James Harden hoisted the National Basketball Association’s top individual prize Monday Night after being named Most Valuable Player of the 2017-2018 season. Donning an interesting black and beige splotched suit, Harden became just the third Rocket to win the award, following Moses Malone (1981-1982) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-1994).
The 28-year-old led the league in scoring, free throws attempted and made, 50-point games, win shares, and player efficiency rating. Harden led the Rockets to a franchise record 65-win season before falling to the eventual NBA Champions in a seven-game series in the Western Conference Final.
Harden was still shocked to win despite his incredible season, so much so that he didn’t even prepare a speech. Harden had been disappointed before as a two-time runner-up for the award. He finished second in the voting behind Steph Curry in 2014-2015 and Russell Westbrook in 2016-2017.
Voters left no doubt who they believed deserved the award. Harden received 86 first-place votes, followed by LeBron James with 15 and Anthony Davis with zero. While most fans feel that the voters got it right this year, that isn’t always the case. With parameters for the Most Valuable Player fluctuating every year, consistency isn’t always taken into account. It’s also difficult to judge the value of certain statistics over another. Should the MVP be given to the best player in the world at the time? If so, Michael Jordan and LeBron James would each be close to 10 awards each. Or should it be about who had the biggest impact on the team, despite the overall record.
Taking into account the uncertainty of the MVP award, here are five of the most questionable MVP selections (chronologically) and who could have held the thrown in their place. Everyone who won the MVP was a superstar in their own right and there aren’t any ‘bad’ players on this list.
1. Bill Russell (1961-1962)
Starting a “worst” list with an 11-time NBA Champion doesn’t seem overly logical out of context. But considering the overwhelming impact made by two other players that year, Russell’s third-of-five MVP awards had to be considered at least a slight upset. It wasn’t as much about what Russell did, averaging an impressive 18.9 points, 23.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and leading the Celtics to a 58-22 record.
Remember how big of a deal it was when Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double? When Oscar Robertson first did it, he finished THIRD in MVP voting. At 23-years-old, Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 11.4 assists, and 12.5 rebounds. Finishing ahead of Robertson was one Wilt Chamberlain, whose numbers seemed out of this world for any era. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds, and 48.5 minutes. Read that stat line again, then get your glasses and read it a few more times. Wilt Chamberlain averaged more minutes per game than are in a regulation basketball game. Oh, and by the way, Wilt was over seven-feet tall and nearly 300 pounds.
It wasn’t until the 1980-1981 season that the NBA switched its MVP voting format to the current style, with a panel of sportswriters and broadcasters casting votes. Pre-1980 MVPs were selected by fellow NBA players.
2. Dave Cowens (1972-1973)
It’s best to use a blind test when describing the mystery of the 1973 MVP race. Player A averaged 42.8 minutes, 30.2 points, 16.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and .322 win shares per 48 minutes. Player B averaged 46.0 minutes, 34.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 11.4 assists, and .186 WS/48. Player C averaged 41.8 minutes, 20.5 points, 16.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and .168 WS/48.
Player C, Dave Cowens, shockingly won the MVP award over Player A, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Player B, Nate “Tiny” Archibald. Archibald led the league in minutes, points, and assists but failed to carry the Kings to the playoffs. Abdul-Jabbar, however, bested Cowens in minutes, points, assists, and win shares. Cowens’ Celtics did finish the season 68-14 to Kareem’s Bucks’ record of 60-22. Cowens also had teammates such as John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, and Paul Silas, while Kareem’s best support was a 34-year-old Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge.
The MVP race was known to turn into a popularity contest with players still in charge of the vote. Kareem already won the MVP in both 1970 and 1971, so it’s entirely possible that players were just tired of seeing him win the award.
3. Karl Malone (1996-1997)
This has less to do with Karl Malone winning and more to do with Michael Jordan losing. As with Kareem in the 70s, Michael Jordan won a lot of MVP awards in the 90s. By the time the 1996-1997 season rolled around, His Airness already had four MVP titles to go with his four titles, the fifth ring coming at the end of the 1997 season.
Karl Malone is arguably a top-5 power forward of all-time, so an MVP (or two) was definitely within the realm of possibility. His stats were even on par with Jordan’s that season. Malone averaged 36.6 minutes, 27.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, and 1.4 steals while Jordan averaged 37.9 minutes, 29.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.7 steals. The Jazz finished 64-18 while the Bulls went 69-13 for the then-second best record of all-time.
Malone’s offense relied heavily on teammate John Stockton to get him the ball down low. Jordan, on the other hand, could shoot off the dribble as well as when assisted. Jordan would go on to win MVP the following season when he grabbed his sixth and final ring.
4. Steve Nash (2004-2005)
The only person you need to talk to about this infamous all-star snub is Shaquille O’Neal himself. Shaq is still extremely vocal about being robbed of the MVP award 13 years later, and for good reason. The 2005 MVP race had two realistic choices, and they got the wrong one.
Nash turned the Phoenix Suns into a bona fide contender after going 29-53 the previous season. Nash was the floor general for Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun offense. Although only averaging 15.5 points and 11.5 assists, Nash contributed to one of the best offensive displays in NBA history. The Suns led the league in 3-point percentage, field goals, and points. Phoenix also finished second in 2-point percentage, second in field goal percentage, and third in assists.
But Nash was arguably not even the best player on his team. Amar’e Stoudemire, who tied for ninth in MVP voting, averaged 26.0 points and 13.9 rebounds. Shawn Marion also averaged 19.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks for Phoenix that season.
O’Neal’s case for MVP also includes an impressive turnaround. The Heat went from 42-40 to 59-23 after adding Superman. Shaq combined the appeal of individual success as well as team success, averaging 22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks. Clearly a number of voters agreed with the Big Aristotle. O’Neal finished second in the voting with 58 first-place votes to Nash’s 65 and 1032 points won to Nash’s 1066.
5. Derrick Rose (2010-2011)
Only one player in NBA history has won three consecutive MVP awards, and that was Larry Bird. Just like Kareem and MJ earlier in this article, it seemed like voters didn’t want to give LeBron that honor either. King James was well on his way to a third consecutive MVP when he made the jump to Miami in 2010 and became the resident bad guy of the league.
Rose averaged 37.4 minutes, 25.0 points, 7.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds, while LeBron boasted 38.8 minutes, 26.7 points, 7.0 assists, and 7.5 rebounds. James bested Rose in win shares as well as player efficiency rating. With stats this close, the edge likely went to Rose due to James’ villain status in the league. Rose was the 22-year-old playing in his hometown and was expected to rival LeBron as the face of the league.
The argument that the best player in the league should win the MVP really gained traction with James around this time. The only person who could compete with James as the face of the league was Kobe Bryant, who was in decline following his 2010 championship. It’s almost like the league and writers were punishing LeBron for leaving Cleveland. But by the time the 2012 season came to an end, LeBron was back to winning MVPs and Rose was on the shelf with injuries.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith