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The Closest MVP Races in NBA History

This year’s MVP race is going to close, but will it be among the closest (and most controversial) ever?

Joel Brigham

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It’s not even December yet, but already there is talk that this year’s MVP race could be the most hotly-contested in the modern history of the game.

Russell Westbrook is averaging 31.2 PPG, 11.2 APG and 9.9 RPG, a single tenth of a point away from leading the league in scoring and a single tenth of a rebound per game away from pulling an Oscar Robertson. In any other season, that would be your MVP no matter how good his team was or what any other player in the league was doing – but this isn’t any other season.

James Harden is fourth in the league in scoring with 28.3 PPG, but he’s also leading the league in assists with 12.4 APG and hauling in 7.8 RPG. Kawhi Leonard is averaging 24.8 PPG and is the frontrunner to win a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award. LeBron James is averaging 23.5 PPG, 9.5 APG and 8.2 RPG going at what looks like about 75 percent speed, and his team has only lost two games. Chris Paul has the Clippers playing some of the best basketball in team history, Kevin Durant is scoring more efficiently than he’s ever done for the Western Conference’s top team, and even guys like DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker have gotten their fair share of MVP chatter early in the season.

At this point in the season, it’s impossible to know which of these guys will win the league’s most prestigious individual accolade, but there’s no question it will be close.

The real question, though, is whether it will be historically close. The following offers a look into some of the closest MVP races in recent league history:

Karl Malone, Alonzo Mourning, Tim Duncan (1998-1999)

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. Someone had to grab the mantle, and these three powerful big men all were happy to take their stabs at it.

Malone averaged 23.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG and 4.1 APG, Mourning averaged 20.1 PPG, 11 RPG and 3.9 BPG and Duncan averaged 21.7 PPG, 11.4 RPG and 2.5 BPG 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 votes were tight with Malone taking 44, Mourning getting 36 and Duncan earning 30, but the second- and third-place votes were just as tight, with those numbers landing all over the place. Malone ended up winning the thing with 827 total points, though Mourning finished just 54 points behind, and Duncan only 33 points behind him.

Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd (2001-2002)

In a lot of tangible ways, 2001-02 was the year that both Duncan and Kidd truly blossomed as legendary, future Hall-of-Fame players. David Robinson passed his metaphorical torch to Duncan that year, just one season out from his own retirement. Meanwhile, Kidd found his way to New Jersey and helped the Nets bloom into the Eastern Conference’s representative in the 2002 NBA Finals – the first ever trip to the championship series for that franchise.

Already, both were seen as two of the best players at their respective positions, but they also showed just how transcendent they could be in a season where there really was an excellent debate over which guy would win the MVP award. Duncan averaged what would prove to be a career-high 25.5 PPG to go along with 12.7 RPG and 2.5 BPG, all for an elite Western Conference team. Kidd turned nothing into something in Newark behind his 14.7 PPG, 9.9 APG, 7.3 RPG and 2.1 SPG.

Ultimately, Duncan won the vote, 954-897, a difference of only 57 points. That tight tally was a testament to just how good each player really was that season.

Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal (2004-2005)

Looking back, it’s pretty incredible that Nash won back-to-back MVP awards in the mid-aughts, but his first one was considerably less controversial than his second one. 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.

O’Neal, meanwhile, was doing fantastic things for a Miami HEAT team in his first season there after winning three rings in Los Angeles. With Dwyane Wade coming into his own and O’Neal giving the burgeoning HEAT a competitive heft that they hadn’t experienced previously, it really was no surprise that he’d get his fair share of MVP votes that season, as well.

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.

Karl Malone, Michael Jordan (1996-1997)

The closest thing to 1997’s MVP race that we’ve seen this decade is when Derrick Rose split up what easily could have been a five-year stretch of LeBron James MVP awards, mostly because the voters simply seemed tired of handing the hardware over to The King every year. In an attempt to spread the wealth a little and give themselves something different to write about, media named Rose MVP in 2011.

Imagine whatever tepid hullabaloo that award caused and multiply it by a million to get a sense of how controversial the 1997 MVP award was. Jordan was at the peak of his career, four championships in and well on his way to winning a fifth, but Malone put up numbers just good enough to justify fatigued voters going in a different direction. In fact, Malone won 63 first-place votes compared to Jordan’s 52, but in terms of total points Jordan finished only 29 total points behind the Mailman. Malone won 85.7 percent of his possible votes, while Jordan snagged 83.2 percent of his, and many NBA people were simply horrified by those results.

Still, considering how many pro-Jordan stories had printed in the two years since his return from Retirement No. 1, it’s easy to see how media voters may have grown jaded toward MJ’s dominance – both on the court and in the papers. In truth, Malone had a great season that was just good enough to boot the game’s best-ever player from winning an MVP trophy he probably deserved.

Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley (1989-1990)

This might be the one that ends up looking the most like this current year’s MVP race before everything is all said and done. There were three legitimate candidates for the award, which included Jordan (33.6 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 6.3 APG), Johnson (22.3 PPG, 11.5 APG and 6.6 RPG), and Barkley (25.2 PPG, 11.5 RPG and over 60 percent field goal shooting). Out of that trio, Barkley ended up receiving the most first-place votes.

He didn’t win, though, which was the truly weird thing about this particular MVP race. It’s the only time in league history that a player has won the most first-place votes for MVP, but not won the total vote. The actual award went to Johnson, whose Lakers won 63 games that year.

Jordan was the one who arguably should have won the award. He led the league in scoring and steals, giving him a two-way value that the other two guys simply didn’t have. Despite all that, three voters left Jordan completely off of their ballots. A change there, obviously, could have changed the entire complexion of the vote.

In the end, Johnson bested Barkley by just 22 points, with Jordan only another 43 points behind him.

***

If Westbrook averages a triple-double, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he doesn’t win this award, even if the Thunder completely fall off the map in the Western Conference, but team wins could easily sway votes toward other players who may be nearly as successful statistically and just as important to their team’s success, but with more overall wins. This race could be tight, and it could be controversial, at which point we may have to tweak this list a bit.

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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NBA PM: Patrick Beverley Set the Tone for Clippers in Season Opener

Patrick Beverley set the tone for the L.A. Clippers with his aggressive defense in their season opener.

Jesse Blancarte

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“The LA Clippers are going to the Western Conference Finals. Guaranteed.”

That bold statement was made by Charles Barkley during TNT’s coverage of last night’s matchup between the Lakers and Clippers.

While Barkley may have had his hot take canon primed and in mid-season form, that should not overshadow the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers put together a strong showing in their first regular season game since the departure of Chris Paul.

Blake Griffin logged 29 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals and knocked down three of his six three-point attempts. Griffin was aggressive and showed no hesitation on his jumper, which seemed to open up lanes for him to drive to the basket (where he is most effective). DeAndre Jordan was fantastic as well, contributing 14 points, 24 rebounds, one assist and one steal.

While the Clippers lost some significant contributors from last season, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute and Jamal Crawford, the team had some returning and new players show that they are capable of filling the void.

Milos Teodosic was just 2-9 from the field, but knocked down two three-pointers and looked comfortable and effective running the team’s offense. Danilo Gallinarni shot just 3-13 from the field but looked healthy and spry, displaying the kind of mobility that is necessary to play the small forward position. His ability to act as a secondary playmaker wasn’t on full display, but there were moments where it was apparent that he could be a big help in generating open looks for his teammates. Lou Williams also looked good in his Clippers debut, scoring in a variety of ways off the bench and contributing six assists as well. Wesley Johnson continues to look confident and aggressive, a continuation from his preseason performances, and is starting to knock down the open shots his teammates are creating for him (which has been a problem for him in the past).

While the Clippers looked solid in their opening act without Paul, it should be noted that the Lakers are a young team overall and their defense has been a major problem for the last few seasons. While the Lakers have added some promising young talent over the offseason, like most young teams, they are going to struggle to slow down veteran teams with potent offenses. It would be a mistake to think the Clippers can replicate this sort of offensive performance every night, especially against the better defensive teams in the league. However, perhaps the most promising part of the Clippers’ season debut was the fact that they seemed to feed off of and embrace the gritty demeanor and style of play that Patrick Beverley brings to the court each and every night.

Last night’s game was the NBA debut for rookie point guard Lonzo Ball, who many predict will develop into a star player. Unfortunately for Ball, his opening night matchup came against Beverley, who earned a spot on the 2017 All-Defensive First Team. Beverley repeatedly guarded Ball past half court, pushed him around and did everything he could to throw him off of his game. He held Ball to three points, nine rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes of action.

Beverley, like every NBA player, has heard the hype and noise surrounding Ball and his future in the league (most of it from his outspoken father, LaVar).

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said. “I told him after the game that due to all the riffraff his dad brings, that he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. I let him know that after the game. What a better way to start than spending 94 feet guarding him tonight — welcome the young guy to the NBA.”

Beverley is one of the more aggressive defenders in the NBA and is known for trying to get under the skin of his opponents, so Lonzo may not face this level of intensity in every game. But based on Beverley’s comments, it’s clear that he expects other players around the league to defend Lonzo aggressively as well.

Snoop Dogg, the rapper and passionate Lakers fan, summed up the issue for Ball arguably better than anyone else has so far.

“His father put him in the lion’s den with pork chop drawers on,” said Snoop.

For his part, Lonzo complimented Beverley on his aggressive defense.

“[Beverley] plays hard. He knows his job. He does it very well,” said Ball. “He gets under people’s skin and plays defense and does what he can to help his team win.”

Beverley set the tone for the Clippers, who looked crisp and confident throughout the game. Griffin’s three-point shot looks like it could finally be a reliable part of his offensive arsenal. Jordan was very active on the glass, pulling down 24 rebounds (possibly inspired in part by his commitment to donate $100 per rebound this season to help the effort to rebuild his hometown of Houston after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey). The rest of the supporting cast played with the sort of cohesion and confidence that takes at least a few weeks into the season to develop. Again, the Clippers’ performance could have stemmed primarily from the Lakers’ shaky defense, but it was encouraging to see the team play with such force and confidence in the absence of Paul.

The Western Conference is extremely talented and deep, so it’s unlikely that the Clippers will make it to the Western Conference Finals as Barkley predicted. However, challenging for a spot in the playoffs and perhaps even doing some damage once there seems to be in the realm of possibility. This is especially the case considering how much of an impact Beverley had Thursday night, both defensively and in setting the tone for the rest of his new teammates.

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Morris Bringing Leadership To Celtics

Marcus Morris chats with Basketball Insiders for a one-on-one exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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Returning just one starter from last year’s top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics underwent wholesale changes this past offseason.

Gordon Hayward signed a super max contract. Danny Ainge pried Kyrie Irving away from the Cleveland Cavaliers in a blockbuster deal. Jayson Tatum was selected with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft.

In early July, though, there was an under-the-radar trade executed that hasn’t been mentioned much. Surprisingly, Celtics guard Avery Bradley was sent to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Marcus Morris, a heady wing with size and versatility to add to a revamped core of players.

Bradley was a mainstay with the franchise for seven years and played a vital role as a part of Brad Stevens’ system, but Boston decided to move in a different direction. As for the man they got in return, he’s thrilled to be there.

“It makes me feel good,” Morris told Basketball Insiders of Ainge dealing one of his best former players for him. “It makes you feel wanted.

“This is my first time since I’ve been in the NBA I’ve been on a team with a bunch of guys that [are] All-Stars. With the maturity of the team being this high and having them high expectations on us, I’m excited to get the season going and see how far we can take this.”

The Detroit Pistons likely wanted to keep him, but the organization clearly felt Bradley’s skill set was too good to pass up. For Morris, he insisted there was no indication that his old team would send him away, but he hasn’t been bashful about talking up his new home.

“Had no idea that I was gonna be a Boston Celtic, but I’m ready for the challenge, you know?” Morris said. “I’m excited. Boston, being a Celtic—it’s something that growing up you don’t really see happening, but when it happens it’s an amazing thing.

“It’s like playing for the Patriots, you know what I mean? One of the most heralded teams and most heralded franchises, and Boston is one of those.”

Entering the seventh season of his career, Morris has remained a steady part of the league. During his time in Detroit, he started nearly every game for the Pistons and found a comfort zone that he believes will carry over in Boston.

“Just continue to be consistent, continue to build on my last past couple of years,” Morris said of his personal goals. “I really felt like I carved my spot in the NBA the last two years—averaging 14 a year and helping my team get to the playoffs one of those years, so I really think I’ve carved a niche in this league.”

The success has come thanks to his versatility and the NBA’s current direction pointing towards that type of game. All of a sudden, not having a defined position makes a player more valuable, something Morris is thankful for as he continues to bring a little bit of everything to the table.

“For guys like me, it’s great,” Morris said. “Coming into the league, I had this ‘tweener’ thing on my back and now it’s like [freaking] great to be a ‘tweener’ at this time. I’m actually happy that it’s switching to my position and guys that can do multiple things are being utilized more in this league.”

Putting the ball in the basket has come fairly easy for Morris, who averaged 14.1 points per game on 42.6 percent from the field over 159 games with Detroit. He’s able to stretch the floor and provide solid spacing offensively, and he envisions doing more than that for this Celtics group.

“And leadership,” Morris said. “I’m not too much of a vocal guy, but I’m a passionate guy on the court. I think that’ll rub off on guys. I love scoring. I love shooting the ball. But that’s not the only thing I do.

“I’ve been a tough defender around this league for the last past years and I’m really looking forward to hanging my hat on that again and just doing whatever it takes for my team to get to that next level.”

Stevens is aware of the impact Morris can bring in the locker room and on the floor. When he returns from a sore knee to make his debut for Boston, that’ll show through his play.

“He’s a guy that can stretch the floor at the four,” Stevens said. “He’s a guy that can guard two through four. He’s tough. He’s smart. He works the right way. We’ll be better with Marcus Morris for sure. The versatility is a very important part of what we want to be.

“Whether he is starting in a couple of weeks or whether he’s coming off the bench, at the end of the day he’s gonna be a critical, critical part of our team.”

While he’s waited to come back, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have stepped up in his absence. With Hayward likely sidelined for the rest of the season, that success will have to be sustained. Morris is a big believer in this promising duo and sees how grounded they are to make that happen.

“They’re mature guys for their age,” Morris said. “Jaylen, I think he’s 20. He’s definitely a lot more mature than I thought. Jayson, too. He’s way more mature than your average 19-year-old.

“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball. I think those guys, they’re ready for the challenge. They love the game. They always in the gym, so I think it’ll be easy for ‘em.”

Part of Morris’ role is guiding those two and the other younger pieces that Boston has as they try and establish themselves as professionals. He’s kind of a coach per se, which is somewhat fitting considering what he did this summer.

Most basketball fans are aware of “The Basketball Tournament” that takes nationwide. For those that aren’t, it’s a single-elimination competition between 64 teams in which the champion receives a $2 million prize. Morris was the head coach of Team FOE—standing for Family Over Everything.

Along with his fellow Kansas alums, including his brother Markieff and Thomas Robinson, Morris coached his team to the final game. Team FOE was in front most of the game but ultimately fell to Boeheim’s Army, a squad filled with former Syracuse Orangemen.

“I was on my way man,” Morris said of coming close. “I actually liked it. I’m a smart guy. Me and basketball stuff, I can put it together real well. I was kinda upset we lost in the fashion that we lost, but we’ll be back next year.

“I’m a smart player,” he said regarding a potential future on the sidelines. “I know the game really well. Coaching comes easy for some guys and I’m just one of those guys.”

You could hear “Coach Morris” down the line, but for now and for years to come, Marcus is focused on his first year with Boston. It’s a team that surely has the talent to be the top team in the East it’s pegged to be. Stevens is a basketball savant with great leadership.

Even without an All-Star like Hayward and a 0-2 start, the Celtics should still be a force to be reckoned with. There’s an even greater demand for them to achieve their potential, especially knowing eyes will be on them, but Morris welcomes the challenge.

“Man, it’s pressure on every team,” Morris said. “It ain’t like it’s just all on the Boston Celtics. It’s pressure on every team. What’s a game without pressure anyway?

“Pressure makes it the best thing. That’s what we need to do anyway. I enjoy the pressure. Me personally.”

Shouldering the load won’t be easy, but if it comes down to it, Morris will be swimming instead of sinking. When all is said and done, he shares the same aspirations as most players do—raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer.

“I want to the win the championship,” Morris said. “You put this type of team together to get to those positions. I’m looking to be playing in June and trying to get to a championship.”

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