Nylon Calculus: What if each conference had its own MVP?

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10: LeBron James (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10: LeBron James (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

It’s October — the last remnant of summer-firework smoke has cleared, carried off by the cool winds of autumn; and, with it went the final innings of Major League Baseball’s regular season. Now, as the MLB playoffs begin, baseball writers have end-of-season awards on the brain. According to a recent MLB.com poll, Mookie Betts is likely to be the American League MVP and Christian Yelich is the odds-on-favorite to win the National League prize. But, wait! Don’t leave…I promise this story will have nothing to do with baseball.

It just made me think, that’s all.

What if the NBA awards were set up like the MLB awards? What if each conference had its own MVP? Who would have been the biggest beneficiary of that award system? Which player’s legacy would have been most improved? And who will be this year’s conference MVPs?

The NBA initiated its two-conference format at the beginning of the 1970-71 season and, since then, 48 league-wide MVPs have been honored from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1971) to James Harden (2018). If we assume that our hypothetical conference-specific MVP voting would have played out with the same rank-order as the actual, historic MVP voting, we can retroactively assign winners of the Eastern  and Western Conference MVP Awards over that span of time:

Despite all of their successes, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were each able to win only a single league MVP award. But, in the two-MVP system, Shaq would have book-ended his Western Conference MVP in 2000 (his actual league MVP) with a pair of Eastern Conference awards in 1995 (with Orlando) and in 2005 (with Miami). Likewise, Kobe would have added two Western Conference MVPs in 2009 and 2011 to go along with his actual league MVP in 2008.

Similarly, instead of being a one-time MVP, Kevin Durant could have won four Western Conference MVPs in five seasons with Oklahoma City (2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014). Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already won pretty much every MVP award available, but he would have won three more (in 1973, 1979, and 1981) with a dual-MVP setup. Likewise, Michael Jordan hardly needs to polish the shine on his hardware; but we could turn his five patinaed league-MVP awards into NINE dazzling Eastern Conference MVPs (and undo the consequences of some egregious voter fatigue along the way).

Still, the two biggest career facelifts would belong to a couple of L.A. stars: Magic Johnson and LeBron James. During the 80s, Magic had to share the league’s MVP accolades with his biggest rivals: Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Moses Malone. However, Magic would have won an impressive nine-straight Western Conference MVPs from 1983 to 1991.

When it comes to dominating, though, nobody has ever owned an NBA conference quite like LeBron James has just got done owning the East. Over the course of the past 13 seasons, from 2006 to 2018, James would have collected 11 Eastern Conference MVPs, with only three players surpassing any of his single-season MVP shares in the East during that stretch: Kevin Garnett (2008), Derrick Rose (2011), and Dwight Howard (2011).

And, obviously, it’s been more than just regular-season success for LeBron. During his recent run of seven-straight Eastern Conference MVPs (from 2012-2018), he’s lapped several of his competitors — Isaiah Thomas in 2017 (second in EC-MVP voting), Kyle Lowry in 2016 (second), Paul George in 2014 (fourth), and Rajon Rondo in 2012 (third) — by beating them first in the MVP race and then again in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Of course, James is off to the Western Conference, now, and his new landscape will be cluttered with MVP candidates: Curry and Durant in Golden State; Harden and Paul in Houston; Westbrook, Davis, Lillard…the list goes on and on.

And he’s leaving behind a void in the East. Who will be the next Eastern Conference MVP? The first, next MVP in seven years?

Well, we can find a few worthy candidates in the 2018 MVP ballots — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Victor Oladipo all received some votes out of the East, last year. Veterans John Wall (2017) and Kyle Lowry (2016) have received some MVP votes recently, too. Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum could be future conference MVPs, someday; but probably not next year. And, rounding out the field, Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Blake Griffin, and Kristaps Porzingis all have a puncher’s chance to win as well, at least according to Vegas.

Next. Meet the 2018 NBA 25-under-25. dark

But — it’s new Eastern Conference resident, Kawhi Leonard, who has by far the most-impressive MVP pedigree. He earned more than 40 percent of the league MVP share when healthy in 2016 and 2017, a bigger chunk than any other potential Eastern Conference candidate has ever earned.

He’s definitely my pick to be the next Eastern Conference MVP, even if that’s not really a thing.