Deserving or Not? The Most Controversial MVP Winners in NBA History

The Most Valuable Player award is the highest individual achievement a player can receive in the NBA, as every MVP winner is currently in the Hall of Fame or likely will be one day (save for maybe Derrick Rose). That being said, it’s only natural for the most prestigious award to be the one that also causes the most debate. For this reason, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some MVPs who were either robbed, or given unjustly.

Before we get into the list, I believe that it’s necessary to define what exactly an MVP is. Of course, stats are important in getting MVP votes, but the most important part of the award is team success. The best performing players in the league are always able to lead their teams to very good records as the best player. Now, onto the list, which will be in chronological order.

(Neil Leifer/Getty Images)

1962: Oscar Robertson or Wilt Chamberlain vs Bill Russell

The 1961-62 season was quite an interesting one for the NBA. Offenses were high tempo with the innovation of the shot clock (107.7 FGA per game on average for a team), and the NBA saw its first true era of superstars, like Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West. Due to this, in the 1961-62 season some other worldly stat lines were produced by some of the game’s elite. Most famously, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50-26 and Oscar Robertson became the first and only player in NBA history to average a triple double for a full season. Some people think that due to these incredible stat lines, these players should have been awarded MVP. However, both players lacked the team success of Bill Russell’s Celtics, who went 60-20, a far better record than Wilt’s Warriors (49-31) or Oscar’s Royals (43-37).

Now some people may use the fact that Russell had 6 other Hall of Famers on his roster to discredit his excellent performance and team success, but this claim holds little weight when looked at with context. Yes, Russell did have 6 HOF teammates, but it’s important to realize why they are in the Hall of Fame: for playing with Russell. Russell was the clear driving force and best player behind all 11 championships in the late 50s/60s, and a lot of his teammates benefited from all of the success, even if they were only marginal players. As a modern example, imagine if the Warriors were to win 8 or 9 championships, there’s a very good chance guys like Iguodala and Livingston would get into the Hall of Fame if they ended their careers with 8+ rings. To further show how this Hall of Fame teammate argument is a poor one, 3 of the 6 Hall of Fame teammates Russell played with (Sanders, K.C Jones, Ramsey) never even made an All Star team, yet they managed to make the Hall of Fame. On top of this Bob Cousy was well out of his prime at the age of 33 in 1962.

Compare this to Wilt’s teammates in 1962, 3 of whom made the Hall of Fame, and all of them were multiple time All Stars and deserving of the honor. Now, Russell’s team looks significantly less stacked, and instead more a product of his greatness. Oscar also played with 2 other Hall of Famers, yet Robertson nor Chamberlain had the team success of Russell, even with good help, a constant theme throughout their careers.

Verdict: Deserving

1975: Rick Barry vs Bob McAdoo

There are a few people who question the worthiness of McAdoo’s 1975 MVP award, instead believing that Rick Barry deserved it. While Barry had a great season of 31-6-6-3 on 51% TS, leading his team to 48 wins, he had much more to work with than McAdoo did. Barry benefitted from a top 5 defense in the league that year, while McAdoo had no such luxury. He was also less efficient than McAdoo, as McAdoo shot 57% TS to go along with his 35 ppg. Neither players were elite defenders, but McAdoo contributed slightly more, with 14 rpg and 2 bpg to Barry’s 6 rpg and 3 spg. McAdoo’s Braves also had a slightly better record than Barry’s Warriors, so it seems pretty clear that he earned his MVP.

Verdict: Deserving

(Dick Raphael/Getty Images)

1976: Dave Cowens vs Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The 1970s as a whole was a weak era for the NBA, and this was especially apparent when it comes to the MVP award. Kareem took home the award 5 times in the 70s, and became the only player to ever win the MVP without making the playoffs, “leading” his team to an under .500 record (40-42). Though Kareem put up a great statistical season of 28-17-5-2-4 on 57% TS, his record was atrocious for an all time great player and especially an MVP winner. Even with another Hall of Fame teammate (Gail Goodrich), Kareem couldn’t lead his team to the playoffs in the weak 1976 NBA.

Dave Cowens, on the other hand, led his team to a 54-28 record, while having a very good 19-16-4 on 51% TS, while making the All Defensive First team by leading the Celtics to a top 3 defense. On top of this, his second best player, Jo Jo White, was not on Goodrich’s level, and Havlicek was on his last legs, at the age of 35. Despite his less impressive offensive production, Cowens led the Celtics to a better season than Kareem did with the Lakers. There is a very strong case that Cowens should have won the award for the second time as opposed to Kareem for a fourth time.

Verdict: Undeserving

(Getty Images)

1979: Elvin Hayes vs Moses Malone

Moses Malone is one of seven players to win the MVP 3+ times, but it seems like his 1979 MVP was a product of the superstar lacking 1970s, much like Kareem’s in 1976. Hayes, on the other hand, seems to never get his due, getting absolutely robbed out of a Finals MVP in 1978, and then getting shorted another award the very next year. Hayes led an underrated Bullets team to a 54-28 record, while leading the team in points, rebounds, and blocks. Their teams were similar in terms of talent, but I would say Hayes had less to work with overall.

Hayes’ 3 best players (min. 70 G):

Dandridge: 20-5-5 on 55% TS
Useld: 10-11-4 on 60% TS
Ballard: 8-6 on 50% TS

Malone’s 3 best players (min. 70 G):

Murphy: 20-2-4 on 54% TS
Tomjonavich: 19-8 on 54% TS
Barry: 14-4-6 on 50% TS

In addition to this, none of Houston’s main pieces played less than 74 games, while 2 of Hayes’ top producers (Kupchak, Grevey) missed a combined 32 games. Washington also benefited less from the refs, ranking 11th in FTM to Houston’s 6th. Hayes had to overcome several disadvantages and still was able to lead the Bullets to 7 more victories than Malone’s Rockets.

Verdict: Undeserving

(Getty Images)

1982: Larry Bird vs Moses Malone

In 1981, Larry Bird was able to outplay Moses Malone in the NBA Finals, winning the first championship of his career. The following season, Malone impressed the MVP voters enough to win his third MVP with an incredible season of 31-15 on 58% TS, dragging his team into the playoffs, with an above average record of 46-36. However, this record isn’t stellar when in the context of an MVP season. It wasn’t like he had a team of no names either, as he had good help from Elvin Hayes (16-9 on 51% TS) and Reid (13-7-4-2 on 49% TS). Of course, Bird had a better team, with Parish, Maxwell, and a young McHale, but he also won 17 more games, a very big difference even counting in his superior help.

Keep in mind that the award is for the most valuable player, not the player who carried the worst team into the playoffs. Considering Bird’s superior team achievement (Celtics were 63-19 to the Rockets’ 46-36) and his great statistical season of 23-11-6-2 on 56% TS, Bird had a very good case for MVP this season.

Verdict: Undeserving

(Tim DeFrisco/Getty Images)

1990: Michael Jordan vs Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson captured his third MVP award in the 1989-90 season, but if he truly deserved the honor is definitely up for debate. While Magic lead his team to a better record than Jordan did, Jordan won 55 games with much tougher circumstances than Magic.

First off, Magic had much better help on both ends. Offensively, he had James Worthy to carry the scoring load with him, and he averaged 21-6-4 on 59% TS, whereas Jordan’s best offensive threat was Pippen who had 17-7-5 on a less efficient 53% TS. Jordan also had to be the best defensive player on his team as well as the best offensive, whereas Magic Johnson had DPOY Michael Cooper to defend the opposing teams top perimeter players. Yes, Jordan did have Pippen on the defensive end, but they would both see time on the best players of the other team. Jordan’s impact defensively was much greater than Magic’s, and Jordan had slightly better offensive production. Assuming all assists = 2pts, Jordan contributed 46.2 ppg for the Bulls to Magic’s 45.2 ppg for the Lakers.

Johnson also benefitted from a much better overall team than Jordan. The Lakers were 13th in rebounding to the Bulls’ 21st, 8th in DRtg to the Bulls 19th, committed less fouls per game (21.2 for the Lakers, 23.2 for the Bulls), and made more free throws (Lakers were 8th in FTM to the Bulls 19th). With all of these disadvantages, plus Jordan’s slightly better offensive production, and much better defensive impact, I think it more than makes up for the 8 more games the Lakers won compared to the Bulls. Thus, it should be Jordan, not Kareem, as the only player in NBA history with 6 MVP awards.

Verdict: Undeserving

(Jonathan Daniel/ Getty Images)

1997: Karl Malone vs Michael Jordan

In 1997, Karl Malone won his first of two MVPs, which some people claim Jordan rightfully deserved. While Rodman and Kukoc did miss 25+ games each, the Bulls were still a very solid team in their absence. The Jazz were healthy for the most part, but Karl Malone still had less overall help than Jordan. The Bulls ranked top 5 in defense, rebounding, and turnovers (least), while the Jazz were not top 5 in any of those aforementioned categories. The Bulls did win 5 more games than the Jazz, but to say Jordan was completely robbed would be false, as the Jazz still had a great 64-18 record. Now obviously, Jordan assisted in the Bulls being a top 5 defense, but the team really only became an all time great caliber defense in the second three-peat, with the arrival of Dennis Rodman along with a couple other important secondary pieces. In the first three-peat, the Bulls were only top 5 defensively once, as opposed to all being top 4 every season from 1996-98.

The Jazz ranked 18th in rebounding even with Malone contributing 10 a game, and more than 3 more than Jordan per game. Malone also averaged more assists than Jordan despite being a front court player, and was more efficient (60% TS to Jordan’s 57%), with similar defensive impact, just on a worse defensive team.

Verdict: Deserving

(Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images)

2001: Allen Iverson vs Tim Duncan

It’s everyone’s favorite MVP season, 2001 Allen Iverson, when he famously led a supporting cast of no-names to a 56-26 record, and the first seed in the Eastern Conference. However, it is certainly up for debate whether he truly deserved the award or not. While this was the peak of Iverson’s career, Tim Duncan has the overall better case as MVP this season.

First off, you have to consider how much more impactful Duncan was on the defensive end, after all he is a top 10 defender of all time, and he certainly showed it this season, leading the Spurs to the best defense in the league behind his 12 rpg and overall rim protection. Iverson is notoriously known as a sub-par to bad defender, whereas Duncan was all time great in that area. It’s not like Iverson greatly outperformed Duncan offensively either, as he struggled with efficiency (52% TS), and his teammates actually shot better than the field than he did, yet he seems to get all of the credit offensively.

Sixers FG%: 44.7%
Sixers FG% on shots not taken by Iverson : 45.8%

Tim Duncan’s Spurs show the opposite trend:

Spurs FG%: 46.1%
Spurs FG% on shots not taken by Duncan: 44.9%

Now there are other things to take into account other than efficiency, and sometimes a team needs their star to take more shots at the cost their FG% in order to win. It just helps give an idea of who really had more help, when Iverson’s teammates shot better than Duncan’s. Duncan was also one of the top rebounders in the league, but his team was worse on the boards than Iverson’s. Iverson benefitted a lot from DPOY Dikembe Mutumbo, who was the clear leader of the team on defense, while Duncan had to carry the load on both ends of the floor, and still was able to lead his team to a better record than Iverson. David Robinson was past his prime at this point, so Duncan was clearly the best player offensively and defensively on the Spurs.

The Sixers most valuable piece wasn’t actually a player, it was a coach: Larry Brown, who won COY in 2001. Brown is one of the most underrated coaches in NBA history, but his impact on Iverson’s career is profound. In the 5 seasons he coached Iverson, he made it out of the first round 4/5 times, yet AI was never able to pass the first round without Brown again. The Sixers actually missed the playoffs in 2004 and 2005, the two seasons following Brown’s departure from Philadelphia. It could be argued that a large part of Duncan’s success had to do with Coach Popovich, but this theory cannot be proved, since Duncan has only ever played with one coach.

Verdict: Undeserving

(M. David Leeds/Getty Images)

2002: Tim Duncan vs Jason Kidd

Jason Kidd is easily one of the greatest players to never win the MVP award, and 2002 is a prime example of a year he was robbed. Jason Kidd joined the Nets in the 2001 offseason, and completely changed the franchise. The team went from an awful 26-56 record and 23rd ranked defense in 2001 to a 52-30 and best defense in the league in 2002. Very few, if any perimeter players have had this type of impact on a defense, and Kidd was able to do it as a Point Guard, while simultaneously leading the team on the offensive end. Kidd’s Nets were actually better defensively than Duncan’s Spurs, and the Net’s FG% went up 2% from the year prior, even with Kidd being a notoriously inefficient shooter at 39.1% FG this season. Duncan’s Spurs shot 44.2% on shots not taken by him, while the 2001 Nets without Kidd shot a dreadful 42.5% as a team.

Both players had very little help offensively, but Duncan had better defensive help in an old David Robinson, even though he was clearly a superior defender to him at this point in their careers. Kidd’s Nets were a lottery team without him, and were a legitimate contender with him. Duncan’s Spurs, while they clearly wouldn’t be a contender without him, would probably have a better record than the 2001 Nets. Byron Scott is also nowhere in Popvich’s league when it comes to coaching, so Duncan had more help in that area too.

Verdict: Undeserving

Kobe Bryant: Multiple

There is this misconception that Kobe Bryant was robbed out of not one, but several MVPs in his prime. While there is no doubt Kobe is a top 10 player of all time, he hasn’t had incredible success in the regular season to the point where he should be a multiple time MVP. This isn’t to diminish his greatness, it’s to give credit to the true, and deserving, MVP winners.

(Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

2003: Kobe Bryant vs Tim Duncan

In 2003 Kobe Bryant had arguably his best all around season with averages of 30-7-6-2-1 on 55% TS, while playing elite defense. The problem with Bryant this season was that the Lakers were coming off of a championship and had an underwhelming record for the amount of talent on the roster at 50-32. Shaq was also more valuable than Kobe this season as he missed 15 games, and the Lakers went 5-10 in those games, so without Shaq, Kobe couldn’t carry the Lakers to a respectable record.

Tim Duncan had the greatest season of his career with 23-13-4-1-3 on 56% TS, along with his incredible defense. Duncan is easily a top 10 defender in NBA history (Spurs top 2 defense 9 straight seasons), and he was at the peak of his powers in 2003. The Spurs enjoyed much more success than the Lakers did (60-22 vs 50-32) even with Duncan’s lack of help compared to Kobe’s. While Kobe had another top 10 all time player as his best teammate, Duncan’s only notable teammate was Tony Parker who had 16-3-5 on 54% TS. None of Duncan’s teammates provided anywhere near the help that a prime Shaq did, and he still carried his team to 10 more wins than the Lakers, while being more impactful on defense than Kobe even at his peak.

2005: Kobe Bryant vs Steve Nash

This one doesn’t need much explanation, since the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs this season. The only time an MVP has been named to a player on a non-playoff team was in 1976 with Kareem, and that was in a watered down era of NBA superstars leading to Kareem being awarded the MVP. In the mid-2000s, there were several MVP caliber players, so the NBA didn’t need to give away the award to its only big name like it did in ’76.

Kobe also missed 16 games, but even in the contests that he did play, the Lakers went 28-38, which would have been on pace to match their overall 34-48.

2006: Kobe Bryant vs Steve Nash

2006 marked another one of Kobe’s best seasons, and the first 35 ppg season since Jordan in 1987. Kobe had an incredible statistical season of 35-5-5-2 on 56% TS, while leading an otherwise lottery team to a playoff berth with a 45-37 record. This was a great season, but to say he was robbed of the MVP would be inaccurate. Nash had to go the entire season without his best player, Amar’e Stoudemire, and still was able to get a 54-28 record with the second seed in the West. Nash appears to have more help from players like Marion, but his teammates were very dependent on him to create offense for them. Shawn Marion only has one playoff series of 15+ ppg without Nash, and even then it was on a bad 37% FG.

The team as a whole’s offense improved tremendously with the addition of Nash as well, making a massive leap from an ORtg of 101.4  in 2003-04 to 114.5 in 2004-05, and Marion, Stoudemire, Marbury, and Johnson were all on the 2004 team yet they still had a below average offense. Even though aforementioned players still all put up good scoring numbers without Nash, they were still incapable of cracking even 30 wins without him, and all of their efficiencies rose significantly with Nash added.

2007: Kobe Bryant vs Dirk Nowitzki

Kobe again had a great statistical season in 2006-07, putting up 32-6-5 on 58% TS, which at first glance seems like he might have an argument over Nowitzki for the award, as Dirk put up 25-9-3 on 61% TS. However, team success does matter, and Dirk lead the Mavericks to a 67-15 record, while Kobe’s Lakers were barely above .500 at 42-40. Dirk’s team was slightly better, having a top 5 defense and two 15 ppg teammates compared to Kobe’s one, but even with those advantages it doesn’t excuse the massive disparity in success. Kobe was certainly not robbed this season.

Verdict: All deserving

2008: Chris Paul vs Kobe Bryant

I’ve heard a lot of people say that Chris Paul deserved the 2008 MVP over Kobe Bryant, because he led the Hornets to only one less win than the Lakers while having a great statistical season (21-4-12-3 on 58% TS). These claims are true, however Kobe’s road to 57 wins was much more difficult than Paul’s to 56.

To start, Paul’s Hornets team was very underrated, and not nearly as bad as many make them out to be. The Hornets had a top 10 defense in the league that season, and three good other options in David West, Peja Stojakovic, and Tyson Chandler. West had 21-9 and Chandler was a great defender (future DPOY) and averaged 12 rpg for the season. Stojakovic shot an insane 44% from 3 that season, spreading the floor for the rest of the team to operate. All three of these players played 75+ games.

Kobe’s team also had a top 10 defense, but didn’t have the other benefits that Paul did, and was able to achieve a better record. Pau Gasol only played 27 games with the Lakers, getting traded mid-season from Memphis, where he had gone 10-29 during the season before he got traded as opposed to 22-5 with Kobe. Even when Pau didn’t play, Kobe led the Lakers to a 35-20 record, which would be on pace to win 52 games. On top of this, Bynum only played 35 games, making it more difficult for Kobe to get the best record in the West. Only one of Kobe’s top 3 teammates played more than 40 games while all three of Paul’s played 75+.

Verdict: Deserving

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

2011: Derrick Rose vs LeBron James

22 year old Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history in 2011 after having a breakout season (25-4-8 on 55% TS). The common narrative with this MVP is that the media was so swept up in the Derrick Rose hype, being a Chicago native, that they wrongfully gave him the MVP over LeBron, who was hated by the media after the infamous “Decision.” While LeBron did have a great season, this was not a media hype given award, Rose was definitely deserving over James.

Rose’s Bulls won 4 more games than the Heat did, while Rose was given less overall help. Both teams had top 5 defenses, but LeBron’s Heat shot better from 3 (37% vs Bulls’ 36.1%), and LeBron was given two prime Hall of Famers in the form of Dwyane Wade (26-6-5-2 on 58% TS) and Chris Bosh (19-8 on 57% TS). No one on the Bulls is in either of these players class, and the fact that LeBron still lost 4 more games than Rose should be the end of the discussion.

Verdict: Deserving

(Garrett Elwood/Getty Images)

2015: James Harden vs Stephen Curry

The baby faced assassin was awarded his first of 2 consecutive MVP awards in 2015 after leading the Golden State Warriors to a then franchise best 67 wins and the top seed in the Western Conference. While Curry did have a great season, James Harden was definitely more deserving of the award. Curry, while leading his team to 11 more wins than Harden, had numerous advantages.

2015 Warriors vs Rockets:

DRtg: 101.4 (1st) vs 103.4 (8th)
Team FG% (not including Curry/Harden): 47.6% vs 44.4%
TOpg: 14.5 (18th) vs 16.7 (28th)

Curry’s best teammates:

Thompson: 22-3-3 on 59% TS, 77 GP
Green: 12-8-4 on 54% TS, 79 GP
Barnes: 10-6 on 57% TS, 82 GP

Harden’s best teammates:

Ariza: 13-6 on 54% TS, 82 GP
Howard: 16-11 on 60% TS, 41 GP
Smith: 12-6 on 50% TS, 55 GP

Harden also only had his best perimeter defender, Patrick Beverly, for 55 games. Given the fact that Harden’s team was riddled with injuries, was not as well coached, and overall didn’t have as much talent as Curry, makes him more deserving for MVP. Even while winning less games, Harden still carried a pretty pedestrian team to the second seed in a competitive Western Conference.

Verdict: Undeserving


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