In Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, he includes a chapter entitled “Most Valuable Chapter”. In it he speculates about who the most dominant players were in every era in NBA history (what he calls “Alpha Dogs”). Part of this analysis includes an evaluation of whether or not particular NBA MVP awards were justified.
One of the awards Simmons calls into question is Bill Walton’s 1978 MVP award. Walton’s 1978 MVP award falls into the subset of awards Simmons labels “Fishy But Ultimately Okay”.
The Brief Age of the Mountain Man
Simmons does not question Walton’s dominance in 1978 nor his dominance over a small window of time surrounding 1978, but rather Simmons calls Walton’s award into question because Walton only played 1929 minutes. Simmons writes that “its hard to imagine anyone qualifying for MVP after missing 24 games”. (see, The Book of Basketball, page 234)
Simmons then argues the case for and against Walton, and compares Walton’s 1978 credentials to the credentials of the MVP runner-up candidates from that season. Ultimately Simmons concludes that while he would be cautious about granting an award to a part-time player, none of the runners-up presented strong enough claims to call Walton’s choice into question.
The 1977-78 NBA MVP Race using Win Contribution Index
It so happens that last summer I did Win Charts for every 1977-78 NBA team. As part of every Win Chart I do, I always calculate every players “Win Contribution Index”. (Please refer to the “Win Charts” page for explanation).
WCI is tailor made for “player value” issues like the one that arose in the 1977-78 MVP Race. That’s because WCI melds each player’s performance level, wins produced, and minutes played into one single numerical expression of the player’s overall value to his team.
The Index comes in handy in 1977-78 because in that season the NBA’s two best “performers” (by Player Win Average) were centers Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Yet neither led the NBA in “Win Credits” because each was limited by injury. (as you will see, the Win Credit champions were Bucks rookie Marques Johnson and George Gervin of the Spurs).
Yet each of the two big men still played pretty substantial minutes and played those minutes at a high level, so each must be considered for MVP.
But how to weigh each player’s relative value? Enter WCI.
Kareem a bit more valuable than Walton
If you look at the chart you will see that Kareem barely edges out Bill Walton for overall WCI value. While Walton was the more productive statistically, Kareem’s extra 300 plus minutes of action allowed him to make a higher positive impact on the Lakers than Walton made on the Blazers.
Does that mean Walton did not deserve the MVP? No. The value margin is so close either player is a worthy choice.
And from a practical standpoint, Kareem never really had a chance. First, his team won only 45 games. Voters hate that. Second, there’s an unwritten rule that a player who wins the award must have had a better season than his last season. Kareem’s numbers were down from the season previous. Finally, Kareem won no friends when he sucker punched the rookie Kent Benson early in the season.
The ROY scandal of 1977-78
The true scandal of 1977-78 was the Rookie of the Year award. The winner, SG Walter Davis of the Phoenix Suns, had a very nice season. But according to me Milwaukee Bucks PF/SF Marques Johnson had a tremendous season, maybe one of the best rookie campaigns ever. I have him as the third most valuable player in the entire NBA in 1977-78. There is no way he should have been denied the Rookie of the Year.
According to Marginal Win Score, Walter Davis had an MWS48 of +1.73, and he produced 8.5 wins and 1.3 losses for the Suns, with a WCI of +0.227. Those are all outstanding numbers, especially for a rookie.
But they don’t match up to Marques Johnson’s numbers. As the chart shows, Johnson had an MWS48 of +3.36, he produced 12.3 wins and (-1.4) losses, and had a WCI of +0.469. In short, all of his production numbers were superior to Davis.
Even Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares system, a system that tends to undervalue possession creation (which was Marques Johnson’s strong suit in 1978), has Johnson as the more productive player. By Win Shares, Johnson produced 10.6 wins in 1977-78 while Walter Davis produced 10.1 wins.
Of course, none of that really matters. Its long been known that one statistic overwhelmingly determines who wins Rookie of the Year: points per game. And in that area Davis was clearly superior. Marques Johnson averaged 19.1 ppg that season while Davis finished with a 24.2 ppg average. (The players think that way as well. According to this famous Sports Illustrated story, Walter Davis won the ROY vote among players in a landslide. Johnson and the Bucks got revenge in the playoffs, making the Suns a first round “See Ya” victim).
Interestingly, neither player ever really fulfilled their rookie promise. Both had nice careers, but when you make the kind of splash that the two of them made in your first season, “nice careers” are a bit of a disappointment. One could argue that both Davis and Johnson never again matched their rookie seasons.
ABA Superstar Infusion
If you notice, the MVP chart provides strong evidence to support Bill Simmons contention that the 1975-76 NBA season, the last season before the ABA merger, was the most watered down season in NBA history.
Of the 10 most valuable players in 1977-78, only 3 were even active NBA members two seasons earlier in 1975-76, and one of them (Bill Walton) spent most of that season on injured reserve.
Meanwhile, 6 of the 10 most valuable players were active ABA members in 1975-76. Does that mean the ABA had more talent than the NBA? No, I don’t think so. I think the ABA talent pool was extremely top heavy. If you look at the production numbers for ABA players in the season after the merger, you will notice that those numbers almost uniformly shrank by right around 20%. (If you look at the pythagorean wins for the Spurs and Pacers, you find the exact same thing. Denver actually did better in their first NBA season, but I would argue that was because they enjoyed the greatest home court advantage in history. The Nuggets won 36 of 41 at home that season, but were well below .500% on the road. If you normalize their home numbers, you get the same 20% reduction in wins you get with the Spurs and Pacers).