The most valuable piece of metal an NBA player can own, apart from shiny gold NBA Champion rings, is a brass statuette of a ball player frozen in motion. And that’s precisely what the Maurice Podoloff trophy does to its recipient’s legacy: renders it immortal. For a spot in the pantheon of Basketball Greats, a player needs to have won the award multiple times. Atop the list is Kareem, a six-time MVP, followed by Jordan and Russell (five) and Chamberlain (four). And those four players just happen to be unequivocally four of the six greatest players of all time. Players set much in store by the MVP award – despite the championship-or-bust aspirations of last year’s Heat team, LeBron had this to say about winning the MVP award: “It means everything.”
Yet, there are NBA legends who have never won the award. Those who have come close, season after season, and yet inexplicably been thwarted in MVP voting. We rank the top five players in NBA history, by championships won, individual accolades and stats, to have never won an MVP award:
5) Tie: Isiah ‘Zeke’ Thomas, 1981-94 and Rick Barry, 1965-67, 72-80:
A lightning quick, two-way player known for his tenacity and ability to take over games, Isiah was a player hated on, discriminated against and generally ignored by the NBA during his prime years. Why? There’s isn’t another player on this list who was the number one option on two championship teams, received 11 All-Star selections and 3 All-NBA First Team selections. And yet, somehow, he never received better than fifth place in MVP voting. His best run at the award was in 1984 (5th in overall voting), when he averaged 21 ppg, 11 apg, 4 rpg and 2.5 spg for a 49-win Pistons team (a full 12 wins better than the 82-83 Pistons).
Rick Barry, despite being among the transcendent talents of the 60s and 70s, is now more often remembered for his bizarre antics during Game 7 of the 1976 WCF. Most analysts had Barry’s Warriors squad as eventual NBA Champions, but Barry’s refusal to shoot for over 30 minutes during Game 7 cost the Warriors the game and some would say the championship. That and Barry’s decision to leave the NBA for the ABA are the only black marks on an illustrious career, marked by a 1974 NBA championship, 8 All-Star game selections and three top-5 finishes in MVP voting. Barry’s best season statistically came in 1966-67, when he averaged 35ppg, 9rpg and 3apg (basketball was played at a much faster pace in the 60s: think everything in fast forward, seven-seconds-or-less shooting)
4) John ‘Hondo’ Havlicek, 1962-78
Eight time NBA Champion (twice without Celtic teammate Bill Russell), Finals MVP in 1974, 13 time All Star and 4 All-NBA First Team selections. Few NBA players have had as distinguished careers, with as many accolades, as John Havlicek. ‘Havlicek stole the ball!’ is among the greatest basketball moments of all time (Havlicek incredibly stole the ball in a one-possession game against arch-rivals Philadelphia in the ECF Game 7, 1965 in the waning moments of the game). Havlicek’s motor and endurance is still unparalleled in the league and he might be the most tenacious and versatile player to have ever played the game, besides being the best Sixth Man of all time. His best season statistically came in 1970-71, when he averaged 29ppg, 9rpg and 7.5 apg.
3) Dwayne ‘Flash’ Wade, 2003-present:
He could still win an MVP award, but it’s most likely he’ll retire without one. Considering that Nash, Nowitzki, AI and Garnett have all won an MVP award, Wade must feel like sore about the exclusion. Two time NBA champion, 8 time All-Star, 2 All-NBA First Team selections and that one incredible Finals performance in 2006. Heat fans argue to this day that if Dwyane had been healthy for the final two games against Detroit in the 2005 ECF, the Miami Heat would have three banners up in the rafters at American Airlines Arena instead of two. People don’t appreciate how good Wade truly was between 2005 and 2011 because he played on some awful teams – after Shaq, his best teammates over four seasons were a washed up Shawn Marion, a washed up Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley (who was traded for a single draft pick), Ricky Davis (who averaged double figure scoring for the Heat in their 15-67 season) and Udonis Haslem (be afraid!) Wade was the only player on those teams capable of creating any offense, and his 2008-09 season (he averaged 30ppg, 7.5apg on 49% shooting) is among the best individual seasons post-Jordan and he finished third in MVP voting. If the Heat had won 50 games in any season between 2006 and 2010, Wade would have been a serious challenger for MVP. Don’t blame the man.
2) Elgin Baylor, 1958-71
Despite having had one of the greatest NBA careers, Baylor’s legacy is dulled by the fact that in eight separate NBA Finals trips, he came up short of the gold every single time. Baylor totaled 11 All-Star game selections and 10 All-NBA First Team selections, averaging over 30 ppg during three consecutive seasons. Armed with crazy athleticism and a soft touch, Baylor was an offensive force and perhaps the greatest rebounding small forward in the history of the game. His 61 points in Game 5 of the 1962 Finals is still an NBA Finals record. Unfortunately for Baylor, he played during an era when big men were considered the most valuable players on a team; consequently, he lost out to Chamberlain and Russell who dominated MVP voting in the 60s. Baylor finished in the top-3 in MVP voting on three separate occasions. Baylor didn’t help his case any by piling Finals loss upon Finals loss. In a cruel twist of fate, the Lakers won their first Finals since the Mikan era the very season Baylor retired, setting a 33 consecutive game win streak record along the way. Baylor’s stature has lessened over the years, but he is the primary reason the Lakers franchise is where it is now; the franchise faced bankruptcy before Elgin came along and saved the day, paving the way for another legend in the process…
named Jerry ‘Tweety Bird’ West (1960-74), the best player to never win an MVP award.
West and Baylor are among the greatest one-two punches in NBA history, averaging 60ppg between them during three separate seasons. West is among the best clutch time players ever, and always stepped it up in the playoffs, averaging 46 points per game in a playoff series (still a playoff record). West is also the only player to win a NBA Finals MVP award despite being on the losing side (1969). West (who measured out at 6’ 2’’) set the template for small guards to succeed in the NBA. He is also perhaps the greatest defensive guard in the game (he made four All-NBA Defensive First teams, despite the selections being introduced towards the end of his career). His best statistical season came in 1969-70, when he averaged 31 ppg, 7.5 apg on 49% shooting. West finished 2nd in MVP voting in 1966 (Wilt), 1969(Willis Reed) and 1972(Kareem). At least he was a part of the ’72 Lakers team that gave him his first (and only) championship.
Honorable mentions: Jason Kidd (1994-present), Patrick Ewing (1985-2002) and Pete ‘Pistol Pete’ Maravich (1970-80)