MVP Voting and the 65-Game Rule Examined

The NBA’s new 65-game minimum to be eligible for awards has met mixed reviews.  Adam Silver passed the rule to try to encourage meaningful participation in the regular season.  During the All-Star break, Silver posited that the rule had been a success: “I can tell you that the number of games that players have participated in is up this season, and interestingly enough, injuries are actually down.” 

I’m not sure what data Silver is specifically relying on, but it does seem that some older stars are playing more but there have been notable problems.  Specifically, Joel Embiid appeared to have injured himself trying to play through injury based on the pressure to stay eligible for the MVP race.  Also, in a quest to have All-NBA eligibility, Tyrese Haliburton played part-time through injuries, instead of just sitting until he fully recovered from a hamstring pull.  Haliburton didn’t play great during this span and his minutes clock led to some awkward game play (he had to sit in close fourth quarters sometimes).

Still, no rule is without a downside and, arguably, these two instances are worth it for the overall good.  I thought we could review the 65-game minimum and how it would’ve applied in the past MVP races, FAQ style…

Has a player ever won the MVP with fewer than 65 games played?

The only player to win an MVP with fewer than 65 games played in an 82-game season was Bill Walton in 1977-78.  Walton played only 58 games before breaking his foot, which effectively ended the star portion of his career.

For posterity, let’s address whether Walton deserved the MVP that season.  It has been widely assumed that Walton was the runaway winner because Portland was 48-10 when he played and 10-14 without him.  In fact, the vote was pretty close.  Walton beat George Gervin 96 to 80.5 in the voting and SI wrote near the end of the 1977-78 season that “if Bill Walton is not basketball’s MVP, Gervin certainly is.”  But SI did not explain the debate further. 

Let’s take a look at the stats to see how the top candidates, Walton, Gervin, David Thompson, and Kareem compared with each other:

-Walton: 58 games, 33.3 mpg, 18.9 ppg, ,554 ts%, 13.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 2.5 bpg, 24.8 per, .209 ws48, 8.1 bpm, 4.9 vorp

-Kareem: 62 games, 36.5 mpg, 25.8 ppg, .589 ts%, 12.9 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 3.0 bpg, 29.2 per, .257 ws48, 9.3 bpm, 6.5 vorp

-Thompson: 80 games, 37.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .578 ts%, 4.9 rpg, 4.5 apg, 1.2 spg, 1.2 bpg, 23.2 per, .202 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 5.2 vorp

-Gervin: 82 games, 34.8 mpg, 27.2 ppg, .594 ts%, 5.1 rpg, 3.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.3 bpg, 24.7 per, .201 ws48, 4.8 bpm, 4.9 vorp

So, Thompson and Gervin were in a near dead heat but were a notch below the centers in terms of efficiency.  Kareem also missed the two months of the season when he broke his hand on Kent Benson’s face two minutes into the season.  The Lakers were 37-24 with Kareem (we aren’t counting the season opening two-minute cameo) and 8-13 without him.

Kareem accrued more VORP in his 61 games than either of the other candidates and his counting stats and BPM were off the charts.  Walton’s argument rests on the dominance of his team putting him over the top.  Not a crazy argument but it appears, to me, that Abdul-Jabbar was the best player in the NBA and would’ve gotten my vote (though it would be rational to give Kareem demerits for his self-inflicted injury that cost his team dearly).  In either case, the rightful MVP was a guy who played fewer than 65 games.

How would the 65-game rule have affected voting in the before times?

From 1983-84 through 2018-19, 33 players that played fewer than 65 games received MVP votes (we are excluding the two lockout shortened seasons).  Of that group, most received a few stray votes and didn’t place particularly high in the rankings.  Here’s the list:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank
Baron Davis2006-076315

The players with the fewest games played were Jordan and Magic during their brief comebacks but they only received a few token votes.  Four other players finished as high as seventh:

-Chris Webber in 2001-02 played only 54 games but was clearly the Kings’ best player. 

-Bernard King was seventh as well and played a ton of minutes in 1984-85 before a catastrophic knee injury ended his season after 55 games. 

-Chris Paul 2013-14 (62 games) and Joel Embiid 2018-19 (64 games) played a bit more for their seventh-place finishes.

The highest finish of the group was Shaq in 1997-98, who was fourth, despite playing only 60 games.  O’Neal actually got a first-place vote that juiced up his totals but he finished behind MJ and Karl Malone, who were quite clearly better.

MVP Voting, post-Covid

Before the Covid season, the distribution of MVP votes for players with fewer than 65 games played was pretty stable:

1980s: 4

1990s: 17

2000s: 6

2010s: 9

When Covid hit, things changed.  Both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 aren’t really fair data points because full seasons weren’t played and Covid forced rest on players as well.  Nevertheless, the 2020-21 season featured Embiid coming in second in the MVP vote with only 51 games played (and down ballot, James Harden, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard tied for 13th despite playing between 44 and 52 games). 

The past two full seasons, the trend seem to expand as eight players received votes despite playing under the 65-game limit:

PlayerYearGamesMVP Rank

From an MVP perspective, most of these players were receiving back-end votes, which is no different than what was happening back in the 1990s (the only player with a reasonable case to win the MVP with fewer games played was Giannis last season).  Based on the data, though, there is no serious reason to have a 65-game limit to be eligible for the MVP.  The voters have already sorted out this issue and have already considered games played.  Perhaps the rule makes a bit more sense in the All-NBA context but I see no benefit in the MVP voting system.