four, Mitchell two and Conley one. As Bontemps points out, the last team to have three players receive MVP votes in the same season was the 2004-05 Suns, who had Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. That team finished with a 62-20 record.
For what it’s worth, the Jazz don’t much care about this conversation — who gets the lion’s share of the credit isn’t an issue.
“That’s what makes us good, is that it’s hard for people to tell if it comes from one individual or the group,” Gobert said after Thursday’s Jazz practice. “You have a group like that full of guys that, you know, all bring different stuff to the table and make each other better.”
In fact, Gobert suggested that there are upsides to the Jazz’s model of team-building. “It’s harder for people to be able to scout. When you play against a guy that is a clear MVP candidate, the whole defense is going to be focused on him. But when you play against us, you’ve got to worry about the team.”
So, maybe the question of “Who is the Jazz’s MVP candidate?” is a little moot anyway.
“I’ve been here four years and the fans know that we just don’t necessarily get all the credit we deserve, and that’s not just singling out me,” Mitchell said about the MVP race. “If it happens, it happens, you know? I think the biggest thing is winning. Winning takes care of everything.”