NBA MVP Race: 5 Closest MVP Races Of All Time
The second edition of the annual NBA Awards ceremony is scheduled to start tonight at 9 PM, Eastern Time. The 2018-19 season is one of the closer MVP races in recent memory, featuring superstars James Harden, LeBron James and Anthony Davis going head-to-head as the top 3 finishers on the podium.
Also read: Ranking the Greatest MVP Seasons ever
All 3 of them have had historic seasons by any standards. While LeBron continues to defy Father Time and demonstrate himself as the preeminent ball player in the world, Harden finally seems to have a season that is, by most accounts, MVP-worthy - he is the prohibitive favourite. Not to be forgotten in this battle is Anthony Davis, who put the Pelicans on his back to take them to the playoffs as the sixth seed before leading them past the Blazers in a clean sweep.
Although not a clear parallel, this MVP race reminds us of several close finishes over the years, and we decided to compile a top 5 of the closest, best-competed MVP races over the 71-year history of the league:
#5 Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard in 2016-17
The 2016-17 season is the most efficient statistical season on a league-wide scale through 71 years, with the highest true shooting percentage of all years. The MVP race started heating up right in late November when people actually took notice of Westbrook's triple-double average and began comparisons between him and Harden.
Leonard joined into the party and finished among the top 3 for the second season running because of his ultra-efficient brand of offense and lockdown defense. Any of these 3 players could have won the MVP award, but there was a sense of inevitability that kicked in once the Brody tallied his 42nd triple-double of the season against the Nuggets and capped it off with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to confirm Oklahoma City's playoff berth.
While Westbrook had unreal averages of 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game, Harden himself put up barely believable stats of 29.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 11.2 assists himself. Neither of them, however, matched up to Leonard's win share averages, as The Klaw tallied 0.264 win shares per 48 minutes in comparison to 0.224 for Westbrook and 0.245 for Harden.
Westbrook took first place on the podium with 888 total points, as Harden and Leonard themselves finished with 753 and 500 respectively.
#4 Steve Nash and Shaquille O’Neal in 2004-2005
Looking back, it’s honestly incredible that Nash won back-to-back MVP awards in the mid-aughts while the likes of Kobe, Shaq, Garnett, Duncan and Nowitzki were still in their respective primes. His first one, particularly, came in peculiar circumstances.
Upon his arrival in Arizona, Nash led the Suns to 62 wins and supercharged a Phoenix offense that would ultimately serve as the brightest spot on Mike D’Antoni’s resume - the days of Seven Seconds or Less offense are still held in fond memory by most NBA fans.
Shaq, meanwhile, was impacting his new Miami Heat team in his first season there. With the emergence of Dwyane Wade and with O’Neal powering the Heat to levels of excellence that they hadn’t experienced previously, it really was no surprise that he’d get his fair share of MVP votes that season.
Still, the unexpectedness of Nash’s coming-out party paired with his team’s success made the narrative too interesting to ignore, which is why he ended up winning this race by a scant 34 points. Nash's per-game numbers for that season stand at 15.5 points and 11.5 assists, while O'Neal's averages of 22.9 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game look superior.
#3 Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Alonzo Mourning in 1998-99
It’s always fun when an MVP race is debatable among three great players rather than just two, and 1999 was an excellent opportunity for exactly that sort of power struggle following Michael Jordan’s retirement the season before. There was a vacuum in the conversation for who the best player in the league was, and this trio filled it up refreshingly well in a decade where His Airness' shadow loomed large over the league.
Malone averaged 23.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Mourning averaged 20.1 points, 11 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game, while Duncan tallied 21.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in that first season post-Jordan. It seemingly was impossible to select one guy over the other two, and the final votes reflected that indecision.
The first-place voting was pretty inconclusive, as Malone got 44, Mourning bagged 36 and Duncan earned 30. But the second- and third-place votes were just as tight: Duncan got 36 to Mourning's 32 of the 2nd place votes.
Malone ended up winning the honours with 827 total points. Alonzo Mourning finished just 54 points behind, and Duncan was only 33 points behind him.
#2 Karl Malone and Michael Jordan in 1996-97
This may well be the most infamous MVP race in the history of American sport, as a fully established Michael Jordan was denied the award in a textbook example of voter fatigue. Of course, Jordan had taken a step back in the 1996-97 season. At 33, he was no longer explosive enough to meet his previous statistical highs, especially in terms of field goal efficiency.
That said, he was still Jordan -- as willful as ever, fresh off a season that saw him crowned as both MVP and a champion, and a class above every other player in the league.
Malone, though, was a credible challenger aided by circumstance. With Jordan being held against his own standard, Malone had one of the best seasons of his career. He was a prolific scorer and rebounder for the 64-win Jazz, and by the numbers very nearly as instrumental for Utah as Jordan was for Chicago.
In the voting, Malone earned 11 more first-place votes than Jordan, and that pushed him over the edge in the final tallies by 29 points.
#1 Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan
The closest MVP vote in NBA history is also its weirdest. This is the sole occasion in which the player who received the most first-place votes did not win the award. In that, Charles Barkley likely has the most valid MVP gripe ever, having obtained 36 first-place votes - 9 more than his closest competitor Magic, who eventually won the trophy.
Having a five-deep pool of reasonable candidates threw off the entire tabulation, though. Malone and Patrick Ewing grabbed votes -- three for first, nine for second and 21 for third between them -- that likely should have belonged to Barkley or Jordan. What's even weirder: three voters omitted Jordan, who averaged an unreal 33.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.8 steals per game, dominating on both sides of the court.
"I guess I can understand an anti-Jordan sentiment," Jordan told the Chicago Tribune in 1990. "There are going to be some rotten apples in every barrel. Three rotten apples."
Jordan was right to be bitter. Unlike Johnson or Barkley, he was a fearsome defender -- so much so that he was voted first-team All-Defense in the previous two seasons and would be selected again in 1990. He led the league in points and steals per game, and in retrospect, we know that he bested all players that season in win shares and Player Efficiency Rating.
No player, Barkley included, used more of his team's possessions in 1990 than Jordan, and yet for all that shot creation Jordan still ranked in the top 15 in true shooting percentage with an amazingly low turnover rate. His was the greatest statistical season of all time, and yet the majority of his votes came as a third-place candidate.
There's a clear case to be made for Johnson as well, given the responsibility he shouldered for the Lakers after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's retirement. He had more talent around him (James Worthy, Byron Scott, Vlade Divac, Mychal Thompson and Michael Cooper) than either Jordan or Barkley did at that point, but Johnson shifted around to play every position that season -- a flexibility that led Peter Vecsey of the New York Post to describe him as "a human Scrabble blank." Besides, his team won a league-best 63 games during the regular season.