Throwback basketball fans might look at the naming of the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala as NBA Finals MVP as a vote for grit over glamour, of sacrifice over self-promotion and, more importantly, the triumph of old-school over new school.
Here was a guy who deferred all season to a lesser role off the bench than he might otherwise be capable … suddenly rising to the occasion when inserted into the starting lineup as a spark that carried Golden State to a six-game victory.
Here was a guy who didn’t finish better than third in any main statistical category (points, rebounds, assists or steals) among all players in the series. Instead, he was being rewarded for his all-around game, his intangible contributions and his work defending the greatest player on the planet, LeBron James.
It’s a compelling piece of a drama-filled finals, even if the naming of the Finals MVP is mostly just a side show.
But while much of the grit narrative holds up, one part of the Iguodala-as-MVP story that needs to be turned around is this: His winning the award isn’t a throwback honor; it’s about as this-generation as it gets.
Let me explain: LeBron was the Most Valuable Player in this series. To suggest otherwise demeans the contributions of a player who took a team decimated by injuries and made this an actual competitive series. He was not efficient, but it’s hard to be efficient when you average 45.8 minutes played per game in a series. He was hoisting an entire roster — an entire state. You try carrying all that on your back and seeing how efficient you are.
What James lacked in efficiency he made up for in every other way. His end six-game averages – 35.6 points 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists – are patently absurd. Give Cleveland any other player on the planet to replace LeBron in that series, and it’s almost certainly over in four games.
But LeBron was not named the MVP because somewhere in the course of our nation’s sporting history, most valuable player voting morphed into most valuable winner – reflecting, I would argue, our society’s emphasis on attaching value to victory.
You lost? Sorry, nice try, but you are not valuable. The winner is valuable.
It didn’t used to be this way, as ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton wrote in a great piece before Game 6 arguing that LeBron should be the series MVP, win or lose. Pelton writes about the history of several other sports, noting:
The very first NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player (Jimmy Hull of Ohio State in 1939) was from the losing team, and between 1953 and 1971 more than half (10 of 19) of all MOPs did not win the title.
But the MOP hasn’t been from a losing team in more than 30 years now. In the pros?
The only big four pro sport with a losing MVP in the past four decades is the NHL, whose Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded to the MVP of the playoffs rather than the Stanley Cup finals specifically. And even in the NHL, losing Conn Smythe winners were much more common in the 1960s and ’70s (three times between 1966 and 1976) than recently (just twice since).
What’s particularly galling about this is that so many of us have come around to the notion, in 2015, that within a team context there is only so much that an individual can control. That’s why traditional baseball stats like the RBI and wins for pitchers have come to have less meaning and why many of us look in all sports for deeper statistics that might help better explain an individual’s true contribution.
LeBron crushes Iguodala in any sane head-to-head comparison. Iguodala was a disaster from the free throw line in the series (10 for 28), and his Game 6 misses almost came back to haunt the Warriors. And the very man who yielded some of those historic numbers to LeBron is the same man lauded for keeping him down.
But really, I’m not trying to diminish Iguodala’s work. Any sane person can also see that his contributions went beyond stats and that he had a tremendous impact on the series (even if Steph Curry going 18 for 33 from three-point range in the final three games after going 7 for 32 in the first three was arguably the greatest turnaround factor).
I’m here to decry the idea that MVPs don’t come from losing teams. LeBron wasn’t any less valuable because he lost with a bunch of role players than he would have been with the exact same numbers in a victory with a better team.
His performance stood on his own merit, and the fact that he didn’t win the award says far more about us than it does about him.