I have already written one and half articles on this subject (MVP voting), so I will be brief. Logically, the definition of the MVP winner in sports is, if you could magically take each player off his (or her) team and make their team play their season all over again, which player's departure would cause that team to drop the most in the standings (i.e., incur the most additional losses)?
Granted, this is an abstract concept—it is difficult to determine the least deserving MVP winner—especially when you start comparing MVP winners from different eras. But, I researched (basketball-reference.com) and did my best.
In the NBA, the players did the voting from 1956 until 1980 and the sportswriters and sportscasters have done the voting since then. And no matter who did the voting, I could not find one example of the MVP voting that stood out as being completely off-base.
Oh, I disagreed with a number of them, especially each time I saw Michael Jordan get ripped off (at least four or five times). (Just in case you thought I was getting soft with my second sentence in that paragraph.)
However, there were always some good arguments for voting for the winner. This is not surprising given that: 1.) The person that won had a very good year (often the best or second best player in the league that year) and usually played on a team with a very good record (often first or second best record in the league); and 2.) In order for the voting to be COMPLETELY off-base you would be saying that about half the voters are complete morons.
I have as strong of opinions as the next guy; however, I am not going to be like the idiots (still not soft being soft) on the Internet ("you suck") and radio sports talk shows ("it is a conspiracy") and go that far.
As a side note, I started watching and following the NBA in the 1969-70 season (Jabbar's rookie season) when I was 10-years-old. I noted this fact because your perspective is different when you follow basketball firsthand than when you just go and look at statistics, which is what we are forced to do when evaluating NBA seasons before our time.
I am going to start off with the first MVP voting, but not necessarily because Bob Pettit did not deserve to win (it is impossible to say since I am not familiar with the quality of players that surrounded the two MVP candidates), but because he would not have won the award this year given the way the MVP voting has been done since 1956 (especially the last 20 years in the NBA). Pettit's St. Louis Hawks had a record of 33-39, tied for the second worst in the league (out of eight).
The player who was second in the MVP voting was Paul Arizin (the voting was 35-21 points won), whose Philadelphia Warriors had the best record in the league (45-27) and, incidentally, won the NBA championship that year. Their scoring, assists, and shooting percentage was pretty much a wash; however, Pettit had a big advantage in rebounding (16.2 RPG to 7.5) and this difference apparently earned him the MVP Award.
Not only was Pettit the first MVP winner, but, ironically, the only MVP winner in NBA history from a team with a losing record. Hmm. It appears that Pettit was the best player in the league and the players doing the voting rewarded him; however, I have little doubt the sportswriters and sportscasters today doing the voting would have voted for Arizin (the second best player in the league) because his team had the best record in the league.
I point all this out because my first candidate for least-deserving MVP winner, Dave Cowens, won over a player, Nate "Tiny" Archibald (third in the voting), whose team, the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, had a 36-46 record AND Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (second in the voting), who played for the Milwaukee Bucks (60-22), tied for the second best record in the league).
Cowens' Celtics, as you may have guessed, had the best record in the league that year with an impressive 68-14 record (however, the New York Knicks won the NBA title that year).
The voting was relatively close, with Cowens getting 444 points, Jabbar 339, and Archibald 319. I would have voted for Cowens third, Archibald second, and Jabbar first. Archibald had a phenomenal year—one of the best in the history of the NBA—34 PPG, 11.4 Asts, 2.8 RPG, .488 FG percentage, and an .847 FT percentage (steals and blocks shots were not an official statistics yet.)
OK, so his team only won 36 games, but the second best player on the Kings team was center Sam Lacey (not exactly a household name—I had to look it up). Boston had John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Paul Silas, Don Chaney, and Don Nelson; Milwaukee had a 34-year-old Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Lucius Allen, and Jon McGlocklin.
While it may be unclear if Archibald contributed more victories to his team than Cowens did, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt on the strength the very impressive 34 points and 11.4 assists per game. The Jabbar-Cowens comparison is easier given they played the same position (center) and both played on teams with great records. To me, Cowens clearly comes up short.
Jabbar: 30.2 PPG; 16.1 RPG, 5.0 APG, .554 FG percentage, and .713 FT percentage
Cowens: 20.5 PPG, 16.2 RPG, 4.1 APG, .452 FG percentage, and .779 FT percentage.
The difference is points per game and field goal percentage is huge. Neither player was voted to the NBA All-defensive Team that year, although they both were in other years (Jabbar 11 times, five times to the first team, six times to the second team; Cowens three times, one and two). Either way, Jabbar was clearly the better player that year and his team did win 60 games. Advantage: Jabbar.
OK, so Boston fans will point out that the Celtics had the fourth best record in NBA history that year. Fine, but then how, pray tell, does the best player in the league, in fact, the best NBA player ever (Jordan), lead to his team to the second best (tied) record ever (69-13) and not win the MVP award?
I just want the voters to be correct and if not correct, at the very least, consistent. Karl Malone and the Jazz both had very good years in 1996-97, but since it is not so much that Malone was undeserving as that Jordan was more deserving.
My next candidate is Wes Unseld, who won the MVP Award in the 1968-69 season while a rookie with the Baltimore Bullets (still the only rookie to ever win the NBA MVP Award). The Bullets had the best record in the league and his not very impressive statistics (by MVP standards, except the rebounds) were: 13.8 PPG, 18.2 RPG, 2.6 APG, .476 FG percentage, .605 FT percentage.
The voting was Unseld with 310 points, Willis Reed 137, and Billy Cunningham 130. Reed's New York Knicks were 55-27 (tied for second best record) and his statistics were: 21.1 PPG, 14.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, .521 FG percentage, .747 FT percentage.
Cunningham's Philadelphia Sixers were 54-28 (fourth best record) and his statistics were: 24.8 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 3.5 APG, .426 FG percentage, .737 FT percentage. Bill Russell, incidentally, was fourth in the voting (93), and in what would turn out to be his final year, led Boston to yet another NBA championship.
Unseld's 13.8 PPG bothers me and it is, in fact, the lowest scoring average of all the MVP winners in the history of the NBA. It seems that Reed and Cunningham both had better years than Unseld (although I do not like Cunningham's .426 FG percentage, his 76ers appeared to have the least amount of talent).
None of the players made the All-defensive Team (the first year the selection was done, although Reed made the All-defensive First Team the following year when he won the MVP Award over Jerry West). The three teams that the candidates played on were only three games apart, so you could make a good argument that Unseld should have come in third in the voting, not first.
Here is some other possible least deserving MVP winners:
1. Steve Nash over Shaquille O'Neal in 2005 (voting 1066-1032 points)
2. Karl Malone over Michael Jordan in 1997 (voting 857-832 points)
3. Charles Barkley over Hakeem Olajuwon and Jordan in 1993 (voting 835-647-565)
4. Magic Johnson over Barkley and Jordan in 1990 (voting 636-614-571)
5. Magic over Jordan in 1989 (voting 665-599)
6. Magic over Jordan in 1987 (voting 733-449)
7. Moses Malone over Larry Bird in 1982 (voting 735-661)
8. Willis Reed over Jerry West in 1970 (voting 498-457)
9. Bill Russell over Elgin Baylor in 1963 (voting 341-221)
10. Bill Russell over Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson in 1962 (voting 297-152-135)