NBA Math’s Rolling Player Ratings are by no means perfect, as is to be expected from a metric based on a schedule-adjusted version of Game Score. They undervalue defensive contributions, only give credit for work that shows up in the box score, and can sometimes favor players who rack up meaningless numbers in garbage-time situations. Essentially, they’re a measure of who’s best at producing the most glamorous NBA statistics rather than a measure of pure on-court value.
But the same can be said about the yearly MVP competition.
Though the battle for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy ostensibly attempts to reward the league’s “most valuable player,” it often gives more credit to offensive players and narratives that are easy to get behind. It’s not always a perfect indication of who served as the “best” player during any given season.
As it turns out, the Rolling Player Ratings can be a valuable tool for assessing and predicting an award that seems to take on different meanings from year to year.
For each of the 10 seasons prior to the 2022-23 campaign, we’ve looked at five different metrics, four of which are based off RPR:
- True RPR peak (a player’s single-highest RPR score of a season)
- 10-game RPR peak (the average of a player’s 10 highest RPR scores in a season)
- RPR sum (the sum of all a player’s RPR scores in a season)
- RPR average (the average of all a player’s scores in a season).
- Team success (the relevant team’s SRS, or simple rating system, mark for the season; this is done via weighted average if a player has contributed to multiple teams)
The fifth component is a great example of how simplicity matters. This metric, while it does a good job of ballparking a player’s value, is aimed more at award prediction. Ideally, every MVP voter would look at a team’s success only when the relevant player is on the floor. In reality, we know that doesn’t happen — not even close, in fact.
By finding each of those marks for every NBA contributor, calculating the Z-scores to standardize between the numbers, and summing those results, we can arrive at each player’s RPR MVP Score.
Let’s run through those last 10 seasons to see how the metric has fared.
The Actual MVP: Carmelo Anthony’s lone first-place vote was the only thing that kept LeBron James from becoming the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. James and Kevin Durant were the obvious top two candidates for the second consecutive season.
The RPR MVP: LeBron James and Kevin Durant were clearly in a class of their own here, as well, with James nudging ahead.
Biggest Miss: Every player in the RPR MVP top 10 earned MVP votes, so it’s hard to find truly glaring misses. Chris Paul and James Harden were basically reversed from their actual finishes, possibly because the real voting gave more credit to the guard from a team with 11 additional victories.
The Actual MVP: Kevin Durant surged past LeBron James after two straight second-place finishes. He and James were vastly superior to every other candidate.
The RPR MVP: Kevin Durant stood alone, well above the field. In fact, he submitted the top RPR MVP score of the last decade.
Biggest Miss: Voters were hesitant to give Kevin Love much credit while he played for a 40-42 Minnesota Timberwolves outfit that missed the playoffs. RPR MVP showed no such qualms as Love averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists with 65 double-doubles and three triple-doubles in 77 appearances. Conversely, RPR MVP did not treat Joakim Noah – the rare defense-first candidate – nearly as favorably as actual voters.
The Actual MVP: Stephen Curry set three-point records for a Golden State Warriors squad beginning to establish itself as a true powerhouse. He earned 100 first-place votes, while James Harden (25) and LeBron James (five) each sat atop some ballots.
The RPR MVP: This was one of the most heated races of the last decade. James Harden and Stephen Curry were in the top tier, though Harden pulled ahead by a smidge.
Biggest Miss: Was there one? Marc Gasol was the highest MVP finisher not to appear in the RPR MVP standings, but he earned just 0.002 MVP shares. This year was all about the six players who finished top-six in both MVP voting and RPR MVP.
The Actual MVP: Stephen Curry was the first unanimous MVP in NBA history.
The RPR MVP: Stephen Curry stood out here, as well, rising high enough that the gap between him and second-place Russell Westbrook was about as large as the gap between Westbrook and 10th-place Draymond Green.
Biggest Miss: Kawhi Leonard finished second in the actual MVP voting but fell just outside the RPR MVP leaderboard with an 11th-place finish. Defense typically doesn’t get quite as much credit in RPR MVP.
The Actual MVP: Russell Westbrook’s triple-double exploits allowed him to narrowly earn the award over James Harden and — to a lesser extent — Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James.
The RPR MVP: James Harden and Russell Westbrook were clearly the top two finishers, but the order was reversed here as RPR MVP cares not for round-number bias (see: triple-doubles).
Biggest Miss: Kawhi Leonard’s generational defensive talents again created a discrepancy here, though the gap began to narrow as Leonard started asserting himself more as a consistent offensive powerhouse. On the flip side, RPR MVP gave credit to the Golden State tandem of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant rather than pitting them against each other in voters’ minds.
The Actual MVP: Averaging 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, James Harden finally earned the trophy he’d come so close to holding on a number of occasions. LeBron James also received 15 first-place votes, but he and Anthony Davis were battling for the runner-up finish.
The RPR MVP: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and James Harden all finished with scores that might have contended for an RPR MVP title in other seasons, but Harden was in a class of his own during his first of three straight seasons leading the NBA in scoring.
Biggest Miss: Was there one? Damian Lillard finished fourth in the actual voting but was eighth in RPR MVP. Then again, he was clearly in the same tier of the RPR MVP standings as Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kevin Durant.
The Actual MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo earned 78 first-place votes to James Harden’s 23, giving him the honor in one of the closer head-to-head battles in recent history.
The RPR MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden were also the top two finishers, but the latter’s scintillating peak gave him the edge — not by an insubstantial amount, either — during a season that featured nightly highlight deluges from both candidates.
Biggest Miss: Anthony Davis was an obvious MVP candidate before his trade demands, and the subsequent missed action made it readily apparent he wouldn’t be getting any votes. He still did enough in the first half of the season to receive credit in the RPR MVP conversation, but this is one of the most easily explained misses of the decade.
The Actual MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo earned 85 first-place votes to take down LeBron James and the rest of the field en route to his second straight season with the league’s premier individual trophy.
The RPR MVP: James Harden’s Herculean offensive efforts earned him yet another spot atop the RPR MVP leaderboard, though he didn’t outpace Giannis Antetokounmpo by too significant a margin.
Biggest Miss: Of all recent seasons, this one — notably interrupted by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic before a resumption in the Disney bubble — had the most significant misses with James Harden finishing two spots above his actual MVP placement, Damian Lillard surging up the leaderboard, LeBron James falling well down it, and more.
The Actual MVP: Nikola Jokic earned his first MVP in dominant fashion, taking home 91 first-place votes. Stephen Curry had the second-most at five, while Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and (completely inexplicably in what has to be one of the worst MVP votes of all time) Derrick Rose all earned one apiece.
The RPR MVP: Nikola Jokic was again head and shoulders above the pack. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, and Joel Embiid reversed their order but remained in the top four positions.
Biggest Miss: We refuse to count Derrick Rose as a miss considering there was no case whatsoever for him to earn a first-place MVP vote during a season in which he played 50 games split between the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks, even if he was an effective offensive catalyst after landing with the latter squad. Chris Paul was the more significant one, as voters gave him more subjective credit for directing the flow of a great Phoenix Suns offense.
The Actual MVP: Nikola Jokic defended his crown, this time emerging from a three-player tier that also featured Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. His 65 first-place votes proved superior to the 26 earned by Embiid and nine claimed by Antetokounmpo.
The RPR MVP: The same pattern emerged here, just with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid reversed. Nikola Jokic existed on the same top tier as the other leading candidates but was a cut above. Really, you could argue he resided in a tier unto himself.
Biggest Miss: Was having Trae Young a distant sixth or Devin Booker dropping from fourth to eighth really that big of a miss? Considering the frontrunner status of the top three, not particularly.
As shown below, a first-place RPR MVP placement corresponded to 0.8372 MVP award shares over the last decade. Though sixth-place finishes interrupted the downward trend — thanks, 2019-20 LeBron James — the drop-offs occurred as expected:
Reversing the inputs and outputs, MVP placements yielded an even stronger downward trend in RPR MVP scores:
You can also see the RPR MVP score of every player who earned even 0.001 MVP award shares from 2012-13 through 2021-22 below. Some outliers exist along the lower end of the RPR MVP score, but the trend itself is quite clear:
The same is true if we look at MVP finishes vs. RPR MVP score:
Is RPR MVP a perfect predictor of actual award voting? Of course not. No single metric can be considering the subjectivity that goes into determining value and the everchanging unwritten criteria (Are we allowed to vote for non-contenders this year? Do triple-doubles matter? How much do we weigh defense? Is it good or bad to have a superstar teammate shouldering a heavy burden?).
But the trends here are undeniable.
As always, apply context to make the most informed determinations, but don’t dismiss RPR MVP just because you don’t like what it’s telling you.