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The Best Player in the NBA
Using MVP Award voting to determine the consensus "best" player in the NBA.
Who is the best player in the NBA?
I don’t necessarily mean statistically, but rather the general consensus. One way to measure this is to look at MVP Award voting. While the best player may not win the MVP Award every year, I think it is reasonable to assume that any player who has received significant MVP support over a period of years is a legitimate candidate for the title of best player in the NBA.
We can measure MVP support by looking at something called MVP shares. An MVP share is simply MVP points won by the player divided by the maximum number of MVP points.
For example, last season Nikola Jokic had 875 points in the MVP voting. Had Jokic received every first-place vote, he would have earned 1,000 points, so his award share is 875 divided by 1,000, or 0.875.
Now that we have a way to quantify a player’s voting support, we need to come up with a way to measure his established value in a given season. I decided to use the following formula:
0.4 times his MVP share in season y, plus
0.3 times his MVP share in season (y – 1), plus
0.2 times his MVP share in season (y – 2), plus
0.1 times his MVP share in season (y – 3)
To be honest, there’s nothing scientific about using four seasons or those particular weights. You could certainly tweak them and use something that makes more sense to you, although as long as your choices are reasonable I don’t think it would significantly alter the results.
A Brief Interlude
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The MVP Award was first handed out following the 1955-56 season, so let’s start with 1959 (giving us four years of voting data) and use the method outlined above to determine the best player in the NBA on a year-by-year basis.
The first winner is…
1959 — Bob Pettit (.472)
Bob Pettit seems like a reasonable choice for the first best player. From 1956 through 1959, Pettit finished first, second, fourth, and first, respectively, in the MVP voting. In 1958, Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks won the NBA title over the Boston Celtics, making them the only team to defeat Bill Russell in his 12 Finals appearances. Pettit also managed a third-place MVP finish in 1960, but that wasn’t enough to hold on to the top spot.
1960 — Bill Russell (.420)
1961 — Bill Russell (.503)
1962 — Bill Russell (.584)
1963 — Bill Russell (.660)
1964 — Bill Russell (.551)
1965 — Bill Russell (.532)
1966 — Bill Russell (.364)
Bill Russell took over the throne in 1960 and held it for seven years. During that time he won four MVP Awards, never finishing lower than fourth in the MVP voting. However, that fourth-place finish in 1966 set the stage for a new face at the top.
1967 — Wilt Chamberlain (.507)
1968 — Wilt Chamberlain (.635)
1969 — Wilt Chamberlain (.434)
From 1966 through 1968, Wilt Chamberlain won three consecutive MVP Awards. Wilt did not receive any MVP votes in 1969, but thanks to the combination of his strong performance the previous three years and the gradual decline of some all-time greats — mainly Russell and Elgin Baylor — he was able to hold on to the title for one more year.
1970 — Willis Reed (.345)
Willis Reed is probably the most surprising name on this list, but consider:
Reed finished second in the MVP voting in 1969;
he won the MVP Award in 1970;
his team, the New York Knicks, won the NBA championship in 1970;
Russell had retired;
Chamberlain had missed most of the 1969-70 season with an injury; and
Oscar Robertson was showing signs of aging.
Reed’s stint at the top of the list was short-lived, though, as a young man by the name of Lew Alcindor (now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) burst onto the scene.
1971 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.499)
1972 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.646)
1973 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.595)
1974 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.583)
1975 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.390)
Abdul-Jabbar was named the Rookie of the Year in 1970, then followed that up with the first of his record six MVP Awards in 1971. Kareem stayed on top for five years, let Bob McAdoo take over for one year, then took over the top spot for five more years.
1976 — Bob McAdoo (.440)
In a three-year span starting in 1974, McAdoo finished second, first, and second, respectively, in the MVP voting, so I think it's reasonable to conclude that at that time he was viewed by more than just a few people as the best player in the game.
1977 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.482)
1978 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.322)
1979 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.219)
1980 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.363)
1981 — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (.385)
Abdul-Jabbar’s success in the MVP voting is astonishing. Starting with his rookie season, Abdul-Jabbar finished in the top 10 for 17 consecutive years, including 15 top-five finishes.
1982 — Larry Bird (.462)
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were both rookies during the 1979-80 season, and the two superstars dominated the NBA for most of the next decade. Bird was the first to hold the title of best player, lost it for one year, then got it back for five more years.
1983 — Moses Malone (.657)
Moses won his third MVP Award in five years in 1983, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 65-17 record and an NBA championship in “Fo’ Fi’ Fo’.”
1984 — Larry Bird (.682)
1985 — Larry Bird (.812)
1986 — Larry Bird (.906)
1987 — Larry Bird (.718)
1988 — Larry Bird (.664)
Bird had a remarkable run in the MVP voting. He followed up three consecutive second-place finishes from 1981 to 1983 with three consecutive MVP awards from 1984 to 1986. And just for good measure, Bird finished third in 1987 and second in 1988. However, Larry Legend missed all but six games of the 1988-89 season due to surgery on both heels, and thus he could no longer hold off Magic.
1989 — Magic Johnson (.722)
1990 — Magic Johnson (.734)
The two years above came at the end of a run of three MVP awards in four years for Magic. The 1991 NBA Finals marked the passing of the torch, though, as Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers lost in five games to the Chicago Bulls and the heir to the throne, Michael Jordan.
1991 — Michael Jordan (.779)
1992 — Michael Jordan (.846)
1993 — Michael Jordan (.759)
Jordan stayed on top for three years — winning two MVP Awards, three NBA titles, and three Finals MVP Awards — before taking a sabbatical to play minor league baseball.
1994 — Hakeem Olajuwon (.551)
While Jordan was playing outfield for the Birmingham Barons, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets won back-to-back NBA titles. Hakeem won his only MVP Award in 1994, but in 1995 he relinquished the top ranking to another Western Conference center.
1995 — David Robinson (.602)
1996 — David Robinson (.609)
From 1994 through 1996, David Robinson had three of the greatest seasons in modern NBA history. The Admiral finished second in the MVP voting in 1994 and 1996 and won the MVP Award in 1995. That second-place finish in 1996 was to Jordan, who came back to the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season. Had Jordan not left the NBA to play baseball, he likely would have stayed at the top for eight consecutive years.
1997 — Michael Jordan (.631)
1998 — Michael Jordan (.822)
Jordan retired for the second time in 1998, making room at the summit for the player whose team the Bulls had vanquished in the 1998 Finals, the Utah Jazz’s Karl Malone.
1999 — Karl Malone (.677)
2000 — Karl Malone (.544)
Why Malone over Shaquille O’Neal? From 1997 through 2000, Malone finished first, second, first, and fourth, respectively, in the MVP voting, while O’Neal finished ninth, fourth, sixth, and first. That said, I think it’s safe to say that most people would have gone with O’Neal.
2001 — Shaquille O’Neal (.528)
Shaq’s 1999-2000 season was amazing, possibly one of the five greatest in modern NBA history. That combined with another great campaign in 2000-01 pushed the big fella to the top of the list, albeit for just one year.
2002 — Tim Duncan (.577)
2003 — Tim Duncan (.685)
2004 — Tim Duncan (.684)
2005 — Tim Duncan (.515)
Tim Duncan in those four years: two MVP awards, two NBA championships, and two Finals MVP awards.
2006 — Steve Nash (.548)
2007 — Steve Nash (.704)
I don’t think Nash was ever the best player in the NBA, and I think most people would agree with that sentiment. But Nash finished first, first, and second, respectively, in the MVP voting in consecutive years, so there must have been at least a handful of people who thought he was the league’s top player.
2008 — Kobe Bryant (.548)
2009 — Kobe Bryant (.612)
Bryant was named MVP for the first and only time in 2008, and his second-place finish in 2009 kept him in the top spot for another year. However, the King was ready to take his throne.
2010 — LeBron James (.766)
2011 — LeBron James (.695)
2012 — LeBron James (.777)
2013 — LeBron James (.850)
2014 — LeBron James (.805)
2015 — LeBron James (.672)
During this span, James won three of his four MVP Awards (2010, 2012, and 2013), finished second once (2014), and finished third twice (2011 and 2015). He also won two NBA titles and two Finals MVP Awards. James has earned at least one point in the MVP voting in each of his 19 seasons (he’s currently playing his 20th season).
2016 — Stephen Curry (.687)
Curry received the second of his back-to-back MVP Awards in 2016, becoming the first player in NBA history to win by unanimous selection. Curry dropped to sixth in the MVP voting in 2017, which opened the door for a new face.
2017 — Russell Westbrook (.517)
This was the first of four seasons in which Westbrook averaged a triple-double, which led to him winning the 2017 MVP Award. That combined with his fourth-place finishes in 2015 and 2016 allowed Westbrook to narrowly beat out Curry, .517 to .510.
2018 — James Harden (.679)
2019 — James Harden (.744)
From 2017 to 2019, Harden finished second, first, and second, respectively, in the MVP voting. He finished third in 2020, but that wasn’t enough to remain on top.
2020 — Giannis Antetokounmpo (.676)
2021 — Giannis Antetokounmpo (.617)
These were the last two years of an incredible three-year run for Antetokounmpo:
MVP in 2019 and 2020;
Defensive Player of the Year in 2020; and
Finals MVP in 2021, including a 50-point, 14-rebound, 5-block masterpiece in the sixth and deciding game of the NBA Finals.
Antetokounmpo finished third in the MVP voting in 2021, but he was passed by another back-to-back MVP Award winner.
2022 — Nikola Jokic (.663)
Jokic is making a serious run at a third straight MVP Award in 2022-23, which would keep him at the top for another year.
So what have we learned? Well, in this time period there were 23 different players who held the title of best player in the NBA:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (10 years)
Bill Russell (7)
Larry Bird (6)
LeBron James (6)
Michael Jordan (5)
Tim Duncan (4)
Wilt Chamberlain (3)
Magic Johnson (2)
David Robinson (2)
Karl Malone (2)
Steve Nash (2)
Kobe Bryant (2)
James Harden (2)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2)
Bob Pettit (1)
Willis Reed (1)
Bob McAdoo (1)
Moses Malone (1)
Hakeem Olajuwon (1)
Shaquille O’Neal (1)
Stephen Curry (1)
Russell Westbrook (1)
Nikola Jokic (1)
The top scores over a four-season span are:
.906 — Larry Bird (1983–1986)
.850 — LeBron James (2010–2013)
.846 — Michael Jordan (1989–1992)
A few more comments and then I’ll wrap this up:
While Abdul-Jabbar may not be the greatest player in NBA history — then again, he may be — he and James are the most consistently great players. Had McAdoo not taken over the top spot for one year in 1976, Abdul-Jabbar would have rated as the best player in the game for 11 consecutive seasons.
Seventeen of the players on the list above are in the Hall of Fame: Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Bryant, Chamberlain, Duncan, Johnson, Jordan, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, McAdoo, Nash, Olajuwon, O’Neal, Pettit, Reed, Robinson, and Russell.
The six remaining players — James, Curry, Westbrook, Harden, Antetokounmpo, and Jokic — are active and will surely make the Hall of Fame when they are eligible.
I don’t necessarily agree with all of the selections above, but then again, I think most of the choices are solid. There are, of course, many ways we could tweak this: use more years, use fewer years, change the weights, use something like win shares rather than MVP shares, etc. But part of the beauty of this is that there is no “right” answer, and whatever analytic approach we take will yield results that don’t please everyone.
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