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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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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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NBA Daily: Eric Gordon, The Houston Rockets’ Ex-Factor

James Harden and Chris Paul are stars that have faltered in the playoffs. Eric Gordon could be their ex-factor

Lang Greene

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The 2017-18 Houston Rockets are shaping up to be one of the league’s best regular-season teams over the past decade. The squad features a fan-friendly and fun to watch style, two legitimate superstar talents and a seemingly well-rounded contingent of role players willing to do whatever it takes to help the team get to the next level.

But as strong of a force as the Rockets appear to be developing into, there are still major question marks about how this team will perform in the playoffs when the game gets tighter, bench rotations are reduced and the spotlight glares the brightest.

All-Star guard James Harden has played in 88 career playoff games over the course of his career – 45 with the Rockets where he’s averaging 27.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists. The statistics look good in the aggregate, however, Harden has noticeably faded down the stretch during pivotal playoff moments in the team’s recent runs. The most recent example being Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs where Harden finished with just 10 points on 2-of-11 shooting from the floor.

The Rockets other superstar, Chris Paul, has never reached the Western Conference Finals in a career dating back to the 2005-06 season. Paul’s most memorable playoff collapse came when he was a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. His team surrendered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Harden’s Rockets back in 2015.

While there are undoubtedly questions at the top, their bench unit is anchored by 2017 Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, once considered one of the rising shooting guards in the league while he was a member of the Clippers.

Gordon, was traded as part of a package by Los Angeles to acquire Paul from New Orleans. Since then, a combination of injuries and reported frustration in New Orleans seemingly derailed Gordon from the once promising ascent and trajectory he was projected to achieve. But Gordon has gotten his career on track. Once injury prone, Gordon suited up for 75 games in 2017 and is on pace to play 73 games this season.

“It’s almost like it is consistent to be here now,” Gordon said during All-Star weekend. “It’s been great. When I’ve been healthy, I’ve always had that chance to do some good things.

When you’re winning things come easier. You’re scoring easier [and] it’s easier to come into work and play well every single practice and game.”

Gordon believes there’s something special about this Rockets team because of how quickly they have gained cohesion since training camp. Gordon is averaging 18.5 points in 32 minutes per contest on the season. The guard will play an integral role off the Rockets’ bench and will play heavy minutes in any playoff series involving the Western Conference elite teams – namely Golden State and San Antonio. In three games versus the Warriors this season, Gordon is averaging 20 points on 43 percent shooting from the field.

“We definitely have to figure things out but we just clicked so quickly and early in the season,” Gordon said. “We just knew we had a chance to maybe win it. I’d say at this point we know what we need to do and it’s all about being consistent enough on both sides of the ball for us to have a chance.”

Golden State, as defending champs, have to be respected as the better team until proven otherwise. Many do believe the Rockets have at the very least a puncher’s chance because of how they can score the ball in bunches. The Warriors, for all of their past defensive prowess, have slipped on that side of the floor this season with declining efficiency numbers. But is that slippage enough for the Rockets to gain ground or are the Warriors’ defensive struggles a combination of regular season boredom and a lack of enthusiasm.

In a seven-game playoff series, the cream rises to the top. Are the Rockets legit? Or are they a team best suited for the regular season as in seasons past? They currently lead the season series against the Warriors 2-1 and are 2-0 versus the Spurs to date. We have witnessed regular-season dominance from Paul and Harden in the past. Is this the year both guys put it all together and finally get over the hump? Time will tell and Eric Gordon figures to play a big role in determining the outcome.

The Rockets resume play on Friday versus the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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NBA Daily: Rich Cho Out As Charlotte Hornets GM

The Charlotte Hornets opted to not move forward with GM Rich Cho and are expected to pursue former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak.

Buddy Grizzard

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The fateful moment for Rich Cho came days after he was hired as GM of the Charlotte Hornets in June of 2011. With the NBA Draft coming just nine days later, Cho started work on a three-team trade that would land Charlotte a second top-10 pick to pair with its own ninth pick, which was used to draft franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker.

In that draft, Klay Thompson went 11th to the Golden State Warriors and Kawhi Leonard 15th to the Pacers. Of the 17 players selected after Bismack Biyombo, who went to the Hornets with the seventh pick, 12 are regular contributors on current NBA rosters. The Orlando Magic are currently outscored by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on court, a rotation-worst.

Today, Hornets owner Michael Jordan announced that Cho is out as Charlotte’s GM.

“Rich worked tirelessly on behalf of our team and instituted a number of management tools that have benefited our organization,” said Jordan in a press release. “We are deeply committed to our fans and to the city of Charlotte to provide a consistent winner on the court. The search will now begin for our next head of basketball operations who will help us achieve that goal.”

While the failure to obtain Thompson, Leonard or any of the numerous impact players in the 2011 draft will always mar Cho’s record, falling to the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft will continue to haunt Charlotte. Despite a brutal 7-59 record in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which set the record for lowest win percentage in an NBA season (.110), the New Orleans Pelicans won the right to the first overall pick and selected Anthony Davis.

The Hornets selected Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the second pick. Although the 2012 Draft wasn’t nearly as deep as 2011’s, the Hornets still left players like Bradley Beal (third) and Andre Drummond (ninth) on the board. Either would have been an outstanding compliment to Walker, who remains with the team despite rumors of his availability leading up the the trade deadline.

“I feel like I’m going to be in Charlotte,” said Walker at his All-Star media availability. “So that’s where I’m at, that’s where I’m playing. So I never really sat and thought about any other teams.”

Walker made his second All-Star appearance after Kristaps Porzingis suffered a season-ending ACL injury.

“I wish K.P. hadn’t gotten hurt,” said Walker. “Everybody hates to see guys go down, especially great players like him. But when I was able to get the call to replace him, it was a really good feeling.”

Another fateful moment in Cho’s tenure came during the 2015 NBA Draft. According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Boston Celtics offered the 15th and 16th picks, a future protected first rounder from the Brooklyn Nets and a future first from either the Grizzlies or Timberwolves in exchange for the ninth pick, which Cho used to draft Frank Kaminsky.

“If it was such a no-brainer for us, why would another team want to do it,” Cho asked rhetorically in defense of the Kaminsky selection, according to Lowe.

Years later, it’s evident that the Celtics dodged a bullet when both Charlotte and the Miami HEAT rebuffed its attempts to move up and draft Justise Winslow. The latter has not panned out while Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the players Boston subsequently obtained with Brooklyn’s picks, have developed into starters.

Chris Mannix of Yahoo! Sports reported in the first week of February that Charlotte may target former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak for a high-ranking role in the organization. Kupchak, like Jordan, is a former UNC star. Kupchak would join Jordan’s UNC teammate and Charlotte assistant GM Buzz Peterson.

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