Last week, the NBA unveiled two new postseason awards: the Larry Bird Eastern Conference Finals MVP and Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP. The Association took a page from MLB’s playbook, which has been handing out League Championship Series MVP awards for over four decades.
My theory why the NBA introduced the new awards: sports betting. Commissioner Adam Silver has embraced betting unlike his predecessor, David Stern, who actually supported the federal ban in the 1990s. These new awards mean a couple of more things people can bet on. It’s all about business for the NBA. But whether you’re hyped for these new trophies or think they’re completely unnecessary, one thing is sure: the NBA blew an opportunity to do something original.
Here’s what I wish the NBA had done: hand out conference MVP awards that encompass the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Finals MVP is already an institution, so you can’t really tinker with introducing an MVP award for the entire postseason like the NHL’s Conn Smythe Trophy. But the league had a golden opportunity to cover every other playoff series outside the Finals, and it copped out by ripping off the MLB.
It’s just nonsensical to introduce these new awards exclusively for the conference finals while ignoring the previous rounds. A sidekick can get hot any series, but the main guy who brings it every series deserves more recognition. Here’s an example: Khris Middleton would’ve won the Larry Bird ECF MVP last year because Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the last two games, but Giannis was unquestionably the most crucial player for the Bucks winning the East. Besides, sometimes the conference finals isn’t even better than the conference semis (see last year’s Bucks-Nets).
To correct Adam Silver & Co.’s folly, I’m creating these imaginary Conference Playoffs MVP awards covering every round of the postseason so far. Here are the leading candidates for each conference:
Eastern Conference Playoffs MVP
1. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Stats: 29.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists
Playoff Rondo used to be a thing a couple of years ago, but what about Playoff Jimmy? His career postseason points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and true shooting percentage are all higher than his regular season averages. This postseason, Jimmy Buckets is averaging 8.4 more points, 1.8 more rebounds, and 1.0 more stocks, while boosting his accuracy from the field and from deep by 5.5 and 11.5 percentage points respectively, compared to the regular season. How impressive are those numbers? Dallas’s starting center, Dwight Powell, is averaging 3.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 0.6 stocks this playoffs!
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Stats: 28.3 points, 6.1 assists, 5.8 rebounds
Tatum has had big playoff moments since posterizing LeBron James as a rookie in Game 7 of the 2018 ECF. He dominated his first-round matchup against Kevin Durant and had that big 46-point Game 6 on a road elimination game against Giannis and the defending champs. While his scoring numbers are impressive, his willingness to share the rock has been an underrated part of the Celtics’ postseason run. Tatum is averaging 1.7 more assists than his regular season average. It’s a sign of maturity for the 24-year-old All-Star, who dished out eight assists in the Game 7 closeout against Milwaukee while only taking 14 shots.
Western Conference Playoffs MVP
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Stats: 30.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists
With Giannis and Nikola Jokic both taking early vacations, Doncic carries the title of “best player still playing.” He has claimed the biggest scalp in the playoffs, the 64-win juggernaut Phoenix Suns. He plays for a 4th seed that doesn’t have any other All-Star, yet he still manages to put up ridiculous numbers despite opposing coaches being able to concentrate their defenses almost exclusively on him. He doesn’t look fatigued at the end of games, which had been the biggest knock on him in previous years. Forget “Luka Magic”; it’s “Luka Legend” because he’s on his way to becoming one.
2. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
Stats: 26.4 points, 5.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds
The two-time MVP is the best player on the team with the best championship odds. He still doesn’t have a signature game this postseason, partly because everybody else has stepped up for the Warriors. Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole have had big scoring games and Draymond Green does everything else, but make no mistake that this is still Curry’s team. His identity is imprinted on everything the Dubs do and his willingness to come off the bench at the start of the first round set the tone for this team’s return to the WCF for the first time in three years.