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Don’t Chant “MVP” at Your Superstar If a Playoff Game Is on the Line

The crowd reaction is yelled from love, but it’s not always helpful

(AP Images/Ringer Illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer Illustration)

The first recipient of an "MVP" chant while shooting free throws this postseason was the only active player who already has four of them. It came during Cleveland’s opening game in the first round, and LeBron James was a second away from halftime. A foul from Kevin Seraphin placed him at the line, right foot slightly ahead of the left, and Quicken Loans began its plea for the King’s fifth MVP.

James’s miss — and the silencing of the crowd — is not entirely unusual. Regularly below the league average, LeBron’s free throw shooting has always been the lone statistical canker sore of his 13-year career. After dipping to 67.4 percent this season, he changed his footing in an attempt to remedy it. So why was Twitter (including my own account) busy theorizing that LeBron missed because the crowd yelled "MVP" during the shot? Supportive noise is still noise, and, during a moment of concentration, noise can be distracting. Is it possible that an "MVP" chant at the line neutralizes home-court advantage for superstars?

To answer that question, I watched every free throw attempt this postseason for which there was a chance of the cheer breaking out for a player. Often rampant and sometimes unwarranted, "MVP" chants in the playoffs are started with about as much forethought as J.R. Smith puts into end-of-closeout-game decision-making, although the sample size for the former is still small. When rumors (i.e., a single tweet) surfaced of Joe Ingles being a recipient, even he qualified for tracking. (Thanks to Kawhi Leonard and his refusal to foul for preventing hours more of the Beard shoulder-shivering his way into four-point plays.)

So far, 13 different players have been called "MVP" at the line in the playoffs. Some are expected, like serious candidates LeBron, Leonard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook; others are understandable, like Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo; and the rest are best explained as the products of wishful delirium — Gordon Hayward, Mike Conley, Chris Paul, DeMar DeRozan, and Jimmy Butler. (No Paul George — but then again, Hoosiers are, respectfully, basketball purists.)

Those players attempted 120 free throw shots with "MVP" chants in the background and made an even 100. That’s 83.3 percent, barely lower than group’s collective regular-season accuracy, 83.81 percent. Less than a percent difference!

Here’s the catch: Not all arenas make the same noise. The volume in Chesapeake Energy — especially against the Rockets — sounds an objective 59,000 decibels louder than in the AT&T center. Overall, the "MVP" mantra was less intense for Kawhi’s free throws than it was during Russ’s, but it varied based on the time of game and type of play. Drawing a perimeter foul in a close fourth quarter didn’t only make for louder chants than one in the opening clip, but it also meant more missed shots. Of the 13 players’ 120 attempts, 94 were taken during what I have designated "loud" cheers and the remaining 25, "soft cheers." The former was reserved for the unified and solid, while the latter was more like nine drunk fans at maximum volume.

The two players who have made the most total free throws were also the ones with the most chants in the "soft" category. Kawhi shot a perfect 6-for-6 when the San Antonio crowd was subtle, and Isaiah went 7-for-7 when Boston did the same. Of the 11 remaining players, no one else shot more than three free throws with quiet cheers. Wall, Hayward, Harden, LeBron, and DeMar also shot during low-key cheers of "MVP" for a group total of 25 attempts.

The deafening, more traditional "chant" had quadruple the volume (to my ears) and the sample size. The 13 players shot a combined 94 attempts during a "loud" chant and made 77.

There were even instances of two foul shots from the same trip falling into different categories, like Game 3 in Utah. Gordon Hayward sunk the first with faint hints of an MVP ("soft"), then missed the second when the volume increased. Gordo, the most accurate postseason free throw shooter of this group, made five of six total.

The most convincing argument against breaking out the chant came at the end of games. Yelling "MVP" while a player stepped to the line in the final five minutes produced 73.9 percent accuracy. Clutch free throw shooting, any attempt within that five-minute span with a score differential of five or less, was even lower. Most home crowds (smartly) stayed silent during those attempts, but the first round and a half still churned out 15 clutch attempts with the home crowd shrieking "MVP!" for the shooter. Five were off, for 66.6 percent.

The game below looks out of reach here for the Thunder, but with a second left and a four-point deficit, it qualifies as "clutch." At this point in the game, Harden had been flawless from the line. He missed both.

In the end, only two players, Chris Paul (3-for-3) and Steph Curry (7-for-7), were perfect during all MVP chants. Giannis finished worst of all. The unicorn shot a hardly magical 54.3 percent from the stripe during the postseason, and four of those free throws were taken while Milwaukee chanted MVP in the background. Of those, he made … one.

Ultimately, (less than) Big Data says, "no." The "MVP" chant hasn’t swayed any series, which is fortunate, since it’s tempting to break out. It’s a clear indication of support usually directed at a team’s best player, and not, say, Richard Jefferson, and it usually follows an impressive play, like an and-1. Still, the (limited) evidence says if you must chant MVP at the line, then please do not do so loudly, and please do not cheer when it’s close or late in the game, or if Giannis is within 30 miles. If results from three short weeks hint at evidence of distraction, why put the extra point or two at risk? The safer bet is to reserve it for a situation that doesn’t need quiet. Guys like LeBron and Kawhi will still feel the love (and hey, maybe Richard Jefferson, too).