When sports media began to homogenize again, after the internet fractured print and broadcast's order and possibility passed over us like a sunshower, what emerged was finally and inevitably disappointing. At the most cynical end of the spectrum, we were served Jamie Horowitzian theater, Stephen A. and Skip bursting capillaries over some regular season demi-controversy they had been briefed on twenty minutes before the cameras started rolling, and at the other, we could do only as well as whatever Bill Simmons bothered to throw his weight behind: extensively reported Grantland features, talking head documentaries several grades glossier than what HBO and ESPN had been cranking out circa 2000, statistical and video analysis that grew out of Smart Guy™ nodes within the blogosphere. There was more, beyond and below that—Deadspin, Barstool, longform-y concerns and failed boutique experiments—but these were the approximate limits of the mainstream. As awful or interesting as you could get, and still make The Discourse move.

You can argue that, Stephen A.'s enshrinement as something like a serious institution aside, the shake-up moved things in a generally positive direction. The copy and chatter was more considered than it had been a decade earlier. The public's understanding of sports themselves grew more sophisticated. Even in bars, we started talking OBP instead of RBIs. Most basketball fans learned what a Horns set is. More importantly, the bulk of coverage took on a more humanistic and sometimes actively political bent. We got the aging grumps to cool it with the coded racism, and we stopped blaming labor strife on players, turning our ire instead toward the billionaires who contribute almost nothing to the product. Overall, we got perspective. We understood more than we had before.

And yet our dumbest fixations endure. David Murphy of the Philly Enquirer declared the MVP race over, after Joel Embiid sat out this past Monday night's game against Nikola Jokić's Nuggets. Murphy expressed relief at the conclusion of a debate that "threaten[ed] to destroy polite society." He's barely kidding. For a while there, Kendrick Perkins and J.J. Redick were leading a national discussion about implicit bias. It was touch and go. While that aspect of the MVP discussion was strange and grossly undercooked, it was more than anything else the product of a media ecosystem going insane from asking itself the same question repeatedly. You stare at a large body of water for long enough and you start seeing dead relatives.

Headlines from December 2022, John Hollinger at The Athletic: "Nikola Jokić’s MVP three-peat is alive." Damon Allred at SBNation: "Jokic making the case for a third straight MVP." Ben Rohrback at Yahoo: "Nikola Jokic's chances of an MVP three-peat." January 2023, Zach Lowe brandishing a can of the Joker's guarana-based energy drink on ESPN: "A Nikola Jokic three-peat is sitting there for him!"

I wonder sometimes what we are doing with all this state-of-the-art insight we've acquired. I think about purchasing a flip phone and moving to rural Maine. These are overreactions, but it is a fact that we have been over-indexed into psychosis. I want to never again be forced to consider where a particular player fits within the league-wide hierarchy of Being Good. Because there's no dimension to that concept. You can bring a lot to it. You can talk stats and post video clips and ramble about nebulous concepts like a player's importance to the team. In the end you arrive at an integer, which seems like it means something but is really just a pseudo-mathematical expression of your taste. I wish someone would say Joel Embiid should be MVP because he's my favorite player. Go Sixers. Flippancy can be a way of saving time, moving on to more worthy ideas.

One of the more casually destructive things Grantland did was filter art through the grammar of bog-standard sports media. (Simmons, bless him, understands the world exclusively through figures and tiers.) Movies were power ranked by Oscar-worthiness. An episode of Breaking Bad produced Winners and Losers. These formats were never taken particularly seriously, and some writers did fine work within them, but they expressed a then-pernicious aspect of our cultural thinking that has grown totally dominant over time, a kind of business-brained desire to quantify, flatten, and reduce. Like there is a metric for everything, and all that matters about a game is the final score.

I remember wishing that Grantland would invert its lens, because I wanted to read more people writing about sports as if they were art. Doing criticism. Relating them to their own lives. It's not like this didn't happen. But it was hardly prevalent. You wonder where that type of thing could exist nowadays, for anyone trying to make a living off it. About five years ago, when The Athletic was hiring half the industry while the other half got laid off, they more or less identified talent by counting Twitter followers. The status quo reinforces itself.

The MVP is a regular season award, and the NBA regular season means less than it has in a long while. I've argued that its utility is in its sagging breadth, that it's a TV show airing every night, that you can tune into religiously or engage with at odd intervals. You're unlikely to be disappointed either way. The games are good; the league is incredibly talented at the moment. But it does feel ponderous. In part because teams have gotten smart. If playoff runs and championships are what matter, then you shouldn't play your best guys throughout the winter and spring. You should use that time to try stuff out, season young role players and experiment with defensive coverages. Punt the fourth quarter if you're down twelve, on the second half of a back-to-back.

We've internalized this, because there's nothing worse circa now than caring about something you shouldn't, being less than perfectly savvy. We know more than we ever have about how the games are played and why. We see the bigger picture. Some team is scorching, they're beautiful, their offense is a ballet. But it's November, it's January, it's March. Their bench is short. They're not real title contenders. Whatever they're up to, it's ultimately unimportant.

With intelligence and perspective, we've dulled our pleasure centers and curbed our ability to produce meaning for ourselves. Wake us in June. Well, shoot, we do have to live in the meantime. The MVP is one of the only regular season things that by our narrow definition means something, still, so we litigate who it belongs to from about Game 20 onward. This works, sort of. The debate organizes everybody: partisans and social media creatures, ex-players and nerds, shouters and sober analysts. It provides grist for the various content mills. But it feels like a waste, the ever-increasing total of our knowledge continuously applied to rearranging the order of a list. Perhaps we've reached the final stage of our evolution. We're in the know and we see all the angles. And whether we're having any fun, truly sustaining ourselves, is a question we're too cultivated to answer.